Monday, September 27, 2010

Thinking about my Sportster 883 - by Jeffrey Ross

My decision to buy a new Harley-Davidson Sportster, back in the fall of 2004, was made with great emotional trepidation. I have been riding bikes since 1969, mostly on the street and entirely Japanese (except for one old NSU Fox we recovered from a barn in Nebraska!). I must tell you, I miss two strokes so much—and I had some great ones, including  Yamaha R-3’s, R-5’s RD’s, Kawasaki H-1’s, Avengers, Water Buffalos-- far too many for a sensible (and honest man) to recount.  I should have kept them all. 

I watched that whole Harley phenomena develop in the late 90’s and 00’s. You know, the Dyna Glide as “social furniture” metaphor.  Of course, we still see thousands of sharp looking Harleys every day, rumbling down the road, parked at chic watering holes, herded together at bike nights, blue engine night lights flashing, and gregariously befitted with more Screamin’ Eagle accessories than rapper Santa Claus could provide in a millennium.

I bought one of the new rubber-mounted Sportsters back in 2004—a rather handsome silver XL 883 standard. My aforementioned dilemma about buying the Sporty had nothing to do with the 883 vs. 1200 debate (or about what aftermarket parts to buy. I’ve kept my Sporty pretty much original except for some V&H mufflers, a passenger seat, and a K&N air filter. Of course, I took a lot of flack from my Japanese and German bike riding friends about buying a Hawg.  My dad, Doyle, who recently sold his BSA 441, had been an Indian and Vincent guy in the 50’s. (Now, at 83 years young, he motors around on a URAL sidecar rig.) He thought it amusing that I would purchase a Harley. He parentally suggested that I should know better.  But I can ignore the good-natured pokes and jabs at my choice of a (then) new motorcycle.

The lil’ Sportster is a fun ride. No one can deny there is just something about that sound, the feel, and those handling characteristics which make the Sporty a fetching bike. Sure, it is not all that quick—but the bike provides an excellent ride for hundreds of miles at a time.

The 883’s paint and chrome are excellent. The slip-on mufflers (with quiet baffles) really enhance the magical V twin sound. The bike tracks well, stops sufficiently, and gets around 50 mpg. And being a “Harley,” the bike naturally draws that seemingly mystical attention at gas stations. I had always dreamed (long before reaching aged maturity) of buying an 883. But when the Motor Company rubber mounted the engine, and the magazine reviews came out positive, I knew the time had come to go Harley.

So what is my conundrum, my problem, my concern? It was (and remains) not really psychological. The difficulty, the struggle, with my decision to buy and continue to ride a Hawg is sociological, or more accurately, cultural. Here is the crux of the matter: I don’t feel like I fit in with 21st century observable Harley culture. What does this mean? Well, some things are obvious. I don’t have any grey facial hair,  I don’t understand tattoos, I refuse to wear a skull and cross bones head kerchief when shopping for groceries, and I almost always wear a full-face helmet and a Joe Rocket jacket with shoulder pads when I’m on the road.

Oh, I watched American Thunder once in awhile, but I have no desire to be part of the Sturgis Crowd or to strap a teddy bear on my pillion seat. I own one or two H-D T-shirts, but there are no expensive Motor Clothes in my closet or on my wish list. I don’t ever ride with a group of more than three (usually I go riding solo or with my dad).

You’ll never see a beautiful curvy woman, wearing chaps or a leather tube top, riding with me or shopping with me in tow at an H-D store.

I’m not a lawyer, doctor, pharmacist, or Wild Hog member. (Or even a H.O.G. member, for that matter.)  I’m just a guy who appreciates the history and technological evolution (however glacial), of the Motor Company’s two wheeled products... and their sound. Here is what it comes down to.

 My sense of “Harley” doesn’t really match up with America’s current corporate glossy perceptions of Motor Company ethos.

 Two themes dominate my mental images of what constitutes “Harley-ness.” One theme is colored orange and black—Harley Davidson Racing—especially dirt track racing. C’mon—Bart Markel… Dick Mann… Scott Parker… Jennifer Snyder. What’s better?  I love Moto GP, but there is just something about flat tracking that is hard to beat. I have so much respect and admiration for one of my closest friends, Frank Westerman, who raced a KR 750 on Albuquerque tracks (Coronado and Speedway Park), in Texas, and in Kansas back in the 60’s.

