Motorcycle Road Test: 1997 Harley FXDS Convertible

From Highway to Boulevard in 3.7 Minutes.

We can't think of a better way to get to know a motorcycle than picking it up in some other corner of the country and heading off for a full day's ride. The reality of road testing usually follows a more mundane route: the bike is delivered to the underground garage of our high-rise office building; we commute through LA's worst for a few days; and we hit the road for some real riding when the weekend finally comes around or there is a day where we aren't tied to our desks.

Although the weather report warned of at least 140 miles of rain, we couldn't help smiling as we stood in the drizzle, loading our gear onto the Dyna Glide Convertible outside the Harley-Davidson plant in York, PA. We had almost 400 miles of riding ahead of us. Americade, a five-day celebration of motorcycling in Lake George, NY, lay at the end of the trip. The green of the countryside and the promise of rain said Southern California was far away. We may have been on a business trip, but it felt more like the beginning of a vacation.

The FXDS Convertible, added to the Dyna Glide line in 1994, has been popular among riders who want a do-it-all bike. Harley's idea was a simple one: Create a bike with a windshield and solid mounted soft bags suitable for a long haul, and make sure that, when the distant destination has been reached, the bags and windshield can be easily removed, uncovering the classic Harley lines cruisers want to show off while hanging out on Main Street. The trip to Americade--with the associated highway travel, fender-to-fender traffic at the rally, swooping two lane roads through the Adirondack Region, and an urban excursion into Manhattan--provided ample opportunities for our 1997 Dyna Glide Convertible to show its stripes during our week-long tour. Then we'd get another machine on the west coast for the standard routine.

While the removable windshield and saddlebags differentiate the Convertible from the Dyna Glide line of Harleys, the chassis is what sets the Dynas apart from the rest of the American iron. Considered a "sport" chassis by the Harley factory types, the Dyna frame pursues two goals: to provide a rigid platform for the rider and to isolate the rider from the vibration inherent in the 45 degree V-twin. The frame's rigidity comes courtesy of a single, mild steel, rectangular section back bone joined to twin downtubes. Forgings and cast joints at major load-bearing junctions of the frame's components improve the chassis' stiffness while giving the additional benefit of better quality control when compared to stamped metal. The engine isolating mission of the chassis is accomplished through the use of two rubber mounts below the engine in the center line of the frame. A turnbuckle hidden in the V provides a top mounting point to keep the engine shaking in the correct place.

Full choke is required to utilize the Dyna's clever engine mounting system, but once the engine has warmed up, the Convertible delivers a pleasant syncopated shake at idle speeds--just what we want when sitting at a stop light. Pulling out of the York plant and rumbling up the road reminded us again how effective the Dyna chassis is at smoothing out the 1340cc engine. Only the slightest vibration reaches the rider, a fact we would increasingly appreciate as the miles clicked by. Pulling on to rain-wet Interstate 83 showed that the engine had plenty of grunt to merge in to the brisk traffic, but this big twin's 14.83-second, 84.6-mph run through quarter-mile lights prevents this bike from ever being confused with a hot rod. The pistons draws air in through the shared single 40mm Keihin CV carburetor into a 88.8mm bore and 108mm stroke where a single spark plug does its duty before the spent gases get sent on their way out the staggered shorty dual exhaust system. Of course, the engine's gatekeepers are still a single intake and exhaust valve prodded into action by good old-fashioned pushrods. One interesting feature of the Dyna series engines is that they store their oil in a tank under the transmission, not in the usual Harley oil tank behind the engine that many other cruiser manufacturers imitate.

As I-83 turned into I-81, the drizzle became rain. The windshield, which measures 21 inches from the top of the headlight and 23 inches at its widest point, does an admirable job of keeping the elements away from the rider. Rain gets directed over the rider's head and only the rider's gloves receive direct precipitation at speed. Yes, the your legs are in the rain, but the Convertible is a cruiser, not a dresser. Wind is also redirected away from the rider, easing the fatigue of fighting wind blast on longer rides. However, some high-frequency buffeting creeps into the picture as the speedometer gets close to 70 mph. Our only major complaint about the windshield is its height. Most riders will find themselves looking through the windshield, which rises 32 inches above the seat, and taller riders may find that the top of the Lexan crosses through the center of their field of vision, requiring them to stretch or slump to see the road clearly. In dry weather, being forced to look through the windshield may not seem to be much of a problem, but in rain or fog, the rider's vision through the windshield can be impaired, particularly when riding in a fine misty rain or following tractor trailer rigs on a saturated road. Nighttime and oncoming traffic would only compound the problem. We would gladly endure a little more rain hitting our helmets in exchange for a clear view of the road ahead.

