Not Your Daddy’s Sportster

Rolling up to a four-way stop in the left turn lane, I noticed an old white pickup truck pull up next to me on my right. As I glanced over, I saw a stocky bald guy with a goatee looking the Nightster over, mouth agape, tattooed forearm resting on his open window. After a moment, he muttered in a thick Southern accent, “Whut da hale??” I knew what he was thinking. I simply smiled then throttled off at my green turn arrow, to let him hear the sound I’m sure he didn’t expect from a Harley either.

This bike has elicited a similar reaction nearly everywhere we’ve ridden it.

The 2023 Harley-Davidson Nightster Special.

And we’ve ridden the 2023 Harley-Davidson Nightster Special often and long, logging hundreds upon hundreds of miles in the month we’ve had the bike. To summate, here’s been the simple reactions from each of our test riders-

Dave- “Not the Harley I expected to ride, but I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Ted- “Harley built a better Honda.”

Phil- “This ain’t your daddy’s Sportster.”

Me- “I get it, but I miss the old Sportster.”

The sun has set on the venerable old Sportster line. There’s a new Sportster in town. “One man’s sunset is another man’s dawn.”

Surveying the bikes Harley-Davidson has developed in recent years, i.e. the Pan America, Sportster S, and now these Nightster models, one can see the trajectory The Motor Company is headed into the future under current leadership. With emissions regulations getting stricter by the year in Europe as well as North America, alternative fuels being experimented with in the energy sector (hydrogen, propane, natural gas, bio-fuels), as well as the fact that so many traditional Harley riders will age out of the market within the next 15-20 years, it’s little wonder Harley-Davidson is thinking outside of the box they’ve built for themselves across these past 120 years. As much as some purists might hate this fact, Harley has no choice.

Kitted out for road-tripping.

So if change is inevitable, and to stay alive and relevant one must innovate, Harley is choosing to enter the fray and produce a motorcycle for the future rider. Hence, the Revolution Max powerplant and this new iteration of the iconic Sportster. And gauging from the reactions we’ve gotten this past 30+ days, the above forecast looks to be holding in our experience. Everywhere we rode the Nightster Special, reactions ranged from interest (among younger or non-Harley riders) to disdain (among older traditional Harley riders). What they all shared was a double-take. Whether out on a road trip or around town, nearly every time one of us stopped and stepped off the Nightster, someone would approach and chat us up about the bike. Of course, as Ted pointed out, that’s also a Deep South thing- super friendly “Andy Griffith Show” kind of folks.

Everyone looked, then looked again. Then the questions would come.

The right side is clean and pretty. The left side, not so much.

When the bike is first thumbed to life (via a very different style toggle switch up on the right grip), the glare-free digital dash pops on, and the Revolution Max fireup is unlike anything I’ve heard before from a Harley. Ted observed how un-Harley this Harley sounds, exclaiming, “Wait, am I on a Harley, or a UJM??” while bending over to examine the “tank” badges. There is a distinct engine cadence and exhaust note that belies the overhead valves/cam mill housed in that frame. A large radiator is mounted out in front of the engine over the frame downtubes, cycling fluids through the engine for cooling rather than the old cylinder fins out in the wind. That air cleaner-looking cover on the right side keeps the look authentic, but the true air cleaner resides under the faux tank.

Most certainly not your daddy’s Sportster.

Dave diving through the Tail of the Dragon (photo by and on a long valley stretch in North Carolina.

Harley-Davidson kitted ours out with accessory saddlebags, a removable backrest, and a taillight relocation kit, all of which Frazier’s H-D installed for us before we picked the bike up. The key-lockable bags are super easy to work, and adequate in volume for road tripping. The backrest made strapping a bag to the rear seat very convenient as well. A note: If you want your Nightster to have a set of Harley’s bags, you’ll definitely need their relocation kit, as Frazier’s discovered. And it would be smart to let a local dealership do it, as the install requires some drilling and extensive rerouting of wiring. Once completed, the bags and tail section are perfect.

As we rode the Nightster Special up in the mountains and daily around town, we each experimented with the three ride modes- Sport, Road, and Rain. Phil and I preferred Road mode with its more linear power delivery in each gear, while our sport bike boys, Ted and Dave, loved the jumpy throttle response of Sport. That, and the pretty impressive handling the suspension gives when tossing the bike around on curvy tarmac. Dave noted, “This handles like a reasonably tuned sport bike. I like it.” Ted echoed the sentiment, stating, “Harley did their homework in developing this bike, as it definitely puts the ‘sport’ back in ‘Sportster.’”

Rob riding the Nightster Special. An attention-garnering bike. Photos by Phil Gauthier.

