Dodgy paint job aside, Harley-Davidson's Seventy-Two is great fun

Retro styling or no, the Seventy-Two is another in a recent line of very cool-looking Sportsters.

The 2012 Harley-Davidson Seventy-Two. Courtesy of Harley-Davidson
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Ever wonder what Harley-Davidson engineers do? After all, almost all their new models are just variations of a common theme. A Wide Glide and a Street Bob may look nothing alike but strip away the wheels, petrol tank, and handlebar and, underneath the skin, they are identical Dynas. It's the same with the Fat Bob and new Softail Slim (both are Softails) as well as the SuperLow and the new Seventy-Two (both Sportsters).

So what do Harley engineers do with their time? Well, read this quote from the press release about the new Seventy-Two concerning a new paint technology - some hue it's calling Hard Candy Big Red - that the company has just started applying to that new bike's "peanut" petrol tank.

According to Harley, Big Red (the paint) is differentiated from other metallic finishes by "hexagon-shaped flakes that are more than seven times the diameter of metal flake used in typical production paint. Each flake is coated with a thin aluminium film and then tinted red. Four applications of clear coat, combined with hand sanding, create a smooth finish over the flakes." Phew! Lamborghinis wish their exteriors were treated with so much attention.

All that said, I much preferred the more prosaic matte black-finished version of the new Seventy-Two, which, so plainly accoutred, better fits my impression of badass; if you know your motorcycling - or, more accurately, your chopper - history, the Seventy-Two looks like it is straight out of the 1970s San Francisco biking scene. All that Hard Candy stuff sounds just a little too flouncy for a period-piece Harley - a plain black paint job better fits the motif. Or at least my memory of it.

Retro styling or no, the Seventy-Two is another in a recent line of very cool-looking Sportsters that now includes the blacked-out Nightster and the almost-as-retro Forty-Eight. Like many Harley "customs," the Seventy-Two boasts forward-mounted footpegs and a tiny single seat. The addition of some serious ape-hanger handlebars makes a big difference, too. But what brings the entire effect together is the Seventy-Two's super skinny laced spoke wheels - 21-inch up front and a chopperish 16-incher to the rear. The front tyre is so slim it looks like it was purloined from a bicycle; throw in white sidewalls and you have a look that even the late, great "Indian" Larry would approve of.

Willie G, as in Willie G Davidson - yes, of those Davidsons, as well as the head of styling - takes these aesthetics seriously. And, it's obvious from the almost torrid pace that The Motor Company is pumping all these variations-on-themes that he also wants to put all those pesky aftermarket custom builders in their place. Recent Harley-Davidson press conferences have evoked the term "custom" frequently when referring to some of the company's limited-production models.

What proved most interesting to me, however, was that the Seventy-Two is probably the best Sportster I've tested, even better, in fact, than the sportier SuperLow Harley introduced last year. Those ape-hangers and skinny seat may look all counterculture, but the seating position is actually quite comfortable - more so than the more traditional Slim along on the same ride. Even suspension compliance - something Harley has paid more attention to in recent years - wasn't bad. The only improvement needed would be a slightly larger rear hump to the rear seat to prevent the skinny-bottomed - that would be Yours Truly - from sliding off the back.

Of course, the engine is still the 1,200cc, 45° Evolution V-twin that powers all top-of-the-line Sportsters but even here things seem more civilised. Harley-Davidson makes no reference to specific fuel-injection upgrades for 2012, but I would swear off-idle response and low-speed "carburetion" are better than ever. Harley riders may revel in their rebellious, throwback veneer, but they obviously like their engines with thoroughly modern characteristics. Harley claims a maximum of 98Nm of torque for this edition of the Sportster engine, and, as always, it's more than enough for the Seventy-Two's intended purpose — more trolling than strafing.

Not nearly as adequate is the single front disc brake. Harley-Davidson chassis engineers obviously fear front-wheel lock-up, so hard is it to get serious braking power from that single front disc. C'mon, Harley, even those who spend their time "cruising" occasionally have to stop in a hurry.

Nonetheless, the Seventy-Two is one of my favourite Harleys, and it would most definitely be my pick of any of the radical customs the company is pumping out. I love its aesthetics, and my wonky lumbars and ageing joints appreciate that all those anachronisms don't exact any penalty on comfort. Throw in the astoundingly reasonable price tag of Dh49,900 and I think Harley has another winner.