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Harley Magazine Review Sportster XL1200C

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Harley Magazine Review Sportster XL1200C


Guilty as charged.

I admit it. I used to say that Harley-Davidson was perhaps diluting its bloodline by releasing a plethora of dolled-up versions of its various motorcycles over the last 20 years or so. I was concerned that maybe the Motor Company was taking the joy of customization away from the enthusiast by prepackaging its bikes in various stylistic formats. Yes, I may have even been overheard complaining that the massive corporation was bilking the aftermarket with its extensive line of accessories.

What changed my mind? The simple, elegant Sportster Classic 1200. As benchmark of the Sportster line, the XL1200C is the ideal entry-level bike. It’s easy to handle, with a decent amount of power. The closest Harley-Davidson comes to building a standard, the Classic 1200 is likely the most generic bike in the entire H-D lineup. True, Harley offers a ton of bigger, faster, and/or sexier bikes, but to me, none of them are any more versatile or satisfying to ride than this one. It’s a faultless commuter bike, a capable tourer, and a heckuva lot of fun to push through the twisties. And when you ride with Sam Whitehead, you’d best be prepared to push it.

As a commuter, the XL1200C is a dream. It isn’t big and heavy, nor is it wimpy. Instead, it’s light, narrow, and easy to maneuver. Plus, it boasts ample giddy-up (79 ft-lbs. of torque) and fantastic fuel economy (42 mpg in the city). Around town, it’s the ideal urban warrior: big enough to be visible, yet nimble and quick enough to avoid hulking truckers, distracted drivers, and texting jaywalkers.

Touring riders would obviously prefer more creature comforts and power, but in a pinch, the Classic performed admirably. At 57 mpg on the highway, you won’t find a more fuel-friendly motorcycle. The tank holds a deceptive 4.5 gallons of gas. On the highway, the five-speed transmission never sounded as if it were winding out, and the comfortable ergonomics made the bike a pleasure on our two-day test run last autumn. The Classic features forward foot controls, which for me were ideal for this particular bike.

A bike this size is maneuverable in a lot of different ways, and one of my favorite methods of moving the Sportster Classic around was to simply hold the bars steady, and shift my weight while pushing with one leg or the other. Throttle was plentiful, handling superb, and on that peaceful autumn jaunt through upstate New York with the Brothers Whitehead, the Classic complied willingly and kept up admirably, with a
modicum of effort.

For 2010, H-D’s line of 1200cc Sportsters is limited to four models: the new Forty-Eight, Nightster, Low, and Custom. The differences between the Custom and the Low are negligible, so I may as well point them out here. It boils down to aesthetics: while the Low sports a 19″, 13-spoke, cast-aluminum front wheel (same type as out back), the Custom was upgraded to a 21″ rim and snazzy, laced-steel spokes. The Low features midcontrols, as opposed to the Classic’s forward ones. Both bikes rock a black powdercoated Evo V-twin engine highlighted with chrome covers, and both have dual, staggered Shorty chrome exhaust pipes. The Low’s rear fender rail is black, while the Classic’s is finished in chrome — same deal with the respective bikes’ bullet headlights. The seat height in the Sportster Low is indeed lower — but only by 0.2″. Its seat is discernibly narrower up front, though.

Harley’s press kit claims the Custom features a “low-rise handlebar and chrome pullback riser,” while the Low boasts a “pullback handlebar on chrome 1″ riser.” Whatever. In either case the hand controls are easily accessible. The bottom line is that the Custom’s bar is straighter and less buckhorn-like. Both are available in red, black, or red/black two-tone, as well as custom schemes of red/Cherry, and black/White Pearl. The Custom we tested came in a spiffy blue/silver two-tone, a combo unavailable on the Low. Finally, the Custom will run you $100 more than the Low, up and down the line. Must be those laced spokes.

