Common Tread

Harley-Davidson Road King Special first ride review

Mar 20, 2017

When The Suits asked me in October which one of the H-D touring bikes we should review, I suggested the Road King. 

I owned a Blockhead-powered Electra Glide Sport for a couple years. (That's the forerunner to the Road King.) Another good friend owned a Shovelhead-motivated Electra Glide Sport known as Piglet that he lent me more than a few times. (I always had to buy the beer and haul it back to the shop on Piglet!)

Piglet was — and still is — a fine and reliable mount. This shot is from a cross-country journey. Photo by Okie Nate.

I like and understand bikes set up like the Road King. (Glass and bags.) I can speak to them well, and I've always valued their very tangible link to the big bikes of years gone by. Harley announced a new flavor recently, and I think everyone on the Common Tread staff looked to me to interpret it.

Harley-Davidson Road King Special
2017 FLHRX Road King Special. Harley-Davidson photo.

The bike

I’m not going to go into a long-winded explanation of the FLHR simply because I gave the bike and the engine a pretty comprehensive going-through on separate occasions at the tail end of last year. Most people who like this bike like it for at least one of the following two reasons: it’s the most traditional bike in H-D’s lineup and it’s the most basic of the Touring models. Frequently, there are riders who appreciate both of those aspects. Simplicity is traditional. (Ever see an early dresser? It’s a regular bike plus bags and maybe a windshield. It looks… like a Road King.)

2017 FLHRX Road King Special. Harley-Davidson photo.

The Special is an interesting spin on the platform, because it’s most decidedly not traditional. It is simple, however. It’s even more stripped-down than a standard Road King. No stereo, no fairing, no bullshit, and most especially, no chrome. Most of the chrome — the coveted surface treatment du jour in the heyday of the original FL/FLH models — has been swapped for black. I haven’t seen a Special in the wild yet, but I’m guessing Grandpappy ain’t gonna be hoppin’ off one when I do.

“Chrome was retained only on some key engine components,” said Road King Special stylist Dais Nagao. “The lower rocker boxes, pushrod tubes and tappet blocks are finished with chrome to emphasize the V-Twin shape of the Milwaukee-Eight 107 engine. We added a new engine-turned air cleaner insert, a finish that’s also featured on the tank console.”

If you remember, Nagao’s the same guy responsible for some of the creatively sophisticated finishes we’re seeing roll out of the MoCo’s buildings. Brushed surfaces, anodizing, tinted clearcoats, and colored chromes (“smoke satin chrome” and “scorched chrome” come to mind) really are bringing a fresh look to some of Harley’s current offerings. (Will they look horrifically dated in a decade, like the “ripped sheet metal” paint effect circa 2008? Maybe. But it looks hot right now.)

Other stuff that got blacked out: crash bar, the turn signals, engine, air cleaner, exhaust, mirrors, and controls. Paint, however, is not the only difference there. Some parts were modified, and some deleted. The saddlebags are stretched some, and there's a set of “Turbine” wheels on the bike, an 18-inch wheel under the saddlebags, and a big ol’ 19-incher up front.) The front fender is without trim or badging. The rear of the bike gets the fender tip light that has previously been spotted on Street Glide models.

Lemmy on a Road King Special
2017 FLHRX Road King Special. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

If you’re comparing the new Special ($21,999 base price) to the existing Road King ($18,999 base price), there’s one other item that’s hard to see but has a significant effect on the price: ABS. It’s standard on a Special, but costs $795 on the regular Kingy.

Items that were deleted are notable, too. Gone are the passing lamps. Wave goodbye to the windshield. Passenger footboards took a hike. The rear crash bar/saddlebag guards also made an exit.

Lemmy on the FLHRX
2017 FLHRX Road King Special. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Riding the Road King Special

Harley-Davidson gave me a chance to ride the Road King Special, along with the new Street Rod, during Daytona Bike Week. There's not a lot new to report because we covered this in the previous review just a few months ago. The new machine felt very similar, though I didn't have enough time in the curvy stuff to really determine how the wheels affected the handling. Suffice it to say it felt very familiar — just like I remember the standard Road King feeling.

