With the ever-evolving nature of Harley’s Sportster lineup, it’s sometimes a struggle to give all the various models their due diligence. All our love went to the Iron 1200 and Forty-Eight Special models last year, and before that, the Roadster got our focus with its sporty intent sparking up the previously sedate Sporty stable. But now that Harley’s closing the Kansas City plant where Sportsters are built (rumored to be sold by year’s end), we decided to circle back and revisit the one that got away—the XL1200C Custom.
The Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom is one of those classics that’s been a staple in Milwaukee’s lineup since 1996, but for whatever reason we hadn’t had a chance to ride in 1,200cc engine form. The latest incarnation of the Custom throws out a fairly thick front end with a 130mm front tire and 39mm fork to accompany the tried-and-true 1,202cc, air-cooled, overhead-valve Evolution engine, which put out 57.8 hp and 66.8 pound-feet of torque on our dyno last year.
For 2018, the Custom also got a host of cosmetic tweaks, like new chrome uppers and blacked-out eyebrow hood and rocker boxes, laced wheels with black rims, and black paint on the gas emulsion coilover shocks to give them some pop against the chrome fender struts. A racing stripe graces the tank with Harley-Davidson script filling the space. Ergos were slightly tweaked too, with a pullback handlebar and mid-mount controls giving pilots a standard-style riding position. A two-up seat means you don’t have to hit that road alone, and the 4.5-gallon tank gives you the best range of any Sportster (along with the SuperLow), but keep an eye out—there’s no fuel gauge. The close to 600-pound weight and chunky attitude of the Custom might look imposing, but all that melts away once you’re in the low, dished saddle, sitting at just 28.5 inches high. The Evolution motor has plenty of thrust with peak torque hitting at 3,500 rpm, allowing you to easily throttle away at most engine speeds. Simply put, this machine is a breeze to ride and it’s easy to see the appeal for newbies or smaller riders.
The 1200 Custom manages to keep seat height low with the help of a short suspension, giving it just a hair over 2 inches of wheel travel out back. The spring-preload-adjustable emulsion shock does the best it can with a sketchy situation, but cornering clearance is limited and it’s pretty easy to touch down the peg feelers (or boot heels) without really trying. With 4.1 inches of travel the single cartridge fork does a better job up front, but it’d be a stretch to call the Custom’s ride quality plush. Thankfully the fatter tires smooth out some of the rougher stuff, usually buffering you from everything but the deepest ruts. Despite those occasional jolts, the 1200 Custom’s relaxed geometry and beefy tires serve up a solid and stable ride in most situations.
If you’re out for an easy cruise and a relaxed pace, which is what this bike is all about, your best bet is to just set ’er in third gear and surf that awesome swell of torque; the transmission ratios are pretty well suited to the 1200’s power output. It’d be nice to have more suspension travel and perhaps even a second front disc, but then this wouldn’t be a Custom—maybe you should be checking out a Roadster instead? That said, there are still some tweaks (including the two we just mentioned) we feel this model could use to improve your everyday riding experience.
For obvious reasons the Custom isn’t especially freeway-friendly. But if you want to put some serious miles on your bike—and the fuel tank would justify that—then tacking on a windshield is a must, even if it’s just a removable one. The Custom’s seating position sets you right out into the path of wind currents, which can get uncomfortable at speeds more than 60 mph; you’ll find yourself holding on to the grips just a bit tighter. Memphis Shades, National Cycle, and Klock Werks as well as Harley itself offer detachable versions in various styles compatible with Sportster models.
When it comes time to slow the whoa, don’t expect big things on the 1200 Custom. The 300mm front disc is decent, and it does have a nice slab of rubber to grip up front. The rear brake disc is a tad smaller, but the rear tire is wider and bike weight is biased back here, so it’ll be doing most of the work. But who doesn’t want better brakes on their bike? Even if you decide not to break out the wallet for a disc and/or caliper upgrade, a simple pad swap should greatly boost stopping power. Stainless steel brake lines go a long way to alleviate the problem too. (ABS is available for the 1200 Custom, but it’ll cost you a hefty $795.)
With a fairly neutral seating position thanks to mid-mount footpegs and slightly pulled-back handlebar, the Custom really feels best suited to smaller riders. That’s normally yours truly, but even with a child-like 30-inch inseam I felt my knees were a bit too kinked up for longer trips. I can’t imagine inseams greater than 32 inches being very relaxed. The easiest fix would be to swap out the deeply dished bucket for a flatter perch (unless you’re touring) like Le Pera’s Daytona Daddy Long Legs saddle; even tweaking handlebar positioning could make a difference. Forward foot controls would also be a good bet for touring riders, but it’s best to play around with variations of the rider triangle to see what suits your body style.
Sportsters usually get knocked for having a somewhat rough ride, and the Custom’s short-travel suspension make its limitations known on the freeway as well as on jacked-up city streets. The fat tires soak up a healthy percentage of road acne in town, but on especially nasty stretches of freeway, the suspension can quickly get overwhelmed by repeated tar strips, lane cracks, or expansion joints. Before anything else, play around with the suspension settings on your Custom; the rear shocks are easily adjustable for preload but most riders don’t bother to check the settings before a ride. If nothing else works, there are literally dozens of aftermarket brands making Sportster-compatible suspenders; we’ve had good luck with Progressive, and custom units from Race Tech and others over the years. Check out hdforums.com for more suggestions.
In stock form, the Custom’s mufflers aren’t going to sing a song that’ll get your adrenaline pumping anytime soon. Not even close. I’m not necessarily a loud pipe guy, but even for me, those staggered shorties were barely breathing. An easy fix would be a set of The Motor Company Screamin’ Eagle Street Cannon Slip-ons, but if they’re not your style or within your price range, there are, again, a slew of options out there (see above).
2019 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom Technical Specifications
|Engine:||1,202cc, air-cooled Evolution V-twin|
|Horsepower:||57.8 hp @ 5,450 rpm (as tested)|
|Torque:||66.8 lb.-ft. @ 3,660 rpm (as tested)|
|Frame:||Mild steel tubular frame|
|Front suspension:||39mm single cartridge fork, 4.12-in. travel|
|Rear suspension:||Dual coil-over shocks; adjustable for spring preload, 2.13-in. travel|
|Front brake:||300mm disc, dual piston caliper|
|Rear brake:||260mm disc, dual piston caliper|
|Wheels/tires, front/rear:||Steel laced, 130/90B-16 / 150/80B-16|
|Seat height:||28.5 in.|
|Fuel capacity:||4.5 gal.|
|Claimed weight:||591 lb. (wet)|