Harley-holic DAN TALBOT takes a sip of the new Road King — and explains the H-D attraction
THERE are very few motorcycles that polarise the riding community to such a degree as Harley Davidson. People either love them or hate them, with a good deal of the latter group having never ridden one of the big American twins.
With the arrival of the new Milwaukee 8 engine, Harley Davidson is about to change the game. H-D will, I suspect, gain a whole new following because the new engine is like no other Harley before it. And I’ve owned a few.
I had never ridden a Harley before I laid down roughly half a year’s pay to ride out of a Fremantle dealership one sunny November morning in 1979 on a brand-new Harley Davidson Lowrider.
I will never forget the sound as the “Shovelhead” twin cranked over then burst into life. Nor will I forget the feeling as I pulled out into the traffic with the big 45 degree, 1340 cc, V-twin engine loping away beneath me.
The stock machine was muted by a huge two into one exhaust but nothing was going to dull the thrill as I set off for home, some two hours away. Back in those days, the Harley was marketed as “The Great American Freedom Machine.” I couldn’t agree more as I rumbled towards home.
In the years that followed, I alternated between Harley and Triumph motorcycles, with a Laverda Jota and a GS 850 Suzuki thrown in the mix.
Fast forward to 2014. I’ve had a string of Triumphs in my recent past and I have crossed Australia half a dozen times on variations of the Triumph triple. So happy have I been with the modern Triumph engine I expected my Harley-riding days were behind me; then HD went and re-released the Lowrider. In orange.
The first time I laid my eyes on the 2014 Lowrider release I was gone, hooked like a tuna. I fought the urge for about a year but when I finally introduced my wife to my obsession she said “oh that’s beautiful, you must get one of those.” Landed! Now on the deck, flapping around helplessly, it was time to go motorcycle shopping.
These days, unlike the 1970s, dealers are happy to throw the keys to potential customers from all sorts of bikes. The Harley range is larger than ever before so I tried a few variants but the Lowrider stood out like a wormhole to 1979. Long, low, impractical.
I shopped around for a couple of months, savouring the process and eventually settled on a two year-old machine with less than 2,500 kms on the clock. It had every conceivable accessory fitted and was about $6,000 under new-bike cost.
While waiting for my bike to arrive, a friend who collects Harleys insisted we have a “Shovelhead day.” This meant Kym and a few of his mates each selecting a shovelhead Harley from the collection.
It should be noted we could have had a “Flathead day,” “Panhead day” or “Evo Day,” as each design is amply represented in Kym’s collection but I had expressed a desire to be reunited with the Harley Shovelhead engine and I was loaned a gleaming red and black 1981 Lowrider. It was like catching up with an old girlfriend (which I’ll leave right there).
For the uninitiated, when you open the throttle on a Harley there is a sound and feel like no other motorcycle. The Harley engine has a unique feel, due mainly to an odd design. For reasons known only to them, the designers plonked both conrods on the same crank pin, with one running inside the other. The engine fires at 405 and 105 degree intervals which gives it the distinctive double-punch coming through the frame and potato exhaust note, all of which adds up to a rich riding experience.
Having been on sports-touring bikes for the last 15 years, the Harley felt solid and chunky with no thought to saving weight.
The starter-motor whirred with the familiar sound of my old Lowrider before the big shovelhead chugged into life and settled into the distinctive Harley tick-over.
Pulling away from Kym’s house reminded me of both my old shovelhead and Evo lowrider’s in equal measure. The bike had all the power, vibration and attitude I remembered. It wasn’t long before I settled into the familiar ergonomics and began to relish the reunion.
A few days later my new Lowrider arrived from South Australia.
The 103 twin cam was state-of-the-art H-D with all the power and feeling of my old 1340 engines but much more torque. From the very first ride, and every time I get on it, the 103 reminds me of that day almost 40 years ago, when I rolled out of Freedom Wheels on my new Shovelhead Lowrider. The experience lives.
