Harley refreshes the Road King into something Special
If you had to pick out the current Harley-Davidson model that most looks like the FL heavyweights made by the motor company in the late 1950s, it'd be hard to go past the Road King.
Like those early F-bikes, the Road King is a simple machine and its added touring enhancements amount to little more than a pair of panniers and a screen. All the King's glitzy chrome also makes it appear like something Eddie Cochran (ask your grandad) would have ridden to the Hollywood studio where he recorded Summertime Blues back in 1958.
Such a throwback sense of style might have strong appeal to riders of a certain, ahem, advanced age group; but Harley needs to attract a younger crowd in 2017.
Enter the new Road King Special, which junks just about all the chrome in favour of cooler shiny black finishes. Instead of cast hoops of modest 16in size, the Special also gets larger-diameter "turbine" spoked alloys, and these come clad with sporty low-profile tyres.
Plenty of other stuff goes in the bin along with the electroplated mirror surfaces. The pillion floorboards are replaced with pegs, and the rear crash bar and the handlebar-mounted windscreen both go AWOL. Deeper panniers, complete with their own skid-plates, and the slotted fender-tip tail-light from the Street Glide, along with shorter rear shocks add a more contemporary look to the rear end of the Special.
A cut-down seat, with abbreviated pillion padding, is the finishing touch to help the Special attract a younger set of buyers.
It all seems to work, judging from the rider-types attracted to the bike over a four-day ride around the southern-most third of the South Island.
Interestingly, these folk weren't so impressed with the $37,995 price of the Special. Given all the stuff that Harley had binned to create the new Road King variant, there was obviously some mental arithmetic being done. 'So, Harley ditched the windscreen and then charged $500 more for the bike?' was a fairly common reaction. Hey, those new wheels and tyres aren't cheap you know, and electroplaters usually charge quite a bit more for a black chrome finish rather than something you can pop a few pimples with.
I therefore did a bit of mental arithmetic of my own. I reckon that if you bought the base Road King and attempted to build it into your very own Special, you'd soon have $3000 spent just on blacking out the chrome and adding the new wheel-tyre package. Elongating the panniers, revising the tail, and the repaint would be further costly expenses. So, don't sweat that extra 500 bucks when it results in what is now the coolest model in Harley's Touring range. A two-wheeled Wurlitzer has been transformed into a meaner-looking hotrod.
The five hundy also results in the sharpest-steering bike in the Harley touring machine box. And, by further reducing componentry to an even simpler level than the Road King, the Special also has the best torque-to-weight ratio of the range. There's seven less kilograms for the mighty 150Nm 1745cc Milwaukee 8 engine to cart; seven less that human rider muscle needs to manoeuvre and park.
Speaking of which, the shorter rear suspension lowers the seat height of the Special by 10mm, making the stripped-down Road King the better ride to quench any sudden cravings for ice-cream. There's also a 10mm difference in ground clearance when the bikes are static, an essential ingredient of the custom looks of the Special. Will this affect cornering clearance, something most Harleys never seem to have enough of?
According to Harley's stats, the Road King can lean as far as 33 degrees in right-hand corners, and 31 degrees when heeled to the left. The Special matches the donor model in lefties, and loses just the single degree of lean angle on the other side. The larger 19in front and 18in rear wheels of the Special come into play here, as the lower-profile tyres don't have the same amount of squish in their sidewalls as the big rubber doughnuts fitted to the original King's platform. I'm convinced the Special actually possesses more cornering clearance when bumps are involved.
Meanwhile, there's a big difference in the steering of the two Kings, despite both possessing identical steering geometry (26-degrees of rake and 170mm of trail) and 1625mm wheelbases. The Special turns in with a lot more enthusiasm as there isn't the same tyre sidewall flex to corrupt the rider input as when riding the RK.
The latter does remain the better tourer of the two bikes, especially if there's a pillion involved. The extra rear wheel travel of the ordinary RK becomes more appreciated on longer rides, where the Special can begin to hammer the kidneys after a while.
Not that I was too bothered by this. For the Special made me feel at least 20 years younger whenever the shop windows of any small town we encountered gave reflections of our passage. The Road King might mark a page in Harley's history, but the Special that's derived from it has an uncanny ability to turn back time. Not only will it appeal to younger riders, it also makes riders feel younger.