The Mild Ones

The Sportster and the Thruxton were wild ones in the 1950s and '60s. In 2004, they're mild ones. But who says there are no roles for aging stars?

In The Wild One, Lee Marvin rode a Harley-Davidson and his rival Marlon Brando rode a Triumph. The two machines mirrored the actors' characters, the Harley reflecting Marvin's brawling, in-your-face role and the Triumph illustrating Brando's brooding, sensitive one.

In '57, Harley-Davidson created the XL-model Sportster, a direct response to the powerful and agile British twins of the era, and the first recognized superbike. A year later, the imports got even more powerful when Triumph gave its Tiger T110 dual carbs and a decidedly American name: Bonneville.

The Bonneville quickly established its credentials. It was particularly effective as a production racer in Great Britain, winning the prestigious 500-mile race at the 2.36-mile Thruxton circuit. In the mid-'60s a limited number of bikes were pulled off the assembly line and finished in Triumph's race shop. Called Thruxtons, these special bikes made about 54 horsepower, and to some represented the ultimate British twin back in the day. In fact, one could argue the Thruxton was the archetypal caf racer.

Some 40 years later Triumph has bored out the current Bonneville's motor to create an 865cc parallel-twin and added hotter cams, among other upgrades. Triumph wrapped it in a steel-tube frame with steeper rake (just as it did with its '60s production racer) and reduced trail (27.0 degrees/97mm versus 29.0 degrees/117mm), and fitted it with a solo seat and clip-ons. And for the first time in almost four decades, it has called a bike a Thruxton.

For its part, Harley has equipped the '04 Sportster 1200 with hotter cams in higher-flowing Buell XB cylinder heads and installed lighter-weight pistons and con-rods that give the Sportster more top-end power and allow a higher, 6000-rpm redline. What's more, rubber engine mounts promise improved comfort by smoothing the vibration that has long been the bike's biggest annoyance.

In their day, both bikes were smaller (the original Sportster was an 883, the first Bonnie a 650), but they were also two of the most potent and capable roadsters in motorcycling. With that in mind, it seemed a fine idea to check in with these classic adversaries to see how they measure up in their modern forms, and find out how much--if at all--they still reflect the characters of the originals.

Harley-Davidson XL 1200R Sportster 1200 Roadster
Riding the latest incarnation of the venerable Sportster shows you right off that Harley-Davidson gets urban cruising. For instance, though the Roadster scales in at a porky 584 pounds full of fuel (90 pounds heavier than the Thruxton), it carries that heft low, creating a remarkably low center of mass. A short-inseam-friendly 28.1-inch saddle height combined with a wide handlebar for serious leverage, near-perfect carburetion and generous helpings of low-rpm torque result in virtually flawless slow-speed manners. So you can confidently scope out your reflection in storefront windows while cruising.

The new-for-'04 rubber engine mounts keep the Milwaukee twin's inherent quaking to a bare minimum during inner-city recon runs. At around 3000 rpm there is a buzz in the 1-inch-diameter handlebar, but it subsides between 3500 and 4500 rpm. Above 5000 rpm, the quaking makes an unwelcome return; the bar vibrates as in the old days, and the mirrors' images blur into illegibility. The message, though, is clear: Stay closer to legal freeway speeds and stay happy. Ultimately, windblast, a firm saddle and equally firm ride quality will have you stopping for a break, anyway.

The engine's other changes--cams, heads, con-rods, etc.--serve to bolster the V-twin's already entertaining wellspring of torque--a 72.7-pound-foot peak at 3750 rpm, matched with 64.4 hp at 6000 rpm. That torque figure stands out in this pairing because the Sportster boasts some 64 percent more at its peak than the Thruxton (44.4 pound-feet at 6750 rpm), almost entirely because the Harley has about 50 percent more displacement. So, despite being substantially heavier, the Harley romps by in 0-60-mph, quarter-mile and top-gear 60-80-mph roll-on acceleration duels. Virtually identical quarter-mile trap speeds show how close the two are in horsepower, though.

Point the pair down some winding roads, though, and history repeats itself. Admittedly, the Sportster has a long, 60-inch wheelbase, fairly lazy steering geometry and that low cg, adding up to stable, confidence-inspiring behavior as long as you take your time. But lumpy pavement exposes a need for more accurate damping, and the Sportster has very little cornering clearance. Still, the Roadster's mission isn't about uncoiling windy roads at speed--never has been.

Triumph Thruxton 900
If you're a longtime student of motorcycle history, one of the first things you'll notice after settling into the Thruxton's 31.1-inch-high saddle and reaching for the clip-ons is the bike's authentic riding position. Almost instantly, you're transformed into a Rocker on the way to Brighton Beach.

Truth is, no Triumph-mounted Rocker ever had it so good. The Thruxton's around-town manners border on brilliance. If you're used to contemporary motorcycles, you'll be enthralled with the exquisitely light clutch-pull, broad torque band (broader than the Sportster's, with more than 90 percent of the 44.4-pound-feet peak available from 3250 rpm to 6500 rpm) and abundant flywheel, traits that make effortless, stressfree work of urban riding.

Freeway speeds find the Thruxton generally as accommodating. Twin counterbalancers ensure any significant vibration occurs at extra-legal speeds, on the order of 90-100 mph and 5500-6500 rpm in top gear. Otherwise, the Triumph is content to reel in the road, and only an overly firm saddle and a naked bike's expected shortage of wind protection put a damper on high-mileage aspirations.