So I admit it: I was wrong. It was foolish of me to claim Harley was spreading itself too thin; H-D saw that one of its product lines needed attention, and pared it down accordingly. Sure, there are some niche bikes that bewilder me — I’m looking at you, Cross Bones — but the fact is that the Motor Company knows its customers. There’s not a motorcycle manufacturer on God’s green earth that relies on customer feedback, good or bad, as much as Harley-Davidson does, and its dedicated and enthusiastic fan base is evidence of that. H-D spends a lot of man-hours (and man-dollars) to find out exactly what its customer wants and needs, and damn if it doesn’t provide it. So who am I to question Willie G. and family? From now on I’d better just shut up and twist the throttle.
Besides, Sam’s way up ahead of me by now.

Jonny Langston as published in American Iron Magazine

Talking Head
In the past few years Harley’s given us a wide range of styles and performance with its Sportster line. Fortunately, I’ve been able to ride most of them. Yeah, I know; it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. The 1200 Custom doesn’t have that low, flat black, 883 bobber style I like, but it does have comfort, classic lines, and an appreciable boost in power. This was a really fun bike to ride: easy to whip around through twisty roads and solid at speed on the highway. With a fairly generic look, it’s not my favorite Sporty, but as far as performance and everyday reliability go, the 1200 Custom ranks high.

Matt Kopec



  1. Dennis Vogen September 18, 2014

    Ok it took me 63 years to buy my beautifull 1200c. When I was asked what model I bought I said “the shiny one”. I was perminatly injured many years ago but I am determined to ride even if I have to exercise every day to stay limber. I have been searching everywhere for a center stand but no luck. Can anyone help me! Is there a center stand that can be modified or used?

  2. Rick March 11, 2014

    I just purchased a used 2007 Harley 1200 Sportster with fuel injection and about 6 thousand miles on it. After just a couple of days I find that it doesn’t have enough power (acceleration) for me (even though it is the largest engine in terms of displacement) that I’ve ever owned.

    I’ve been on motorcycles pretty much since I turned 15 years old. I raced some motocross early, but then just dirt bikes and a few street bikes. I’m 57 years old now, so I grew up on two strokes with narrow power bands. My street bikes included the Kawasaki 500 Mach III 2 stroke, Suzuki 500 2 stroke, Honda 750 CB 4 cyl 4 stroke and the Yamaha 600 Radian 4 stroke.

    I’m not wanting something extreme, I just want to know how to modify the Harley 1200 Sportster so that it will still be reliable, but also have some “hang on for dear life” acceleration. Is this possible, or did I purchase the wrong bike?

  3. Buzz February 20, 2013

    A lot of folks love a well built Sportster. And for good reason.

  4. Kevin V. February 20, 2013

    I have been riding for over 40 yrs, and finaly bought a HD in 2008, it is a 2006 Night -Rod, my wife loved the way it looks, and she also rides, we had givin up the bike for a few yrs, then decided to get back, but anyway, after the V-Rod, we needed another bike, as she is not happy on the back anymore, and I bought a new 2009 XR-1200, and although I loved that bike, it just was not right, and one day I saw a 2007 Screaming Eagle V-rod for sale used at a dealer 120miles from home, well I packed up the XR and went to deal, but the V-Rod had what they called a Thunderheader pipe on it, and was way to loud for where I live, and would never be able to get an ins. sticker, anyway to make a long story short, on the way home I stopped by the local HD dealer, and low and behold, the owner of the dealership just that day decided to sell his “new” 2007 50th Aniv. Sportster, with only 3, yes three miles on it, and this was last summer June of 2012!, the bike in #62/2000 and Black! and I just happen to have my bike in the truck aready, and now I am the proud owner of a beautiful 50th Aniv. Sporty, I had the dealer put the Stage I intake and exhaust on, with progressive 412 13″ shocks on , with the progressive fork kit in (stock hight), and I could not be happier with this bike!! it runs great and rides almost as good as the XR did, as far as soaking up the pot holes and things on our crummy roads, and the bike get over 40mpg, and runs faster than any big bike will, not to mention handle much better in the twisties, and is nice on the hyw. I have always had a soft spot for the Sportster, and now I havwe one for a lifetime.