Unbeknown to me, at the same time I was negotiating the purchase of my modern great American freedom machine, Harley-Davidson were busy putting the finishing touches to a brand-new engine, my bike was about to become obsolete. Memories of purchasing my first Evolution Harley came flooding back.
No sooner had I secured a 1340 cc EVO, Harley went and released the 1450 cc twin-cam, rendering the EVO to the history books. The twin-cam was a major leap forward and I suspected the latest engine would be a similar revelation so when the opportunity arose I couldn’t get my scrawny butt into the saddle of a Milwaukee 8 quick enough.
So, what’s she like? Firstly, it’s big. It comes in 107 and 114 cubic inches. Harley have gone back to a single cam but have introduced 20th century technology (17 years into the 21st century) with four valves per cylinder, instead of two, hence the new title: Milwaukee 8. But it doesn’t stop there. The most significant development of the new engine is the vibration, or, more specifically, lack thereof.
Sitting on the bike, it’s big, solid, bold. Unmistakably Harley Davidson. I prefer my Harley’s in the Dyna format, trimmed of the fat but I welcome the opportunity to experience the touring versions with their big windscreens, running boards and wide handlebars. The Milwaukee 8 Road King looked like all the others out there so I was kind of waiting for the magic when I thumbed the starter.
The engine started without fuss and ticked away below me. When I blipped the throttle she responded with a crisp, muffled burst of revs but I wasn’t actually bouncing around on the spot. The way Harley twins shake, rattle and roll is the defining element, it is the essence of the design, the heart of the beast, now Harley have gone and taken that away, well, 75% of it anyway. The engine now has a balancer shaft running counter to the forces inherent in the 107 and it’s super-smooth. Read that again – this is a super-smooth Harley.
Easing into the mid-morning traffic I’m suddenly threatened by fast approaching cars so open the throttle and whoa! The bike kind of jumps up and leaps forward like a scalded cat, a big cat. As quickly as I hit the gas, I’m thinking ‘shit, better slow this thing down a tad’ so I’m on the brakes and, low and behold, we have a Harley Davidson with brakes that actually work! In fairness, the brakes on my 103 are fine but the stoppers on my older bikes were woeful.
By the time I’ve cleared the urban crush I’ve established the new Harley has power in spades and handling that inspires a confidence seldom found in such big, bulky touring machines. I’ve also established the gearbox has an odd feedback through the clutch.
Motorcycle riding should be all about feel but I found when I move the gear lever with my foot I felt it in the clutch lever with my hand. It’s an odd feeling and one I’m not sure wasn’t confined to the bike I was on. The hydraulic clutch is very light and quite removed from the agricultural proportions of my current machine and I may simply be feeling a smooth, intended action.
Whilst on the gearbox, I often had no idea what gear I was in. The big, smooth, torquey engine doesn’t need six speeds, it could get away with three! Nevertheless, the market demands six speed boxes so there it is. The bike accelerates like a sports machine so it may as well have all the cogs found in such bikes. Despite the imposing size of the bike, it slips through bends with the sure-footed nature I’ve become familiar with in my Dyna.
The Road King has an incredible spread of power and wants to run. Sitting on the large comfortable bike I find myself thinking ‘I could cross Australia right now on this thing.’
That said, long days on this bike would likely need frequent fuel stops. My 1690 cc Dyna is incredibly thirsty and is only good for about 200 kms per tank. This is in stark contrast to dealer statistics and probably reflects my riding style but I’ve had the mapping checked and reset and she remains a thirsty machine.
The warning here is, if you want to enjoy the power on offer you will pay the price at the fuel pump. I didn’t spend enough time on the Milwaukee 8 to assess economy, nor was I out there for that. Riding it was a hoot and miles per gallon were the furthest thing from my mind whenever I cracked the throttle.
The obvious question is, as a Harley tragic, would I consider owner a new Milwaukee 8? I think so. I’m really looking forward to the Dyna incarnation and hearing what it sounds like when a few decibels are liberated. I think my 103 is in serious danger.