Common Tread

Sportster project video series: Easy upgrades, better motorcycle

Jul 23, 2016

In case you missed it, I have been working on a Sporty lately.

We started a little video series after we reviewed the 2016 Iron 883, and I feel comfortable saying that our Sportster is complete. The goal was to make the bike a bit more usable by adding some ground clearance and to keep it looking good while we made it more capable. We also wanted the modifications to be rookie-friendly, such that anyone who wanted to replicate the bike could do so without having to be the world's best wrench.

Our doctored-up version of the Sportster is a sweetheart of a bike now, one I like to ride! Its uses are a bit limited — no cross-country runs for Lem-lem on this bike — but it is fun to take it out and rip around Philly. I learned a few things during this process. I’m an experienced mechanic, but there’s plenty I discover each time I have a wrench in my hand. Here’s some of the biggies I picked up:

Sporty in the city
As an in-town bike, our mildly modified Iron is quite a bit better than the factory bike we started with. RevZilla photo.

Bolt-on parts are popular for a reason

This wasn't a big revelation to me, but it might be for some of you, because we never came right out and announced it in the video series. Swapping parts in and out was enjoyable on this bike for two main reasons. The first is that while the Sportster has deficiencies, they are easily identified and remedied. Quality aftermarket parts quickly turn the bike’s problems into its strong suits. Secondly, I could have installed the parts we selected in an afternoon. I didn’t do a lick of fabrication. Instead, I chose what looked pretty, waited for it to show up, did minimal wrenching, then rode. It was fun to pitch some parts on quickly, then get the instant gratification of rippin' around on the bike shortly thereafter.

I love modifying as much as the next guy, but I'm also a proponent of "bought not built." Old bikes sucked terribly; they needed all the help they could get. Modern bikes are pretty damn good. Why re-engineer the wheel? We didn't build a bike because we didn't have to build a bike! Easy is awesome.

Rashed shields
The cornering is loads better on this bike, but it's still not perfect. I had the Sporty considerably farther over in a turn than it was previously capable of, but I did manage to find the limit of the new setup with the exhaust shield. I'd like to make some sort of a warning feeler for this bike. RevZilla photo.

Hard cornering and passengers are at odds with one another on a Sportster

The pipes hang low on a Sporty, so they drag when the bike is leaned over hard to the right. The solution is to run them nice and high so they don’t drag. The only problem is that your passenger’s feet are right in the way of where a set of high shotgun pipes should ride. The cause of this problem is the Sporty’s low seat height. There’s just not that much room between the seat and the lower frame rails. That is just part of the bike’s design. There will always be a balance of cornering capability and friend-hauling. Give up one, and you can have a lot of the other. Our bike is a compromise. It corners lots better than when we got it, but it’s still possible to scrape parts if you’re hellbent upon doing so.

Small bolts
V&H: Up your hardware game. RevZilla photo.

Exhaust movement can be good and bad

Because the Sporty’s engine is rubber-mounted, the exhaust cannot be mounted to the frame. Most aftermarket exhausts locate the rear mounts somewhere in the vicinity of the sprocket, in the factory locations. For a set of pipes like the Vance & Hines Grenades, which sit in a significantly different place, it means that the mufflers are cantilevered way out on the mount. I think that had a bit to do with why those mufflers seemed to be moving around on their head pipes. What also was not helping was the small quarter-inch-20 hardware that V&H used to attach the mufflers to the bracket. I feel larger hardware with greater clamping power could have helped keep those mufflers in place.

Sporty shocks.
Spurgie and I both cranked up the preload on the rear shocks a bit more than what we started with in Episode Three. Obviously, I was happier with more than he was — there's a 70-pound difference between us. RevZilla photo.

Suspension is not cheap

Anyone who has tried to improve performance in the dirt or on the track, or just wants a more luxurious ride on the road, knows this. Our Sporty's rear shocks represent a whopping quarter of our modification bill. I won’t mince words: The two best performers on our suspension test, Legend Revo-As and Progressive 970s, are ungodly money. So if suspension’s on your game plan, figure out why you want it. If you just need to change ride height, some of the more affordable shocks out there can get the job done lickety-split. If you want a luxe ride and the best performance you can get out of that old semi-duplex chassis, you better plan on opening your wallet. If you don’t mind dialing in your settings over a weekend, you might be surprised how nicely your Sportster can ride and handle with a quality aftermarket shock setup, cost be damned.

