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Harley Davidson FLHR/I Road King
The first, a 1998 injection Evo 1340 FLHRI Classic whisked me to Faaker See in Austria for the Harley-Davidson 95th Anniversary Celebrations: two up and comfortable. The last day seeing over 800 miles ridden from Karlsruhr in Germany, through France, the Euro Tunnel and back up to Manchester ... and we could still walk pity the pub had shut, that would have been so cool. The second was a normally aspirated 1999 FLHR Twin Cam 88, which blitzed me and a pillion to Bad Kreuznach in Germany and back ... for the weekend! So it's safe to assume I already respected those two previous Road Kings abilities to travel and I didn't expect anything less from this 2001 FLHR.
Jumping off the 2001 Heritage Softail, which I'd lived with for a week and climbing straight onto the Road King was an extremely interesting experience. The Road King's steep 26-degree rake and familiar FL front end lends an almost arcane, classic bike sort of feel to the 'King. However the steep rake and excellent leverage on the bars makes the steering feel noticably much lighter than you'd expect. I hadn't expected the difference between the two machines to be quite so marked. So for the first few minutes I actually didn't feel anything like as comfortable as I had on the soft-tour Softail and began to question my own previous experiences on Road Kings. Or conceivably, was this year's Road King all that different from previous models? I was, well, disappointed and pretty shocked. To start with at least.
It only took a few miles however to relax into the ride and, basically, remember how to ride a 'Glide, and my knack to riding a Road King rather than anyone elses, I hasten to add is to remember the films of the forties and fifties. Films in which all those hugely experienced American Harley riders, whether cops, bikers or outlaw one-percenters were as happy fishtailling up a dirt track when the two lane blacktop ran out as they were entering a Sunday hillclimb, kicking the bars straight and riding it to work on Monday. Or remembering my own first biker rallies in the 'heavy' seventies, where as a spotty, denim cut-off wearing, multi-badged nerk on one or other of my Japanese 250s, I watched the 'real' bikers on Flatheads and Shovels, Bonnies. Beezas and Norton chops arrive and depart. Proper cool; confidence in the machine and ability and experience aplenty.
I'd found, almost entirely by accident rather than design, that as my miles and road experience accrued on the Road King, I rode it loads better. Amazing, that, or what? World shattering revelations R Us. But quite seriously, as my confidence with the huge machine rose and it IS bloody big and I was more trusting of the handling quirks, I learned how to manhandle the beast using the dead low centre of gravity and make it really shift. I realised that my riding style had adapted quite markedly to it, to the point that I realised I'd unconsciously adopted the style of those earlier riders. It was at that point that I realised that the way that I'd seen those riders of yore rode their Glides wasn't through any affection of cool or any adoption of some kind of bravado riding style for the benefit of others, it was just the way you end up riding a Glide. The 'style' I'd so admired therefore merely the unconscious, relaxed ergonomics of a rider at the risk of bouncing into cliché-land at one with their machine.
Gawd I hope that makes sense.
And the reason I ended up riding the Road King like one of those big ol' Glides isn't too hard to figure out... it IS one. Yeah the lump's different, but it's still a Harley Big Twin in a Glide frame. In fact (slight pause as I clamber onto a soap box) if any bike should really have been dubbed the Harley-Davidson 'Heritage', the slightly stripped Duo/Hydra/Electra that is the Road King should have - and not the 'new' framed Softail upstart which just tries to look the part: albeit the longer standing 'hardtailled' part. Having said that of course, Road King is a much better name for the Glide than 'Heritage', which sounds a mite too sharp-suited eighties concept. So completely confused and that's just me I return to the plot.
After the luxury of the Heritage's fuel injection, the return to that single Kiehin carb on this FLHR reminded me that 'real' motorcycles need to get thoroughly warmed through before they operate efficiently. The normally aspirated FLHR Road King from cold acted sluggish and chuffed and farted back through the aircleaner until it was good and ready thank you. Not really a bad thing when you consider there's so much cold and more or less unlubricated metal whirring around under the tank - a factor all to easy to forget with the auto-'choked', ride away engine management of the injector.
