Photos by Brian J. Nelson and Tom Riles
Getting an invitation to go to Daytona Beach to ride two new Harleys while the weather at home was still cold and white is not something to turn down. And I’d get a chance to ride the new SuperLow 1200T and the FXDL Low Rider to boot.
Sadly, the Sunshine State was anything but, but unlike my home province of Quebec, at least Florida didn’t demand winter tires to be installed at this time of year.
FXDL Low Rider
Harley invented the cruiser in 1977. That was the year the Low Rider was introduced, earning its name due to its low 686 mm (27 in.) seat height. It had some unique styling features too, including a flat, drag-style handlebar set on dog-bone risers, gas-tank-mounted gauges, a two-into-one exhaust, mid-mounted footpegs and highway pegs. Its 1,200 cc Shovelhead engine was connected to a four-speed transmission and it had electric and kick starting.
The Low Rider became instantly popular, and transcended platforms, moving from the rigid-mount FX frame, to the rubber-mounted FXR in 1987, and then to the Dyna platform in 1995. Its Shovel grew to 1,340 cc in ’78, and then was replaced by the Evolution in ’84 before settling on the Twin Cam engine in ’99.
The Low Rider remained in Harley’s line-up until 2009, when low interest and a slew of other models caused Harley to discontinue it.
However, if you’ve been paying attention to the motorcycle industry you may have noticed this new hipster movement, distinguished by an abundance of facial hair, rolled up jean cuffs, tattered leathers and retro bikes. All of which has prompted Harley to bring back the Low Rider for 2014, with styling cues that hark back to the original 1977 model.
The new Low Rider is again built on a Dyna chassis, and features a seat height of 680 mm (26.8 in.), a hair lower than the original ’77. It comes fitted with the latest Twin Cam 103, displacing 1,690 cc and producing 99 lb-ft of torque at just 3,500 rpm, rubber mounted to reduce vibration (but not entirely) to a low-frequency throbbing when riding. At idle the engine shakes in the frame, transmitting a soothing, quaking vibration not unlike a bed massager in a cheap motel.
Although the Low Rider makeover is part of Harley’s Project Rushmore, which oversaw numerous improvements on the company’s touring bikes including the new Twin-Cooled engine, it doesn’t actually use that engine, likely due to the difficulties hiding a radiator on a fairing-free motorcycle.
Project Rushmore is responsible, however, for a few comfort-enhancing improvements, including a seat with a removable bolster that when installed moves the rider 40 mm forward. The pegs have been moved 50 mm forward from where they’re usually located on a Dyna, and although the dog-bone-like handlebar risers of the original Low Rider have returned, they pivot at the bottom, allowing you to swing the bars fore and aft over a 60 mm range.
Reminiscent of the original Low Rider, the speedometer and tachometer are placed atop the 18-litre fuel tank. Twin 300 mm front discs include a pair of four-piston calipers and in the rear is a 292 mm disc and twin-piston caliper. ABS is a $930 option.
When it comes to weather there’s one thing you should always assume, and that is that the forecast will be wrong. Three different sources were forecasting highs of about 18 degrees Celsius around Daytona Beach, and the overcast morning skies were supposed to be clearing by noon with no chance of rain. I left the hotel in 14-degree temperatures, slightly over-dressed for the anticipated 18-degree high … just in case.
Styling-wise, Harley did a great job of remaining faithful to the original Low Rider. With a drag bar and an original strutted front fender installed it would take more than just a glance to distinguish new from old. Even the tank graphics are faithful to the original, and the air filter is teardrop shaped, not unlike the S&S filter everyone used to replace the original filter with. Cast wheels are standard with spoke wheels available as an option, though I prefer the look of the cast items on this bike, and they use tubeless tires.
The adjustable ergonomics are said to accommodate riders from 5’1” to 6’1” tall. I’m six feet tall and was very comfy with the seat bolster removed and the handlebar adjusted in the middle of its range. Footpegs are a comfortable reach, and their slightly forward position puts your feel roughly where they’d be with floorboards, but without the benefit of being able to move around.
