We Ride the 70s-Styled Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 1200, and Wax Nostalgic on the History of the Iconic Model Line.
The first time I ever laid eyes on a Harley-Davidson Sportster up close was in the parking lot of my high school, in 1980. My friend Aaron Smith rode it (check out the article I wrote about him), and whenever he pulled into the lot astride that bike, he was instantly the coolest dude on campus. His family recently sent me an old photo of Aaron with his prized ride. I immediately remembered that bike, and the sound of those open pipes as he roared off after school every day he rode it. Every girl wanted to be with him, every guy wanted to be him.
The Sportster has been a staple in the Harley-Davidson lineup since 1957. In fact, the Sportster is the longest continually-running production model in the H-D universe, and quite possibly the longest anywhere in motorcycling. It has undergone many iterations, many upgrades, and a few pitfalls, but overall, the Sportster has always been and continues to be among the brands’ biggest sellers. It’s held a widely varying reputation, from entry-level Harley, to hooligan bike, and even racer. Like the famous Triumph Bonneville line, so many veteran riders see a Sportster and reminisce, “Yeah, I owned one of those, back in the day,…” as their eyes and voices trail off to chase some distant fond memory.
The original, genuine article, 1957 Harley-Davidson Sportster. Photos courtesy of Glenn Bator, www.batorinternational.com
The other Harley model lines are big, powerful, luxurious, and expensive (with the exception of the Street models).The Sportster line however, is made up of bikes that are small, simple, affordable, and yet carry a renegade attitude. The Sportster was the bike of the rebel, the rogue, the 1%er. It has been the ride of choice for young, counter-culture peaceniks and hardcore patched club members, and a perennial fave of customizers across the decades. And Sportsters are still easy to come by, easy to source parts for, easy to work on. The quintessential all-American motorcycle, stripped down, simple, elemental.
We were offered the opportunity to ride a new Iron 1200 for a few days, courtesy of Harley-Davidson and their rental partners, EagleRider. We of course, jumped at the chance. The Iron models in the Sportster line contain blacked out engine and pipes, front fork gaiters, solo seat, and the classic “peanut tank”. The Iron 1200 also sports a headlight cowling and paint scheme reminiscent of the 1970s bikes. These motorcycles really channel the Sportsters I remember from my adolescence, that I remember Aaron sliding into the Fayette County High School parking lot on.
I picked up the Iron 1200 at EagleRider North Atlanta, on the opposite side of the metroplex from me. I had decided to trailer the bike back to my home in Dacula, Georgia rather than ride it around the interstates of Atlanta because, well, it’s Atlanta, one of the worst-trafficked cities in the country. I didn’t want to familiarize myself with a new bike in the midst of the mad dog drivers that make Atlanta traffic so treacherous on a motorcycle.
Once home, I unloaded the bike and immediately removed the windshield and luggage rack EagleRider had installed, to ride the Sportster like I felt it was meant to be ridden- man and machine, in the wind. The Sportsters of old were always envisioned by me as these no-frills freedom machines- two wheels, a motor, a seat, throttle and brakes. So that’s the way I wanted to ride it. I fired it up and lit out from our home heading south toward central Georgia cotton country, filled with wide open spaces, long winding, undulating tarmac with little traffic, and small country towns with names like Bostwick, Good Hope, Social Circle, and Walnut Grove, to name a few.
The Sportster Iron 1200 hosts the tried-and-true Evolution v-twin power plant, a 5-speed gear box, electronic fuel injection, single disk brakes front and rear, a low solo seat height of 25.7, a 3.3 gallon tank, rear adjustable shocks, belt drive (of course, it’s a Harley), and blacked out everything except the upper front forks and the pushrods. What I especially love is the tank paint scheme- to my remembrance, the design is very mid-1970s AMF looking, the era I first beheld the Sportsters. The bike sports no rider aids- no traction control, ABS, ride modes, throttle-by-wire, interactive TFT screens, onboard navigation or integrated sound system. Just a stripped-down, basic, elemental American motorcycle. Honestly, in this age of increasing technology included on motorcycles, simple is deeply satisfying, at least to me.
The Iron’s seating position planted my feet pretty squarely beneath me, like sitting in a chair, and the “mini apes” set my arms at a mildly elevated and forward position, but I didn’t find it uncomfortable. The stock pipes sound deep and throaty, but not overwhelming. While riding, I felt very connected to the bike- I could feel the vibration of the v-twin motor, could feel the clunky but solid shifting, the irregularities in the road, the sensation of forward motion in the “mini-ape” handlebars. The 3.3 gal tank required stops about every 150 miles, but I was happy to oblige, to stretch, sip a soda, and snap a few photos of this gorgeous ride. I rode the backcountry of north central Georgia for miles and hours, returning home by nightfall, tired and cold, but deeply satisfied.