Once warm, however, there was no apparent difference between injection and carb. But, 'Under Normal Conditions' has to be the proviso. In certain, usually inclement, conditions the injection option is a positive boon, and worth every potentially heart stopping penny. Even in cold, but not freezing, early April rain the Road King's carb showed the early signs of carb icing on the overrun, a problem that can get frighteningly worse as the temperatures drop or the altitude rises - two factors that unfortunately often run together. I had the carb ice problem with my 1990 4 speed Sporty, it raised it's ugly head again on the normally aspirated 1999 Road King through the higher, colder lumpy bits of Germany and made itself all too apparent while riding through a blizzard in the Welsh mountains last year on a 2000 carburetted FXDX Dyna Super Glide Sport. When you're coping with keeping a heavy motorcycle upright in an inch or two of snow, descending some serious gradients and basically trying to see through a white-out, the very last thing you need is having to also try to keep the engine running by continously blipping the throttle with the clutch in. All of the Big Twins with carbs up there last November were having that same problem, while at least the injection riders had one less problem to deal with.
Another immediately noticable engine difference between the Softail and the Road King was the vibration, especially the low rev vibration. Any shift between rubber-mount 88 and solid-mount 88B will bring the differences through, and the longer you get to live switching between them, the more you realise the differences. Rather than repeating myself too much from the head-to-head already featured, it is enough to say that the characters of the engines are quite different and, if anything, the rubber mounted engines feedback made the experience more, rather than less pleasant.
As you've no doubt already noticed this 2001 Road King wasn't completely standard. Harley UK had fitted a pair of, not exactly subtle, aftermarket fishtail endcaps to the silencers on the crossover dual exhaust system. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure, the exhaust remained untampered with, yet the deep rumbling, and louder exhaust note the Road King had was a welcome and enjoyable diversion from the whispered muffled 'Fluh!' sound offered by most other stock Harleys I've ridden... less 'potato, potato' and more your porridgie-porridge. We intended to find out whether the fishtails were entirely responsible for the deep bass boom from the back of the bike, and we discovered a pair a simpler shark fin tail pipe ends,.which we did intend to fit, but never quite got round to it nor worked out where we would've put the EL-style fishtails had we done so.
Behind the screen though, the Road King was exceptionally quiet with all mechanical noise from the engine being absorbed by the engine mounts rather than transferred to the frame and amplified behind the screen.
We had out first failure on the Road King: just a few miles outside H-D UK on the way home after the swap, the speedo head broke, leaving me with no accurate way to judge speed other than follow the Ultra that Andy was riding and him shout 'this is forty', and 'this is seventy' at me. To a point it worked, but as soon as he peeled off and left me alone on the M6 motorway, I naturally kept pace with the traffic and noticed sometime later that the fuel level indicator needle in the tank mounted gauge was dropping fast - indicative of plus eighty cruising, on a Harley at least. Everyone knows that Harley's are a hell of a lot faster than they appear to be to both the 'spectator' and more importantly the rider and cocooned behind that superbly efficient screen I was made very aware of the danger as I approached the urban A roads of Manchester. Not so long ago, Harleys were virtually immune to speeding pulls - despite the fact that you rumbled past an officer at a comfortable 20mph above the limit you didn't sound fast, riding something that didn't look fast, ergo: you're not going fast. However, speeding cameras have no reasoning and no soul, so I attempted to behave by following the car most likely to be within the speed limit. I chose a Lada - it drove me mad.
Luckily, a couple of days later, I was taking a few shots of the bike in a park near the remains of a Roman fort in a field not coincidentally called Castlefield, which is off Deansgate in Manchester. As 'luck' would have it (ahem) I could actually see Bauer Millet Harley-Davidson and a quick call sorted out the speedo problem just the next day. Cheers Dave and Pete. (Tel: 0044 (0) 161 839 1000)
That turned out to be a funny old day all round. My girlfriend, Mandie, had the day off and had checked her own bike for a service and serious sort out. The sun was shining and she decided to be a 'biker chick' and come with me on the back of the Road King into town. A good opportunity to gauge the pillion comfort and, well, pose about with a sexy bird on the back complete with thigh boots and ridiculously tight trousers. Although Mandie had come with me to Austria on the 1340 injection Road KIng, she'd forgotten quite how wide the Road King is at the back when you're getting on and off the pillion, and she grunted and muttered a bit until she was comfortable. Stopping to collect her wages, and treating the lads in the kitchen to a bit of a show because she hadn't realised that her new velvet tit top rode up (a common 'problem' with velvet tit tops apparently) she strode back the the Road King and, clambering on, burst her trousers big-style up the bum. A quick inspection convinced even me it was indeed a fairly traumatic rupture and something should be done to avoid further embarrassment. Not for the first time did the semi-permanent panniers come into their own - rummaging around within the depths of the right hand bag I produced a comely pair of grubby waterproof troos, which despite the blazing sunshine, Mandie gratefully leapt into and we set off in search of suitable replacements from our mate, Deb's fetish parlour and rock clobber shop.
