This article was originally published in the February-March 1997 issue of Cycle World's Big Twin magazine.
Electra Glide. Even the name evokes a mixture of nostalgia and luxury. And in the Ultra Classic Electra Glide configuration, it’s the flagship of The Motor Company’s fleet. As the name implies, it’s not merely a motorcycle; it’s the Ultra motorcycle.
And one with a lot of Cubic Stuff, as well. We’re talkin’ cruise control, and AM/FM/cassette stereo, CB radio, intercom, helmet-mounted headset and much more. It’s the master of the slab, and merely sitting in its soft, spacious saddle makes you want to cancel the newspaper, lock up the house and head for the farthest coastline.
The Electra Glide name was first riveted on the side of a Harley fender back in 1965 when electric start was introduced on the then-new Shovelhead motor. The moniker caught on like wildfire, even inspiring a moto-noir movie of the same name (“Electra Glide In Blue”) starring Robert Blake. Now, 32 years later, the Electra Glide offers the sweetest Harley paradox: It still looks remarkably similar to that classic ’65 Electra Glide, yet it contains three decades worth of meaningful improvements.
As part of its constant evolution, the top-of-the-line Electra Glide even incorporates quite a few substantial changes over last year’s model. So, to discover just how these changes have affected the Ultra’s road demeanor, we took our test bike on a thousand-mile cruise from our Southern California editorial offices, up the coast to the quaint Dutch town of Solvang. We spent two solid days there, chuffing through the ambling backroads of Central California’s wine country, then snaked our way farther north on the Coast Highway to San Francisco. Finally, on our return to SoCal, we endured the Interstate 5 drone all the way home. This variety of usage gave us a well-rounded perspective of how the Ultra handles through the twisties and along superslab so ruler-straight that only a surveyor could love it.
Among the biggest changes for ’97 are those made to the FL frame, which has been modified to lower the seat height some three-quarters of an inch, down to 271/4 inches. This is a boon to short-leggers who yearn to have both feet planted full on the asphalt while trying to balance the Ultra’s hefty, 785-pound dry weight at a stop.
At first, our tester noticed no difference in the seat height on the road; but after a few hours, he found himself stretching his legs more often than he used to do on previous FL models. Blame it on the lower seat forcing a slightly sharper bend in the knees.
There are upsides to the lower seat, however: For one, the new Ultra saddle is wonderfully comfortable to sit on for long periods; and for another, it’s narrower in the front, which allows the rider’s legs to take a more direct—and thus less tiring—route between the seat and the foot controls.
Speaking of ergonomics, the narrower handlebar on the Ultra is so comfortable that it should be standard-issue on the entire FL and Softail lines. Sure, those wide bars on Road Kings and Fat Boys might look a bit snappier, but they’re back-breakers. For all-around riding, the Ultra bar is far superior.
As part of the frame redesign, the fuse panel has been relocated behind the left sidecover for easier access. And for those of you with vitamin A deficiencies who delight in stringing lights on your bikes like Christmas trees, there’s now room for a larger, more powerful battery.
What hasn’t changed on the Ultra is the motor. It’s the same venerable, 1340cc V-Twin torquer that we reported on in the last issue, the issue before that, and the issue before that. It’s also the same motor we’ll report on in the next issue and the issue after that.
Really, the only difference is that the Ultra is available in both carbureted and fuel-injected versions; ours was the injected edition. All of our riding was done at or around sea level, so we didn’t have a chance to sample the versatility of this particular machine’s fuel-delivery system. But based on our previous experience with injected Harleys, we like the use of EFI on touring bikes because it handles variables in altitude so well.
You’ll find, though, that the Ultra motor definitely does not like low-grade fuel. In warm weather pulling a load, it’ll ping like a bucketful of marbles bouncing on cement unless the rider is careful at feeding time—uh, the bike’s, not the rider’s.
We then headed northeast, charging down some idyllic country roads running behind Santa Barbara that indeed were gorgeous, but with potholes big enough to trip an Abrams tank. Panic-grabbing the front brake, we didn’t miss the electric anti-dive front fork as much as we thought we would, compliments of the improved performance of new dual-rate springs in the front suspension.
Both the fork and the rear shocks on the Ultra are air-assisted. The maximum allowable pressure of 36 psi at both ends was fine on the twisties, helping to make the Ultra as close to a sport machine as that big mother will allow. But the ride was correspondingly harsh over bumps, shaking all the bells and whistles—the bags, trunk, fairing, windshield, cassette door and antennas—and making them rattle like loose bells and whistles. For normal touring and street riding, between 15 and 25 psi offered the most comfortable ride.
