Something of the night
Roland Brown rides Harley Davidson's Knightster
Roland Brown blasts around the Big Apple on Harley Davidson's acclaimed XL 1200N Sportster 1200 Knightster
Times Square in central New York City is not the ideal place to test a new motorbike, but right now it's a fantastic place to be riding. Ahead and towering above me in all directions are huge sky-scrapers, many of them adorned with bill-boards and flashing neon signs advertising everything from cars to Broadway shows. Honking yellow taxis are swerving to either side, manhole covers are belching steam just like in the movies, pedestrians are occasionally stepping off the sidewalk in front of me... And the Nightster below me is adding to the experience by thrubbing effortlessly through the mayhem.
The Harley is not the quickest or lightest bike I could be riding, and it's not the coolest either. (The Rocker C of the journo right behind me is a contender for that honour.) But this lean, simple, back-to-basics Sportster 1200 has a blend of neat looks, agile performance and simple V-twin charm that makes it great for riding across Times Square, through Greenwich Village and Little Italy, then over the East River via the Brooklyn Bridge.
Harley's Sportster has become as famous as those New York landmarks since its launch in 1957, and the XL 1200N Sportster 1200 Nightster is the latest in the line.
Despite its long and complicated name, the Nightster is a short and simple motorbike. Closely related to its three Sportster 1200 siblings, it differs by featuring a black-based finish along with gaitered front forks, a single seat and a cut-down rear fender incorporating Harley's innovative method of incorporating the rear light inside the indicator lenses.
Its engine is the familiar 1200cc 45-degree pushrod V-twin, identical in its specification and claimed peak torque output of 98N.m at 3200rpm (Harley don't do power claims) but differing in the way it blends black cylinders with polished heads plus matt-grey paint on cases and air filter cover.
Bodywork finish is either all black, or black combined with light blue, olive green, silver or orange. Which ever the paint option, the rider's view is dominated by the black finish of the low-rise bars, control levers, indicators, headlamp... you get the picture. Maybe it was partly the thrill of being in New York but the Nightster seemed mighty cool from that low (676mm with rider in place) seat, and its performance was very respectable too. Harley's 1200cc lump isn't particularly powerful, but these days it's pretty sophisticated for an aircooled, pushrod-operated V-twin. It's flexible, the five-speed box and belt final drive system worked efficiently enough, and rubber mounting did an efficient job of hiding the vibes.
The Nightster's injection system gave a pleasingly sweet throttle response from low revs (no need for a tacho), making city riding effortless in conjunction with the upright riding position. At 251kg dry. the Nightster's light only by Harley standards, but it steered with a reassuringly neutral feel. Despite the lazy steering geometry (30 degrees of rake) and 19-inch front wheel, the wide bars gave enough leverage to let me flick the bike through the maelstrom of delivery vans, taxis and cycle rickshaws.
The non-adjustable, gaitered forks were no more sophisticated than the angled-forward twin shocks, which jarred with occasionally spine-straining force over the worst examples of central New York's decaying road system. The single 292mm disc brakes at front and rear were far from the most powerful I've ever used, though they got the job done. And while I'm mentioning chassis limitations, the Nightster ran out of ground clearance long before the Dunlops on its wire wheels (black rimmed, naturally) had approached their limits.
But despite all that the Nightster was quick, light and manoeuvrable enough to be fun, both in the city and the next day, when I had the chance to ride it on the more open roads of Pennsylvania.
The engine's rubber mounting makes a big difference from Sportsters of a few years ago, and encouraged reasonably enthusiastic revving as well as allowing vibe-free 80mph cruising. Things get blowy above that speed, and that single seat is pretty thin too. But hey, the 12.5-litre tank means you'll have to stop for gas soon, anyway...
Okay, so it's pretty easy to pick holes in the Nightster, and there are plenty of faster, more comfortable and more practical bikes for much less than its price of £6995. But this is a cute looking, relatively inexpensive Harley-Davidson that has heaps of V-twin character and is fun to ride - in New York or pretty much anywhere else.