It is a big stretch to get astride the rear pillion on the Road King especially if your used to jumping on the back of smaller, narrower machines. But after her 'incident' Mandie took to getting on and off the Glide by first placing her left foot on the rear foot plate, left hand on my shoulder and stepping over the seat before lowering herself down... all elegant, like frequent Harley pillions do.
Other than that, Mandie had no other complaints or problems on the back, rating this Road King's comfort way above that offered by the Heritage Softail, despite the Road King's lack of a backrest. She appreciated the passenger foot boards, and snuggled up behind me with hands unusually on my waist, she was quite happy with the seat. Once I'd got over the initial re-familiarisation period, I was supremely comfortable on the Road King - though I would still rate the Road King Classic 1340 slightly above it - I'd have to ride the 88 Classic to get a definitive answer. The handlebars at first seemed a little low, at least compared to the Heritage and again, at first I was clumsier than I'd remembered while I manoeuvred the beast under power in tight spaces, particularly U-turning on two lane roads. However, much of my previous Road King riding experience was abroad - and U-turning left with wide low bars is a hell of a lot easier than U-turning right... alright, except on a classic Indian p'haps. The clutch seemed lighter than the Softails, for some obscure reason - not that I was complaining, the Road King's comfort and stability, allied to the light clutch and a crisper, more positive gearbox meant that any long distance trips I made, never got tiresome.
Handling wasn't a problem either, despite the sheer size. Once you'd relaxed, it could just about go anywhere. I found with this Road King, as with the others I've ridden that you can flick it through lines of snarled city traffic with an ease that astonishes other riders. There's no trick to it, the low speed stability, obviously compromised by the length but more than balanced by the extremely low centre of gravity allows the confident to virtually stop without the need to move either foot from the boards. Combine that with bottomless torque and a quick turning, light front end means that the machine can be surprisingly nimble. At higher speeds, both on motorways and sweeping country, the Road King comes into its own: cruising fast and effortlessly for as far as you want to go, and the uprated twin front disc brakes and single rear on the 2001 model, allow you a real choice nowadays if you're looking like you about to overcook a bend.
Significantly the ride was stiffer than I remember any of the other Road Kings I've ridden being: it wasn't anything like bone-jarring, the handling was fine, so apart from a slightly shaken girlfriend on a particularly creative piece of council road maintenance and the odd thud from the chain in the right hand pannier, I never bothered to look at changing it.
Interestingly, I didn't manage to ground the footboards on this Road King: something that seemed to happen with monotonous regularity with both floorboarded Softails, the Fat Boy and the Heritage. Surprisingly, the ground clearance is exactly the same with all three bikes (it's 129.9mm to satisfy any real anoraks) and if you're prepared to concede that the wheelbase difference, a paltry 2.5cm surprisingly in the Softails favour, wouldn't make that much difference, only the lean angles are different. But whereas the Fat Boy loses out to lean by at least a full degree on either side, the Heritage actually offers nearly two degrees more lean on the right than the Road King. Mmm. Perhaps this says more about how well the new Softail frame handles than I've previously realised and I've been stuffing the Softails into those tempting roundabouts a little bit faster than I've done with the Glide? Then again, it just might be the frame geometry.
With no such thing as an incompetent stock Harley Big Twin you reluctantly have to weigh up such ephemeral and subjective factors as styling, immediate ride, immediate practicality... and price.
Certainly the FLHR Road King is, in my view, eminently practical as an all round motorcycle. The hard luggage makes the bike as convenient to tour as it is to pop down the market for some veg, while the screen, footboards and full mudguards offer good protection from the weather, the fuel consumption, as with any other stock hog is frugal - below 80mph at least, and I'm one of those sad bastards that don't mind cleaning them either. So for me, yeah, the Road King is practical. I ride a lot of miles, all year round and don't own a car so having the ability to drop a casual cauliflower in the pannier is a plus ... if only in my book. However other people have other criteria and make their choices based on those factors.