Near the junction of I-84 and I-87, the sun pushed back the clouds and brought some vibrancy to the green of the countryside. With 150 miles remaining in the day's ride, we began to appreciate the long-distance comfort of the Convertible. Still, the seat received mixed reviews, though a step up from the abysmal seat on the Dyna Low Rider we tested in the February 1997 issue. Although tilted slightly rearward, the base of the seat is flat and moderately firm, providing relative comfort in the long term. The rear of the seat curves up to the stepped pillion. The curve (when combined with the annoying windshield height) caused some riders to slouch after a while, but a rolled duffel provided solo travelers with an adequate back rest, mitigating discomfort. Passengers had few complaints about the width of the seat. While some co-riders felt the shortness of the seat pressed them too close to the rider, most found the back rest to be a plus on long rides.

A bike designed to be used as a tourer should have a place for riders with fidgety feet to move around. Appropriately, Harley delivers the FXDS with both standard pegs and highway pegs. While the standard pegs are a bit cramped for longer-inseamed folks, the highway pegs resolve the issue. The happy Convertible pilot will soon find that upshifts by lifting with a boot heel become automatic. Not so in the rear brake department. The right boot must be moved to the rear peg for optimal brake control. This 12-inch movement lengthens reaction time in panic stop situations, particularly if the rider is under the influence of highway hypnosis--a very real possibility with a 4.4-gallon, 160-mile trip to reserve on tap--and tries to press on air in front of the highway peg before remembering where the pedal is.

After 380 miles on interstate, we arrived in Lake George and found the knurled knob securing the left bag to the fender to be completely unscrewed. We vowed to check the knob more regularly but weren't too worried about the bag since it needed to be lifted up and slid slightly forward to be freed from the bike. When viewed from the side, the flaps give the impression that the bags are traditional top-grain leather designs, but unhooking the buckle, unsnapping a snap, and lifting the leather flap reveals Cordura bags that zip closed around three of their four sides for easy loading. Plastic and metal hardware on the bike side of the bags help them keep their shape on the bike, although they still look limp when empty. A sticker inside the bags warns against carrying more than an insubstantial 12 pounds per bag. A small leather pouch on the outside of each bag can accommodate items as large as a disc lock or point-and-shoot camera. We were pleasantly surprised to find that, after two and a half hours of steady rain, neither of the zippered Cordura bags leaked.

Americade started as a touring rally over a decade ago. While approximately 50 percent of the attendees are still astride touring rigs, motorcyclists of all stripes are welcome. This year's rally boasted 40,000 registered participants, but not all those who attend the festivities bother to register, meaning the actual attendance numbers should be higher. Our man-on-the-street eyeball poll determined the breakdown of non-touring bikes to be 50 percent Harley-Davidson, 30 percent other cruisers, 15 percent sport bikes, and 5 percent other bikes (dual purpose bikes, trikes, and vehicles that defy description). Not surprisingly, the bikes getting the most attention--in the sea of approximately 16,000 Harleys and cruisers--were the customs. Only once during the week did someone (another Convertible owner) comment on the Convertible's appearance. The FXDS' blue pearl paint was pleasing to the eye, but the bike's average looks would benefit from a custom touch or two.

Our first stop of the rally was at the Harley demo ride site (one of seven manufacturers present). Using the magic words "magazine, test bike, and photo shoot," we returned to the motel with a hex key and removed the windshield. If Harley would include tool kits with their bikes, we wouldn't have needed to resort such treachery just to feel the wind in our face. The entire windshield removal operation took less than two minutes. Remounting the windshield took a little longer and required some care around the cables and brake line.

In the array of bikes crawling their way up and down the strip, the Convertible's around-town character was congenial--as long as the engine was warmed up. The bike was stable at low speeds, and the three 11.5-inch discs worked well although the rear brake locked too easily in quick stops. The soft front end dove under braking, and the rear suspenders delivered sharp jolts over square-edged bumps at any speed. If the engine was cold, particularly in the mornings, the FXDS spit and coughed and shuddered like a two-pack-a-day smoker after climbing five flights of stairs. Full choke was required for more than five minutes in around-town stop-and-go traffic before the engine finally settled down. When the engine was hot, the bike frequently backfired as it was started.

