The latest Road King Classic highlights the approach that has served Harley-Davidson so well in recent decades. It has a brand new engine and an updated chassis. Yet with its unchanged screen, running lights, copious chrome, white-wall tyres and saddle-bags, the Classic still looks as though it rolled off Harley’s production line in the Fifties.
Its key upgrade is the Milwaukee-Eight engine, the name combining Harley’s Wisconsin home town with the air-cooled, V-twin unit’s increased number of valves. Its full name of Milwaukee-Eight 107 refers to the increased capacity of 1,745cc, or 107 cubic inches.
Along with the extra cubes and performance, Harley has added an oil-cooling system for the cylinder heads (the Ultra Classic, as before, gets partial liquid-cooling), plus a balancer shaft to reduce vibration. This is apparent immediately the Road King Classic comes to life: the bigger V-twin idles smoothly, the previous 1,690cc model’s low-rev juddering gone.
In other respects the Road King Classic experience has changed very little. You still sit bolt upright, looking over a near-vertical screen, gripping wide, pulled-back handlebars with boots on generous footboards. Thankfully, the new-found smoothness and sophistication hasn’t dulled the character that is at the heart of any Harley’s appeal. There’s still a distinct V-twin feel, and reduced mechanical noise has allowed a slightly sharper exhaust note while also complying with Euro 4 regulations.
Like Harley’s other updated Touring models, the Classic also features new suspension from Japanese specialist Showa. This latest set-up works well. Ride quality is excellent, and the Classic has a distinctly more stable feel when cornering, especially on bumpy surfaces. Despite being long, and heavy at over 370kg, it steers easily and handles well enough to be fun on a twisty road, although like most big American V-twins it is limited by ground clearance. Braking, once a Harley weakness, is respectably powerful too.
The Classic is also versatile, not least because its screen, which allowed a pleasantly turbulence-free ride, can quickly be unclipped to leave a naked cruiser for short trips. Alternatively, on longer rides the Harley has a realistic fuel range of 320 km or more; and its stepped dual-seat, although not very generous to a pillion, seems respectably comfortable.
This thoughtfully updated Road King Classic is subtly quicker and more refined; a genuinely practical, capable modern motorbike. And best of all, to look at it you’d never have a clue.