Harley: Still a status symbol
They might not have much poke but Harley's tourers will make you smile, says Tim Luckhurst

To teenage boys, when I was growing up, the letters "FL" stood for something that made us giggle. In the alphabet soup of Harley-Davidson's model list, they signify touring motorcycles.

Whether the bike of your dreams is labelled FLHX (Street Glide), FLHR (Road King) or FLHTCU (Ultra Classic Electra Glide) – to pick but a few of the variants – the presence of those twin initial letters tells you that it's designed to cover distances in comfort.

In fact, "luxury" is closer to the mark. Harley-lovers call the company's touring family "sofas", but Habitat never made anything as sumptuous. To riders of modern European and Japanese touring machines, these Harleys resemble furniture trucks, and threaten similar levels of agility.

In the past, I have had to be cajoled into the saddles of these American metal mountains. The news that they now have ABS, an extended six-gallon fuel tank and electronic cruise control made me no less reluctant. I made some jibes about not being qualified to test HGVs and clambered sullenly aboard.

First impression? No matter how much new technology you bolt on to these iron behemoths, they remain ancient technology, descendants of the Electra Glide model that shook, rattled and belched its way off the production line in 1965. The colossal 1,584cc air-cooled twin engine is gutsy; anything that big will produce momentum. But it is less powerful than virtually every 1,000cc motorcycle on the market, and feebler than several 600cc bikes.

Strangely, it still brought a smile to my face. Why? In part because of the charming way that Harley executives reminded me not to think of their products as conventional motorcycles. To enjoy a new FLHRC Road King Classic requires the sort of mental adjustment that lets a student of literary fiction enjoy a spy thriller. You must switch off and relax. It does not reward rigorous analysis. But it can be fun.

The capacious leather saddle caressed my posterior like the driving seat of an expensive saloon car. That huge engine burbled at low revs, emitting a sumptuous dragon's roar only at open-road velocities (its clever exhaust arrangement cuts noise pollution in towns). My arms were barely braced against the lovely, stainless-steel "buffalo" handlebars and my boots rested squarely on the height-adjustable footboards.

The Road King is not nimble. Baby elephants just aren't. But cruising along open English A-roads on a sunny August morn, face protected by the big, clear, detachable windshield, I began to slip into Harley-mood. It seems to influence car drivers as well. The couple in a Hyundai Accent who waved as I overtook would have shaken their fists if I had performed the same manoeuvre on a sports bike.

The new ABS system works surprisingly well. Unlike many similar systems, the Harley-Davidson version is not linked, meaning the rider maintains independent control of front and rear brakes. Accustomed to the excellent ABS fitted on my usual mount, I was pleasantly surprised by the Road King's stopping prowess. It pulled sharply to a halt on scattered gravel and again on a manure-splattered lane. I became reckless, determined to push it into error. The brakes kept with me all the way.

Other refinements on the 2008 range of Harley-Davidson tourers include electronic throttle control, which permits the installation of a new cruise control system and leaves the handlebar area less cluttered. An isolated drive system located in the rear drive-belt sprocket is supposed to reduce noise and vibration. I cannot pretend that I noticed, but I suspect that the full value of the enhancement would become clear under extended use – which the big fuel tank certainly makes practical.

My residual concern is that few Harley owners will use these machines for the world-circling journeys of which they are capable. To their fans, mere possession of these top-of-the-range hogs is a status symbol. Rock and movie stars own them. British premier league footballers ride three-wheeled versions (the two-wheeled ones are deemed too dangerous). But lately, the motorcycles have become genuinely practical too. You can go a very long way in comfort on an FL Harley. Me, I'll still take a Triumph, BMW, Ducati or Honda and see you when you catch up several hours later – possibly very calm and happy.


These specs apply to the FLHTCU Ultra Classic Electra Glide, FLHX Street Glide, FLHR Road King (below) and FLHRC Road King Classic

Engine: 1,584cc, air-cooled, four-stroke, V-twin

Max torque: 129 Nm/95 ft lbs @ 3500rpm

Brakes: Front dual 300mm discs, rear single 300mm disc. ABS standard on selected models

Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, belt final drive

Seat height: 668mm to 693mm

Dry weight: 332kg to 375kg

Fuel capacity: 22.7 litres

Price: From £12,325 to £17,445

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