Speaking of bells and whistles, the Ultra unashamedly offers the whole marching band. The styling/convenience list is a mile long and, depending upon your riding philosophy, is either alluring or depraved. When speaking of the Ultra, however, we think it axiomatic that more is better.
First, consider—and we quote the owner’s manual here—the “80-Watt Premium Stereo Sound System with AM/FM Cassette, Fairing Mounted Speakers (Rear Speakers With Amplifier), Weather Band, Digital Clock, Radio Controls For Passenger, Bidirectional Seek, Scan, Music Search and Music Scan, and 8 Presets, Voice-Activated Intercom With Adjustable Muting, 4-Watt, 40-channel Electronically Tuned CB with control for rear passenger.” Whew!
Some of this gadgetry we used, most we didn’t. We forsook the intercom and rear speaker because we traveled solo; we ignored the weather channel because we rode in California; and we eschewed the CB chatter because we really dislike CB chatter.
Still, we did use the radio and cassette player extensively, knowing full well that fairing-mounted speakers have a really tough mission. The parts of the Boston Pops rendition of the William Tell Overture that actually made it to our ears was as good as could be expected after the wind noise took away the cellos, surrounding traffic killed the woodwinds, and earplugs stifled the strings. But at least the speakers are deep-set in the fairing and project better than flat mounts. Actually, the sound quality for most music is pretty good at the speed limit and below, but above 70 mph, you’ll have to limit your listening to songs you already know, or else crank up the treble, kill the bass and listen to talk radio. The handlebar controls for the stereo-volume, channel and mode selection, tape fast-forward and reverse, are logical and easy to access, although with gloves on, the dash controls can be difficult to operate.
The Ultra possesses numerous other little niceties that can make travel on the interstate much more pleasant. Among these are an ambient temperature readout on the speedometer; a stereo helmet headset; a cigar lighter; carpeted interior in the saddlebags; a rider backrest; adjustable rider and passenger footboards; removable fairing lowers with storage; and fairing-mounted wind deflectors.
A word here about the gas gauge: We recommend it for anyone who’s on a 12-step program with Procrastinators Anonymous. The gauge needle dawdles lazily to the 3/4 mark, and once there, it must realize it’s late and races crazily to the red Reserve zone; you can almost see it move. The lesson here is, when the needle gets on the left side of the halfway mark, start looking for a gas station. In earnest.
After a couple of days cruising the San Francisco Bay Area, we aimed the great headlight and passing lamps of the Ultra south for the grind on the interstate. Here’s where the mettle of a touring rig is tested. Backroads offer ample opportunity to shift around in the saddle, and to mount and remount the bike at frequent stops to see the sights and shoot photos. But the interstate (where Charles Kurault correctly opined that “it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything”) plants your butt in the saddle for hours with only gas stops for a respite.
And thankfully, the Interstate is where the Ultra shines its brightest. With billboard landscape and hundreds of miles to go, what better way to traverse great distances than to relax back in the spacious Ultra saddle, put some Jimmy Buffett tunes in the stereo, and flick on the cruise control at around 70 mph. The ’97 Ultra is fitted with a new and improved cruise control, by the way, that responds quickly to input and can be easily used to trim your speed in relation to the semis up ahead.
At freeway speeds, the big V-Twin broadcasts a pleasing, almost lulling exhaust note, and any small amount of vibration that reaches butt, feet and hands is merely a reminder that there indeed is an honest-to-God machine at work down there.
For our 6-foot-1 test rider, the windshield height was ideal; he could see over it by about an inch, and there was no burble slapping his head at any speed. But with its lowers, the fairing works almost too well in the summer. The lowers retain enough engine heat that they should sit safely on the garage shelf from June to first snowfall. Fortunately, they’re easy to get on and off.
Even with its lowered seat, the Ultra arranges the rider in a super-comfortable, almost easy-chair position. With the cruise activated, you can simply lean back, rest your hands on your knees and steer only by gving the handlebar ends small inputs with your fingertips. This is a motorcycle that—with a little cooperation from your boss and a lot from your bank—you could ride for months at a time.
As you would expect from Harley’s flagship, the Electra Glide Ultra is one great ride. When you can internalize the philosophy that you travel not for destination’s sake but for travel’s sake, and that the great affair is to move, you understand both the mission and the strength of this motorcycle.
Of all the ways there are to travel, we can think of none better than to point an Ultra outward-bound on a sunny day, and move.
|Lots of storage|
|Considerate passenger accouterments|