1903 was an amazing year for motorized vehicles in America. Henry Ford started producing his first Model A, the Wright Brothers made the world’s first successful powered flight — and Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson began building motorcycles.
The first Harley-Davidson was a single- cylinder racer, but in 1909 the firm introduced the motor design that would become its defining image, the 45-degree V-twin engine.
Three years later Harley-Davidson made its first overseas sale — to Japan — beginning a relationship that is thriving 95 years on. While Japanese motorcycle makers dominate the worldwide market, at home it’s Harley-Davidson that perennially tops the domestic sales charts in the over-750cc class.
Why are Harleys — the epitome of old-school design — so popular in a place where technology is worshipped, fickle consumers bore easily and most companies can only prosper through the endless introduction of new products?
I’m sure there’s a student somewhere who could turn the answer to that question into a dissertation topic. But off the top of my head I’ll guess that the Milwaukee marque provides a sanctuary from the incessant onslaught of change. Harleys made a decade ago often sell for higher prices here than newer bikes because they vibrate more. Carbureted motors are more prized than more modern fuel-injected ones because they can be made to idle lower, enhancing the famed “potato-potato-potato” rhythm.
While “retro appeal” is Harley- Davidson’s greatest sales asset, it also presents the company’s engineers with their greatest challenge: incorporating the latest technology necessary to meet increasingly strict sound and emissions regulations — not to mention rising performance expectations — while maintaining the bikes’ traditional appearance.
The 2008 FLHRC Road King Classic is a prime example of just how well Harley’s engineers can pull off this sleight of hand. With its wide whitewall tires riding on laced wheels, its fat forks, massive chrome headlamp, tooled leather seat and leather saddlebags, it would raise no eyebrows if you managed to take it 50 years back in time. But under its nostalgic lines lurks a thoroughly modern and — dare I say it — high-tech machine.
The 45-degree air-cooled V-twin motor looks reassuringly familiar — but was introduced just last year. Measuring a whopping 1,584cc, the fuel-injected Twin-Cam 96 features many changes that make it not only considerably more powerful than its 1,450cc predecessor but also more reliable and smoother.
Also, recently developed is the six-speed Cruise Drive transmission, which shifts more smoothly thanks to a host of improvements and has a 1:1 ratio top gear that serves as an overdrive.
The simplistic tank-mounted speedometer represents another virtuoso performance in stealth design. It manages to incorporate a clock, two trip meters, an odometer, a distance-to- empty fuel meter, a low oil-pressure indicator light, a sixth-gear indicator light, a low-fuel warning light, an ABS warning light, a diagnostics readout and a cruise-control indicator light. That’s right, the Road King Classic has electronic cruise control, which works seamlessly with the new electronic throttle control that does away with old-fashioned mechanical cables.
But the area where the engineers’ skill at cloaking new technology is most impressive is in the introduction of Harley’s first mass-production antilock braking system. Shunning the common practice of attaching a metal sensor ring on the outside of each wheel, Harley’s engineers tucked the magnetic wheel-speed sensors inside the hubs, leaving the uncluttered appearance of the laced wheels intact. With the control module discreetly placed under the seat, the ABS is virtually invisible.
Mounting a Road King for the first time can be a tad intimidating. Long, wide and mostly made of steel, it tips the scales at over 350 kg. Fortunately, the seat is low, making it easy to straddle the bike and get both feet firmly planted before heaving it off the side stand.
There are better bikes for slicing and dicing through city traffic, but the Road King is well balanced and has a mile-wide power band. Can’t be bothered to row through the gears? Fine, leave it in first and it’ll hit 50 kph without feeling the least strained, and second gear will see you through 100. Too lazy to downshift after slowing for traffic? No problem, leave it in second or even third and it’ll pull cleanly away from a near standstill with no complaint.
Waiting for long traffic lights sometimes can be a chore due to the heel/toe shifter, which makes it tricky to slip the bike into neutral. Fortunately, the clutch lever action is very light, making it easy to hold it in while you build your heel/toe dexterity.
Of course, using the Road King around town is a bit like using a sledgehammer to pound nails. Where it shines is on the open road. I picked up the bike on a Thursday afternoon with 169 km on the odometer and then proceeded to rack up 1,700 amazingly ache-free kilometers over the next three days in the wilds of the northern Tohoku region.
The generously padded leather saddle, which proved more comfortable than my sofa at home, gets most of the credit. The rest goes to the vibration-proof footboards, cruise control, the overdrive and the windscreen. Slip the bike into sixth gear on the expressway and the motor goes velvety smooth, leaving you sailing along in a sea of serenity behind the big windscreen. Set the cruise control — which maintains your chosen speed regardless of the terrain but shuts off instantly if you roll the gas back or touch the brake — and bid goodbye to achy throttle hand.
The Road King will never be mistaken for a sports bike on twisty roads, but its prodigious spread of power combined with a point-and-shoot approach make progress surprisingly rapid. The air-adjustable rear shocks respond harshly over sharp bumps, but to be honest, I didn’t take the time to try to dial them in.
Harleys have a reputation for being under-braked, but the Road King’s new four-pot Brembo brakes are very powerful and offer excellent feel. To test the ABS, I hit the brakes hard on a wet road and the bike stopped quickly and safely, a slight pulsing of the brake levers being the only clue that the ABS had activated.
One word of caution: If you’re shy you should refrain from riding a Road King because you’ll be the center of attention wherever you go. I might as well be invisible when I ride German or Japanese bikes. Not so on the Harley. Everyone stares, from kids in the countryside to retirees at highway rest areas to businessmen in Tokyo. It’s good to be the King.