Willy’s Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special

It feels like only yesterday since I picked up my new 2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special, but I’m actually heading into my fourth summer aboard this behemoth bagger. It occurred to me that I haven’t actually given a thorough review of my bike —  instead I’ve been waxing poetic about all the cool places I’ve been and all the cool people I’ve met while riding it.

So, today I’ll fill you in on what it’s been like to ride about 35,000 kilometres with the newish Milwaukee Eight engine rumbling between my legs.

Over the years I’ve owned at least 50 different bikes, ranging from dirt bikes to touring models. My current collection consists of a 1972 Suzuki TC185, 1977 Yamaha XS400, 1978 Yamaha DT 400, 1982 Honda FT 500 Ascot, and my 2017 Street Glide Special (SGS).

Willy loved his Sportster, though he’s a big guy and it can’t have been that comfortable. And those pipes…

I couldn’t afford a Harley until I was in my 30s, when I bought a used 1997 Sportster 883. Other Harleys I’ve since owned were a 2001 Super Glide, 2010 Wide Glide, 2011 Road King and my current ride, the 2017 Street Glide Special.

All my Harleys were purchased at Harley-Davidson Winnipeg. David and Sheryl Gray, the dealership owners, and their capable crew of enthusiastic staff, always treat me like family. The majority of my wardrobe was also bought there. All my Harleys have been reliable and also held their value much better than the many cars and trucks I’ve owned.

The Road King in happier days, before it hit a deer and was written off.

Truth is, if I hadn’t hit that deer and written off my 2011 Road King in the fall of 2016, I’d probably still be riding that bike. I had it decked out just the way I liked it and had even installed a batwing fairing complete with a powerful stereo. It was a great bike, with about 59,000 kms on the clock when that deer decided to hop up on my gas tank one muggy night. The deer didn’t make it, and neither did my Road King, but the insurance payout was decent and I’d managed to pay the bike off, so I suddenly found myself with a decent wad of cash.

At the time, I still had my old Sportster and the Super Glide, bikes I’ve both since sold, but I spent the winter of 2016/17 keeping an eye open for good deals on used Harley touring models. I was looking for either another Road King or a Street Glide. There were actually a few good deals available on leftover 2016 models, but I’d been hearing and reading that the new Milwaukee Eight models were great riding bikes, so I turned my focus there and in April 2017, I pulled the trigger on a new Street Glide Special.

Willy’s beloved Street Glide Special, bought new in 2017 and still going strong.

Buying the bike

The way the deal went is a testament to the importance of having a good relationship with your local dealer. I asked Dave Gray how I should deck out my new bike, which was going to be ordered, and he took me out into the showroom and showed me a 2017 Street Glide Special they’d been using as a demo bike for a couple of months the previous fall. The HD Winnipeg crew had added Screamin’ Eagle performance parts that included Street Cannon slip-on exhaust pipes, a Heavy Breather air cleaner, and a tuner to make it all sing together.

As I looked at the demo bike in the showroom, fitted with parts I’d probably want, I asked Dave the logical question: “why not just sell me this one?” Even though the bike only had 2,200 kms on it, I didn’t have to twist Dave’s arm too hard to make a terrific deal. I also added a few other parts including a rear backrest, and a pair of black saddlebag guards and highway pegs.

I had my friend Darcy Epp, who owns Prairie Iron Motorworks in Winnipeg, source out and install a pair of 12-inch LA Choppers handlebars and a pair of Avon Air Grips, and also added a 12-inch Windvest windshield. That is about all I’ve done to the bike since buying it.

Despite problems some owners have reported of these Milwaukee Eight engines (named after Harley-Davidson’s hometown and the fact the engine head design employs four valves per cylinder head), mine has been rock solid.

The Road King, taking a brief break from having the shit beaten out of it.

How it’s been

My old Road King had the Twin Cam 96 engine, which was also trouble-free. I had Rinehart pipes on that bike and truthfully beat the shit out of it mercilessly for most of the nearly 60,000 kms I rode it.

