Harley-Davidson Sportster 72 review

The Harley-Davidson Sportster 72 is a unique prospect that will probably prove to be just as divisive as ever.

Very easy to ride
May struggle to keep up with high-performance bikes

The Harley-Davidson Sportster 72 takes its styling from the early seventies, as its name suggests, but can it keep up with modern bikes too?

The Sportster is the Ducati Monster of the H-D family – entry level. Although you can trace the Sportster’s roots back to the 1952 Model K (the first unit-construcion Harley) it was the 1957 XL with its overhead valves that started the Sportster family tree for real.

Now THAT, is a long production run; for even though the engine has evolved over the years it’s still pretty much the same dimensions and layout as the 1957 original. And talk about versatile, it’s been successfully used for flat track racing and road racing, spawned the first Buells and has been a corner stone of the Hog family for nearly fifty years.

Harley-Davidson Sportster 72: Design

This, the 72, is the latest edition to the sporty saga and it takes its styling cues from the late 60's, early 70's West Coast choppers with ape hangers, forward controls, a super-skinny front end with a 21in front wheel and a peanut tank. In the flesh it looks more like something out of a custom builder’s shed than a Milwaukee production line. Purdy.

Jumping off the Softail Slim onto the 72 is a bit of a culture shock. It feels ridiculously slim with no tank to grip with your inner knees and even with those full-stretch bars it’s supremely easy to hurl from side to side. The motor’s faster to rev up too (all things being relative) and because it carries less flab (247kgs), the 72 feels altogether more lively and more responsive than the bigger Softail brethren.

Distant, forward control footrests feel strange at first but once you stop looking for pegs where you instinctively expect them to be, it starts to make sense. The footrests are quite a bit higher than the footboards of the Slim so there’s much more cornering ground clearance allowing me, when the opportunity arose, to cling to the bumper of the psychotic photographer’s Seat hire car when he decided to pull the pin. This would not have been possible on the Slim just because of its low footboards that kiss the tarmac early.

Harley Davidson Sportster 72: Suspension and Handling

The 72 doesn’t wear any trick suspension. Rear shock travel is limited, to say the least, but the spring rates and damping qualities are well chosen and surprisingly firm. The narrowly spaced forks are the same – well matched to the conservatively dimensioned chassis. Put simply, for a bike like this it’s as good as you need. I’d say it handles well enough to keep up with most of your mates for a ride out if you’ve got some experience and are handy at reading roads.

Brakes? You’ll need four fingers to operate the font stopper (like the Slim) but if you’re riding it how it wants to be ridden (smooth use of massive engine braking) the brakes are kind of superfluous for anything other than stopping at junctions.

Until your mates choose to sit at 100mph on a motorway, that is. The 72 just isn’t cut out for this kind of riding. Well, with that human-parachute riding position that’s an obvious statement isn’t it? If you’re going to ride all day on fast roads, 70 is probably your limit but if you’ve got nine points on your licence and have no self control that may not be a bad thing, aye?

Harley-Davidson Sportster 72: Engine

The punchy (yes, really) 1200cc motor and five speed box shovels up enough oomph to make overtaking safe and there’s enough on tap to have some fun with. She shakes and jostles a bit at tickover (you can see the whole engine jiggling about on its rubber mounts) but not many unpleasant vibes get through to the rider when you’re on the move. Again, thanks to its exaggerated crank throw, this motor is all about torque and even this ‘little’ Harley engine produces a whopping 96Nm at just 3,500rpm. To be honest, with this kind of power, five gears is probably one gear too many. The gear lever doesn’t get much use at all.

Considering the riding position that throws all your weight onto your coccyx, the two gallon tank is about as big as you’d want. With claimed mpg figures of more than 50 that’s just about as long as you’d want to travel before stopping to fill up and give your butt cheeks a well-earned rest.

Should I buy the Harley-Davidson Sportster 72?

The 72 is not a bike for those who want to ride to Marseille in a day. It’s made for bopping about, having fun, making nice noises and being seen on. I should imagine (especially in that beautiful Candy red paint) it’d also be a beautiful thing to just look at and clean as it ticks and pings itself cool in your garage. London Hipsters take note.

But its ace card is that it’s so easy to ride. It doesn’t really matter what gear you’re in, it’ll pull hard if you just open the taps. It’s really easy to manage at low speeds too, with a very low centre of gravity and one of the lowest seat heights in the business at 710mm. Even Douglas Bader could ride a 72. If he wasn't dead.

So, in summary, I liked the 72, it reminded me of a reliable vintage custom bike with modern day creature comforts and – importantly – warranted reliability and 12v electrics. It looks stunning, too. It’s probably most suited to someone who likes to ride an hour somewhere and an hour back again. Either that, or someone who never leaves the city and wants a bike that is easy to ride, is un-intimidating and, blimey, for a Harley, cheap.

The 72 pricing starts £8,695 and the must-have Candy metalflake paint is another £200 extra.    

All pics (except the bottom one which was me) by James Wright of Doublered fame