The other theme has its roots in my formative teenage years. My favorite TV show of all time is Then Came Bronson, starring Michael Parks, about the solitary guy who is headed nowhere and yet everywhere on a 60’s era Sportster. He wore a blue stocking cap, some gnarly old denim clothes, probably smelled like oil, and had a duffle bag strapped handlebars or his headlight and some other bag as passenger.     Oh, there were a few lovely girls scattered around in the episodes, but they certainly didn’t see his spark plug fouling XLH as a fashion statement or badge of wealth. He was fed up with the system, and rode out. That may have been the best part of the show. He rode out—not down to the In and Out or to Bike Night at Hooters. I would venture to say that few of today’s Wild Hog riders are fed up with the system. That image of a solitary Bronson, riding across the cold (or hot) California desert, is fixed forever in my still (to this day) developing mind. My conceptual frame of what a Sporty rider should be like is solitary, strong, and distant.

 I guess that’s my struggle. I’m not asocial—I’m just not social (or socially motivated) in the Harley culture sense. (I know for sure I’m not a racer!!). When I visit the Hawg shop for a part or oil, I always find the staff courteous, helpful, and professional. But I’m not comfortable. I’m not at ease. Perhaps H-D is too corporate—or too “automotive-like” in its cultural focus. The modern H-D franchise is so glossy, so predictable, so, uh, Wall Street and spotless.   Some of my non-hawg friends think the Harley rough guy image which can be purchased at the H-D accessory shop is phony.  I don’t agree with that entirely. I think that image is very real, very calculated, and simply artificial in a playful-misdemeanor kind of way.

Perhaps I’m a little too rough around the edges, a bit too blue around the collar for their world. I may have too much misplaced class sensitivity or a kind of misdirected experiential arrogance—I know I don’t fantasize about things I will never have or need.  Nonetheless, I just get up and ride and come home happy. Oh well. I love my Sporty.

 Maybe I should consider buying one of those orange and black H D jackets… Hmm? Decisions, decisions.

I really like the Nightster. And the brand new Sportster 48. Think I should get a new ride?


  1. Great story… I enjoyed reading it, as it brought back old memories. Like you I have ridden and owned motorcycles most of my life. I’ve had “rice burners” to Harleys, from moped to sport bikes, cruisers to scooters… just something about riding along a country road with the wind in your face and all the smells of nature. Thanks for sharing.

  2. and why do I care?????

  3. I agree! Loved reading this. Haven't seen the Nightster-I will look it up! I do usually like the Sportster. Let us know which ride you decide on.

  4. I love it when people take time to comment on an article that didn't tickle their fancy to play debbie downer for everyone else.

    +1 for you, anonymous internet sourpuss.

  5. great read mr ross - long live the hawg !!!

  6. it's what what you're wearing......or what you're's all about the ride. enjoyed the article......keep riding

  7. I agree with why do I care? Riding is about riding, not the brand or the stereotyping you receive on what you are riding..let's hear about the experience of the joy of riding....

  8. I think that the issue here is that there are three or four definitions involved as to what is a Harley rider.

    There is the public perception, including the gray facial hair.
    There is the H-D store corporate image.
    There is the Bronson image.
    And there is you, being yourself.

    In brief, I think it is not fair for you to blame yourself that you and
    your image are not fitting all of these other images. There is no inherent
    reason why you should fit into even just one of these. Certainly, it is
    impossible to fit into mutually exclusive other images.

    Calling these images stereotypes may be true, or not, but that doesn't
    change the fact that you can't expect to fit into other people's ideas of
    these things.

    Do you think Bronson would have worried as to whether some store manager thought that Bronson and the manager had similar outlooks, or appearances.
    I think Bronson would have said that, as long as he could get what he
    needed, he didn't care if other people thought that he fit into their

    I don't think Bronson would even think that you should feel bad that you
    are not Bronson. Bronson wouldn't want you to be anyone other than
    yourself. Bronson wouldn't care to read anyone's thoughts on whether or
    not he fit into any image or not.

    You are free to worry about these matchups if you want to. But I don't see that any of that has anything to do with simply enjoying riding on the vehicle of your choice. I don't think it's a reason to buy a new one. But if you feel that you do want to buy a new one, there's no image-related reason to say not to get a new one.

    I think it's more important just to schedule rides that let you get out on
    the road when it is safe and convenient to do so.

  9. Yeah agree with you on feeling rather disconnected from the whole Harley 'lifestyle' deal. I feel the same way. To me Harley riders in general all look the same, sound the same and ride the same lumbering Geezer Glide clunks. It's the Sporty riders who have become, by default perhaps, the rebels out there. I think this is why the Harley community at large has excummincated us; they secretly are envious of us that we still have the stones to ride what we like, not what it is 'in' just to belong. I wouldn't trade my Sport for a handful of Dyna's, Glides or Fatboys.


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