Harley Davidson XL 1200N Nightster - Darkness looms

The latest Harley Davidson's lack of power does nothing to diminish its appeal for Tim Luckhurst


Specifications

Engine: 1200cc air-cooled, four-stroke V-twin

Maximum power: not given

Maximum torque: 98Nm/72ft lbs @ 3,200rpm

Transmission: five-speed gearbox and drive belt

Seat height: 676mm

Fuel capacity: 12.5 litres

Dry weight: 251kg

Price: from £6,695

The pre-adolescent male population of Grove, Oxfordshire, was impressed. "Harleys are for fat, old blokes," explained the first boy, dropping his purple all-terrain bicycle beside the kerb to take a longer look. "But that's quite cool." He paused to walk round it, scrutinised the combined stop-turn-tail LEDs and nodded pensively towards his mate. " I could be seen on that." His friend was cautious "It looks quite good," he said, peering suspiciously at three middle-aged journalists relaxing beside their Harley Nightsters, "The black one is best."

I explained that the three bikes were identical and both boys shrugged. One pointed at the orange example and mimed being sick. The other lad gave the silver bike a single raised thumb but raised both for the black one. " How many gears has it got?" he asked, "and how fast will it go flat out?" The answers are five and 110mph, but the significant thing is that the boys were interested

Youth and Harley Davidsons rarely go together. The new Nightster is designed to correct that. This latest addition to the Sportster range of air-cooled V-twins offers access to the Harley family for less than £7,000. It is an entry-level motorcycle in every other way too; not so fast as to be intimidating but huge fun at road-legal speeds and mechanically sophisticated enough to offer reliability even when only ridden occasionally (the fate of most Harley Davidsons).

These classic American mounts almost always sell on looks and the Nightster should have no difficulty maintaining the tradition. From its nostalgia-inducing front fork-gaiters, via the grey, powder-coated engine to those combined-purpose rear lights it is an immensely pretty motorcycle.

The styling is minimal and so clean that it almost escapes the retro category, but not entirely. It is, after all, the latest model in a range first introduced in 1957. The classic teardrop fuel-tank, staggered chrome silencers and gorgeous spoked wheels do not let you forget that heritage. But the performance does.

Though they still sound like motorcycles from the era of the Suez debacle, these baby Harleys have come a long way mechanically. The big, 1200cc engine is rubber mounted, not bolted straight to the frame. Electronic fuel injection has replaced carburettors. The Nightster starts at the press of a button and runs smoothly from cold. I pulled in the finger-light clutch and banged it straight into first gear.

No push-rod twin, no matter how carefully built, can compete with lightweight three- and four-cylinder engines. The Nightster feels solid, dependable and strong rather than quick and agile. But the torque generated by that big, heavy power unit is enough to embarrass the quickest car between standstill and 60 mph.

Opening the motorcycle up with a gentle sun on my back, and rolling fields around me, felt so right that I decided to relish the experience. Quickly getting used to the low, solo saddle and broad, flat handlebars I opened the throttle, roared towards a sweeping left-hander at 70mph and tipped in as if on a sports motorcycle.

Treated like this many Harley Davidsons become unmanageable. Their suspension grounds out, footpegs scrape tarmac and riders are reminded that these motorcycles are for gentle ambling only.

The Nightster is better than that. I sailed round without drama and accelerated out, enjoying the booming rasp of the engine as it pulled eagerly through 90mph. Extended rear suspension travel renders the Nightster better adapted to European roads than the endless American prairies.

To Harley Davidson enthusiasts the Sportster family screams naked, non-conformist attitude. They see the Nightster as a bare-knuckle street-fighter straining to incinerate rubber and melt tarmac.

Riders familiar with the power and handling combined in modern European and Japanese motorcycles know that this is fantasy. Harleys are old-fashioned, slow and clumsy. No amount of repackaging can change their nature.

The critics are essentially right, but the Nightster represents a step forward for Harley Davidson. It is powerful and sophisticated enough to be genuinely good fun, and the look is svelte, chic and muscular.

The new Nightster may be a sheep in wolf's clothing, but this is the friskiest, most nimble ram in the flock, and a handsome devil to boot.



Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of Kent

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