Like the rest of Harley-Davidson’s 2012 Big Twin lineup, the big news for the FLHR Road King is the bigger 103″ engine that you’ll find harnessed by a proven system of rubber-isolated motor mounts to a stout frame. You want more performance from your Harley Touring model? You’ve got it in spades with that over-stroke (3.875″ bore x 4.380″ stroke) 103″ engine. Harley claims 100 ft-lbs. of torque (at 3250 rpm), and the payback is quicker acceleration response when you twist the throttle-by-wire right handgrip. It’s not the kind of power that threatens to rip your arms out of their sockets, but it’ll certainly push you back in your seat enough to inspire
repetition again and again.
New paint colors and optional, chromed aluminum, tubeless, laced spoke wheels are the other highlights that mark changes for the 2012 Road King. For a modest fee, FLHR customers can replace their bike’s standard, tubeless, 28-spoke, cast-aluminum wheels with a pair of more retro, laced spoke wheels that happen to be standard equipment on the FLHRC Road King Classic. Running tubeless tires means that you can fix most flats that might otherwise put a crimp in your tour.
But whether you give your FLHR a more retro look with laced wheels and two-tone paint, or you sign up for Harley’s most affordable Road King in Vivid Black — the MSRP for the black FLHR is $17,499 — there’s more than just a little bit of heritage packed inside every Road King built today.
Indeed, the King’s legacy is traced back to the days when Harley-Davidson offered the King of the Highway touring option for Panheads and Shovelheads. That accessory package consisted primarily of fiberglass saddlebags, a clear fork-mounted windscreen, and the iconic two-up Buddy seat, and the combination easily transformed a standard-issue FL into a motorcycle capable of toting rider and gear across the horizon. Naturally, customers could also order the usual assortment of chromed accessories such as fender bumper guards, crashbars, and other flashy do-dads, and it was at about that time that the art deco-inspired headlight nacelle made the scene, too. No doubt, the King of the Highway label was an influencing factor in 1994 when Harley’s marketing team unanimously agreed on the Road King moniker for the new FLHR.
But the Road King was years away from happening when Harley-Davidson expanded its touring line in 1980 with the FLT Road Glide. With that model, Harley enthusiasts rediscovered the benefits of a faired bike for long-distance riding. Soon enough, the King of the Highway option disappeared, replaced by floor models such as the Road Glide and Electra Glide Classic. It helped, too, that the Evolution engine, introduced in 1984, was better suited than the old Shovelhead for powering a faired motorcycle, and so customers gained a sense of security and confidence when touring on motorcycles with that engine. No doubt, the FLT Road Glide and FLH Electra Glide Classic upped the ante; touring for Harley owners had never been more rewarding. Bigger, it seemed, was better in terms of what constituted a worthy cross-country motorcycle.
Variations of the Electra Glide and Road Glide prospered during the 1980s, but some customers considered the FLH and FLT too big and heavy for their touring needs. In response, Harley-Davidson went full circle, and in 1987, the FLHS Sport joined the lineup. The FLHS was essentially a dressed-down FLH Classic, sporting hard saddlebags and a windshield, but no cumbersome fairing or trunk. The Sport was, for all practical purposes, a stripped-down FLH that resembled a pre-Evo FL that had been dressed up with King of the Highway accessories. The stage was set for the FLHR, the bike that would be king in 1994.
The FLHS was replaced by the first FLHR that Harley marketed as an Electra Glide Road King. Promotional literature at the time proclaimed the 1994 FLHR to be “a touring motorcycle with a simple, straightforward approach to over-the-road riding, but with the adaptability to change quickly to a custom cruiser.” That sounds much like how Harley-
Davidson touts the new Switchback today, doesn’t it?
But when all is said and done, the Road King is its own model, and, as pointed out, it boasts the new 103″ engine for 2012. The bigger engine continues with electronic sequential port fuel injection, and a pair of free-flow mufflers emits a mellow exhaust tone that helps proclaim this bike to be king. Harley advertises fuel consumption of 42 mpg (average) from the new engine, which is about right; we achieved a best of 47.5 mpg during long stretches of 70 mph cruising, and after a long-winded 90-mph blast that included several spurts of wide-open-throttle acceleration, our Road King gulped fuel at a rate of 30.6 mpg. As you can see, mileage varies depending on how you ride. The powertrain remains pretty much the same as it’s been the past few years. The slick-shifting, six-speed Cruise Drive transmission delivers power to a Gates belt, and the dual-compound Dunlop 180/65-16″ rear tire offers improved wear in the center portion of its tread. Softer compound on the rear tread’s shoulders affords better grip for cornering, the payoff being a tire that has longer life for straight-up touring, yet delivers welcomed traction when leaning the bike into turns.
Harley advertises unladen seat height at 26-1/2″, putting it only a fraction lower than the FLHRC Classic, which also happens to cost about $2,100 more than the standard FLHR. And while the FLHR costs less, you actually get more luggage space with the more affordable King; Harley claims 2.26′ of space in the FLHR’s bags compared to only 1.85′in the Classic’s leather-wrapped saddlebags. There’s only a 2 pound weight variance — 775 pounds claimed for the FLHR to the FLHRC’s 773 pounds — so ride and handling should be about the same.
And when you point the Road King’s front Dunlop 130/80-17″ tire to the open road, you’ll be rewarded with a smooth, stable ride. Air adjustment on the left rear shock allows you to compensate for additional loads, and when it comes to riding the backcountry, you won’t be disappointed in how the Road King attacks the curves. In fact, during my test I had an opportunity to ride with some of my old road race buddies (we call ourselves the Southern California Retired Road Racers — emphasis on retired), all riding crotch rockets of various makes and models. We didn’t go blasting through the back roads like we did during our road race heydays, but we set a rather rapid pace, and the King and I made a nice account of ourselves. There’s more cornering clearance with the King than any other Harley bagger, and its center of gravity is lower than the Electra Glide or Road Glide, thanks to no trunk or fairing packed with electro gadgets. Moreover, the triple-disc brake system (optional ABS comes with the Smart Security System that includes a hands-free ignition fob) resisted fading, providing I didn’t stab the bike too far into the turns before tossing out the anchor.
Bottom line: the FLHR is a straightforward touring motorcycle that offers predictable handling under all conditions. To be sure, it’s not a rolling boom box. Though it can be, as sound systems from H-D’s Boom! audio line readily adapt to the bike, or you can let your fingers do the shopping for amps and speakers offered by advertisers in this magazine.
But the thing I like most about the FLHR is that it wraps the performance you expect from a bagger today into the nostalgic styling of yesteryear. It performs and handles well under most road conditions you’ll encounter, and it does so with authority, comfort, and style. It’s just what you expect from a bike that wears the name King. MB
NEW BIKE REVIEW by Dain Gingerelli
Story as published in the January February issue of Motorcycle Bagger