2017 Harley-Davidson Road King Special

First Ride Review

Before the Street Glide took over as Harley’s bestseller about a decade ago, the Road King was its chartbuster for many years. All of the first-year 1994 Road Kings were snatched up immediately, in fact, and some buyers even tried to flip them a few months later for a tidy profit. With its removable windshield and bags the Road King easily converts from a practical traveler into a cool custom profiler, and its classic ’50s styling with acres of chrome, fat Hydra-Glide-like front end and big headlight drew the Harley faithful like bees to honey.

With the introduction of the new Milwaukee-Eight V-twin for 2017, all of the bikes in Harley’s Touring family, like the Road King, make more power, run cooler, vibrate less at idle and get slightly better fuel economy. And all-new Showa suspension, with dual bending-valve technology up front that emulates a cartridge fork and hand-adjustable emulsion shocks in back with 15-percent more preload adjustability, does a much better job of soaking up bumps and maintaining control. The improvements have brought fresh attention to the H-D Touring family, which presented Harley with an opportunity to reinvigorate the Road King line with a custom version that should appeal to both current owners and converts.

The Road King Special is the first Milwaukee-Eight model to feature a blacked-out engine, and in fact the only chrome on the entire bike is on a few key engine covers. Virtually every component that would normally be chromed is finished in black or gloss black, right down to the engine guards, handlebar, hand controls and turn signals. Big front wheels are also hot right now, and the Road King Special’s new gloss-black turbine cast-aluminum wheel set is fronted by a 19-incher topped with a low-profile fender. At the rear, stretched saddlebags drape over the mufflers to give the back a slammed appearance without reducing suspension travel. A fascia panel fills the space between the saddlebags and rear fender, and a low-mount license plate holder completes the custom look of the rear end. To complement that big blacked-out headlight shell, the finishing touch in front is a 9-inch tall mini-ape hanger handlebar.

That bar and the Special’s seating position proved quite comfortable at the bike’s introduction in Daytona Beach earlier this year, where I took the Special for a 70-mile putt. The bike idles and runs smoothly yet accelerates quick and hard thanks to its new powerplant, and its Reflex linked brakes with ABS stop the bike with authority. The reach to the grips creates a slight forward lean that helps you fight the wind at speed, and the whole bar-seat-floorboard triangle feels natural and relaxed. For more extended rides an optional windshield from Harley’s Detachables line would make the bike just as versatile as the standard Road King, since the Special also has a 6-gallon fuel tank and its locking, top-loading hard bags are slightly larger.

In case you’re wondering, Harley says the Special’s black finishes are just as durable as chrome, but if its blacked-out looks don’t do it for you, the standard Road King has all of the same functional features for $3,000 less. But once you see the Special in person it’s hard to imagine the bike finished any other way.