This blogger read the story I wrote about the trip my friend Jacob and I took to Key West. Knowing that Jacob’s Honda Shadow and my Harley Sportster are very similar bikes, he wrote:
“Did you ride the Shadow?
Compare and contrast with your Sportster if you have the time Bob.”
Happy to oblige! I started to write it as a response to my original post, but then decided it could use a post of its own.
Harley-Davidson has been making the Sportster model since 1957. Although much-improved (the new ones even have fuel-injection!), the 2010 version retains the same basic configuration and much of the styling as the original: two-cylinder, V-twin engine displacing 883cc’s. It’s an elemental, lightweight, no-frills motorcycle – just an engine, a small gas tank and two wheels. To my eye, it is what a motorcycle should look like (and be). When it was first introduced, it was a powerhouse! The Sportster is inarguably the first “superbike,” a term that has come to mean the ultimate in performance and handling. There was really nothing like it on the market. Triumph and BSA had their 650cc twins, but nothing could match the Sportster for raw performance. The Sporty was king!
With little competition, the Sportster held onto its reign throughout the 1960’s. Ah, but then came the Japanese. In 1969 Honda introduced the legendary four-cylinder CB750 model. It was amazingly fast, smooth and refined. The age of the Japanese superbike had begun. In 1973 Kawasaki rewrote the book on performance with their own superbike, the incredibly powerful 900cc Z-1. (I have two of these awesome bikes in my garage: an original 1973 Z-1 and a 1978 Z-1R.) By the late 1970’s, Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki all produced scads of inexpensive, reliable, high-performance motorcycles that fed the craze occurring in the U.S. at the time.
The Sportster, which seemed so fast in the 1960’s was now bog-slow by comparison. Due to the old design of the engine, there was no way Harley could make it competitive (meaning: fast) with the new technology appearing in the bikes from Japan, Inc. Rather than change the design, Harley kept it the same, and ironically kept selling as many as they could build. See, not everyone needs to have the fastest or quickest or best-handling bike in existence. The Sportster…the bog-slow, old-technology, “boat anchor” of a motorcycle…still offered a certain riding experience that other motorcycles did not.
This fact did not go unnoticed by Japan, Inc. In 1983, Honda began introducing models targeted at Harley-Davidson, specifically the Sportster. First was the Shadow 750. It had the same basic design elements: teardrop gas tank and V-twin engine, but that engine was water-cooled and had overhead cams. Thus it was quieter and smoother and more reliable (because it didn’t shake itself to pieces like the Sportster engine did…and still does).
Then came a whole slew of models from various manufacturers, all trying to out-Sportster the Sportster with varying levels of success. The current Honda Shadow 750 is almost a dead-ringer for a Sportster – it’s that good…of a copy. But it lacks a certain…something…an indefinable quality that Harleys have always possessed. Some Harley owners call it “soul,” or “personality”…whatever. Harleys are merely different. It’s hard to describe or explain. You just have to ride one to understand. Trouble is, not everyone appreciates the Harley difference. Jacob, for one.
That's Jacob's Honda Shadow Spirit 750 on the left, and my 883 Sportster on the right on the beach in Apalachicola, Florida. You can clearly see where Honda got their, um, "inspiration" for the design of the Shadow.
Jacob’s is a 2003 Shadow 750, meaning that the engine displaces 750cc’s. Most full-size motorcycle engines these days displace anywhere between 1200 and 1500cc’s, so the Shadow and my 883cc Sportster are now considered “middle-weights.” These two bikes are about equally-matched in acceleration, and both turn in almost exactly the same gas mileage (55-60 mpg on the highway). Both have plenty of power, can carry a passenger without breaking a sweat, and both will easily run up to 100 mph or so.
Jacob does not like it when we trade bikes. He calls the Sportster “a truck,” which I suppose is fair. The clutch lever takes considerable effort to pull, despite Harley’s efforts over the years to reduce it. The front and rear brakes take deliberate energy to operate; these are not “two-finger” motorcycles like the newer designs. Although the engine is rubber-mounted, it pounds like a jackhammer and you can feel the vibration resonating through the frame, footpegs and handlebars. It occasionally backfires out the carburetor when blipping the throttle, especially if you didn’t let it warm up long enough. The transmission emits a loud CLANK! when shifting gears, both up and down. The shift lever looks like something you’d see in the cockpit of a steam locomotive. The suspension travel is small, and the ride is rough. Overall, the Sportster feels like something from the early Industrial Age.
On the other hand, the Shadow is like a Sportster with all the rough edges polished off. The liquid-cooled, dual-carburetor engine runs flawlessly: smoothly and unobtrusively. Punch the starter button and go. All the controls work fluidly, with minimal effort: a Honda trademark. The clutch requires a light pull, and the transmission snicks easily and silently from gear to gear. There is plenty of suspension travel, and the bike rides softly over bumps that launch the Sportster rider off the seat. The Shadow is a very nice motorcycle which anyone would be happy to own – and Jacob is.
So why would anybody buy a cantankerous new/old Sportster? I mean, there are so many better bikes out there. And yet I’ve owned two Sportsters so far and am actually looking for another (an older one) to buy as a “project bike.” But why? That, I cannot answer. Sportsters have some magical quality that transcends the act of riding. For all their “faults” they have a certain attraction that I cannot explain. All I know is that when I fire the thing up I am in touch with a machine which is a direct descendant of the one introduced in 1957 by a company founded in 1903. It’s weird, but I like that.
To each his own. And that's the beauty of motorcycling: There is something for everybody.