No chrome
The exhaust is a pretty functional piece. Conversely, the sprocket guard is more of a form item, but they both look right at home on our chrome-o-phobic Sportster. RevZilla photo.

Chrome sort of sucks

I know, I know. It’s a Harley, it’s supposed to be drenched in chrome. Chrome is really durable, but keeping it looking its best really does require lots of time and attention. Harley’s been working on some really trick finishes, like their new Smoked Satin Chrome, and we’re seeing equally interesting offerings in the aftermarket, like Khrome Werks’ Eclipse line.

We took a page out of their playbook and focused on using matte, brushed, and natural finishes, and the bike looks pretty understated. Plus, cleaning time is cut way down. A quick wipedown with some matte paint cleaner was generally all we needed to spruce the bike up to be pretty enough to shoot. I’m a big fan of chrome’s durability and appearance, but I can do without it on a bike that looks as nice as this one does.

I woulda done some things differently

I probably would have skipped the breather bolts we used. Instead, I probably should have used a breather horseshoe like I normally do. (See the "Air and Fuel" episode if you don't know what I am talking about.) The reason? I spoke too soon in the video. The Lowbrow breather bolts eventually did start misting some oil backwards. In all fairness, I did discover this filming on a day that hit 96 degrees, and Spurg and I were flogging the snot out of the bike. The leakage was not massive at all, but we did have to wipe some of the mist off the oil bag. Still, though, I tried something new, and while it wouldn't bug me to see occasional oil from a Harley, I know Spurgie likes to keep his super-tight jeans clean.

I, too, was pained about the pipe hitting the ground, just as Spurgeon was. Spitfire makes a set of shotgun pipes that run crazy-high. I could get both ground clearance and still schlep a passenger, assuming she was willing to wear long pants and mind the hot pipes.

Two regrets on this whole project seems pretty good, though.

Do-it-all bike
This Sportster returned to its heritage as a fairly versatile all-'rounder. RevZilla photo.

The Roadster is a viable alternative

Look, I’m aware this isn’t the cheapest Sportster on the planet. (See our table for the final project cost.) We had already begun building our set for this project when H-D announced the Roadster, and I was pretty impressed, because we were trying to put together a similar package right as H-D rolled out this variant of the XL.

The Roadster is a solid bike with a few advantages. It’s cheaper to buy a Roadster than to put together our bike. It’s got a larger engine, and more sporting wheels.The Roadster is probably noticeably faster, and also requires a lot less work off the bat. It’s a great-looking machine, and the wheel sizes open up the selection of performance street rubber a rider can use.

But our souped-up Iron has a few strong suits of its own. I’d bet ours sounds a little meaner. I also imagine ours lights up the road a bit better in the dark, and I have a feeling the seat is comfier, and if I had to whip one down an old mining road, I’d take ours.

Ultimately, our bike’s not the same thing as a Roadster. While I can’t definitively say which is a better value, I can say that our method is not the only way to skin this cat. We wanted a bike that caught some eyes, performed well, and appeared cohesive. Ideally, we speculated, it wouldn’t cost too much to chuck together, and should be something most people could relate to in terms of ease of construction.

I think we finished up with a sharp bike that’s fun to ride. It’s not the cheapest bike, and it’s not the fastest, but that’s not really what Harleys are shooting for. We fixed many of the faults we found with the stock version of the same bike, and it was fun to piece it all together. For less than the price of Harley’s cheapest Big Twin, you can have a Sporty that draws eyeballs and is a hoot to ride.

Isn’t that the point?

Sportster Project Expenditures
Item Cost
Two Brothers Comp S exhaust system
Vance & Hines exhaust port gaskets $9.99
Vance & Hines FP3 $399.99
TC Bros. Ripple air cleaner
Lowbrow breather bolts $44.95
Progressive 970 rear shocks $1079.94
Le Pera Daytona Sport Daddy Long Legs seat  $313.16
Speed Merchant skid plate
West Eagle tank bib 
Joker Machine rider pegs 
Denali headlight 
Lowbrow grips
Biltwell Moto bars 
Duro 904 Median rear tire 
Mitas E-07 front tire
Subtotal of all parts $3,827.23
2016 Harley-Davidson Sportster XL883N $8,849
Total $12,656.03