  5. ken February 8, 2013

    I want to know if buying a 2007 sportser on eBay as it is fuel injected compared to a Carb, need advice asap.
    Right now I have a customized chopper that I have worked on but needed a Harley to compare

  6. Booboo Bayer July 18, 2011

    I have an 04 1200C, like this one but I set mine up old skool with a wide 21″ tire on front with black powder coated laced rim. Blacked out handlebars and crash bar. Old skool HD logo on the tank and side covers. Leather old style saddlebags. 31kmiles later this bike pulls like a freight train out of hell.

  7. Diane Linthicum June 7, 2011

    I have an ’05 XL 1200C. Haven’t driven (been on back seat for a long long time) a bike since I was a kid (I’m not ryet etirement age, but AARP recognizes that I’m alive. First year or so was really hairy . . . I felt like the bike was top heavy with a split-hair fraction before I reached the point that I couldn’t hold it up anymore. I thought I was just a super clutz!! I’m 5’3″ 120#. Last year I finally got a lowering kit which lowered my shocks a couple inches and the front forks a couple. OMG!!!!! What a difference!! The whole center of gravity finally feels right!! I can actually back it up and tilt it without feeling like I’m going to completely lose it. All I want to do now is get some pullback risers (just not exactly sure which size yet) to add 2-3 inches so I don’t have to stretch my short arms so much and it’ll be perfect. I still have the custom seat and have yet to get butt sore. Great power and can keep up with the big boys!!

  8. rbbsporty04 April 1, 2011

    I got my XLC883 spring of2004.I had not ridden a bike since 1970! Had a SE stage 1 and a quick removable Wind screen before picking it up> I always wanted a Sportster all this time. So when my age hit the 55 mark I did it! wife and kids. didnt count any more!
    I upped it to 1200 with a new set of cams and all the bling i could find.
    its beautiful. sundowner seat. A back rest Bag and Saddlebags too. Chromed the whole engine, rocker boxes were a problem, oil all over the right side Baggs and all.Till Brians HD figured it out and put revision 3 lower rocker boxes on it, took Half a year. A pain in the butt. This was all done at 2600 miles on it. Roars like a lion with Vance and Hines strait shots on it. I have gotten a lot of pos. remarks on it I love it 17000 miles on it now. thanx for doing such a beautful job on your Mag. RBB Bucks Co. PA.

  9. Marshall March 28, 2011

    So, I am looking to buy Harley for the first time and I am a new rider.
    I have been for some time looking to get a Super Glide custom but after some thinking and desire of better fuel (ha i know its a bike and a HD) I think I am coming to the choice of the 1200 custom.

    There a lot of fun to build on the website and are still plenty big for power.
    What I am curious about is will I enjoy the ergonomics of it.
    I am 6′ tall 32″ish inseam 230lbs. Is it safe to say I will fit comfortably?

  10. Mac January 28, 2011

    After some research, I bought a 2007 1200R brand new. 25K miles later, I have to say it is close to perfect as an all-around bike. I ride two miles of gravel every day, and plenty of summer 3-400 mile day rides. I’ve lusted after a Road King for some time, but find myself resisting – the Sporty is lighter and faster, and cheaper/easier to service. I’m guessing I have five more years of Sporty riding, at least, before I move to the creature comfort. My Sporty is an OK touring bike with the exception of the Sundowner seat, which pitches me forward. If I had forward controls, that would be fine, but I don’t. So we’ll see where that leads…

  11. Joe Blackman November 21, 2010

    I have had over 50 or 60 bikes in my over 50 years of riding.I purched a 04 1200c over a year ago and it is the best bike yet.It came with Screaming Eagle II set up.I replaced the exhaust with V&H staggered short shots,put Progressive 412 shocks,and fork springs on it a Mustang classic seat Saddleman bags.I have a comfortable beautiful machine for a fraction of what a big twin cost.

