It’s time for another retro test. This is a throwback from 2012. We test a rare ride—a Dyna touring motorcycle. The 2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback had quick-release windshield and bags, so you could cruise in-town and take to the open road for an epic trip. —Ed.
With its roots in the CVO Convertible, the 2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback is both a custom cruiser and tourer. Fantastically quick-detach (and reattach) hard bags and windshield alter both the form and function of the Switchback, and it manages to inhabit both genres with impressive competence—and the change can be made in less than 100 seconds.
When motorcyclists think of touring Harleys, the Dyna family certainly does not come to mind instantly. More of a rough-and-ready-to-ride group, stressing custom appeal, Spartan creature comforts, and a sporting attitude, the Dynas are a prickly bunch. The Switchback seems bent on changing that perception.
Right away, the Switchback establishes itself as a Dyna outlier with its windshield, bags, and (gasp!) floorboards. Its tires sizes—18 front, 17 rear—are less extreme than the Fat Bob’s 16-inch donuts or the 21/17 combo found on the Wide Glide. From a styling standpoint, the Switchback is the wallflower at the Dyna dance.
Rather than tap another demographic based on pure image, as Harley-Davidson is wont to do with great success, the Switchback will earn its keep in the stable due to its ability to meet the requirements of an assortment of riders. At the same time, the Switchback allows a rider of restricted resources to buy one motorcycle that can fulfill multiple needs, rather than two specialized mounts.
Harley-Davidson is targeting three divergent, yet converging, groups of riders with the Switchback—younger riders considering expanding their horizons into touring, older existing riders looking for a more manageable mount, and women who want a touring machine they can easily handle.
The budding tourer will likely find appeal in the combination of price and flexibility. He may still want to take to the boulevard with his buddies on a Saturday night, and the Switchback is ready to go. One could easily argue that the bike looks better sans the touring accouterments.
It is long and low enough to satisfy the profiling requirement, and mini-ape bars put the fists up for some street brawling. The Switchback boasts a Twin Cam 103 motor that will make mincemeat of 88s and 96s between stoplights. Pumping out 100 ft/lbs of torque at 3500 rpm, there is considerable thrust off the line. No shortage of flywheel weight and an easily manipulated clutch means that you can make the most out of the 103 with the least amount of effort.
Around town, the Switchback is quite manageable for a motorcycle that also has touring in its blood. Much of its agility can be attributed to Harley’s effort to keep its weight down. Aluminum is used for the triple clamps and five-spoke wheels, for example, and the result is what Harley calls, at a claimed 718 pounds ready to ride, “the lightest custom touring motorcycle in its displacement category.”
As we know, numbers alone do not guarantee an easily handled motorcycle—it’s about weight distribution. In the case of the Switchback, the bike can be thrown around town with abandon, and only the floorboards give it a less than agile feel. The combination of a 27.4-inch seat height, 63-inch wheelbase, and 29-degree fork angle seems to work magic.
When stripped, no one will think of the Switchback as a tourer in town, either when gazing or riding. Keep in mind that you can add the bags alone for some cargo-carrying capability around town, or just the windshield if you are going for a day ride and don’t need to carry a thing. The bike looks and works great in those two configurations.
While urban riding is a strong suit for the Switchback, it takes the pot with its touring prowess. Out on the open road with the hard bags loaded up, you can fully appreciate the improvement to the breed that the 103 motor brings.
An overdrive sixth gear is a nice feature, however, it needs a motor capable of pulling the bike along at a high gear ratio. In many cases, the 96 simply was not up to the job. You had to riding on flat ground or a bit downhill to take advantage of the final cog in the Cruise Drive transmission. That is no longer the case.
Tapping into those 100 ft/lbs of torque, the Switchback is capable of easily pulling long mountainous uphills at 75 mph or so without dropping back to 5th. This keeps the revs down and extends the range of the 4.7-gallon Street Bob-sourced tank.
Draining the tank without a stop is not a challenge for the Switchback rider. Taking in 200 miles at appropriately rapid cruising speeds is a piece of cake. The massaging tones—aural and tactile—from the rubber-mounted engine turn long stints in the saddle into hours of pleasure.
Using the classic catcher’s mitt design, the seat cradles the rider’s posterior and the density of the padding is just right—neither too firm nor overly soft. There is a limited range to move your rear end around the seat, so the floorboards help move the joints fore and aft.
Unusually, the Switchback uses a toe-shifter, rather than a heel-toe unit, so there is a bit more room on the boards. Thanks to the angle of the floorboards, you can move your feet quite far back, resting only the balls of your feet on the platform, yet you will still feel confident that your feet will not slip off.The mini-apes may cause a bit of trepidation when looking at the bike. Yet, they are absolutely spot-on for touring, putting your arms at a comfortable angle that works all day. You will easily look over the windshield, which does an outstanding job of directing air around the rider.
How good are the ergonomics? In one day, 837 miles were put on the Switchback in a 15-hour marathon trek on backroads through three large western states. Make no mistake-this bike is a real tourer, and one that will give the up-market Road King a serious run for its money.
Taking the roads less traveled through the twisties, the Switchback’s suspension and tires showed their stuff. The 41mm forks have cartridge damping and triple rate springs. They are pliable without being mushy, so you have a good feel of the road through the corners. The twin gas shocks in the back are limited to just over two inches of travel, yet they knock down the sharp edges and feel quite good when hustling through turns. The Motor Company’s suspension crew did a fine job.
Cornering clearance is decent, and touching down only happens when pushing a bit. When metal grinds the road, it does so in a predictable manner that does not upset the handling. Dunlop tires stick to the Switchback’s cornering limits without breaking a sweat. Braking feel is also good, though the single discs on each wheel won’t overwhelm anyone with their modest stopping power; ABS is an available option.
It is the nature of compromise that often leaves all involved with bad tastes in their mouths. However, successful reconciling of competing needs and desires can produce sweet nectar. Such is the case with the 2012 Harley-Davidson Dyna Switchback.
Photography by Riles & Nelson
- Helmet: Arai Vector-2
- Jacket: Harley-Davidson Men’s Illumination 360° Mesh
- Gloves: Tourmaster Cold-Tex
- Jeans: Cortech Mod
- Boots: Tourmaster Vintage Road