Harley Road King Vs. Indian Chief Bagger Battle
Perhaps it was just a coincidence, or maybe Harley-Davidson saw it coming. Either way, Harley’s Project Rushmore, which greatly enhanced the capabilities of its iconic Road King, could not have come at a better time. We all knew that the Polaris reinvention of Indian was on its way, but no one could know how successful it would be.
Our early rides on the latest tourers from Harley-Davidson and Indian have left us nearly speechless. Both touring lines have reinvigorated the American bagger genre, adding metric functionality to each brand’s inimitable charisma and character.
We had ridden the Chief Vintage and Road King at their initial introductions, and all that we could think about afterwards was how the two would stack up together. The results weren’t what we expected — they were better.
The 2014 Harley-Davidson Road King
With a name like Road King, one expects Harley-Davidson’s iconic bagger to be a handful when you walk up to it. It’s a big-inch tourer, decked out and ready to hit the road; the Road King has an inarguable presence. The good news, though, is that it is much more manageable than it looks, but there’s no need to let on about that to those who are admiring your ride.
Climb into the roomy and supportive saddle and check out the ergonomics. Taller than a typical Harley-Davidson cruiser, the Road King’s sub-27-inch seat height remains inseam-friendly, while the forward mounted footboards leave room for longer legs and position readjustment.
The wide, raised handlebars provide a welcome bit of attitude, and are an appreciated improvement over the too-low bars of old. At full-lock turn, the outside grip moves nearly out of my range of reach. Otherwise, the proportions are not overpowering of my 5′ 6″ frame, and six-footers didn’t complain when they were astride the King.
With plenty of low-end torque from the new High Output Twin Cam 103 engine — part of the instantly legendary Project Rushmore — it is effortless to pull away from the curb smoothly and in total control. The heel-toe shifting mechanism engages with a decisive and satisfying click and the hydraulic clutch pulls lightly.
As cleanly as the transmission works through the six gears, finding neutral at stops takes practice. The thin illumination panel on the tank that displays “N” when you’ve hit the mark sits a bit too low, and requires tilting your head down to clearly see it.
With an aggressive throttle hand, power develops a bit more rapidly than you might expect from a big-inch Harley. This gives the Road King dominating roll-on performance up to about 80 mph, even in 6th gear, thanks to over 100 ft/lbs of torque. There is no need to downshift when distancing yourself from an inattentive driver, even while going upgrade.
You will have to watch the speedo, though, as it is easy to lose track of how fast you are going—again, something you wouldn’t say about pre-Rushmore Harley tourers. The motor is unbalanced, so rubber mounting is responsible for lack of vibration both at the handlebars and through the rubber-covered footboards.
You can easily ride all day without ever touching the front lever; the brake pedal is linked to both wheels, slowing you down smoothly and convincingly — save the front brake for emergency stops. The responsive handling and peppy motor encourages spirited riding on the right routes, and the Road King welcomes it.
The tires are the expected 180mm/130mm combination, and the Harley-branded Dunlops hug the road securely and hold your line effortlessly, even on rain-grooved pavement. The new front forks and triple clamps give the King a solid feel that you haven’t felt on a Harley if it’s a pre-’14 tourer.
In a cruising seated position, with feet forward and decidedly not in a position to help absorb the bumps, the bike has to do all the work. The Road King’s suspension handles minor ripples and imperfections comfortably, but potholes will make their presence known. The bike will not lose its composure, but your back will feel it.
Stability is also an indication of a properly designed wind- shield. Nicely protective and distortion-free, the shield withstands the windblast from passing tractor-trailers without disturbing the King. It has the kind of planted ride you want in a touring bike, and it encourages you to eat up the miles.
With wind fatigue removed from the equation, there is no reason not to fill up the beautifully integrated 17-gallon, top-opening hard bags and hit the road for a weekend trip. The new One-Touch Design opens and closes the lockable bags with just a single finger, which may sound like a small point, but the devil is in the details. Speaking of details, the new turn signal buttons have been redesigned and are an ergonomic success.
Of course, the folks at the Motor Company know we appreciate a good rumble, so they haven’t rubbed all the stubble off the Road King. It’s right where you want it — at idle, while everybody is looking. The feeling of all those cubic inches of power at your fingertips is both tactile and visceral; you can’t help but be inspired.
Lighter feeling than you would expect and with a nice kick from the new High Output Twin Cam 103, the 2014 Harley- Davidson Road King works as a great cruiser with a nice performance bonus for those who enjoy a bit of speed now and then.
– Kelly Callan
2014 Indian Chief Vintage
Leather, whitewalls, fringe, laced wheels, and plenty of chrome, topped off by a lit Indian War Bonnet on the flowing, deeply valanced front fender — it is difficult to imagine that Polaris could have done a better job of recapturing the spirit of one of America’s original motorcycle manufacturers. The Indian Chief Vintage is an overnight classic that warms hearts wherever it goes.
Looks aren’t everything and beauty is only skin deep, our moms constantly reminded us, and they were right. Yet, much of the enjoyment of a classic-styled cruiser goes beyond spec sheets and performance charts.
The character imbued into the motorcycle by the designers and engineers is an undeniable part of the success of the resurgent Indian brand. Wherever the Indian Chief Vintage goes, it attracts positive attention, and you can’t help feeling a great pride when riding this motorcycle.
