Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight | First Ride

Less is more, more or less

By Roland Brown, Photography by Tom Riles

It's that tiny teardrop tank that gives the Forty-Eight its name. The "peanut" was originally introduced on Harley-Davidson's 1948 125 S-better known as the Hummer-and became an icon on the XLCH Sportster, the hot-rod roadster that ruled the '50s and '60s.

It's surprising that history-conscious Harley waited until now to create a modern replica. Perhaps that's because fitting the peanut tank meant cutting capacity from the standard Sportster's less-than-generous 3.3 gallons to just 2.1, which many riders would find totally in-adequate. Whatever. This bike isn't supposed to appeal to Joe Sensible. It's a stylish, serious throwback to a bygone time, but with a modern flair.

The Forty-Eight's other features are more practical. Most obvious is that fat-tired, 16-inch wire-spoke front wheel that replaces the typical narrow 19-incher to change the look without significantly altering steering geometry. Above it sits a cut-down fender, plus a fork brace with alleged weight-saving holes to match those in the fuel tank's mounting bracket.

Shorter shocks lower the rear end and exaggerate the Sportster's squat look, reducing the solo saddle's height to a knuckle-dragging 26.8 inches. Foot controls are forward-set, as on the Sportster Custom. The speedo is also set lower than on previous models. The slightly raised black bars are from the Nightster.

The Forty-Eight feels very skinny as I throw a leg over its ultra-low saddle. At a claimed 567 pounds full of gas, it's hardly light, but all that weight rides so low and the bike is so slim that it's very manageable.

The bike doesn't roar like an old XR1000, but those shotgun pipes are rowdy enough to let the big twin's exhalations be heard down the block. The air-cooled V-twin kicks out maximum torque at just 4000 rpm, and pulls away from the line smartly. Fuel injection provides crisp response, and the five-speed gearbox is easy to navigate.

As a city bike the Forty-Eight is great. It's fine for a short burst on the highway as well, where rumbling up to an indicated 90 mph happens quickly enough. Its rubber-mounted engine is smooth enough to make 70-mph cruising fairly painless. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the mirrors, mounted below the bars, stayed clear and useful at that speed.

The Forty-Eight steers with a pleasantly neutral feel. It's easy enough to flick around with a tweak on its bars, but those forward-set pegs scrape early-long before the fat, Harley-branded Dunlops run out of grip. Braking is reasonably strong, with the single front disc and twin-piston caliper backed up by a similar-sized rotor and single-pot caliper at the rear.

I love the Forty-Eight more for its looks than for its functional capabilities. For those who can accept its concessions to style, few production bikes hit the spot like this one.

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