Daytona Beach, Fla.—The introduction of the original Road King in 1994 was a game changer for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. One might even successfully argue that it set the stage for the bagger craze that rages until this day. And while the powerplant for this model has seen a broad spectrum of engine designs and displacements during the last two decades (Evo 80”, Twin Cam 80”, 88”, 96” and 103”), the most exciting development has to be the new Milwaukee-Eight 107”, the first completely new Big Twin engine by Harley since the release of the 1999 Twin Cam. And although the M-8 was unveiled last fall, I had yet to straddle one. I felt giddy as a teenager on a first date with my anticipation and expectations high during my trip from Texas to Daytona Speed Week to test ride the Road King Special.
Two models were on tap this spring in Florida for the motorcycle press corps’ review—the Street Rod 750 and the King Special. And while our Harley hosts seemed most hyped about the Street Rod (reviewed in Thunder Press in the June edition), I was more stoked by the M-8-powered King. I purchased a 100th Anniversary Road King in 2003 and it proved to be an admirable mount, a utilitarian workhorse that carried me 30,000 miles in the first year of ownership alone. And while I was a fan of the King’s bigger brother, the Electra Glide, the simplistic styling won me over in considering that purchase—the Road King had conventional gas cap configurations, the dang speedo is where it belongs (on the gas tank) and there’s not a cluster of gauges and electronic gizmos as a distraction. That desire for traditional minimalism has helped the Road King stay at the top of the Harley heap, a consistent great seller. And now with the advent of the M-8 engine, this is the finest Road King ever produced.
Stripped down—muscled up
In my opinion, this engine is quite beautiful, especially in the blacked-out version supplied in the Special. Almost the entire motor, transmission and primary (including the dual exhaust) has received a dip in the dark tank with only the lower rocker boxes, the tappet blacks and the pushrod tubes being chromed. According to Road King Special stylist Dais Nagao, chrome was retained in these specific engine components only to emphasize the V-Twin shape of the M-8 107. But the beauty of this engine is more than skin deep. With four valves per head, an oil cooling/aerating system and a new counter-balancer along with rubber engine mounts, the power delivery is completely different than any of its predecessors. Before test riding the Special, I had read that the Milwaukee-Eight develops its power in a completely different fashion than previous H-D Big Twins. And while I totally agree with the claim, I still could not put my finger on the reason it felt that way and simply decided just to enjoy the ride. (An extended examination of the internal workings of the M-8 can be found in Technical Editor Kip Woodring’s 2016 report online at thunderpress.net.)
The blacked-out treatment was also extended to cover the turn signals, the headlight nacelle and upper fork covers, the air cleaner, engine guard, 10” mini-apes handlebars and Turbine wheels (19” up front, 18” out back). In the development of the RK Special, the decision was made that, along with making this a dark model, it would be appropriate to remove a few items from the package. The front fender is devoid of any trim, lighting or the traditional Road King badging. Plus the spot lamps, saddlebag guards and windshield have disappeared (although an optional windshield is available). The passenger floorboards have been swapped for footpegs. The result of the removal of these parts was that the base price for a Special over that of a standard Road King jumped three grand, from $18,999 to $21,999. It’s twisted logic that makes sense if the Special were the style of bike you wanted to transform your standard model into anyway.
Additional incentives to justify the price increase are the ABS braking which comes standard on the Special but costs an additional $795 on the regular Road King and the security system that would cost an additional $395 if you had to add it. Plus there are those extended saddlebags that actually hold more than previous RK bags. There is even a skid plate on the rear bottom of the bags for those riders who carve canyons (not much canyon carving in Florida so that feature was not extensively tested).
Riding with the King
Riding the Road King Special was a delight with the most obvious joy being the engine. With a crisp throttle, acceleration is very aggressive with enough torque to pull out of a high gear/low rpm situation with ease. The front end is now a Showa Dual Bending Technology that parallels cartridge-style systems. The rear suspension comprises hand-adjustable components with an index number dial for easy reference. And while the Florida terrain did not lend itself to true testing of the suspension, I did notice a difference in the change in wheel diameters, improving the handling substantially over the 16” rear and 17” front found on the standard Road King. And although I’ve never been a fan of ape hangers, the 10” tall mini-apes were still below shoulder height and wide enough to be comfortable while providing solid control. And the super plush bucket seat simply completed the package.
It was recently announced that Harley had intentions of developing 50 new models in the next five years. That figure seemed outrageous at first but if this new Road King Special is any indication of how The Motor Company intends to reach that goal, it’s not too farfetched. During this press launch we were also informed that the company had plans to develop 150 new dealers worldwide in the next five years and bring in 2 million new riders in the U.S. alone in the next 10 through their “Butts on Bikes” demo program. They also stated that those new riders are not intended to all be Harley owners and that target was for the betterment of the entire motorcycle industry—admirable aspirations.
The Road King Special carries an MSRP of $21,999 in Vivid Black, $22,449 for either Charcoal Denim or Olive Gold and $24,399 for Hard Candy Hot Rod Red Flame. But as sharp and dramatic as that Red Flame finish is, you wanna go Darth Vader; go dark all the way. But… that’s probably just the traditionalist in me talking.