Americade is not just about the demo rides or the vender area or the music or food or strolling downtown Lake George checking out the machinery or even talking to other bikers. We went to Lake George for all those things, but we also went to Lake George to ride. Americade has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best organized rallies in the country. Every day had no less than five guided, three unguided, and six self-guided tours through the rolling countryside of the Adirondack region.

On back roads, the FXDS was an enjoyable companion, provided it was not asked to do too much, too quickly. As our measured 65.4-mph terminal speed at the end of the 200-yard top gear roll on from 50 mph implies, passing traffic usually required a downshift to complete the maneuver in the space available. The 28-degree rake resulted in responsive steering and an agile feel, but the softly sprung 39mm fork and harsh rear suspension (that would hammer the rider with too much compression damping while not damping the rebound enough) made their unhappiness with mid-corner bumps all too clear. In smooth, sweeping corners, the Convertible offered plenty of ground clearance with which to play. Riders who like to swoop on anything but the smoothest roads will want to invest in some heartier suspension components.

Our forays into the urban jungles of Manhattan and Los Angeles were not as pleasurable as our rural meanderings through Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Cruising at about 70 mph down Manhattan's West Side Highway with cars on all sides, we were startled by the sound of metal on pavement--followed by horns and well meaning car drivers who weaved all over the road as they gestured wildly at the back of the bike telling us what we had already surmised. A mere 90 miles after the retaining knob had last been tightened, the left saddlebag made a run for it, taking all its contents with it. Returning to the scene ten minutes after the fact, we found the carnage strewn across three lanes of traffic. Utilizing the Convertible's flashers (initiated by pressing both turn signal buttons at the same time) we slowed to a crawl before stopping to rescue a mortally wounded Vanson jacket. The Convertible was unceremoniously parked in a Chelsea garage and summarily returned to York two days later. In Harley's defence, this saddlebag incident is the only one we know of, and we've asked around. (Editor's note: Since this was printed in 1997, several other Convertible owners have reported similar problems.)

The test bike loaned to us upon our return to LA did little to ease the hard feelings between us and our previous FXDS. Even in mid-day summer temperatures, the engine refused to run smoothly without an extended warm-up. The suspension felt harsher on the broken city pavement than our east-coast loaner. Unless there was a need to ride it, the Convertible was generally passed up for other bikes.

The Convertible seems to be a good idea that fell victim to a few basic flaws in implementation. Jetting changes or installing Harley's terrific electronic fuel-injection system would remedy the rideability problems. A new bag-securing system is only a little design time away. The suspension can be improved with a quick trip to the aftermarket. What bothers us most is that these problems should not be present in a 15,000-dollar motorcycle. Until some changes are made, the Convertible will remain one of the best ideas we'd aren't rushing to buy.

High Points
Windshield and bags easily removable
Rubber mounted engine
Good ground clearance

Low Points
Cold-blooded engine
Tall windshield obscures view of road
Bag mounts may loosen

First Changes
Find better way to secure bags
Trim wind shield to suit your height


After my first day with the FXDS, I thought I'd finally ridden a Harley that would garner a 4 rating. The extended interstate drone in a variety of weather, traffic, and road surface conditions had me impressed with the Convertible's flexibility. Although too tall, the windshield kept me dry in the rain, the bags kept my gear dry, and everything came off the bike easily, allowing me to ride an unfettered bike down the strip to dinner. Only the bike's cold bloodedness took some of the shine off the package at Americade. However, the Convertible's stock plummeted as I risked life and limb picking up the remains of my favorite Vanson jacket (which had been dragged almost a quarter mile down the road by who knows how many cars) and had to write off all the other contents of the suicidal saddlebag. Still, I debated a 3 or a 3.5 rating for the rest of my East Coast sojourn. What finalized my decision was the cold blooded and downright orneriness of the Convertible we rode in LA.

I like the idea of a bike that converts, in no more time than it usually takes to check oil level, from touring rig to naked boulevard machine. The seat didn't bother me, and I've even become kinda fond of the feet waaaay forward riding position offered by the highway pegs. If the folks at H-D make a couple small changes--jetting and bag mounting, specifically--the utilitarian nature of the FXDS would move it up near the top of my list of do-everything cruisers.