Having established that, however, a touring motorcycle has a duty to its rider to perform its tasks well, as you will be spend- ing countless hours in the natural tan leather seat that is designed to conform to your posterior over time—customization at its most personal.
Yes, the seat is comfortable out of the box, and Indian gets the rest of the ergonomics right. The handlebars are fat, wide, and comfortably placed mid-chest. At 5′ 10″, if I sit upright, my elbows bend a bit and I can look over the windshield. Relaxing and leaning back means I’m looking through the easily removed shield, and my arms stretch out pleasantly.
Just far enough forward to keep my legs at an agreeable angle, the floorboards are roomy and properly angled. Someone at Polaris doesn’t like heel/toe shifting—none of the Indian or Victory motorcycles have it on their floorboarded bikes. It took me quite a while to stop fishing for upshifts with my heel, and I missed it.
Fortunately, the Vintage’s six-speed transmission is a smooth and sure unit. So, even though I have to slip on a boot with protection for my left big toe, there is not much to complain about in the operation of the tranny, or its gear ratios.
Making life easy for the rider and transmission is the unapologetically muscular ride-by-wire Thunder Stroke 111 powerplant. The architecture of the all-new, Wisconsin-built three-cam motor with two hydraulically lifted valves per cylinder and down-firing exhausts, is as visual as it is functional. Inspired by the 1948 Indian Chief’s 74 cubic inch, 42-degree V-twin, the Thunder Stroke’s displacement is half-again as large and the V is relaxed seven degrees.
Thanks to a torque curve that is nearly as flat as the Iowa terrain where the Vintage is built at Spirit Lake, there is plenty of power on tap at every conceivable engine speed. At just 3000 rpm, you’re looking at nearly 120 ft/lbs of torque.
When it comes time to deliver, the Thunder Stroke gives you power that is insistent power, rather than impatient. Roll-on acceleration is not as fast as you would anticipate from such a powerful motor — from any speed; it falls behind the Road King until about 80 mph.
Instead, the Thunder Stroke gives you the confidence to pass when needed, regardless of the conditions (wind, grade, load), and allows you to have a free hand with the throttle without worry that you will be unexpectedly overwhelmed.
Matching the stately motor, Indian has given the Vintage a highly stable chassis. While it weighs in at a claimed 835 pounds with the 5.5-gallon fuel tank topped off, some riders felt it was heavier. This is largely due to the leisurely 29 degrees of rake and lengthy 68-inch wheelbase.
To be sure, this is not a sporty bike. Instead, the Vintage takes its touring seriously. Don’t be in a hurry. Instead, appreciate the solid and steady manner about which it does its business. There are few bikes more planted in corners or in a straight line — high winds or blasts from semis blowing by on two-lane roads are of no concern to the Chief Vintage. He goes about his way without so much as a quiver.
The suspension and Dunlop American Elite tires match up well. You get a comfortable ride, but not one that is spongy or unsure in corners and on straightaways. The Vintage wants you to feel confident riding the motorcycle, and it is not there to punish you for small misdeeds with the throttle or your body input. The ABS brakes are predictably superb.
You can certainly find a motorcycle that is faster or more fun to ride, but you will be hard pressed to find one more reassuring than the Chief Vintage.
– Don Williams
Riding the two quintessential American baggers, it is fascinating to note how differently they approach the touring experience. Harley-Davidson, which is still involved with racing, has recreated the Road King as a lively, fun ride that puts a huge smile on your face.
The Indian Chief Vintage is a solid, visually imposing machine with all the styling cues one could ever wish for, plus a dignified feel that one could call majestic, if it weren’t going up against Harley royalty.
The visceral thump of the solid-mounted Thunder Stroke 111 motor is a thrill compared to the silky feel of the Twin Cam 103 at speed, yet some will prefer the utilization of rubber mounting. The Harley motor is impressive in its acceleration, while the Indian’s muscular powerplant always feels like it has something in reserve.
We are pleased that the Road King and the Chief Vintage are not mirror images of one another. The two big baggers stake out two distinctive territories in the touring world, and deliver their unique experiences in a way that almost defies rational criticism.
Thanks to the new Indian Chief Classic and the Rushmore Project-enhanced Harley-Davidson Road King, 2014 will be fondly remembered as a turning point for baggers—an American Bagger Renaissance. After a 60-year hiatus, it is exciting to see a classic rivalry rekindled with ferocity.
Which bike is right for you is wholly dependent upon what you want out of a touring motorcycle. Once you set your criteria, select the right bike and prepare to have your demanding expectations fully satisfied.
Photography by Kelly Callan and Don Williams
Riding Style (Kelly Callan):
- Helmet: HJC SY-Max II
- Communications: UClear HBC100 Plus
- Jacket: H-D Women’s Moxie 3-in-1
- Gloves: River Road Tallahassee
- Jeans: Icon Hella Heartbreaker
- Boots: H-D Footwear Rosa
Riding Style (Don Williams):
- Helmet: HJC IS-33
- Communications: UClear HBC100 Plus
- Jacket: River Road Roadster
- Gloves: Roland Sands Domino
- Jeans: Icon Strongarm 2
- Boots: Wesco Boss custom
Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine. For subscription services, click here.