Of course, any caf racer should be able to hustle down a twisty road, and there the Thruxton holds its own, if not exactly living up to its legend. It's hardly a threat to current sportbikes, but it's not meant to be--anymore than the Sportster is supposed to be the quickest thing on two wheels. Instead, the Thruxton rewards riders with superb feedback from its stock Metzeler tires, steering that's leisurely but precise, plus the parallel-twin's broad powerband. Only a shortage of rebound damping and a high-effort front brake intrude on a rider's best Mike the Bike fantasy.

Unlike the Sportster, the Thruxton has sufficient cornering clearance that you'll reach the tires' edges before the footpegs drag. What's more, the Triumph offers rewardingly broadband back-road manners: It's wonderfully entertaining in third- and fourth-gear sweeping turns, and slower sections are loads of fun. Even aggressive sportbikers pull away between the turns, not in them.

**American iron, or British steel? **
At the end of the day, you're left with the notion that the Sportster and the Thruxton were, at one time, wild ones. But increasing specialization combined with seven-league technological strides that have created 160-plus-horsepower streetbikes make them come across as mild ones, the antithesis of their forebears. With that point of view, it's easy to dismiss these two as hopeless anachronisms.

But the Harley and Triumph are quite comfortable with what they've become, thanks very much, and you should be, too. Because the vault in performance levels that makes them appear tame by comparison also highlights how user-friendly they have become. Indeed, the Sportster would make a terrific first bike. (Who could imagine that description fitting the first XLCH?) And though the Thruxton might still suit more adventurous riders, it won't stare you down the way a cutting-edge race-replica will. That's because they retain some of the traits that made them so appealing to begin with: manageable physical size and resultant agility, broad powerbands and do-it-all versatility.In fact, the current versions of Harley's Sportster and Triumph's Thruxton have blurred the once-distinct lines that used to separate them--both on the road and in that old movie. And we're all better off because of it.

Off the Record
Age: Inevitably
Height: 5 ft. 7 in.
Weight: Barely
Inseam: Chafing

I've always had a secret jones for Sportsters. I love the way the original XLCH models look; they're the only street-legal Harleys that evoke the venerable KR racebikes. Back in the days of the AMA's 883 roadracing spec series, I often found myself sharing practice sessions with the Sporties, and I was always amazed at their turn of speed.

That said, I found myself musing, "So this is what it's like to be a Harley rider," more than thinking about the actual motorcycle underneath me. On sportbikes, I usually give a low wave with my left hand as I pass oncoming motorcyclists. I used to think Harley riders were ignoring me, but now I suspect that all along they've wanted to wave but can't remove their hand from the bar for fear of being blown backward.

Although I liked the Thruxton, I couldn't help fantasizing about buying a real late-'60s Bonneville for $2000 to $3000. Then I'd spend an equal amount hiring someone who really knew how to set it up. When my project was complete, I'd have a bike about as capable as the latest Thruxton, and a couple of grand left over to keep it running. Best of all, at that point I'd have a motorcycle that was increasing, not decreasing in value with each passing day.-Mark Gardiner

H-D XL 1200R Sportster Triumph ThruxtonPRICEMSRP$8675 ($8495 in black)$7999EngineTypea-c 45-deg. V-twina/o-c vertical-twin Valve arrangementohv, 4vdohc, 8vBore x stroke88.9 x 96.8mm90.0 x 68.0mmDisplacement1203cc865ccCompression ratio9.7:110.2:1Transmission5-speed5-speedFinal drive#525 chain#525 chainChassisWeight584 lb. (wet)494 lb. (wet)564 lb. (fuel tank empty)469 lb. (fuel tank empty)Fuel capacity3.3 gal. 4.2 gal.Rake/trail29.6 deg./4.6 in. (117mm)27.0 deg./3.82 in. >(97mm)Wheelbase60.0 in. (1524mm)58.1 in. (1476mm) Seat height 28.1 in. (714mm)31.1 in. (790mm)SuspensionFront39mm fork adjustable for spring preload 41mm fork adjustable for spring preloadReardual shocks adjustable for spring preload dual shocks adjustable for spring preloadTire, front100/90-19 Dunlop K491 100/90R-18 Metzeler ME33Tire, rear150/80-16 Dunlop K491130/80R-17 Metzeler ME-Z3PerformanceCorrected 1/4-mile13.02 sec. @100.03 mph 13.26 sec. @ 99.99 mph0-60 mph4.66 sec.4.99 sec.Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph5.11 sec.6.45 sec. Fuel mileage (low/high/average)30/57/45NA/NA/42 Cruising range (exc. reserve)119 miles141 milesPerformance with test-session weather conditions corrected to sea-level standard conditions (59 deg. F, 29.92 in. of mercury)

While a belief in the design dictum "less is more" will usually put one at odds with the brethren of the bar and shield, there are many who feel the elemental Sportsters are the best-looking Harleys.
Of course, any caf racer should be able to hustle down a twisty road, and there the Thruxton holds its own, if not exactly living up to its legend.
Both motors pay excellent homage to the original versions. To tame vibrations in the pumped-up Sportster, Harley-Davidson introduced rubber engine mounts for '04. Generally, they work well at reducing the V-twin's most objectionable vibrations. The Triumph's engine is a more contemporary design, with dual overhead cams and twin balance shafts. It's much smoother than any vintage Bonnie.
Both bikes have merely adequate front brakes. The Harley's dual-disc arrangement is the better of the two, in part because the big lever is ergonomically suited to a hard squeeze. The American machine's rear brake is also more accessible and easier to modulate. The Triumph's single front disc really needs a handful--that's period feel most riders could do without.
The Sportster's wide handlebar provides plenty of leverage, and the instruments are clean and legible. The Thruxton's console is positioned low and close to the rider, making it literally easy to overlook. At night, the Triumph's speedo and tach do a neat trick--they go from showing black numbers on a white face to showing light numbers on a dark face.