I haven’t been much kinder to the new bike, and have heard the pounding of the rev limiter countless times while flogging that 107 cubic-inch Milwaukee Eight mill wide open, passing lines of cars as long as a freight train.

The biggest complaint with these new motors from a reliability standpoint has been oil sumping, when the oil pump doesn’t pull enough oil out of the bottom end and the fly-wheel has to spin in the excess oil. My bike has not done this. In fact, it’s not burned or sumped a drop of oil, which is evident when I drain the old oil out and pour the exact same amount back in it every 5,000 kms, for all 35,000 km of its life so far.

Because it is a Street Glide Special (SGS), it is equipped with the 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system with the BOOM! Box 6.5 GT audio system, which works flawlessly. In addition to allowing me to stream tunes via my Apple Music subscription, my bike also has full navigation and tells me cool information, including the altitude I’m riding at and where the nearest fuel station is.

The Street Glide Special’s music is loud, but the pipes aren’t too bad.

Purists are surely groaning as they read this, but I truly enjoy listening to music on my motorcycle – if left alone for too long in silence, my mind tends to wander back to all those years I spent working in the special handling unit of a Manitoba jail, and other bad stuff I’ve witnessed in my 52 trips around the sun. Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones seem to help, so please don’t judge.

My SGS also has ABS and linked braking, which means if I’m riding faster than about 30 km/h and grab a handful of front brake, the back brakes are also applied. The same thing happens if I kick the rear brake hard: the front brake is also applied. After at least one near miss where I almost rear-ended my buddy and my bike stopped hard and fast, I’m probably stuck on ABS and linked braking technology now for life. I know many other brands have offered this for a while now, and it really is a lifesaver.

Other nice features on my bike include the one-touch saddlebag lid-release levers and the comfortable stock seat, which I really put to the test on a very long trip riding home from Milwaukee in the summer of 2018.

Rain or shine, in the heat and the cold, I have blasted along on this bike without a single problem; it really has not skipped a beat.

Willy rides his Street Glide Special in the heat and the cold, but because he lives in Winnipeg, mostly in the cold.

Heat and NOISE

I have very few complaints, but the major one is HEAT. Because I’m still running the stock headers, and the stock catalytic convertor, the heat coming from the exhaust pipe near my right leg is beyond annoying and actually melted the leg of my favourite rain pants.

Apparently, this can be remedied with a complete new exhaust system, or by crudely removing the catalytic convertor. Thankfully I live in Manitoba, so it’s more often cold than hot, but it is definitely an issue on trips down south in summer. I’ll probably opt for a new exhaust when I’m done making payments on this bike in 2021.

The major thing that’s really different about the 2017 and newer Harley-Davidson baggers is just how smooth and – if you’re running stock exhaust with slip-ons – how quiet they are. My old Road King woke up the whole road when I roared in at 3 a.m., but on the SGS I can sneak in so quietly only my daughter Kate’s Chihuahua, Morris, wakes up. But he can hear flies fart.

This mild sound has caused a few of my riding buddies to call my bike a Honda-Davidson, which, I’m not going to lie, did initially sting. In the past three years though, I’ve really become used to it and don’t think I could go back to fast and loud. Just fast is more fun.

Willy and his brother Allen in Ontario last fall – Harley guys to the core.

On a trip to Ottawa last fall, my brother Allen lent me his old 2009 Road King, which is hopped up and has a noisy exhaust setup, and the truth is, it wore me out riding that bike. Sure, it was a blast from the past to make some noise and burn some rubber, but that fun wore off in about an hour. All I could think of was just how much more I really, really like my bike.

Stuck on Hogs

So there you have it. I drank the Harley Kool-Aid quite a few years back and, even though the Kawasaki Vulcan Vaquero always gets a second and even a third look from me, the odds are VERY good I’m a Harley rider for life. I’ll certainly be a Street Glide Special rider for at least a few more years.

The only thing I can see happening is maybe in about 2025 I’ll opt for a new HD Ultra Limited with a tour pack, but until then I’m more than happy with my Street Glide. The only thing I need now is fresh tires — and for all this snow to melt.

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