Harley-Davidson Nightster beats Old Man Time

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It isn’t easy being old.

Take the Harley-Davidson Sportster, which at age 50 is the longest-standing nameplate for the company. Despite the 1 million that have been made, even the brass back in Milwaukee admit the 883 cc and 1,200 cc bikes have lost a bit of their mojo in this era of bigger motors making even more badass rides.

Enter the 2007 Nightster, a golden anniversary version Harley-Davidson just wheeled out in the hopes of bringing the sexy back. Geared toward riders who haven’t yet found their first gray hair, the Nightster is for someone who’s had enough saddle time that the 1,200-cc motor is unintimidating but whose credit will swing only a $10,000 price tag. Low to the ground, lean and black in all the right places, the Nightster is an aging beauty who’s been under the knife. Most of the changes are cosmetic, but at least the plastic surgeon knew what he was doing.

Style-wise, the Nightster is pulling from two separate trends. It’s a reaction against the chromed-up, blinged-out extremism of recent years and an embrace of the Spartan lines of long ago. Instead of shine, there’s matte. The engine is powder-coated the same shade of gray as a government-issue filing cabinet. The rims and handlebar are black as a goth’s lipstick. And the gas cap and dipstick cover are a new “silver satin” that won’t gleam no matter how much it’s polished.


Then there’s the bobber detailing. The Nightster has a side-mounted license plate and bullet holes in its front fender clamps and rear belt guard -- a look that was popular among fighter pilots looking for fast, two-wheeled action after World War II (and, more recently, among custom builders). Other custom touches: the gaiters on its fork tubes and rear turn signals that double as the tail and brake lights, only none of this stuff costs extra. It’s stock.

So’s the solo seat, which is a cool 25.3 inches low. Only the Softail Deluxe (at 24.5 inches) and Night Train (at 25.2 inches) are lower. Even a troll could fit on this bike, through there is a downside to the “slammed” styling, i.e., a bike that looks like an anvil fell in its lap. The rear wheel travel is just 2.4 inches, and the only part of the suspension that’s adjustable is the rear spring preload, which felt stiff no matter how it was set. So big guys beware: This bike isn’t for you unless you like bottoming out.

Developed side by side with Buell’s XB12 powertrain, the Nightster’s rubber-mounted Evolution V-twin engine features high-flow cylinder heads that allow more air, higher compression and, as a result, better power. Harley doesn’t release horsepower figures, but the bike’s 79.10 pound-feet of torque never left me wanting.

Twisting the grip when I got the greens, I found it had good off-the-line power that kept on coming. Even in fast-moving highway traffic, I was using only the first three of its five gears, which as of the ’06 model year were upgraded to an un-Harley-like, quieter helical system.

This year is significant, not only because it’s the Sportster’s birthday, but because 2007 is the model year when all Harleys switched to fuel injection. Previously, it had been available for every other model family except the Sportster. For the least expensive bike in the Harley lineup, there wasn’t a profit motive.

Now there’s a smog-reduction motive for the fuel injection. Besides, people are asking for it, not only because it’s so much easier and more efficient than a carbureted system, but because its effect on Harley’s famed exhaust note has been worked out. Responding to customer complaints that fuel-injected Harleys didn’t sound like the old-school, carbureted Hogs, the perfect idle was roughed up to retain its close-but-never-patented tiger purr. So there isn’t a carb anymore. At idle, the slash cut dual exhaust still sounds imperfect and arrhythmic because a computer is calling the shots.


Before the Nightster, I would have said it was impossible to create excitement around a bike that’s been around so long, but with a nip here, a tuck there and a few tried-and-true upgrades imported from other models, Harley’s pulled it off.



2007 Harley-Davidson Nightster

Base price: $9,595

Powertrain: Air-cooled V-twin, two valves per cylinder, fuel-injected, 5-speed

Displacement: 73.2 cubic inches

Bore and stroke: 3.5 inches by 3.81 inches

Torque: 79.10 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm

Seat height: 25.3 inches

Dry weight: 545 pounds