I expected to hate this. I even had some lines ready for my report; like, “The ‘48’ name stands for the number of reasons you’d have for not wanting to ride this thing!” It is, after all, based on the Nightster; in the sense that it’s a 1200cc Sportster with chopped-down (Harley call it “slammed”) suspension.
And just so that it will transmit even more bumps directly up your spine, it has forward-controls. And, purely for style reasons you understand, they fitted a big fat front tyre. Oh yeah, I was going to hate it!
Despite my foreboding though, I was to be pleasantly surprised – this is much better than I expected it to be!
It’s very popular too. When the Harley test-fleet rolled into town, this was one of the most sought-after bikes to test-ride. I suppose it’s the image; like that old Johnny O’Keefe song, the bike’s styling cries, “I’m so touuuuugh!” And that’s why people love her! But before we go any further, let’s have a look at what it is.       

Yep, this is all about style; a tough image. The name comes from the year 1948, the year that Harley introduced its 8-litre “peanut” fuel-tank. And it’s this tough image – together with some clever marketing by Harley – that has Harley fans itching to get their hands on one.
As I said above, it’s based on the Nightster. (That’s not Harley’s line, but it obviously is). It’s low and lean and mean. It has forward-controls, the afore-mentioned tiny fuel-tank, under-slung mirrors, an engine that is powder-coated black, and chopped-short mudguards. And you’ve got it all to yourself; no caring and sharing here, because there’s no pillion seat. As a styling exercise it works well. It does look tough; and it has certainly attracted a lot of attention.
Harley is renowned for putting image – or “form” – ahead of function, so how does all this image translate into how good it is as a bike?
Sitting on the beast is at first quite a surprise. The ergonomics don’t feel too bad! You sit very low, but the forward controls help in not making it feel cramped; your knees aren’t pushed up under your arm-pits as they are with the Nightster. The bars are high and wide. Despite Harley skimping on the padding, the seat feels quite comfortable. (Don’t trust it to feel like that for long though).
On the right side of the engine the air-box (at least that’s what I presume it is) is quite bulky, as you can see here, and a bit uncomfortable against the leg.
The forward controls are forward, but not as far as some. With some cruisers you feel like your feet are so far in front they’re probably in the next post-code. With the 48 they’re closer, and your legs are at a very natural angle – a bit like sitting on the lounge at home! As I said, ergonomically, it actually feels pretty good!
The under-slung mirrors are stupid! Yes, I know, it’s all part of the image. On a café-racer they kind of work because you’re leaning down. On the Harley, with its sit-up riding-position, they are well below your line-of-sight. That said though, they’re not quite as useless as I imagined they would be; and I suppose you’d get used to them.
Another big sacrifice to form over function is the fuel-tank. The iconic “peanut” tank holds just under 8 litres. Considering that the amount of petrol you can actually get in a tank is usually less than the capacity stated by the manufacturer, and allowing that you’d normally only run it to where there was a litre or so left (are you really going to risk having to push it by going further?), you’d be looking for a servo by around 120km after leaving the last one. That’s silly! I know, it’s the style, but it’s still silly!

