This article was originally published in the April-May 1998 issue of Cycle World's Big Twin magazine.
When you first see the curves on the fairing of the new-for-’98 FLTR Road Glide, you get a strong hit of déjà vu. And the first thing you ask yourself is, hmm, where have I seen this fairing before? Was it on a Harley-Davidson, or was it ... yeah, it was a Harley, I’m sure of it.
And you’d be absolutely right: It was on a Harley.
A broader and taller version of this particular fairing first appeared on the 1980 FLT, back in the days when all the major bikemakers were vying for a bigger slice of the touring market. Competition was fierce to offer the most comfortable slab-slayer, and the FLT was clearly in the hunt. It definitely would have sold a lot better, though, if it hadn’t been sitting atop the recalcitrant Shovelhead motor.
Because of the dated appearance of the Road Glide’s fairing, the second thing you ask yourself is, do I like the looks of this thing? You might think it reminds you of, say, equal parts ’58 Cadillac and Starship Enterprise, something meant to be groovy. And here, you would be wrong.
This machine has more texture and history than merely being an exercise in transient style. “Our goal here,” says Harley chief designer Willie G. Davidson, “was to have a very clean, simple shape with a beautiful elliptical area for the two headlights. The fairing includes a cover for the headlights with the distinctive trademark. We reduced the dimensions of that original fairing design to give it a compact look, and we incorporated shapes that are more flowing. I think the undulating line at the base of the windshield helped to keep it looking short and small. So, if you look at a Road Glide in its unadorned form, it’s a very simple, handsome vehicle.”
Complementing Harley’s new realthink philosophy, Davidson and his staff have given some design hints for buyers of the FLTR. “I think it’s a pallet for dealers and riders,” he says. “You can take the bike and lower it if you like, paint it if you like, whatever. It starts the rider off with the right stuff so he can then take it to the next level for his own individualization. Custom baggers was an area we hadn’t played in before, and I think this motorcycle is a prime candidate for customizing.”
Davidson’s restyled fairing is bolted to the same rubber-mount, dual-shock FL chassis that also serves as the foundation for the Electra Glide series and the other two Road King models. Harley claims that all of the dimensions of the FLTR align with those of the other FL models: 63.5-inch wheelbase, 93.7-inch overall length, 35.8-inch width, 5.1 inches of road clearance. Thanks to the low-profile windshield that’s standard (a variety of optional sizes are available from Harley), the Road Glide’s overall height is the shortest, at 55 inches; but at 28.4 inches high at the saddle, this bike is taller than it feels.
Of course, the powerplant is the customary 80-cubic-inch Evolution Big Twin motor. Depending on the health of your bank account, you get to choose how your Road Glide gets its fuel and air mixed. The standard FLTR is carbureted and has a list price of $14,850 (in black; two-tone paint ups the ante to $15,150), while the fuel-injected FLTRI will set you back an additional 800 smackers (and add yet another $875 if you want the special 95th Anniversary graphics).
While we’re talking motor here, don’t get all giddy when you look in the official Harley-Davidson owner’s manual and see the Evo’s horsepower listed as an extremely optimistic 70 horses with 80 pounds of torque. Ain’t happenin’. The stock Big Twins we’ve dynoed lately here in Southern California, just a few high-jumps above sea level, have posted horsepressure numbers somewhere in the high 40s to the low 50s at the rear wheel.
Even at that moderate power reading, though, the Road Glide provides a genuinely nice riding experience. It may not be a rocket, but it has more than enough juice to keep you well out of trouble in traffic. Our test bike was the fuel-injected FLTRI version; with the easier starting, smoother response and better power output at altitude provided by the injection, we recommend that permutation, with the following codicil: If you’re going to modify the motor extensively, buy the carbureted model; if you intend to hop-up the injected motor, make sure you read our product evaluation on page 53 of this issue first.
Getting back to the fairing: Fugettabout its looks, that fairing works. There’s no close-in hurricane to buffet your head, shoulders or chest, and bugs smaller than 15-carat Scarabs are diverted around you. H-D Fleet Center Manager Bruce Chubbuck tells us that the original fairing was extensively tested in a wind tunnel to achieve aerodynamic efficiency, and we believe him. Depending on the height of windshield you install, you can create a cozy bubble of comfort from which to watch the scenery slide by.
Look closely at the angle of the dash on the fairing and you’ll notice that the surface falls away from the rider to the windshield. From the rider’s perspective, compared with the almost vertical dash of Electra Glide fairings, the Road Glide’s feels open and spacious. It gives the impression that there’s less plastic blocking the view of the road and the countryside.
At road speed, some fairings create enough air turbulence over the rider to cause the wind to nudge him in the back. With the short windshield on the FLTRI, we felt none of that. Neither did we feel any jitteriness in crosswinds or semi-truck wakes. We like this fairing a lot.
Adding to the Road Glide’s tourability are the superb ergonomics provided by the company’s wise choice of handlebar and seat. The boys in H-D’s design center eschewed the sorry, stock handlebar of the Road King and Fat Boy (one of our pet peeves here at Big Twin) and chose instead a bar shaped more like the tillers on the Heritage Classic and Electra Glides.
The FLTR seat offers the best of all possible worlds for the rider: It looks great and is comfortable, and combines with the handlebar to make a superb touring perch. The aft section, though, may be a tad narrow for the passenger on long-distance rides.
If listening to tunes on the road is your thing, the Road Glide has you pretty well covered with Harley’s latest-generation AM/FM/cassette stereo system. Some of the new system’s features are good, some of the old ones we miss. We like the new tape deck sans plastic door covering; and thanks to its new insulation system, the tape player is right out there in the open, making it easier to insert and remove tapes while riding. But we really miss the ability to adjust the bass and treble. In the old system, you could raise the treble for AM talk shows or eliminate midrange for FM music. Now, however, Rush Limbaugh and Led Zeppelin get the same setting. (If that’s poetic justice, so be it.)
We tested the stereo with our tried-and-true road-tunes tape: “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain, “Already Gone” by Eagles, “All Along the Watch Tower” by Jimi Hendrix, and “Ol’ 55” by Tom Waits. Well, the stereo was brave and worked hard, but except for the raging, trebly guitar licks, the songs were all but unhearable above 70 mph. And it’s not the fault of the stereo: There just is too large of an expanse of troubled air between the speakers and the rider’s ears. But at least there’s a stereo headphone jack bult into the dash for those music purists who insist on riding with tunes. The radio also picks up the weather channel as well as the usual AM and FM.
So, do we like the Road Glide, you ask? Absolutely. We like the looks (okay, it took us a couple of days), the fairing works magnificently, and the bike is very, very comfortable. It fills out the FL line nicely.
Not only do we like this accomplished motorcycle a lot, but Willie G. his own self bought one for his upcoming ride from Milwaukee to California and back again during the 95th anniversary celebration. That’s right: As amazing as it might sound, this legendary guy with his name on the door actually bought one.
We seriously doubt, however, that he paid retail.