Wheelbase is moderately long at 1,630 mm (64.2 in.), and with a 30.5-degree rake, steering is lazy, though it’s neutral and contributes to unwavering stability.
The transmission contains two more ratios than it did in ’77, and unlike that that agricultural box of cogs that had canyon-like gaps between ratios and clanged so hard when shifting gears that it shattered windows, the FXDL’s transmission is very light in operation and ratios are well spaced. Gear ratios are almost irrelevant, though, because the engine is torquey enough to pull away from as low as 50 km/h in top gear. It’s actually a great engine that doesn’t rely on revs to generate enthusiastic acceleration, and it sounds good as well.
Suspension was quite compliant, though even a rigid setup would be considered compliant on Florida’s straight, flat, smooth roads. In the interest of technological advancement, let’s rack up the compliant suspension to Harley’s use of tri-rate springs and damping settings tuned for an “engaging” ride.
Of course, the Low Rider’s lack of bodywork reminded me of Florida’s cruelly comical weather folk – no doubt broadcast so that the majority of Bike Week attendees wouldn’t turn around and head home — as temperatures dropped instead of rising, going from 14 degrees C to 6, where they remained for most of our ride. A call home later revealed it was a relatively balmy 4 degrees in Montreal.
After a warm lunch and lots of hot coffee, it was time to switch bikes.
The Harley Sportster turns 57 this year. There is no other bike in history that has had such a long, uninterrupted run, and that’s not taking into account the side-valve K model that preceded the overhead-valve XL by five years.
Like the Low Rider, the Sportster has gone through several evolutionary changes, though the biggest came when it got a rubber mounted engine in 2004. It has also gone from being a high-performance sport bike (it really was back in the day), to what many hardcore Harley riders now consider a “girlie” bike.
The latest is the SuperLow 1200T, which is a light-touring bike complete with saddlebags, touring saddle and windscreen. It’s a bike designed to appeal to shorter riders (5’1” to 5’7”) who want light touring capability but may be intimidated by the Switchback or Heritage Softail.
It’s not the first Sportster to don saddlebags and a windscreen; there was the XLT, which was coincidentally introduced the same year as the Low Rider, and in the 1960s you could order an XLH with factory-installed fibreglass saddlebags and a windscreen.
I’ve owned two Sportsters, and I can vouch for the Sportster’s touring capability having previously toured the western U.S. on an appropriately dressed-up Sporty, two-up no less.
Although this touring Sportster carries the SuperLow name, it’s not to be confused with the company’s current entry-level model that bears the same name but comes with the 883 engine. The 1200T uses the larger, 1,203 cc V-twin that puts out 71 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm. The engine is also blacked out and has chrome highlights, giving the 1200T a premium look.
The “T” means there are a few tour-friendly add-ons. Up front you’ll find a compact, quick-release windscreen; behind that a tall, pullback handlebar, beneath your gluteus maximus you’ll find a touring seat that reduces the reach to the handlebar, and there are hard, vinyl-covered saddlebags behind you. The bags have convenient, lockable flip-up lids, but despite the early-morning dampness, I didn’t have a chance to test their water resistance.
The windscreen is removable by unlatching the mounts and no hardware is left behind when it comes off. It is also adjustable vertically over a 25 mm range.
The bags are not quick-release, but their mounting brackets include attachment points for an accessory luggage rack. Harley calls the mid-mounted footpegs “mini footboards”, meaning they are ultra-wide footpegs with vibration-isolating rubber inserts – and super-long peg feelers.
The chassis and steering geometry, as well as the slammed suspension are mostly identical between the two SuperLows, except that the 1200T has different shocks on either side; the left one is a standard emulsion shock with a knob to adjust preload, and the right one is a non-adjustable twin-tube design that handles damping duties.
There’s no need for alarm at the use of two different shocks on the same bike; I once owned a Harley FXRT that had a regular coil-over shock on the right and an air-adjustable shock on the left and the suspension worked remarkably well.
I’d been waiting to get on the 1200T since about 30 minutes after our chilly, damp ride began. There were two things gnawing at my psyche after I had pulled out of the parking lot on the Low Rider: The fact that I didn’t wear more layers and that the SuperLow 1200T had a windshield.
