A rumbling revolution for king of the road

by David Booth . Sep 16 2016
Photos by David Booth / Postmedia Network Inc.

Photos by David Booth / Postmedia Network Inc.

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Modernity seems to scare some people. Cellphones, electric cars — hell, even an African-American president of the United States — have all met with vociferous resistance. That which we don’t know, especially if we’re old and have become hidebound in our habits, seems to trigger some fight-or-flight response.

In the motorcycling business, no one is more hidebound than a Harley-Davidson owner. Styling of Milwaukee’s finest has barely evolved over the past 20 years. Some would say their technological evolution has been even slower. That’s not because Harley-Davidson isn’t capable of advancements — indeed, The Motor Company is quite innovative in how it disguises its modernizations in retro stylings — but that its clientele is so fundamentally conservative. Their worry, at least as it pertains to their motorcycles, seems to be that modernization will result in Harley building a “metric cruiser.”

Those worries would seem to be unfounded.

Despite Harley’s desire to broaden its horizons, hence its “Outreach” program to bring women and minorities into its showrooms, it is still that precious “core” that rules. Virtually every decision that went into designing the new Milwaukee-Eight, every nuance to its design, internal or external, pandered to Harley-Davidson’s traditional audience.

Thus, though the new Milwaukee-Eight has a new balance shaft that could, theoretically, completely eliminate the 45-degree V-twin’s vibration, Harley decided to only balance the engine’s primary vibration by 75 per cent. Focus groups, largely comprised of Harley-Davidson’s core audience, flatly rejected a glass-smooth idle, preferring their big twin to quake rhythmically like a Harley of old.

No one minded, however, that the Milwaukee-Eight is glass smooth at speed. It’s positively uncanny how something can shake so much at 850 r.p.m. and yet be so completely unperturbed at 3,000 r.p.m. The Milwaukee-Eight is probably the smoothest of cruiser V-twins at speed, even revving to its 5,500 r.p.m. redline failing to make the mirrors — or the handlebar, seat and floorboards — vibrate. It’s a neat trick, rendering Harley-Davidson’s trademark shake, rattle and roll at idle and then revving as smoothly as a Gold Wing at speed.

Here’s another improvement the traditionalists will love. Harley engines — and virtually all large-displacement, air-cooled twins — generate a lot of heat. The lack of cooling air flowing over the cylinder fins while idling can quickly cook the rider’s legs. It’s a real problem every time the mercury soars past 25 C. Harley ingeniously solved the problem by reducing the Milwaukee-Eight’s idle speed to 850 r.p.m. (thus generating less heat) and then by routing the rear exhaust pipe (the one that really bakes your lower right leg) even tighter to the engine, moving all those BTUs away from weak flesh.

What was once cause for asbestos-lined chaps has been rendered almost as cool as a cucumber.

Of course, exhaust pipe routing and counterbalancing shafts are not the Milwaukee-Eight’s big news. No, that lies with the all-new engine design, the Big Twin’s first use of four-valve cylinder heads (two times four being eight, geddit?) and whether all that new-found intake valve area (50 per cent more, says Harley) results in: a) more power, and b) whether the addition of two extra valves in each combustion chamber makes it somehow less of a Harley.

The answer to the first is a whole heckuvalot and, to the second, a resounding and reassuring no.

First off, Harley says there’s 10 per cent more torque, a seriously manly 111 lb-ft for the air- and oil-cooled 107 cubic inch (1,746-cc) version of the 2017 Road King’s Milwaukee-Eight. Punch the Road King at anything above 1,600 r.p.m. and it will pull away from the 2016 version, first edging ahead and then, as revs build, resolutely pulling away.

But torque has always been a Harley Big Twin forte. Horsepower, particularly high-r.p.m. horsepower, has not. That’s all changed with the addition of four valves. Where previous Big Twins started running out of steam beyond 4,000 r.p.m., the new Milwaukee-Eight keeps producing puff all the way to its 5,500-r.p.m. redline.

Harley doesn’t release horsepower figures, but the American Environmental Protection agency does and, according to some leaked testing documents, the 107 c.i. version of the Eight pumps out some 91 horsepower, about 20 more than current run-of-the-mill Harley engines. Of the non-superbike derived cruisers — Ducati’s Diavel comes to mind — the Milwaukee-Eight, especially the 114 c.i. version in The Motor Company’s hopped-up CVO models, is the new performance king of the cruiser set.

So eagerly does the Milwaukee-Eight rev, you’d swear Ducati had a hand in the development of the four-valve head; it completely changes the personality of the Road King. Thanks to all that high-r.p.m. power and the vibration-free operation to exploit it, what was once a mere boulevardier becomes a real power cruiser. Snick off the quick-release, fork mounted-windshield and you’re good for some stoplight grand prixs, making pretty much anything not wearing clip-ons — or a Diavel or V-Max badge — fair game. It really is fun to blow past unsuspecting sport bike riders, apehangers and the familiar Harley-Davidson rumble, confusing them completely.

And speaking of the V-twin sound that made Harley-Davidson famous, purists will be happy to know Harley’s off-beat rumble remains undiluted. In fact, it’s been enhanced. Chief powertrain engineer Alex Bozmoski says thanks to tighter tolerances, lighter zero-lash valves and the combination of oil and liquid cooling, noise from the engine’s internals has been greatly reduced. This has allowed engineers some, let’s call them liberties, in the exhaust department. The Milwaukee-Eight’s exhaust note was more authoritative than the 2016 Twin Cams we had along for comparison, perhaps enough that maybe a few Harley owners will eschew their “need” for straight pipes.

There are, of course, other updates to the 2017 Road King. Primary among them is the revised suspension. An emulsion rear shock, with a more convenient remote preload adjuster, does a good job of controlling the Road King’s 75 millimetres of rear travel. But it’s the Showa Dual Bending Valve front fork, essentially Harley’s version of a Race Tech “emulator,” that is the biggest improvement in comfort and road-holding, compression damping no longer locking up over large bumps.

But it remains Harley’s first new engine in 18 years that is a revolution in the making. More power and better heat management are upgrades Harley owners have been demanding for years. Still, there will be those who contend the Milwaukee-Eight’s smoother operation is somehow less manly, that liquid-cooling and four-valve head are modernizations too far. They will grouse that sophistication, modernity and inclusion (as in the conquest clientele all this new-found sophistication and modernity may bring to the brand) are anathema to the Harley experience.

They’d be wrong.

The 2017 Road King is in Harley-Davidson dealerships now and starts at $22,899.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

2017 Harley-Davidson Road King.

2017 Harley-Davidson Road King.