A Road King of any flavor should be on your shopping list if you like big, heavy bikes that knock down miles without tuckering out the rider. I didn't have a ton of time with the Road King Special, but I also didn't need it, because I just spent so many miles with the regular Road King. It was funny to ride it on very long, boring Florida roads, though. Harley provided 16 writers with 12 Street Rods and four Road Kings. There was a constant line for the Road Kings. That about sums it up, really.

Bag skid plates
Well, look at at that. Saddlebag skid plates. Hmm. RevZilla photo.

Ground clearance fell a little bit, too, almost half an inch. I didn't notice it at all, because Florida did not provide me any actual corners to deal with. I'm not sure if the boards or the extended bags take a beating on the FLHRX first, but it was nice to see guards installed on the dropped saddlebags. That said, ground clearance and lean angle have been my constant complaint with Harley touring bikes, so I'm still giving that loss the stinkeye.

Is it worth it?

Here’s the $3,000 question, right? Some of you look at this bike and think it looks killer for the money. Others say, “Hey, they sold off a bunch of stuff and skimped on the chrome — how could it cost more money?” Who’s right?

Both of you are. Did Harley spend more or save on this bike? Who knows? Harley buys on a scale you and I never will, so trying to compare my cost of their fancy wheels as opposed to theirs isn’t really possible. Is Harley setting themselves up to accept less profit? Probably not, if I know them as well as I think I do.

One of the things I tell people who want to own a custom bike (even if they want to build their own) is to buy a bike that is as close to what they want as possible. It’s more money up front, but it’s always, always cheaper in the long run. I think the exact same thing is the case with the RK Special. (No, it’s not a custom bike, but the buyer wants the same thing: a highly individualized motorcycle.)

Return to my question of “who’s right?” If you want a handsome, traditional Road King, this is not likely to appeal to you, and it will look like Harley’s counting their money all the way to the bank. If, however, you planned on buying a Road King to strip ‘er down into a basic Big Twin with bags, then the FLHRX is a screamin’ deal.


This section is liable to be pretty long. I think this is a sharp bike that looks the business. It looks like a very mild custom. Of course, it's not actually a custom, but it does have the no-chrome cool-guy look and it's certainly a departure from overdone customs. It’s not traditional, but it’s very close to how I would assemble a modern-ish bike if I wanted to do some serious riding.

The Road King can handle anything from a short hop to get ice cream to a reasonably long multi-day trip. While I own some ridiculously unrideable bikes, I do appreciate the humble motorcycles that serve as pack mules. The Road King is the pickup truck of the Harley world. Too often, the choice between everyday practicality and something more specialized is a painful one, but the Special helps reconcile the two. Maybe you can buy a pretty attractive dresser right off a dealer's floor without having to immediately spend a bunch of money on cool-guy stuff.

2017 FLHRX
Should this blacked out bike carry a premium in price? Depends what you want from your bike. RevZilla photo.

The Road King Special might be heralding the beginning of a change at H-D. They’re mentioning 50 new models in five years. Are they all really new models? Or will they be a rehash of existing pieces? Is the Road King Special a new model? All of these questions are debatable, but a bike like the FLHRX really makes me think the MoCo is trying to listen to what people ask for. They're not going to totally lose their identity, but they're trying different things and clearly focusing on more youthful riders. The MoCo took a traditional bike, kept the bones, and updated the appearance pretty heavily. This motorcycle is certainly not for the 20-something crowd, but it’s also no geezer-glide. The market will determine whether it's a success, but it seems like a winning recipe to me.

I don’t like to get into the “generational” thing too much, but it does seem to be a topic that folks think about. (We’ve covered Boomers, Millennials, Generation Z, and I’m sure I am missing some other segment. The comments section of all of those articles got pretty lively.) As I am reminded all too often, the winds of change never stop blowing. The Street Rod is served up right for Millennials. From the time of its introduction (1994), the Road King was aimed at the advanced rider, in terms of both miles and years. Given the changing demographics of motorcycling, refreshing the Road King to appeal to a slightly younger crowd is a good idea. Coupling this launch up with the Street Rod implies to me that Harley is also catering to the Gen X set, too. Not many younger riders are going to have the credit score necessary to acquire a Special.

The Road King is still the same bike it always was: a stable, heavy bike suitable for uncomplicated, no-frills touring. The bike’s mission and capabilities haven’t changed much, but its prospective rider likely will with the advent of the Special, and that’s not a bad thing at all.