2011 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Review
Where do you want to go on your motorcycle? For my money, it’s probably the most important question you, a motorcycle shopper, need to ask yourself. Do you dream of globetrotting or hot lapping? Would you rather ride a day trip or just ride to work? Tear up a mountain pass or burn down the strip?
Me, I’ve gotta get to Madison. It’s 5:30 and I just picked up an iron horse from a well-known motor company in Milwaukee, Wis. At one point, Harley-Davidson headquarters probably sat on the outskirts of Milwaukee, but today—no doubt because of the billions that have flowed through Milwaukee via H-D—the bustling city holds 1.7 million souls, and H-D presently sits in the thick of things. Rain is on the horizon, and I have to pilot H-D’s 2011 Forty-Eight back home.
I’m worried about the city streets. They’re busy. I’ve got to sneak down 35th Street to hit I-94 and go west. The streets around here all have four lanes and the grid layout means intersections every 500 feet or so—no turning lanes, so I know I’ll be weaving. A stream of city buses dominates every outside lane. I’m also conscious of the people lurking on the sidewalks, folks who don’t care to use crosswalks. And then there’s the yahoos on their cell phones …
I pull onto 35th and go south. I have to concentrate on where I put my feet. The Forty-Eight has forward controls; my Kawa’ KZ650 at home has mids. Ripping open the throttle, the 1200 cc engine launches me forward, and I cruise for a tad in 3rd gear. But then I draw my first red light, and the dual-piston front and rotor-type rear brakes bring me to a safe stop. Idling, the Forty-Eight has a healthy, robust rumble; it doesn’t blow me away like I thought it would, though. I resituate myself on the solo seat (you could customize it with a passenger seat but stock it’s solo) and ready for take-off.
Next I’m back to weaving around cars. Luckily, the Forty-Eight’s under-mount mirrors work great; they’re in a good location and show little vibration. Upon first laying eyes on the Forty-Eight, you notice its fat tires; the high side-walls recall lead-sleds of the ’50s. Coupled with forks at a 30-degree rake—resulting in a 4.2-inch trail—they do their job in traffic; the steering is suitable for this city environment.
I make my way to the interstate and begin the long haul. Depending on what speed I’m cruising at, I find both 4th and 5th gears have enough juice left in them to pass the slow pokes. I continue to bob and weave, screaming toward rain clouds on the horizon. About 20 minutes into my interstate ride, my back begins to ache. My riding position on the Forty-Eight—feet and hands forward, butt back—isn’t ideal. Zipping around Milwaukee, everything was fine, but I’m realizing the bike’s limitations. What’s more, the motorcycle has a 2.1-gallon gas tank. This “peanut” style fuel tank scores great style points, but after just 45 miles the fuel light comes on. I eventually make it home dry, but I realize the Forty-Eight is not an ideal cruiser for touring.
But the Forty-Eight doesn’t try to be a touring cruiser—it’s an urban motorcycle. If you want to cruise around the city in style or hop from party-to-party, the Forty-Eight is an excellent choice. It has an impeccable profile and near-sinister appearance. The Forty-Eight belongs to H-D’s Sportster motorcycle family, which was introduced in 1957. The Sportster—the Forty-Eight’s father—is H-D’s longest continuing production model, and it has a racer/hot-rod pedigree, the Forty-Eight being evidence of the latter.
Having more girth in the tires—especially in the front tire—gives a commanding appearance on the road. The under-mounted rear view mirrors, bullet-style stop/turn taillights, and a side-mounted license plate bracket combine to give the motorcycle a strikingly stripped-down appearance (that’s still street legal). In the slam-black cockpit, you’ll notice there is no tachometer to complement the speedometer, which, again, adds to the stripped-down appearance. The handlebars are nice and wide; they rest relatively far from the rear of the seat.
The slam-black 1200 cc, air-cooled, 45-degree Evolution engine pumps out 79 ft. lbs. of torque at 4,000 RPMs. This engine features two pushrod-operated valves per cylinder, and a sequential port electronic fuel system makes for a responsive throttle and effortless starting every day. The five-speed transmission has a belt final drive. And for suspension, the Forty-Eight gets 39-mm telescopic front forks and two preload-dual-adjustable coil shocks in the rear.
I rode the Forty-Eight daily for two weeks and the longest I could ride in comfort was about 30 minutes, but, hey, with the small fuel tank, you’ll find yourself stopping frequently when day tripping with the it anyway. I got about 45 miles per gallon on the bike, so I had to refill often. One time, I let the tank get down to about 4/10 of a gallon left, and throttle response plummeted; I hammered the throttle, expecting a big pull, but nothing—the engine gasped, taking a second to find some juice. With a full tank, though, this was not a problem. But the Forty-Eight is designed to be a head turner, and H-D did a good job here. Driving this around town, you’ll be sure to get nods of satisfaction.
Last, the Forty-Eight is very drivable. It’s not at all cumbersome, it steers easy and acceleration is smooth. My dad owned a ’97 H-D Sportster 1200 Custom and complained vibration from the rigid-mounted-engine rendered the rear view mirrors useless—he warned me, “Never ride a Sportster”—but that’s not the case Forty-Eight. (Sorry I didn’t heed your advice, Dad!)
The Forty-Eight has a 1200 cc engine and weighs 567 pounds—that’s a big engine and a lot of weight to safely pilot. If you’re new to motorcycling and still haven’t mastered the hand-clutch and foot shifter, this could be too much motorcycle.
The Forty-Eight will turn heads and it’s got more than enough power to scoot you around town—the perfect package for an experienced rider who knows how to handle a bike like this. With an MSRP of $10,499, the Forty-Eight could be your first Harley.
No doubt, an expert motorcyclist could enjoy the Forty-Eight for what it is: a good-looking urban cruiser adept at short trips. But I worry about how much lasting value such a rider would find in the motorcycle. If an expert rider invested in this ride, I would suspect they would have another motorcycle in the garage, something good for cross-country trips.
And to finish, let me tell you why this bike is called the “Forty-Eight.” Back in 1948 … wait, let’s go back further, and let’s be a little bit more general … Back in the ’30s, the German auto maker DKW designed a cute little 125cc two-stroke motorcycle, and they dubbed it the RT125. The bike was tiny, clearly, and it was intended as a proletarian’s means of travel. Eventually, designs for the little thumper found their way to the U.S.; after World War II ended, DKW was forced to hand over the designs to Harley-Davidson as war reparations. H-D took the designs and churned out the S125, which was included in the 1948 model year. The S125 got about 90 miles per gallon and, most likely in the interest of shaving off a little weight, it was given a tiny “peanut”-style gas tank with a capacity of about 1.75 gallons. Over the years, the “peanut” fuel tank has ballooned to 2.1 gallons, and it pops up on H-D models every so often. So the namesake of the Forty-Eight is actually 1948, the first year H-D included a “peanut” tank on one of its models.