Retro Review: 1997 Harley-Davidson Dyna Glide Convertible

From highway to boulevard in five minutes

Harley-Davidson's Dyna Glide Convertible that was the ride of choice to a past Americade event.William Brady

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, then hit the road for some real riding on the weekend or during a work-day when we aren’t tied to our desks.

Although the weather report warned of at least 140 miles of rain, we couldn't help but smile 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, awaited us at the trip's end. 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 studs on the fender rail are one of the only clues that this is a stripped Convertible. The studs appear to provide enough security should the bag’s knob unscrew.William Brady

The FXDS Convertible, added to the Dyna Glide line in 1994, has been popular among riders who want a do-it-all bike. In the Convertible, Harley has in effect created two bikes. The first offers a windshield and solidly mounted soft bags suitable for a long haul. Upon reaching the destination, bags and windshield can be quickly and easily removed, revealing the classic Harley lines, ready for 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.

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 and a turnbuckle hidden in the V.

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 (right of the mounts) appear to allow a large degree of adjustment, the actual amount of adjustability 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.William Brady

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. Pulling out of the York plant and rumbling up the road reminded us again of how effective the Dyna is at smoothing out the 1340 cc engine. Only the slightest vibration reaches the rider, a fact we would increasingly appreciate as the miles clicked by. As we pulled onto rain-wet Interstate 83, 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. Each of the pistons draws air in through the single 40 mm Keihin CV carburetor into an 88.8 mm 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 position 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, keeps the elements away from the rider. Rain gets directed over the rider’s head and only the rider’s gloves and legs receive direct precipitation at speed. 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 quibble 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. In dry weather, being forced to look through the windshield may not seem to be much of a problem, but in rain the rider’s vision through the windshield can be impaired, particularly when riding in a fine misty rain or following a tractor trailer rig on a saturated road. Nighttime and oncoming traffic would only compound the problem.

The Convertible had a congenial around-town character, that is as long as it was warmed up.William Brady

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. The seat received mixed reviews, though it’s still 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 during long rides. 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. 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 to move their feet 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 happy Convertible pilot will soon find that upshifting by lifting with a boot heel becomes an automatic response. 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.

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.William Brady

After 380 miles on the 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 design, but unhooking the buckle, unsnapping a snap, and lifting the leather flap reveals Cordura bags that are zippered 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 although the bags on the bike 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. After two and a half hours of steady rain on our way to Americade, neither of the zippered Cordura bags leaked.

Americade started as a touring rally over a decade ago. This year’s rally boasted 40,000 registered participants. With approximately 16,000 Harleys and cruisers present, 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 to 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.

The Convertible offers an easily removable windscreen for the '97 model.William Brady

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.

But 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 talking to other bikers. 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 offering 14 tours through 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 39 mm fork and harsh rear suspension (that would hammer the rider with too much compression damping while not damping the rebound enough) made its 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. While 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, telling us what we had already surmised. A mere 90 miles after the retaining knob had last been tightened, the left saddlebag leapt into oblivion, taking all its contents with it. Returning ten minutes later, we found exploded saddlebag strewn across three lanes of traffic. Utilizing the Convertible’s flashers (by pressing both turn signal buttons at the same time) we stopped to rescue a mortally wounded Vanson jacket. In Harley’s defense, this saddlebag incident is the only one we know of, and we’ve asked around.

The test bike loaned to us upon our return to L.A. 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 inevitably 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 ride-ability 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 $14,000 motorcycle. Until some changes are made, the Convertible will remain one of the best ideas we aren’t rushing to buy.

1997 Harley-Davidson Dyna Glide Convertible
1997 Harley-Davidson Dyna Glide ConvertibleWilliam Brady

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, while 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 more time. 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

After my first day with the FXDS, I thought I’d finally ridden a Harley that would garner a 4 star rating. My extended interstate drone in a variety of weather, traffic, and road surface conditions left 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 3.5 star rating for the rest of my east coast sojourn. What finalized my decision was the cold bloodedness 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 HD 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

This article was originally published in the October 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

High Points: Low Points: First Change:
Windshield and bags easily removable Cold-blooded engine Find better way to secure bags
Rubber mounted engine Tall windshield obscures view of road Trim windshield to suit your height
Good ground clearance Bag mounts may loosen
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
Type: Air-cooled, 45-degree, tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: OHV, 1 intake, 1 exhaust valve, operated by hydraulic adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1340 cc, 88.8 x 108 mm
Compression ratio: 8.5:1
Carburetion: 1, 40 mm 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: 39 mm 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
Inseam Equivalent: 34.2 in.
Electrical & Instrumental
Charging output: 360 watts
Battery: 12v, 20 AH
Forward lighting: 55/60-watt headlight, position lights
Taillight: Single bulb
Instruments: Speedometer, LCD odometer/tripmeter; tachometer; fuel gauge, warning lights for high beam, turn 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