What is this thing? Is it new? Really old? Is it British? Is it American? Is this a special model Harley makes that I haven’t seen before? That’s the sort of questions I get when people see the GB1200R.
Fact is, it’s none of the above – its a dab new, a dab old, and its parts originate from America, Japan, Germany, and England.
This is a story about how to take a new Harley, and make it look old, and with a British flair. As one person commented after seeing it “you have too much time on your hands.” However most folks really like it, I’ve been asked to sell it several times and have had a couple requests to build another one.
It all started when I read Cycle World in 2004 when the new Sportster with the rubber mounted motor was announced, and they had a road test. I thought, at last, a Sportster that you could ride comfortably for more than a few miles at a time. And, not being a young person, I remember the 60’s when the Sportster was a thundering road bike rather than a cruiser – competing with the likes of Triumph Bonneville’s and Norton Commando’s (both of which I love also).
So, being impulsive, I went out and got one! I bought the XR1200R which has both speedo and tach, dual front disk brakes, and foot pegs where they should be (IMHO), towards the middle of the bike. This is what it looked like:
And indeed it rode well, Harley has some good engineering these days. However, pretty soon I realized that I’m not really a Harley guy at heart. I like to smile when I ride, go around corners quickly, dress in “normal” riding gear rather than black clothes emblazoned with the HD logo, etc. Nothing wrong with cruising, it's just not me. Also, since my wife likes to ride with me on the odd occasion, the stock rear seat wasn’t workable – it actually slants towards the rear.
So, I decided that I would give it more of a retro look.
First thing was the tank. I wanted something a little larger (and you can ride these new Sportsters long enough at a stretch to need one), and with sort of bread-loaf shape. Scouring the local motorcycle salvage yard (Bent Bike) for something about the right shape and size, I settled on a tank from a mid-seventies Honda CB500T.
Then I had to figure out what sort of seat would work with the tank, and ended up with an unlikely find – a seat from a Hercules. If you don’t remember these, they were German bikes with a Wankel engine many years ago.
So, I started to assemble the pieces to see where they should go, here’s the prototyping stage:
That looked pretty good to me, so I made some brackets for the seat and tank and welded things up.
Later, I learned a good lesson about tank mounting. I had welded some mounts onto the tank, and though they had rubber isolators, after a couple thousand miles of riding, I noticed some gas seeping from somewhere, but couldn’t detect where – so I had a “good” idea. What if I set the regulator on my compressor way down low, then put a little compressed air in there so my understanding wife (who, unlike me, has good hearing) could listen for where the leak was. So we set about doing this, and after a couple of minutes, I started to look at the tank, and could see that it was becoming a grotesque version of its original shape. The sides were flaring out!!!! That was an expensive mistake – I had to find another tank and have it painted (once again). This time I changed the mounting system on the bike to match the tank and its donut mounting. No more problems after that.
Here’s what the seat mounting looks like, it uses the original Harley fastener on the rear fender, bears most of its weight on the rear fender via rubber stops, and slides into the tank bracket on the front:
Let’s see, what else did I do? To get a more classic appearance than the small Sportster headlight with top-mounting hood, I replaced it with a larger British chromed headlight shell and fork ears from a Kawasaki. Then I installed a tri-bar headlight that was originally destined for a classic British car. I found some fork gators that fit the 39mm forks at Zoom Cycle.
When it was painted and striped, I had the original fenders done, but the front fender bugged me. Harley uses the same fender on bikes with varying size front wheels. In this case, the fender didn’t match the contour of the tire. So I bought a stainless front fender intended for a Norton, and fabricated mounting brackets styled like the early Triumphs to install it. Then I made a front fender license plate like on European bikes, and installed that with the GB1200R moniker stenciled on.
At the rear, I made a luggage rack that is intended to look like some of the early Brit-bikes might have used. This is as much a practical improvement as a styling change. Harley’s don’t come with a place for tools, manual and registration, let alone luggage - so something needed to be done. Although you have the alternative of tying your sleeping bag under the headlight!
For the exhaust, I found a two-into-one header made by Paughco. It wasn’t made for the new Sportsters, though, so I made a mounting bracket for it:
I used one of the stock mufflers with it. To beef up the sound a little, I used a drill extension and step drill to put a hole in the baffle, one step at a time, until it got loud enough for me, but not too loud. Loud pipes may save lives, but I don’t want to bother anyone else, and know how irritating it becomes to listen to a loud exhaust for extended periods if you are on the road. Even something as pleasant aa the Harley V-twin rumble.
This exhaust works and sounds fine, but it’s a little lower than the stock exhaust, so can ground from time to time when cornering. At some point I might put shocks that are about an inch longer in the back. Or maybe go back to the stock exhaust, I’ve always liked the look of those too.
I made a classic-appearing round billet air cleaner for it. This took a long time on a manual milling machine, but I thought that it came out well:
The only trouble is, if your pipes provide some muffling, you can hear a tremendous intake roar from this filter. Consequently, I went back to the stock filter. I did learn an interesting thing – the Japanese Kehein carburetor on the Harley has American threads rather than metric. Harley must have them specially made this way.
In the picture above, you can see the paint. It’s a Subaru color that looks a tad British racing green, but has metallic content. The stripes were hand done (not by me), and the decals on the tank came via an internet site.
How does it work? For me, at 6’ 1”, the riding position is about ideal, and the seat is comfortable, including for the passenger. Without a passenger you can move back and forth to change your position once in a while. I felt good that I had modified it so that it not only looked better (in my eyes), it was actually more functional as a result of more fuel capacity, and a better seat and seating position.
So, that’s the story of the GB1200R!
Here’s what it looks like with the stock mufflers, air filter, and with the original (but repainted) front fender. I like it this way too.