Once aboard it soon became clear that the 1200T was more appealing to me than any other Sporty in the Motor Company’s current line-up, mostly because its windshield had reduced my 8.0 magnitude shivering to a 4.0 aftershock.
As a former owner of a couple of Sportsters, I am fond of the bikes, but I’m not as fond of Harley’s tendency to slam them to the ground to achieve a low seat height. The SuperLow is definitely easy to manage and will inspire confidence in shorter or inexperienced riders, but it comes at the cost of suspension compliance and cornering clearance.
Harley has done a fine job nonetheless to get the maximum out of the 104 mm front and paltry 54 mm rear suspension travel, and for the most part it had a composed, firm-ish ride, but suspension action did get choppy on one particularly bumpy stretch of road. Of course, the bike isn’t designed for a six-foot, 200-plus pound rider.
Despite this, the 1200T had a reasonably accommodating seating position that didn’t feel too cramped and would probably be quite comfy for riders within the height range for which it was designed. The other drawback is the rather limited cornering clearance, which even at a very sedate pace it’s all too easy to touch the peg feelers, which are unnecessarily long.
Handling has greatly improved since Harley went to an 18- and 17-inch front and rear wheel combination, as well as the use of radial tires, in this case Michelin Scorchers. It’s a well-planted machine and despite its 272 kg (599 lb.) wet weight it is entirely unintimidating whether rolling or at a stop. The engine adds to the bike’s ease of use, as its broad, fat torque is a boon, and the bike is remarkably smooth at cruising speeds.
Harley-Davidson introduced a pair of mid-year models, neither of which is all-new but both of which have a certain appeal. The Low Rider, at $17,429, is at the lower end of the price range in the Dyna line-up, and is my second favourite Harley model next to the Switchback.
If you’re looking for a sportier mount, well, you’ll have to change brands. But if you want a proper American cruiser, the Low Rider has the lineage, ergonomics that fit a broad range of rider heights, and the Dyna chassis is a competent platform whether you’re interested in endlessly lapping Daytona’s Main Street or crossing the continent. And it has the right look, which for some riders (Hipsters?) will be the most important factor.
The SuperLow 1200T has a narrower focus. I have no problem riding long distances on a properly equipped Sportster (which would include proper suspension), but I suspect I’m an anomaly among Harley riders.
Most Sportster buyers these days, male or female, seem to prefer the slammed, retro look of bikes like the Iron, the Forty-Eight and the Seventy-Two. The 1200T deviates from that formula a bit in that it’s a slightly more practical mount that is better equipped to cover long distances than any other Sportster model currently available.
At $14,499, however, it’s the priciest bike in the Sportster line-up and might be a hard sell. I just wish they offered a NotSoSuperLow version too.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
|Bike||2014 Harley-Davidson Low Rider|
|Engine type||Air-cooled V-twin|
|Torque*||98.6 ft-lbs @ 3,500 rpm|
|Tank Capacity||17.8 litres|
|Tires, front||100/90B19 57H|
|Tires, rear||160/70B17 73V|
|Brakes, front||Dual floating 300 mm discs, four-piston caliper|
|Brakes, rear||292 mm disc, two-piston caliper|
|Seat height||680 mm|
|Wet weight*||302 kg|
|Colours||Black, gold/black, silver/black|
|Warranty||24 months, unlimited mileage|
|Bike||2014 Harley-Davidson SuperLow 1200T|
|Engine type||Air-cooled V-twin|
|Torque*||70.8 ft-lbs @ 3500 rpm|
|Tank Capacity||17 litres|
|Tires, front||120/70 ZR-18 59W|
|Tires, rear||150/70 ZR-17 69W|
|Brakes, front||300 mm disc, two-piston caliper|
|Brakes, rear||Single 260 mm disc, two-piston caliper|
|Seat height||702 mm|
|Wet weight*||272 kg|
|Colours||Black, orange, black/white|
|Warranty||24 months, unlimited mileage|