Published on July 25th, 2013 | by Boris
Photography LOU MARTIN
THIS is a clever motorcycle. And it is clever in two quite important but disparate ways. Firstly, it certainly does perform its “switchback” function — where it can be changed from a screened and hard-panniered tourer to a stripped-clean cruiser — quickly and efficiently. Even my seven-thumbed hands and vast ignorance of all things mechanical could easily and rapidly perform the deed. The screen and bags come off and go back on, literally in seconds.
The Switchback’s second bit of cleverness is that it addresses its marketing brief ever so brilliantly. Harley is well aware of the aging demographic of its buyers — though that has been inching downwards in the last few years from somewhere in the plus-50 bracket to somewhere in the low 40s — which speaks quids for its marketing nous in having the brand appear on everything from the gloriously bloodstained UFC octagons to the testosterone crazed arenas where the Crusty Demons ply their trade. And Harley is just as aware that its female-buyer demographic is growing, and has doubled from six per cent two years ago, to 12 per cent of its overall sales today. The company has made a lot of pro-girl initiatives and it is apparently paying off on its bottom line. But as the company pondered “What next?” as no doubt so many motorcycle manufacturers do in these appallingly uncertain economic times, some clever bodkin identified a niche within Harley’s already niche market. It seems that what was needed was a “lighter” and more agile tourer that spoke to the concerns of a burgeoning female rider base. When you’re not very physically big, the Switchback’s 320kg (dry) is much more manageable than the Road King’s 355kg (dry).
So while meaty blokeosaurs like me quite enjoy the big Ultras and Road Kings and the undeniable road-presence they provide, girls (and men of less manly stature) can be somewhat intimidated by the not inconsiderable weight that comes with such presence.
The solution lay in taking the more nimble Dyna model and touring it up some with the addition of a screen and hard luggage; but crucially, then making it so the bike can be converted back to its stripped-down base even if you have a hot French manicure and the mechanical ability of a lost pony.
I had beheld this Switchback only in the photos supplied with the recent press release, and was vaguely underwhelmed with what I beheld.
But photos lie. This is one of those bikes that looks ever so much better in the flesh than it does in pictures. Of course, nothing can save those strange mag wheels from my haughty displeasure, but maybe I’m lacking the correct chromosomes to appreciate them.
I’m one of those strange creatures that can only learn by doing, and doubts all it hears until it can reconcile those doubts with a hands-on experience. “Detachable locking saddlebags and windshield let you switch from touring the open road to cruising the streets and back again in under 60 seconds” said the promo blurb.
“Bullshit,” I said to myself and went to see if it was true. Inside each pannier is a small lever you click according to the informative, idiot-proof pictogram, and the bag pops off its three-point mounting with ludicrous ease. Removal of the screen requires you to pull off the two R-shaped clips (owners of Road Kings will be familiar with Harley’s quick-release screen system) and the screen comes off with similar contemptuous ease. It all goes back on just as easily and simply. And happily, the bike doesn’t look like something’s missing when the panniers and screen come off.
I found the screen a little too short for me, but the more Lilliputian riders on the launch didn’t mind it at all. It’s basically a smaller version of the Perspex unit you’ll find on the Road King. And in fact, the DNA-link between the two models is quite striking. The Dyna Switchback reminds me of a slimmed-down Road King — and the styling clues are powerfully evident when you look at the two side by side. And given the Road King is one of the world’s great touring bikes, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t an accidental thing.
The panniers are also slimmer versions of the bigger units you’d find on the Road King, Street Glide and Ultra Classic. And while you may not be able to fit as much extraneous gear on your big trip in these smaller panniers, their slimness makes lane-splitting a breeze. You might not think this is important, but then you’ve probably never been caught in a traffic astride an Electra Glide. I do not ride bikes so that I may share the whole shitty peak hour experience with the car-driving retards. A bike that can fit between these disgusting imbecile-filled metal cages is a must in my world.
Still, wacky wheels be buggered. When I was offered the chance to sample the Switchback along the glorious chunks of blacktop that wind through the Sunshine Coast’s hinterland, I was on that plane like white on rice.
And so it would seem was every long-legged, micro-short-wearing young supermodel on the east coast of Australia. I was as impressed as a man could possibly be when confronted with such a fabulous examples of why this country rocks so very much — and I hadn’t even ridden the bike yet.
Harley chose the venue for the launch well. Mooloolaba is very much like a smaller and less frenetic version of Surfer’s Paradise, and the roads in the hinterland are the stuff of local legend. So not only did I get to enjoy the stunning local scenery bathed in brilliant spring sunshine, I got to ride some of the roads I had only heard my Queensland mates brag about. Most revealingly, the route chosen by Harley for this launch consisted almost entirely of venomous back-country twisties and scenically splendid sweepers — and they proved to be just the ticket for the Switchback.