  12. CavScout October 6, 2010

    XL1200C with S&S 79″ engine kit including heads,cams, etc.. Daytripper Seat and low backrest for the Old Lady. Have yet to be outrun by ANY big twin including CVO’S. Smooth with the rubber mounted engine, good mileage, comfortable, classic H-D Sportster. Hey, they were good enough for Sonny, good enough for me.

  13. eavenman4 July 27, 2010

    I bought an ’07 1200 roadster and i sold my rare Kawasaki zl 900 Eliminator and altho i do miss the old bike which was in great shape, i LOVE the new bike. Suspension needs to be softer, but it handles great and pulls hard when u twist the throttle. I was amazed at the torque when i rode it home from the dealership. No shifting required to pass anybody at highway speeds. Just twist and go. I installed highway pegs, quick detach, mid rise back rest for the little woman and, quick detach compact sport windscreen (which i since sold as the air hit me right in my glasses). I am happy with the Screaming Eagle super tuner after i installed the V & H short shots….sounds beefy and maybe even a little too loud. My neighbors i am sure aren’t my biggest fans. Wanting to swap bars for 3 inch risers with 32″ drag bars to finish about as much customizing as i desire on it. Maybe new rear shocks would fix the rough ride and short suspension travel that become extremely noticeable upon meeting small potholes, but that is in the future. Overall, a great bike and not too sure i want to trade up for a bigger one. One pet peeve is after 150 Kms (kilometers) i am looking to refill the peanut tank. Tank size should come with a bigger volume of fuel and stock seat leaves something to be desired in the comfort department after a couple hours of riding. Otherwise i do not envy any other bike on the road.

  14. Jonny Langsotn June 28, 2010

    I’d say that’s called bad copy editing, Nate! It’s Custom, for sure.
    I definitely got crossed up in the writing, and the AIM editors called me out on it. I thought they got it straightened out! Apparently not … 😉

  15. Nate R June 24, 2010

    Ok, so what’s the deal? Does the “C” stand for Custom or Classic? I was taught that it stood for Custom, but the author calls it a 1200 Classic a few times in this article…

  16. Gary June 24, 2010

    Yeo and hello,

    I just read this article and had to comment…

    I purchased a brand new XL1220C last year 2009. I use it for commuting, short tours and riding in the twisties; I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains… I commute to San Jose every day to work, usually on my bike, if it is above 35f and or not raining.

    I love the bike! I was thinking about trading it in one a larger bike, then I decided, why? I am 180lbs and 5’9” and this bike and set-up is perfect for me. I did add an easy detachable back rest for my wife and a touring seat immediately after purchase, but I really liked the seat it came with too.

    I just put a Screaming Eagle Stage one kit on it, worth every dollar. I also exchanged the rear shocks for Progressive 412 12” heavy duties. I also exchanged to fork oil for Screaming Eagle heavy duty. With these modifications, you have a perfect bike that leaves no complaints; almost forgot, I also exchanged the front tire for the largest Metzler I could put on the 21’ wheel. All of these modifications help with any small problems I noticed.

    Dollar for dollar, I do not think there is a more satisfying bike out there! I do hear occasional comments on pack runs / poker runs about, little bike, you need to get a bigger bike.

    Maybe in a few years when I’m an old guy and need all those creature comfort, but if you are like me and just want a good Motorcycle, then take a test ride on a Harley Davidson XL1200C. In closing, I often reply to the little bike comments; lets race for pinks, and no one has taken me up on it yet; sooner or later I will probably get that bigger bike for free 🙂

  17. John Piatt June 20, 2010

    I owned and thoroughly enjoyed my 03 1200 Custom before moving up to a 09 Heritage. Still wish I would of kept that bike but it sold after only 2 days on Craigs List. My son just switched from a Suzuki sport bike to a 2010 Forty-Eight. HD did a nice job making it look like a garage built bike. The bike is sick and a absolute kick to ride! Nothing makes a poppa more proud then riding Harleys with his son.

    To quote Peter Fonda from the Wild Hogs move “Ride hard or stay at home”.

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