Evans Brasfield
3 stars

Maybe I had unrealistically high hopes, but the Convertible was a disappointment. I was a big fan of Harley's FXRT/FXRD series machines, and hoped this machine might work as well. The concept of a bike that quickly makes the switch from cross-town troller to cross-country speeder is an appealing one, but the execution left me cold. The windshield, though offering good wind protection, was too high and got in the way of the instrument controls. The saddlebags look deflated unless full. The saddle, at least on the bike we had in California, was uncomfortable, and the engine took inordinately long to warm up---and still felt like it needed some more. The first time I rode it, the rear suspension, reacting (with an amazing noise) to a bump I ride over every day with little drama, hammered me so hard that it probably shortened my spine.

Evans tells me that the bike he picked up back east worked much better. Judging by the fact he came back smiling, it must have.

Art Friedman
2.5 stars

1997 Harley-Davidson Dyna Convertible

Designation: FXDS-CONV
Suggested base price: $14,100 ($14,385 California, 1998 prices)
Standard colors: black
Extra cost colors: red pearl, blue pearl, violet pearl, add $200, red/black add $525 (1998 colors)
Standard warranty: 12 mos., unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 5000 miles

ENGINE & DRIVETRAIN,br> Type: Air-cooled, 45-degree, tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: OHV, 1 intake, 1 exhaust valve, operated by hydraulic adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 13400cc, 88.8 x 108 mm
Compression ratio: 8.5:1
Carburetion: 1, 40mm Keihin CV
Lubrication: Dry sump, 3.0 qt.
Minimum fuel grade: 92 octane
Transmission: Wet, multiplate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Belt, 70/32

Wheels: wire-spoke, 19 x 2.5 front, 16 x 3.0 rear
Front tire: 100/90-19 Dunlop Elite S/T D401
Rear tire: 130/90HB-16 Dunlop Elite S/T D401
Front brake: 2, single-action, single-piston calipers, 11.5 in. discs
Rear brake: Single-action, single-piston caliper, 11.5 in. disc
Front suspension: 39mm stanchions, 6.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: 2 dampers, 4.7 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Fuel capacity: 4.9 gal., (0.5 gal reserve)
Handlebar width: 25.5 in., 1.0 in. diameter

Charging output: 360 watts
Battery: 12v, 20 AH
Forward lighting: 55/60-watt headlight, position lights
Taillight: Single bulb
Instruments: speedometer, LCD odometer/tripmeter; warning lights for high beam, turns signals, neutral, oil pressure

Fuel mileage: 32 to 45 mpg, 37.9 mpg average
Average range: 185 miles
RPM at 60 mph, top gear: 2560
200 yard, top-gear-acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 65.6 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 14.83 sec., 84.6 mph

Harley's Convertible lets you have it both ways. Photography by William Brady.
The Dyna Convertible's fairly complete instrumentation includes a fuel gauge on the tank. We always appreciate a tachometer.
It takes just a few minutes to remove the saddlebags and windshield and return the Convertible to its pure-cruiser roots.
Using the 5/32 hex key that the rider must provide, two bolts per stanchion loosen the spring-like band steel brackets and allow easy windshield removal. Although the slots on the windshield's bracket (above the mounts) appear to allow a large degree of adjustment, the actual amount of adjustablility is negligible due to the instruments and other hardware. Also, the windshield makes it difficult to reach the trip meter reset button on the back of the speedometer.
The knurled knob proved too unreliable to secure valuable saddlebags and their contents. The left one required tightening every 100 miles and still managed to allow the bag to fall off.
The studs on the fender rail are one of the only clues that this Harley is a stripped Convertible. Each stud fits into a hole and slot in the bag and appears to provide enough security should the bag's knob unscrew.
The knob between the two throttle cables adjusts the tension of the twist grip and can be used as a throttle lock. Since Harley recently lost a law suit that claimed the lock (not rider error) caused an accident, we wonder how long this useful feature (when used with a modicum of common sense) will continue to be fitted.
Seat height: 28.5 in.
Wheelbase: 63.75 in.
Wet weight: 682 lbs.
GVWR: 1085 lbs.
Overall length: 91.5 in.
Rake/trail: 28 degrees, 4.1 in.