Day two saw limited riding, as I teach a couple days a week at a local private academy, cutting my seat time to about an hour and half after I returned home and suited up. I was also hampered by a cold rain shower that forced me home by 5pm. Still, it was worth the effort, I was so coming to love this basic, uncomplicated motorcycle. Any time in the saddle and on the road with the Iron 1200 was pure pleasure for me.
Day three ushered in open skies, cooler temps, and a morning interview session with Kevin Baxter, master bike builder and customizer extraordinaire of Pro Twin Performance and Baxter’s Motorcycle Garage. We discussed the long legacy of the Sportster line, the various custom trends over its 62+ year history, and the uniqueness of the Sportster line.
Check out our eval and interview with Kevin here-
Kevin and crew have restored, rebuilt, customized, and power-enhanced hundreds of these over the years, and he truly loves the Sportster lineage. My friend Mike Boyd joined me, shooting video and images for this article and accompanying YouTube uploads.
Our time with Kevin Baxter of Pro Twin Performance was informative and insightful.
*photos by Mike Boyd
We followed the time with Kevin and crew by shooting some photos and video out on the road, ate a bite of lunch to share footage, then as he left for his home, I lit back out for an extended day ride. It was my last full day with the Iron 1200, and I wanted to maximize every moment. All day I rode, enjoying the light, flickable, nimble bike over hills and around curves. I only stopped for fuel and brief hydration, I wanted to keep riding the bike so badly.
As day transitioned to dusk again, after a couple final photo-op stops, I reluctantly made my way home, arriving just as the shiver of cold was beginning to seep into my core. I cut the engine in front of our house, removed the key, then sat there on the bike in the enveloping dark and chill, listening to the ticking of hot metal throughout the now quiet machine. I knew that was my last ride with the bike, as I would have to load it up on the trailer and haul it back around the crowded perimeter highway to EagleRider North Atlanta in the morning. I’m not sure if it was sadness, savoring the nostalgia of the past three days of riding the Iron, or maybe a longing to keep riding it, cling to the feeling it gave me, that connectedness to the machine and it’s history. So I sat just there, welcoming whatever the feelings and thoughts were, enjoying the final moments with a bike I’d come to love.
Many have complained over the years that the Harley Sportster line isn’t more refined, and many moto-journalists disparage the line as outdated, uncomfortable, and underpowered. I say the critics miss the point with the Sportster. No, it’s not merely a beginner’s bike or a woman’s bike. And it is not just a cheap gateway bike to enter the H-D universe, and eventually move up to something bigger and better. The Sportster is a throwback to Harley history, a touchstone for those who remember and long for the old days of man and machine, a means of shedding the technology, to unplug from the “Matrix” so to speak, and become one again with a fundamental riding machine. As I rode the Sportster these past few days, I truly felt this bike, viscerally, felt the Harley history in it, and embraced the simplicity of its purpose and design. This bike moved me emotionally, the more miles and hours I logged on it.
This bike moved me emotionally
Some of that might be the Harley history and mystique I was consuming, and the proud American hooliganism of the brand, but I think the Sportster bikes hold all these even more, because of their colorful and decades-long legacy. Either way, the Iron 1200 moved me in ways few bikes have.
I love old motorcycles, love the “modern classics” many brands carry today. Heck, I’m getting older, becoming a bit vintage myself. I remember the old Brit bikes my dad always owned when I was a wee lad, and the old Harleys I beheld out on the road and in our high school parking lot as a teen. So I must admit, I assumed I would love the simplistic yet historic Sportster Iron 1200, and I wasn’t disappointed. Turns out, After three days in its saddle, I love Harley’s venerable, iconic motorcycle even more. There are plenty of motorcycles with more tech, more power, more handling capabilities, more refinement. And I enjoy those, make no mistake. But for a pure, raw, real motorcycling experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better bike than the Sportster Iron 1200, or any of the offerings in the Sportster line, for that matter.
In this age of high-tech, virtually self-driving automobiles, and those tech advances increasingly incorporated in nearly every motorcycle on the market, it’s refreshing to throw a leg over and completely interact with and control the actions of a motorcycle. The rider has to fully ride this bike. It does no task for you. And I like that.
Simple. Raw. Elemental.
Simple. Raw. Elemental. That’s the Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 1200. If you want a bike with all the rider aids and creature comforts, this bike isn’t for you. But if you are tired of technology taking over nearly every aspect of daily life, take a ride on one. Maybe it will speak to you the way it spoke to me.