Expense wise this 2-tone FLHR sits more or less plumb in the middle of the current Big Twin price range. Yeah, it is a lot of money, but if you're already in the market for a new Harley then you've probably become somewhat immune to that minor problem by now. Certainly the FLHR is a round grand cheaper than the FLHRCI Road King Classic. But for your extra £1000 you get the soft look luggage, a slightly more comfortable seat (my opinion), slightly different chrome trim, fuel injection and 2 extra letters. The FLHRCI Classic doesn't offer a carb option (hence the I), just as the 'standard' Road King doesn't offer anything else, and that makes a difference to the conventional route to power. If a potential owner of a Road King was looking at quickly and economically releasing a gobbet of extra power out of the madly undertuned motor, they may well think seriously of the carburetted variant - the range of aftermarket carbs, and the breadth of carb aspirated knowledge out there worth bearing in mind. And with that 'extra' £1000 you can buy a significant amount of performance and expertise.
...or cauliflower for that matter.
Personally speaking, I prefer the Road King ride to most Softails, but many will disagree, especially if most rides they take are shorter. Most Dynas are equally as comfortable long distance in a different way and do really handle... but I'm just not absolutely sure I like the way they hang.
Blast! Argh, dammit!
So finally there we are see, if we would but admit it, the honest choice comes down to whether you like the way it looks.
Admittedly I do like the way the Road King looks. I like the classic stance, the undiluted Glide-ness of it all. I prefer the soft look saddlebags of the Classic and the comfy seat - but then I imagine an all-black FLHR, p'haps with fairly plain 3 spoke wheels instead of all that lacing: wouldn't that just look the business too. Hoist by my own petard, I'm a sucker for that swooping line and the sheer presence of either 'King. But there y'go.
In other people like down the pub for instance the FLHR Road King induced synchronised vomiting, some even claiming they preferred the Heritage Softail I'd had the week before.
Quite frankly gobsmacked, I couldn't even work out whether that was said just to wind me up ... I still don't know now.
What worries me is that it worries me.
I can't be the first person to have run an Electra Glide sans screen and Tour-Pak: in fact, I know I'm not because a mate in York, many years ago, transformed his fire engine red Electra into a pseudo American black and white police bike if only to further justify the rear-wheel driven siren that haunted York's ancient streets for a dozen or more years.
It is tempting to suggest that the then positively prepubescent Tom Kidds could well have been the first, but that would be just mischievous and inaccurate. Long before Tom, Harley-Davidson were offering the "King of the Highway" accessories to turn their then-undressed FLs into half-dressed tourers and the DuoGlide of 1960 bears a striking resemblance to the bike you see hereabouts, although the origins of the slantbags came later, though not by much, in 1963. Dressed Electra Glides proper were formalised in the seventies although they were still a four-speed Shovelhead with touring accessories rather than a purpose-built tourer. Then the Rubber Glides, touring frames and Evo engines arrived in the eighties. For the first time, an Electra Glide would be a bike with a fixed screen crammed full of enough electrics to deter the average owner from binning it and the touring Harley-Davidson truly came into its own.
That could have been the end of the story except that Harley weren't oblivious to the requirements of their customers and the Electra Glide Sport was offered as a semi-dressed tourer. Electra Glide Sports had been around earlier, with the last of the Shovels and were Electras without the screen, crashbars, pannier guards and sprung seat, but the new Sports were different. The FLHS was, strictly speaking, an FLT Tour Glide without the frame-mounted barn-door: an easier transition to make as the instruments lived on the top yoke in a fifties idea of what a twenty-first century space ship dashboard might resemble, and the action of removing the Tour Glide fairing didn't interfere too much with the electrics. The 50's style, 21st Century dash looked dreadful without a screen at all so a police screen was added to draw some of the attention away. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea, it just wasn't really a Harley-Davidson as we knew them but despite that, and in no small part due to the price that they were sold for, the FLHS survived through to 1994 when it was dropped in favour of the then-new FLHR Electra Road King. But it wasn't a straight swap ... honest!
As a replacement for the Electra Glide Sport, the Road King offered little that was new over the model beyond the adoption of the then-current changes to the heavyweight range. The big draw was that it was a convertible and that it dispensed with the big horrible dash replacing it with the sublime alloy headlamp nacelle from the Post 1960 Panhead Duoglides and Shovelhead Electras or, a close approximation of it at least. The convertible concept only went so far: the screen was easily removable, the pillion seat came away and the panniers could be taken off when not required. Speaking personally, I've never seen a Road King without its bags except when being serviced, and it's not something you'd do for the sake of making it more attractive, but the solo seat and screenless potential was enough and the lightweight heavyweight became a very attractive proposition indeed. It was a good job because it weighed in at a bigger price ticket that the Electra Glide Standard and was no longer the budget model.