The rider triangle fit me rather well, although I’d like a little more pullback at the handlebars. The reach had my shorter arms pulled forward a tad, which got a bit uncomfortable on long stretches in the saddle. The headlight cowling looks great, but obviously offers little in the way of wind protection. The headlight casts a good beam out in front during night riding, which we did on several occasions, illuminating a good distance out in front. The turn signals are now self-cancelling on the model line, like the larger Harleys, and with adjustable/switchable traction control, ABS, the ride modes, and now the ability to pair your phone, GPS or helmet communicator with the bike, even a cruise control, the Nightster and Special models have all the electronics array as the brand’s larger tourers. Impressive.

I personally like the shape of the “tank” with the 1970s-era AMF style badging, and the lines of the bike flow nicely. Oh, the true fuel tank is under the seat, accessible via a key latch on the left side below the seat. Stepping back, on the right side, the bike is quite aesthetically pleasing. Just don’t look too long at the downside, er, left side. Hoses, cables, wires, brackets, etc. all look jumbled and hastily stuffed into place. It’s all blacked out, so kind of “disappears” into the bike, but the pretty side is on the right.

Quite the electronics package built into the new Nightster Special.

Even then, Ted noted that the cylinders looked plastic and almost futuristic. I can really see this mill looking more at home in the scuttled (but hopefully one day resurrected) Bronx model showcased a few years back. This 975cc v-twin engine would be a beast in a true naked sport bike like that. But it certainly works well in this new “sport cruiser”, and the bike is a strong performer, as evidenced in our previous 3-bike comparo.

Yet I find myself waxing nostalgic about the Sportsters of old. I feel like an era has ended, a type of motorcycle and its vibe are going the way of the dodo. The Sportster line has existed since the 1950s, and while this new version is necessary and quite capable in its own right, I mourn the passing of the old 883s and 1200s. There was something elemental, foundational, about those simple machines. Sure, time passed them by, Harley riders complained about how rudimentary and archaic they had become, yet I always had a great affection for them for those very reasons. Riding this futuristic new Harley reminded me of that, and has almost made me consider trying to find an Iron 1200, like the one we reviewed a few years back and I fell in love with, and make room in the garage. I guess I’m just getting old(er).

Big shout-out to Frazier’s Harley-Davidson for all their work to prep the bike for our use!

The Nightster is superb in so many ways, but I’m missing the not-so-superb. If you’re not as tethered to nostalgia as I am, you should go test ride one at your local H-D shop. You might find yourself in camp with Dave and Ted, who both agreed, “If I bought a Harley, this Nightster would be my pick.”


*for more on the Nightster line, click here:

Harley-Davidson Nightster

Rob’s gear: REV’IT! Restless jacket, REV’IT! Davis TF pants and Safeway 2 belt, Bell Eliminator helmet, SA1NT leather gloves.


MotoAmerica 2023


  1. Ed h

    is a bracket available for a top box?

    why such a small gas tank when you can link the top-fake to the underseat??

    • Rob Brooks

      Hi Ed,
      Good questions, both. We’re not seeing a top box mounting bracket in their OEM accessories catalogue yet, but we’re guessing in the huge aftermarket a company will devise one.
      Can’t answer the tank question, but several bikes we’re familiar with that go underseat with tanks have limited capacity. It does give the bike a noticeable lower center of weight, which is welcomed in handling.

  2. Juan Matamoros

    Hi. I liked the side bags on the Nightster Special.
    Where can I get them, and the back rest for the passenger?

    Thank you

    • Rob Brooks

      Those were all factory H-D add-ons, so should be available now in their accessories page for the bike.

  3. Vegli a borletti

    I get confused between the Sportster S, the Nighter Special and there’s one or two others.

    • Rob Brooks

      Harley has basically completely overhauled the classic Sportster line. Sportster S runs their new Revolution Max 1250 mill, while the Nightster and Nightster Special run the Rev Max 975. Both are water cooled, overhead valve engines, replacing the classic 883 and 1200 air cooled, pushrod engines of old.

  4. sai

    Love this. thank you.
    I am a first time rider and looking forward for my first bike soon.
    This is top of my list. and the Ducati Scrambler. now that its not the Iron 883, not a sacrilege to compare these two ?
    My wife is still scared. I really don’t know if it is considered risky to buy this as a first bike and ride on weekends. what do you guys think ?
    I went to a local Harley dealership and the guys would not let me test drive even with a M1 license. they also have crazy markups. even on used ones. a 2018 Iron 883 is like $10k.

    • Rob Brooks

      Hello Sai, and thanks for messaging us.
      I’m not sure I’d recommend this as a first bike. Depending on your height and weight, I’d suggest a Royal Enfield Meteor or Classic, a Honda Shadow 750, maybe even a Triumph Street Twin.
      Even in the used bike market, there are tons of great options to enter the sport with. I’d look for something with a lower seat height, upright and comfortable riding position, affordable price point, and under 750 cc. (Although the Triumph is a 900, it feels and handles like a much smaller bike.)
      The more comfortable you are on the bike, the more confident you’ll feel, and the better rider you’ll become.
      *Definitely take a motorcycle safety course as well, if you have the availability.
      Best to you!


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