The future can be a funny thing. For every dream of levitating, hydrogen-powered Jetson’s Cycles, there is an equal and opposite desire to keep the past alive. Harley-Davidson, long tuned into the intoxicating allure of reminiscence, has raised nostalgia to an art form by building bikes that are veritable shrines to simpler days gone by.
Milwaukee is the Mecca for massive, chugging air-cooled V-twins and that wistful glint of sunlight off chrome. As the Motor Company enters its 105th year the manufacturer has sneaked subtle bits of technology into its tried and true concept of authenticity.
Consider the limited production Screamin’ Eagle Ultra Classic Electra Glide. Park it on a hill and you are in for an isometric exertion of epic proportions as you attempt to heave its 902-pound weight to a vertical position. With the optional backrest in place, it requires a limber, high-altitude swing of the leg to ensure proper backside placement. Its ergonomics also demand other strange compromises; the removable backrest is a bit too aft to offer real support, and its paddle shape constricts the passenger’s personal space. Flip-out highway pegs promise a laid back posture, but you might have to stretch a bit to assume the posture. Placing your boots back on the expansive footboards requires a bit of focus—especially for the left side—as the heel/toe shift lever leaves a limited surface area for your boot to rest.
But forget the ergos for a minute; the real magic of motorcycling is the ride, and the Screamin’ Eagle Ultra lives up to its name once you press the big black starter button with your right thumb.
As two massive pistons reciprocate their startup ritual, the 110 cu in undersquare powerplant churns itself to life, sputtering a rough cough that graduates to a bass-inflected thump the instant ignition is achieved. In spite of its antique appearance, the massive mill’s gruff exterior hides a number of modern concessions, including electronic sequential fuel injection, self-adjusting hydraulic lifters, and fly-by-wire throttle. With a compression ratio of 9.3:1, the souped up Custom Vehicles Operations’ Screamin’ Eagle powerplant produces a thumping 115 ft/lbs of torque at a conservative 3,000 rpm. (Click image to enlarge)
At idle, the engine’s internal hula-dance is enough to send sine waves of vibration throughout the bike. Objects in the chrome mirrors are not only closer than they appear; they also resemble a late Jackson Pollack. Whether or not these rhythmic gyrations are your cup of tea, a twist of the throttle will remedy them, making this Ultra scream less and glide more. Just a few miles per hour of forward movement dissipates any perceived heft, and further increases in velocity reveal the Ultra’s sweet spot: lazily paced riding, preferably along gently twisting roads.
The Ultra’s blackwall Dunlop tires bear the weight of supersized responsibilities: cushioning the ride of this big tourer while hustling its weight through turns. Direction changes come easier than you would expect, but the price for this is a susceptibility to surface irregularities. What might initially feel like an alignment issue is actually the front end hunting for grip, and the characteristic becomes exacerbated on superslab highways. Rain grooves create a dissonant dynamic that moves through the chassis and wobbles the steering. While the ride is plush, the tracking can be disconcerting; exit the highway and merge onto a smooth asphalt surface, and the trait disappears.
More technology is hidden in the braking system, which now incorporates four-piston front and rear Brembo units. Huge 300mm floating rotors appear both functional and decorative, but their purpose is made clear through an anti-lock braking system which is available on all ten of Harley’s touring models. While lever effort can require a firm grip, expertly modulated stops are on tap thanks to a system that works only when slip is detected, pulsing the brakes faster than humanly possible. The system can not repeal the laws of physics, but it will infuse your riding with more confidence.
If and when you stop to fill the six-gallon fuel tank, there is a strong likelihood of garnering unsolicited attention. This CVO—one of four special editions available for the 2008 model year—is decked out with a mile-high list of bells and whistles. Richly finished paint comes in three choices of complementing colors—white-and-silver, copper-and-silver, and a 105th Anniversary copper-and-black combo. Chrome covers everything from the custom CB pod to the nine-spoke cast aluminum wheels. A few details such as uneven weather stripping around the fairing and bundles of visible wiring reveals a bit of sloppiness, but the CVO is otherwise an attractive bike with no detail left uncustomized. (Click image to enlarge)You might disdain the vestigial backrest when you hop back in the saddle, but the seat’s comfortable padding is easy to appreciate, and it only comes second to über-tourers such as the Road Glide.
Using four fingers to pull the hydraulically actuated clutch lever all the way to the heated handgrip, the shifter engages each of six gears with a thunk that suggests over-engineered structural redundancy, not unlike the sensation of slamming shut the door of a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. Gear ratios are tall, though revving the engine an extra moment ensures the engine does not lug itself. At highway speeds the low-cut windshield offers moderate protection from buffeting. But remember, this specimen of CVO is better suited to backroads wandering than cross-country, high-velocity Interstate touring. (Click image to enlarge)
In your journeys, you might flip the adjustable air deflectors to control airflow, or you may simply actuate the thumb-operated cruise control and kick up your boots on the highway pegs. And it is during these moments that this CVO defines itself: spun aluminum instruments glinting in the sun, 4-speaker Harman/Kardon sound system working hard, and power-operated top case and saddlebags swallowing all but the bulkiest of your personal items for a long ride away from home.
Big and brash, the Ultra Classic Electra Glide may not be everybody’s ultimate paradigm of a dedicated touring bike, but for riders intent on peppering their nostalgia with discreetly hidden touches of modernity, Harley’s Custom Vehicles Operations team offers a decidedly analog vision amidst a world awash in digital.