by Brian Korfhage

Harley Gives its Road King the Custom Treatment

Few motorcycles can grab the attention of the general public like a Harley-Davidson. Park an exotic high-performance superbike next to an American-made cruiser bearing the black and orange badge and nine out of 10 people will gravitate toward the chrome and steel of an H-D. There’s something about the steeds produced in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that strikes a chord in the loins of both men and women.

Maybe it’s the nostalgia of the Harley-Davidson marque created by movies like Easy Rider, but the idea of cruising America’s vast landscape on a cruiser made in the USA ranks right up there with the Fourth of July, hot dogs, and apple pie. It’s not only in our country, either. Across the Atlantic where brands like Ferrari, Porsche, and Ducati are manufactured, Harley holds its own as an exotic piece of machinery that causes grown men to drool like they were at an Anna Kournikova photo shoot.

Although for many, owning a Harley-Davidson isn’t just about possessing a flashy showpiece but taking to the open road, which is exactly why the Road King line of bikes was introduced in 1995. The tourers are road-worthy machines that enable motorcyclists to go long distances in comfort, but the Road King line wasn’t as long on style as other models from The Motor Company. However, H-D now offers the Road King Custom, which puts a little more emphasis on the King's form. With inspiration from the sun and sand of southern California, the Custom model is a stripped-down version of the Road King, with wide, raked-back, beach-style bars, a wind-swept chrome headlight shroud, low-set rear suspension, and simple fenders that cover chrome billet wheels.

2004 Harley Road King Custom 

Our Road King Custom came cloaked in an all-black veil, looking like a two-wheel version of Johnny Cash; the only things missing were a black guitar and a six-shooter in the hardbags. I personally don’t think H-D has a model in its venerable lineup that matches the aesthetic appeal of the Road King Custom. The Custom is the pinnacle of tough-guy cool, and the black-on-black is the proverbial cherry on top.

“Everybody loves this bike. When one guy at a gas station heard it was a “test” bike, he wanted the keys on the spot,” said MCUSA president Don Becklin. “I tried explaining the difference between test bike and demo bike for testing purposes, but he wasn’t really listening, just looking with his hand out.”

Although the Road King Custom is situated in the touring line of bikes, this low-slung bad boy is perfectly suited to cruise the boulevard. Fatboys, Deuces, and V-Rods may garner the bulk of attention on the street, but the RKC holds its own. Minus the accessory fairing we attached midway through the test, the Road King is rough-and-tumble, barroom brawl type of cool. Its wide-ratio gears are the perfect excuse to take the jaw-dropping good looks from the boulevard to the open road for a jaunt through sinuous country roads.

The heart of this leviathan is the standard issue Harley-Davidson Twin-Cam 88 cubic-inch, air-cooled V-Twin, rubber-mounted in this application rather than the counterbalanced TC88B in some other models. It won’t win many drag races, but this capable engine supplies enough power and torque to gratify any cruiser enthusiast, short of wiley power-cruiser devotees who expect nothing less than low 11-second quarter-mile times.

Dropping the clutch and grabbing a fist-full of throttle is enough to get adrenaline going, and rarely, if ever, were we looking for more power. Further evidence of the Custom’s ability to impress was the smile on my girlfriend Kari’s face as we accelerated through the countryside. Yes, a Harley does something to a woman, and that alone is worth the price for some.

The TC88 pulls hard on the bottom emitting enough torque to satisfy most who partake in real world riding. Yet, the Road King’s powerband doesn’t fall off as the revs rise as one might expect, instead it pulls hard throughout the rev range to deliver a smooth and even dose of power.

We hauled the Road King over to the dyno at Hansen’s BMW/Triumph/Ducati to secure some hard data and the numbers proved what our test group described on the road. The 60.8 hp at 5,500 rpm isn’t overwhelming, but it’s the wide plateau of torque that gives the TC88 its open-road appeal. The big Twin starts cranking out 58.1 lb-ft of torque at just 1,800 rpm, reaching its peak of 67.6 lb-ft at 3,400 rpm and never falling below 60 lb-ft until reaching redline at 5,500 rpm.

All those numbers indicate the bike has plenty of power to cruise around town, but its lineage is rooted in backroad touring, which is exactly where it excels. Harley has done an excellent job at making its sophisticated fuel-injection system second to none when it comes to clear and accurate throttle response. Whenever a little extra power is needed to pass oblivious cagers, all that’s needed is a twist of the wrist. It’s no V-Rod, but the Road King adheres to its moniker.

The RKC shines on twisty roads, carving up highways and byways with relative ease, but a sportbike it’s not. There are limitations. With a 41mm telescopic fork and rear air-adjustable suspension in the rear, the bike can maneuver through turns well for a quasi-tourer, but those looking to bend this behemoth through corners at high speeds will find floorboards and their mounting points scraping the pavement at modest lean angles, which can upset the bike if ridden with abandon. Riding in a style more appropriate for this kind of machine, the Road King is obedient and satisfying.

