Santa Monica—It’s tough not to fall instantly for this bike. In fact, the first time we saw photos of the new Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight, we were smitten. We still are. Harley has been experimenting with retro-designed bikes lately. But to our eye the Forty-Eight is exactly the right mix of badness and beauty. Of course, bikes have to be more than just garage art; they have to work well, too. So how does the experience in the saddle stack up against the Forty-Eight’s style? Let’s find out.
The new Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight is the best thing to happen to the Sportster lineup since, well, the Nightster. The 2007 Nightster was Harley’s first attempt at a tough, chopped Sportster—flat paint, hunkered-down stance, slightly bobbed rear fender. It was a mean-looking bike. Then came the Iron 883, a smaller displacement old-school cool machine, also in Harley’s Dark Customs series.
But there was still room for improvement. So the Harley gang used the Nightster as a base and created the Forty-Eight by adding a taller and wider 130-mm, 16-inch front tire and laced wheels at both ends, a chopped front fender, undermount mirrors, a tiny “peanut” 2.1-gallon fuel tank, a lower handlebar and a speedometer that’s been laid back. But the biggest change, at least in terms of riding style, is the switch from mid-controls to forward controls. In essence, your arms and legs are outstretched like they would be on a chopper.
Between the frame rails sits the familiar Harley 1203-cc V-twin packing 79 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm that Harley bolts onto other Sportsters. But here most of the engine is blacked out. Chrome is reserved almost exclusively for the shorty twin pipes. The power is channeled to five-speed transmission and on to a belt final drive.
The stance of the Forty-Eight is low, with a capital L. And that crouch comes from the rear spring, which now works through a ridiculously short 1.8 inches of travel. The bike’s dimensions are very compact. Speaking of short, Harley’s seat-height spec says 26.8 inches. But it feels even lower than that. A six-footer can walk this bike around like it’s a Schwinn, despite its 567-pound heft.
Settle into the Forty-Eight’s small, thinly padded seat, and the bike’s suspension barely moves under your weight. That’s your first clue that this Harley isn’t going to ride like a Cadillac. In fact, the ride is harsh over sharp-edged big bumps, and it sends jolts right up and into your spine. This ain’t a bike for softies.
Away from the pothole paradise that is West L.A., we hit the Pacific Coast Highway, fresh with a recent coat of asphalt. On the gentle twists of this seaside ribbon of pavement, the Forty-Eight feels light, easy to steer and torque-rich with each twist of the grip. The clutch and gear changes take just the right amount of effort, enough to remind you that despite the Forty-Eight’s compact size, there’s still a big twin beneath the frame rails.
The low-mount mirrors are not intuitive to use. But since our own bike has bar-end mirrors, we’re accustomed to glancing down at our wrists before changing lanes. And that’s how you ride this Harley too. The Forty-Eight feels quick off the line, with nice, short gearing in first. However, there’s just not enough bark from the exhaust. We’d add some mild aftermarket pipes so that the engine note matched this bike’s tough appearance.
Bend the Forty-Eight through the more aggressive canyons, and, like most cruisers, the foot pegs (and, on this bike, the lower pipe too on right-handers) contact the pavement before the chassis runs out of capability.
The riding position, with arms and legs outstretched, feels, well, kind of cool. It’s an aggressive posture, and it puts you in the mood to ride hard. And ride hard we did. It’s a really fun machine to throttle around town and in the hills. Unfortunately, it’s not the most comfy saddle or position for long hauls. On several outings, we were looking for a break after only 60 miles or so. And that works out as a good distance to travel before you pull over. Because that’s precisely when the gas light illuminates. With the 1.8-gallon tank we never pushed it past about 74 miles before stopping to refuel. This is not the bike you’d pick for serious road trips, unless you don’t mind frequent stops and a seminumb backside. Still, we did manage a high of 48.5 mpg and a low of only 44.5 mpg—very solid numbers.
The Bottom Line
So the Forty-Eight isn’t a plush long-distance cruiser. We still dig it. Every time we swung a leg over this bike it made us think about what motorcycling must have been like back before we had supple suspensions and perfect ergonomics. It’s the kind of bike that requires you to put up with a little pain—for the sake of cool. That’s fine with us. The Forty-Eight is a rough and raw homage to the past. And it’s the kind of machine that looks so authentically old school; the average passerby will probably confuse it with an expensive custom. And that alone might be worth the $10,499 price tag.