So what are we dealing with here, mechanically speaking? Firstly, Harley’s beaut 103-cubic-inch donk provides the oomph, and when coupled to a properly tall-ratioed box, offers appreciable smoothness at touring speeds, while the always plentiful torque allows you to leave it in top and just thump along. Climbing the range into Maleny, it would chug along happily in sixth, and I was only snicking down into lower gears if my manhood was being questioned by my compatriots. The forks are 41.3mm units with a 20mm cartridge-style damper in the left fork, and have triple-rate springs. The back shocks are easily adjustable for preload, and only become unsettled when you start acting the goat. There’s no need for you to ask me how I know this, because I’m not telling.
Anyway, the suspension is more than adequate to the task of carting you around the place, provided you don’t start writing cheques that simply cannot be cashed on the mule-paths our governments imagine pass for roads. Harleys are never going to handle like Ohlins-carrying superbikes, and it is foolish and disingenuous to throw your leg over one and then make bleating noises when it doesn’t stack up on a choppy, decreasing radius right-hander. But the Dyna Switchback is much more precise than some if its fat-tyred cuzzies. The normally-tyred 17-inch rear wheel and 18-inch front wheel are where it’s at if you’re not into bump-steering. The Dynas have always been considered as the “Harleys that handle”, and the Switchback won’t disappoint. It tips into corners easily and holds a line with confidence, and the Dunlop hoops seem to suit it quite well.
The bloke responsible for the existence of the Dyna branch of the Harley-Davidson family was none other than Willie G Davidson himself. Back in 1971, when he was making his bones as a young designer at Harley-Davidson, Willie mated a Sportster front end with an FL frame — and the FX (for Factory Experimental) was born.
Assuredly, the first Dyna Glide that came out was less than visually appealing, cursed as it was the infamously vile “boat tail” rear guard. It was not one of Willie G’s finer design moments. But things did get much better over the ensuing years. And in fact, the Dyna range has produced some of the more iconic and most beautiful Harleys ever made. I will shamelessly confess that the flame-painted tank and pure outlaw-badassery that was the Wide Glide (FXWG) of 1980 filled my dirty post-schoolboy fantasies almost as often (and usually in concert with) Farrah Fawcett-Majors. The equally stunning all-black-with red-pinstripes Sturgis that followed is now a much sought-after collector’s model which commands outrageous prices and a cult-like appreciation.
More recently, the Dyna has found fame in the HBO TV series Sons of Anarchy, where you can find the Dynas sporting a bikini fairing, coupled with nice H-bars clutched by the Hollywood hardmen of SAMCRO.
It remains to be seen if the Switchback will become one of the legendary Dynas, but the omens are rather favourable at this early stage.
The seat is fabulous. It has plenty of cushiony love for even the most fussy and jelly-filled bottom. Harley certainly knows how to make long-haul seats that offer comfort and lumbar support in spades. I also found the handlebars-to-seat-to-footboards equation spot-on for my heroic proportions — but then I find that to be the case with every Harley I have ridden in recent years. I just seem to fit on them.
And permit me just a quick word about the footboards and the scraping of them along the tarmac. If you’re new to Harleys and you tip into a corner only to be rewarded by a loud scraping noise, do not panic and stand the bike up, because then you will crash. Allow the scraping to continue as you gracefully arc through the bend and come out the other side. If the scraping changes timbre, then you’re no longer grinding the footboards, and have now progressed to gouging the frame. Surely I do not have to tell you why this is not wise. Always ride according to the bike’s abilities (as well as yours), and you will never be disappointed or end up breathing through a tube.
I would have liked another disc up the front, but not for the reasons you might think. I reckon another rotor on the front wheel would improve the bike’s aesthetics no end. That said, the Bosch ABS, anti-lock-endowed single 300mm, four-piston unit, backed up by a two-piston jobby up the back didn’t give me any grief.
The Switchback also has Harley’s Land Body Control Module which was introduced last year, and which simplifies all the intra-bike electronics. Whatever issues it may have had with moisture potentially entering the module have now been dealt with, so there’s no further issue with the system’s reliability. The Switchback also has a new lighter and smaller ECU, and the bike is LED capable.
The hand-finished tank holds a tad under 18litres and that should ensure you get somewhat more than 200-odd kilometres before refuelling. And you can have the whole thing in black, silver, or the most stunning red I have seen on a bike in ages. When the sun hits it, it just takes your breath away. The chrome and general finish is typically sky-high — and the two-into-one exhaust (that we all know is going to end up rusting in some landfill an hour after you take delivery) has new mounting points off the gearbox to clean up the line in shows to the world.
Once again, Harley has cleverly evolved a long-serving and very popular model into a bike that now has an even broader appeal as a lighter-boned tourer for the less meaty among us. Add to that the ability for it to be stripped easily of its touring gear, and the cleverness is clearly obvious.