The Road King’s suspension wasn’t designed with high-speed cornering in mind, but instead is intended to soak up modest bumps and undulations at a more relaxed pace, which it does reasonably well. The air-adjustable rear suspension has been dropped two inches from the standard Road King to give the Custom its low-rider styling. Subsequently, the reduced travel in the rear suspension can’t take on bigger potholes without shocking the kidneys. Moreover, the Custom drew some complaints from my girlfriend when we hit rough spots in the road, which causes considerable jostling of the passenger. The standard Road King is better suspended for two-up riding.

Ergonomically, the Road King is agreeable for most of us, with feet resting in a comfortable and natural position on the floorboards. The position of the hands while riding is stress-free, but the styling of beach bars comes at a price when making sharp turns. For those with alligator arms like our road test editor, Kevin Duke, the RK’s bars proved to be a pain.

“Making low-speed tight turns were a bitch,” said the diminutive 5'8" Duke. “The outside end of the bars forces a big stretch for a rider’s arms.”

Taller riders don’t have the same problem on the Road King Custom, but many feel that a new set of bars might ultimately be more comfortable because the seating position with the swept back bars leaves the torso absorbing the bulk of the windblast. Duke also complained that the handgrips running parallel with the motorcycle made him have to keep a death-grip on the bars at highway speeds, but he has hands like a little girl and no complaints were heard from our other testers. As they say, your mileage may vary.

The addition of a small windshield ($285) from Harley’s extensive accessory catalog did little to quell the amount of wind hitting the rider. A full-size windshield would assuredly subdue the windblast, but the addition of said hardware would spoil what the Custom represents: killer styling and open road freedom.

At 6’0″, 190 lbs., I was able to comfortably accept the windblast until the speedo showed 80-plus mph. Until that point, it’s perfect. With the wind in my face and the rumble of a Twin in my ear, I found myself trying hard to ride around on a black Road King Custom without breaking into a smile. Maintaining that tough-guy image is hard work.

As much praise as Harley gets for its styling, it inevitably garners as much criticism for a few of their functional components. Without fail, most H-D’s are fitted with a clunky transmission, and our tester was no different. The 5-speed tranny performs well but long throws and audible clunks are as much a part of the H-D badge as the chrome-laden good looks.

The clutch is also noticeably stiff. It takes four fingers to bring the lever back to the bar, and long traffic lights leave the hand begging for neutral. We’d love to see H-D develop a more refined transmission on its bikes. Such a move would undoubtedly raise the cost of the bike, but when you’re already dropping close to $17K, we think the Harley faithful would be more than happy to plop down the extra dough.

Slowing down a bike that weighs 768 pounds with a full tank is no easy task, but the RK’s stoppers do a respectable job considering the heft of the Twin. A set of dual 292mm disc brakes and 4-piston calipers at the bow do the bulk of the work, while a single 292mm disc and twin-piston caliper at the stern helps to finish off the job. The brakes were neither outstanding nor terrible and garnered plenty of ambivalent comments from our test group.

Harley-Davidson outclasses the competition in many ways, but their controls are unparalleled. The self-canceling turn signals are the best in the biz and function beautifully every time. It may take a couple of miles to get accustomed to actuating the right turn signal with the right hand, but the setup is much more user-friendly than the similar layout on BMWs which incorporates a third button to cancel the signals. The RK’s horn is easily accessible, and the brake and clutch levers are beefy, which are a welcome addition considering the amount of muscle it takes to actuate them.

The ignition is unique to Harley and employs a system where the rider has the ability to turn the bike on and off without a key. The key can be used to lock the ignition and, separately, lock the steering. However, it’s a bit awkward to have two separate entry points for each to ensure the bike’s safety. It’s one of the peccadilloes of H-D and it’s probably not going away anytime soon.

The instrument cluster is on par with the fit and finish of the rest of the machine, beautifully art-deco-inspired and located on top of the fuel tank. A tachometer is not part of the package, but the rumble between a rider’s legs keeps him or her well-apprised of the rpm situation. A faux gas cap on the left side of the tank indicates fuel level, which is requisite for tourers like this that can eat up hundreds of miles a day. The Road King’s gauge doesn’t move very rapidly, as we averaged about 37 miles to the gallon throughout our heavy-handed test. That’s close to 200 miles out of a 5-gallon tank; with rising fuel prices, you may have just found an excuse to plop down your cash on a new Harley!

Long distance travelers may have to make other arrangements for excess luggage. While the hardbags are capacious enough to accommodate day-trips, long-distance touring is best left up to a bike with a little more trunk space.

The fit and finish of the Harley is second to none thanks to quality components and ever increasing craftsmanship. Everywhere you look, it’s obvious that H-D has gone to great lengths to make sure its bikes are worth the money that people are paying for them, and it almost makes the significant $16,995 entry price seem like a deal.

Everybody in our office was stoked on the Road King Custom, which is saying something considering we’re all a bunch of sportbike/motocross junkies who love the latest technological advancements in the world of powersports.

The Custom struck a chord with us, and the aesthetic balance of the Harley-Davidson’s boulevard-worthy tourer found a place in our hardened hearts, despite its clunky tranny, and sub-100-horsepower dyno numbers.

As motojournalists paid to critique bikes for a living, we’d love to remain snobs and turn our nose at the Road King Custom, but we’ll admit that we’ve been wooed. The Custom is not just a great cruiser/tourer, it’s a great motorcycle.