As a practical modern-day motorcycle, the Road King is perhaps Harley's best: lacking the sheer bulk of the Electra but offering some degree of weather protection and excellent long-distance running. It would be up there on its own were it not kept company by a very close relative, the Road King Classic, replete with leather finish bags, fuel-injection and a host of detail changes. That it lacks some of the width of the full dressers makes it better in heavy city traffic, but the bags and bars maintain some traffic splitting limitations. To run through the detail changes between the siblings would be extraneous here but it's worth mentioning that the standard Road King scores for the simplicity of the carb, the security of lockable panniers and saving of an even grand from the asking price or three from the Ultra Classic Electra Glide!
What you get for your money is the rock-solid touring chassis with rubber-mounts isolating you from the worst of the vibration of the Twin Cam motor, combined with air-suspension front and rear, heavyweight forks and a brace of 16-inch wheels peering out from behind deep valanced mudguards. Five gallon fake fat-bobs hold a trademark huge speedo at the top of a chrome console that covers the gap that used to separate the fuel tanks. The new tanks are easily identified as such by the fuel gauge mounted in the dummy filler cap on the left-hand side that serves only to remind you how little fuel you're using.
If you want a long-haul Harley on a budget and can live without additional information afforded by air-temperature, battery charge level and oil pressure gauges, and a rev-counter, stereo, on-board intercom and Tour-Pak, this is undoubtedly the bike for you. Especially if you don't want injection.
On the road, you are struck by how low the bars are, relative to the seat. So low, in fact, that as a six footer, I was obliged to move a leg from the footboard when attempting low-speed, feet up full lock manoeuvrings because the handlebar end was hitting my knee. That such antics are possible at all bears testament to the inherent stability of the bike and it demonstrates the benefits of a sensible weight distribution, but a pair of higher bars would eliminate this unfortunate failing. You could, or course, stand the existing bars up higher, but I'm a bugger for having the uprights of the handlebars continuing the line of the forks and the resulting kink would offend my sensibilities.
The thinnest seats fitted to the heavyweight hogs do compromise long distance comfort marginally, but when you see the Electra Glide Standard that is no longer available in the UK but which still shows in this year's catalogue you will see how much the deep seat of the full dresser disturbs the line when the Tour-Pak's left on the shelf, and the Road Kings are as much about style as substance, and what style! In the presence of the dresser, the Electra Glide grabs the attention of the car drivers, but two-wheelers pay greater respect to the 'King.
One person who pays the Road King such respect is the Rich King, and wrestling it from his grasp wasn't as straightforward as it could have been partly, I suspect, because the alternative for him was going to be the Electra Glide Ultra Classic and so the time we spent together was measured in tens, rather than hundreds of miles, but it was enough to reacquaint myself with the model. For my money, while the heavyweight frame is rock solid, supremely stable and well-suited to the Road King's role, it is too big and not pretty enough to be allowed out without covers to hide bits like the area in front of the panniers, which are otherwise superfluous. I acknowledge freely that this is probably because I still mourn the passing of the four-speed FLH and would still be inclined to build a Dyna Road King. I could save 3k by buying the base SuperGlide, and then reinvest a fraction of that in heavyweight forks, bags and mudguards from an Electra Glide of old. That said, the Road King represents great value for money when compared to the new Electras, and while I love my Electra Glides deeply, I have a natural tendency towards a bargain and the three thousand pound saving over the King of the Highway would give the Road King an edge that would be hard to ignore.
There is only one thing niggling at the back of my mind regarding the 'Kings, and that is the fuel injection question. I like fuel injection because I hate chokes or, more accurately, I hate the cold running of choked stock motors. I welcome the improved cold running of the Twin Cam 88 over the previous Evo models, but I still prefer the system to look after itself and for that reason, the injected Classic scores big brownie points. But then the thousand quid differential between the standard and the Classic is more than treble the three hundred quid extra tagged onto other models for the injection upgrade, and I don't see another seven hundred quid in the Classic beyond that chip: which is as much because I love slantbags as anything else they're crap at carrying big square things like LPs but then I haven't bought an LP for more than ten years and don't envisage ever doing so again; but they're great for carrying tents across the massive diagonal dimension, and I carry those a lot. All of which twittering goes to explain why, of the available bikes in the existing range, I'd stick with the stock Road King I think unless Willie G wants to prod his design team into action and point them at the parts bin once more for a true convertible Road King in a Dyna chassis