It’s that time of year when the Harley Davidson Motor Company and to be honest most of the other manufacturers, roll out their new motorbikes for the coming season. To be honest, I only normally only pay passing interest to the latest shiny stuff, but every now and then something really grabs my attention.
This year it was Harley’s launch of the new Milwaukee Eight engine.
OK, I admit, it did come about in a roundabout sort of way….
When I saw that Harley Davidson had unveiled a 107cubic inch capacity engine, that’s about 1750cc in metric terms, the thought crossed my mind, “Why?”
Let’s face it, Harley Davidson’s aren’t noted for being the fastest and sexiest handling motorbikes on the street, but what they do they do pretty well…in a rather idiosyncratic Harley way that you either love or hate.
The current “Big Twin” engine is the 103cubic inch, 1690cc, which has been around since its launch in 1999 and has equipped the Touring and Cruiser models since then. All of these engines have been air-cooled, apart from those fitted to the bigger Project Rushmoor Tourers, such as my big blue Ultra Limited, which enjoy dual air/liquid cooling. To my mind the 103 with its simple twin cams has been pretty much fit for purpose and certainly pushes out enough power for my needs!
So what’s the deal with an even bigger power unit?
Well, according to H-D, the customer wants more power and an engine that runs cooler. So that’s exactly what they have delivered!
The new engine may at first glance look the same as the 103, but that is really where the similarity ends. Yes, there’s the familiar 45° V-twin shape but look closely and things are subtly different. Inside it’s all new. To start with, the two new cylinder heads each have four valves – hence the “Milwaukee Eight” tag, eight valves in total. The exhaust valves are liquid cooled as standard, quite an innovation for Harley Davidson, but also making life much more pleasant for the rider by assisting in reducing exhaust temperatures by around 100°. The compression ratio is pushed up to 10:1 with thin “low-tension” rings fitted to each piston, Harley claims that these rings will reduce drag inside the engine and hence improve efficiency. To ensure complete combustion each cylinder is fitted with two spark plugs. Engine management is facilitated by knock sensors, that keep everything running smoothly by very cleverly keeping the bang just far enough advanced to prevent pre-ignition. All this leads to an increase in torque of around 10% over the old engines and better compliance to ever demanding emission regulations.
Interestingly the new engine has only a single cam shaft, Harley claim that this reduces mechanical engine noise, though as most owners will probably slap after-market road-rumbler pipes on their bikes, I find the claim that this is important to be somewhat strange!
Like the old 88inch Evo engine fitted to Softails, such as my Harls, the 107 is counterbalanced to reduce vibration, though rubber engine mounts certainly play their part too; riding proved the point beautifully!
Which leads me to Plymouth Harley Davidson, who very kindly gave me the opportunity to test ride one of the new models.
Now being an engineer by nature, I worry when presented with a brand new bike with only 169 miles on the odometer and the instruction to “Go ride it!” I just can’t let myself get too carried away, but Kevin at the Dealership assured me that I was in for a treat….
Looking around the Demo bike, a Street Glide Special in Hard Candy Custom Hot Rod Red Flake (honestly!) there were one or two nice little improvements; like new manually adjustable rear suspension, improved stiffened front forks and better pannier fixing. The new engine nestles nicely in the frame and the modified exhaust pipes both look and sound superb once the 107 burst into life.
Drawing away I was struck by the new clutch, it feels crisp and usable, but that could be because it was hardly broken in. Like all Harleys, the gearbox has a reassuring clunkiness – something I like, but I know many folk hate; you’ll never please everyone! Out on the road I got caught at a set of lights and immediately noticed just how smooth and vibration free the new engine was at idle, really nice.
Then things got better, a whole lot better!
I swung the Road Glide onto the dual carriageway of the A38 and accelerated up through the gears. Now allowing that I had ridden to Plymouth on my Ultra Limited, which weighs in at nearly 500kg with a full tank plus me on board and the Road Glide is over 50kg lighter, the acceleration was more than impressive, it was fantastic…particularly at the higher end where Harley’s traditionally fade. This is an engine that gives its best at higher revolutions!
At speed the bike felt nice and “planted” on the tarmac and certainly had power to spare. Leaving the main highway and onto more twisty roads I was impressed with the new suspension, the front end was nice and firm whilst the rear sat nicely on the road without any wallow, though I must confess to not fiddling around with any settings. The linked, abs fitted, Brembo brakes give a feeling of confidence, this baby can stop in a hurry too!
Riding the bike a couple of nice little tweaks were noticeable. On the left hand side the new slimline clutch cover gives more room to the riders ankle whilst on the right the air cleaner case has a nice taper at the rear which allows your knee to sit snugly against the tank happiness on both sides of the body which on a long trip can make the world of difference!
When I returned the bike, Kevin, unsurprisingly, asked me what I thought of it?
“It’s something special!” I replied. “Very special.”
It’s clear that Harley Davidson have thrown plenty of resources at the Milwaukee Eight project and have trod a difficult path between the outright modern and the “Harley Tradition.” I feel that they’ve more than got it right, this evolution of the marque must surely be a winner.
So yes, I like the Milwaukee Eight a lot, an awful lot!
Enough to chop in one of my existing stud, or even splash out on a new one to join them?
No, I’m not ready for that yet. I’m still enjoying getting to know my Rushmore Ultra Limited and as for Softail Harls….well she’s part of the family! Longer term, when I decide that the big Ultra Limited is just too big, I may be tempted with one of those lighter Street Glides, but not just yet.
I have seen the future though and it’s written “Milwaukee Eight.”
With massive thanks to Kevin, Chris and all at Plymouth Harley Davidson for the loan of their bike which made this review possible.
Catch you soon.