Start it up and the engine rocks around on its rubber mountings and still transmits massive vibration through the whole bike. Build the revs up and it smoothes out quite well, but at idle it shakes like a wet dog! Whenever we stopped at traffic-lights I stood up. This is actually very easy to do. Kick it into neutral, put the feet down and just stand up, both hands still holding the bars. The low seat and high bars makes this easy. It might look funny from behind, but feels quite natural after you've done it a few times. When the lights change, you just sit down, and as you do, poke the left foot forward and kick it into gear. This took no longer than it did for the rest of the traffic to start moving.
And on the subject of gears, the change action is pretty good. It’s noisy and clunks loudly from one gear to the next (pretty much like every Harley I’ve ridden!), but the changes are quite smooth, and finding neutral was never a problem.
The tough-looking bike goes well. It’s not a fast bike, as such, but it gets along okay. Harley doesn’t give a power figure for it, but the 98Nm of torque they do tell us about, which comes in at a lowly 3,200rpm, no doubt helps to propel it along at a respectable rate.
The gearing is very high. There’s no tacho, of course, just a speedo and some lights, so I can’t tell you what revs it is doing at any given speed, but it’s high.
Crack the throttle around in 1st and you can be doing 70kph in no time. Around town, you’ll find yourself using 2nd a lot. And, despite that low-rev torque, it needs a few revs up or it vibrates and growls at you. In top gear you’ve got to be doing at least 100kph before it’s any good; and even at that it feels harsh. At less than 100kph in top it gets cranky and shakes and growls. I cruised it at 100kph in 3rd and that felt quite comfortable. I reckon this sort of gearing is silly on a naked. On a bike intended for high-speed interstate touring, yes, but on a naked bike it’s silly.
Cruising on the highway doesn’t bring as much wind as you might expect. You sit down low in the bike, and so the headlight and speedo provide some deflection of the wind. So it’s not too bad.
Brakes are okay. For some reason I found I was mostly only using the front brake. Maybe it had something to do with the forward-controls? But then occasionally, as I slowed for traffic lights, I’d use only the back brake. Not sure why. Used together (as you normally would!) they are good without being brilliant.
With that big fat tyre up front I was expecting it to feel pretty awful in the steering department, but it’s surprisingly good! Yes, it has that typical Harley feel to it, but it goes around corners okay. Ground clearance is better than I expected too. (This, of course, helped by forward controls). On the right you’d probably scrape the exhausts first, but it’d be leaning over a fair way before it hit. On the left the side-stand would be the first thing to scrape, and it looks pretty low. I looked down at it a couple of times in left-hand corners and it was close to the ground but it never scraped. A bit more bravery would see the sparks start to fly.
You do feel the effect of all that wheel and rubber up front; not so much at town speeds, but more at highway speed. There’s a greater gyroscopic effect from the greater mass which makes it more determined to steer straight ahead. It still steers better than a cruiser with a raked-out front, but it does feel kind of weird and heavy.
The ride is harsh. And you notice it as soon as you bump out of the driveway onto the road. Thankfully they have improved their “slammed” (read “chopped-down”) suspension over the bone-jarring Nightster, but it still is rough. The trouble is the pitifully short-travel rear suspension. 62mm is the figure I’ve seen quoted. With so little travel the springs have to be stiff to stop the thing bottoming-out everywhere. And stiff, short-travel springs makes for a hard ride!
When you do encounter a few bumps (even little ones) you also start to notice the lack of padding in the seat. This was only a short ride, but those who have ridden it further, especially over roads that have a few bumps, reckon it’s really biting after a coupple of hours on the road.
As I said at the start, I liked this a lot better than I expected to. I actually enjoyed riding it! Sure, I stood up to avoid the shaking at idle, and it lacks comfort over anything but billiard-table-smooth surfaces, but for the relatively short distance I rode it, I kind of liked it.
The bike is all about image; but it carries that image into the real world better than Harley’s previous chopped-down tough-styled Sportster. It’s the image, however, that will sell it.
I looked on a Harley Forum, and people were lusting after it, while acknowledging its short-comings in ride comfort and tank-capacity so on. They just loved the image! Harley Australia added to this by running a competition amongst its dealers. They got 48 dealers to customise a 48 in whatever style they chose, and then chose a winner. It attracted quite a bit of interest, apparently.

The 48 is a triumph of form over function. No, it’s not made in Hinkley, it’s made in Milwaukee, and it says so on the handlebar. But this bike is all about the form, the image; and it achieves this form without totally sacrificing the function. It actually works okay, especially for what it is. And what it is, is a bike with limitations imposed upon it by its styling and the image it seeks to create. But within those limitations, I reckon it’s better than you might think.

Engine: cylinder, cc. Power: N/A. Torque: 98 Nm at 3,200rpm.
Gearbox: 5-speed.
Final-drive: Belt.
Fuel capacity: 7.95 litres.
Weight: 251kg (Dry).
Seat height: 710mm.
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 16", Rear: 150 X 16
Brakes:  Front: Single disc. Rear: Single disc.
Price: $16,625 (Ride-away).
Test Bike From: Harley Davidson test fleet, courtesy of Fraser Motorcycles.

Ridden 2011

The only difference is the paint. It looks better.

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