By Bryan Harley, Cruiser Editor

You won't believe this sportster's transformation

For a year, this 2003 Harley 883 sat worn and neglected in a corner of the Burly Brand garage. The Harley Sportster had done its job as an in-house development bike, used and abused as Burly mounted and measured, a long black cable used to test friction still stretching from bar to clutch. Its handlebars had been swapped out so many times its bottom clamp had shattered. A clogged carb, a missing air filter and a cashed battery further proves the Sporty had pretty much been written off for dead.

With one virtual foot in the parts bin, a hint of promise arose. Burly’s David Zemla and cohorts had a café project in mind, and the tired old Sportster was ripe for a revamp. The Sportster platform has been a hot commodity for customizers lately, and giving one the café racer treatment is a popular approach. But Zemla saw a vital element missing from most conversion kits on the market.

“We saw an endless kind of café Sportsters, but none with the one true iconic component of a café: that tail section. There’s never really a tail section. So we designed our own and played with it here and there until we came up with something that we really liked. And that’s what bore the bike. We said, OK, now we gotta show the market what it looks like.”

Necessity served as the impetus for the Sportster’s road to redemption. A couple of years after the company started thinking about it, the Burly café racer tail section made its public debut just over two weeks ago. And though modifications to the Sportster’s rear end look complex, Zemla says the conversion is easier than it appears.

“The fender support struts right behind the upper shock mount get trimmed off the frame. Once you cut those off, the install is about 20 minutes. That’s the only real change, everything else is straight bolt-on,” he said.

“The complexity comes in the wiring because you’ve got to come up with somewhere to put your turn signals and taillight. That actually takes more time than the install of the tail section. We came up with a couple of ideas. We’re using a Kuryakyn turn signal, which does require a controller. It has four wires on it, so it’s run to your brake. We wired that straight into the existing harness, added a load balancer because it’s LED, and done deal. It worked out really good,” Zemla continued.

The new café tail section was teamed to tall Burly 15-inch Stiletto Shocks, dual rate units so there are two springs, complete with preload adjustability. The original belt final drive was ditched for a chain conversion from the crew over at Lowbrow Customs, Lowbrow’s Belt-to-Chain Conversion for 883 Sportsters offered for model years 1993-2003. It was also outfitted with a G-Bones Powell Peralta Chain tensioner that uses an actual skateboard wheel to keep the bike’s chain tight. A Morris Wheel in Black Ops from Roland Sands Design swathed in a Metzeler Marathon ME880 completed the transformation of the Burly café racer’s backside.

Moving to the front, a set of café-style Burly Clubman Bars are a key component to achieving the more aggressive café riding position. The Burly Clubman-style bars are drilled and slotted for internal wiring with capped ends that facilitated the installation of the mirrors. The fork saw the addition of an RSD Fork Brace to “keep the café legs locked and synced.” Speed Merchant provided both the triple trees and preload fork adjusters, giving the motorcycle’s suspension the ability to be dialed-in, front to back. The cowl fairing is an e-Bay find.

“I dug the shape, and it tied the bike together. One of the challenges with the Clubmans on a Sporty is it makes the speedo look pretty tall, so it (the cowl) tied it all together nicely. We’ll probably end up making one,” said Zemla.

Though the 883 engine is bone-stock, performance benefits from the addition of a Boyle Custom Moto Air Cleaner and a super-clean 2-into-1 pipe routed below the bike, courtesy of Arizona-based DP Customs.

“The air cleaner’s super compact. With the café, your knee’s right there, so a compact little air filter works well so you don’t shave your knee off,” Zemla added.

The Sportster’s stock footpegs were switched out for Chainsikle rearsets. According to Zemla, the little shop out of Utah “specializes in stuff like this. They’re super cheap, I think the whole rearset package is $299. It uses the existing master, and everything and is really clever.” A Speed Merchant Derby Cover completes the new look of the bike’s midsection.

One of the main reasons the Burly Café Sportster doesn’t have any major engine mods is because the motorcycle was designed to showcase Burly’s line of café parts for Sportsters, but when asked if it had any top-end work done, Zemla joked, “It really wants it. It’s asked repeatedly to go faster!”

Thanks to Burly injecting the Sportster with new life, the bike already does go faster. Handles better, too, the boosts in performance balanced out by up-spec Performance Machine calipers. The end result is a bike that “is super fun to ride.”

“Ride’s bitchin’. We ended up doing a gel insert in the seat because there’s not a lot of foam on that thing, just to keep it looking right, and it’s genuinely comfortable. The rearsets aren’t particularly high and it’s adjustable; there’s a high and a low. And our Clubmans don’t drop the bars ridiculously low, so you’re not wadded up on the bike. It holds its line, turns really nice. You can drop it into a corner and just rip out,” Zemla concluded.

And though he’s usually handling the market side of both Burly Brand and Progressive Suspension, one look at the work he’s put into the Café Sportster proves he’s a gearhead at heart. He’s the type with motorcycles in his DNA, as his dad had an affinity for BSAs and imparted his love for bikes on his son.

"I got dragged to school with my science project on my lap on the back of a BSA more than a few times," he said.

His next personal project is a mid-‘70s CB550 café he wants to wrap up work on. And a VW Bus. On the work side, he said the company is looking at a club-style Dyna next.

As for the Burly Café Sportster, it made its debut at the Anaheim LeMans Show a few weeks back and is due for a few more tweaks. After that, “We’re just going to set it free and ride the wheels off it.” The Sportster’s resurrection runs full circle.