They arrive with a bang and a lot of buzz, take their turn on the catwalk, loiter in the wings for a while, and then just as abruptly as they materialized they disappear, slipping silently into that dark night of obsolescence without a send-off; without so much as an “adios, been good to know you.”
They are the spanking new models unveiled periodically by The Motor Company—the latest, the greatest, the “it” bikes of the moment. And among their number are some of Milwaukee’s most ambitious, audacious, utilitarian, offbeat and, at times, baffling creations. What most of these models share in common besides the initial hoopla surrounding their roll-out (including being reliably splashed on the cover of this publication) is a relatively short life span—anywhere from two to five years, is the prevailing range. In the case of several of the ephemeral offerings, they share another commonality: I fell in lust with them.
That practice of introducing new blood to the line periodically is in part for the predictable marketing sizzle it stirs, keeping eyes and excitement focused on the brand. And in many cases it’s part trial balloon as well, putting forth stylistically divergent creations in hopes that they’ll resonate with the consumers on a new level and propel the model into the core Milwaukee constellation for an extended tenure (the Street Glide, Softail Deluxe and Ultra Limited being prominent—and rare examples of bikes that made it to The Show.)
And it seemed to all appearances that one of the objects of my moto-lust, the Dyna Switchback, with its five-year production run, was on track to make the cut as well. But, alas, it was not to be. Discontinued for 2017, the loss of the Switchback from the line-up represents not just another failed flash-in-the-pan, but yet another failure of the entire “convertible” concept that Milwaukee has dabbled in for decades, now; the concept of a cake-and-eat-it-too combination of a capable touring mount, and a dapper street profiler once the touring amenities were quick-detached and stowed.
We’ll explore that concept and its non-acceptance in due course, but first let’s take a sentimental stroll through Milwaukee’s own island of misfit toys, starting with the bikes that had no business being built at all. Like the Road King Custom introduced in 2004. An ergonomic air-ball from the outset, with its “beach bars” and “flyscreen,” the Custom was virtually unrideable at highway speeds. The seat too far forward for an unfaired mount, and the bars too far rearward and pointing straight back. A real mess, in practical terms, but one that still managed to remain in play for four model years.
And then there was the Softail Rocker that also stuck around for four years despite being a true odd duck of a design—a hybrid of a Deuce up front and J.Lo in the rear, with an operator perch reminiscent of a Farmall, and a retractable passenger pillion reminiscent of a diving platform. Also included in the misfit category was the 2011 Blackline that stayed with us for three seasons despite handlebars like cockroach antennae and the concomitant erratic steering—lovely fuel tank, though.
At the other extreme are the models that made me swoon, but apparently not very many others. Springers both. The deliciously retro 2005 Springer Classic was a visual feast with laudable handling manners, and topped my personal wish list before being unceremoniously yanked from the roster after only three years. My grief at its passing lost its sting quickly, however, with the introduction in 2008 of the surprising Cross Bones. What a creation. A joy to behold, and a gas to ride, bouncing on the sprung saddle over hill and dale. Four years later it too quietly exited the stage. One other model that I fell for that didn’t last was the 2006 Street Rod—the admirable experiment in morphing a V-Rod into an agile handler, with the potent Revolution motor, a decent fuel capacity, and upright operator posture for serious road duty.
But back to the subject at hand, it was with shock and disappointment that I took the recent news of the Switchback’s demise. It had, to my thinking, so much promise to finally fulfill the convertible concept mandate. A real looker without the windscreen and hard bags, and a practical distance runner with the gear attached. A quick-handling steering geometry and a daunting power-to-weight ratio with the TC103 made it a sweet package for practical-minded Harley riders of diverse shapes and sizes. It was vastly superior to the Dyna Glide T-Sport of 2001–2003, with better thought-out outfitting and more eye-catching curb appeal. The only convertible model that surpassed it in visual appeal and removable touring dress was the short-lived CVO Softail Convertible—only offered from 2010 to 2012—that by rights should have been kept around and repurposed as an OE model in addition to its CVO exclusivity. It was that good, and the extremes the CVO engineers went to in clean-sheet designing and engineering the machine cause one to wonder why they didn’t go that route.
The struggles the convertibles have had over time can be attributed to a couple of factors, the first being the bling factor of other available models, with paint, chrome and attitude outweighing the practical considerations of a convertible in most consumers’ minds. The more immediate reason, however, is that with the ever-expanding catalogue of quick-detach luggage and wind protection products for pretty much any Milwaukee cruiser model, there’s less of an impetus to opt for the pre-fab package. In other words, you can reasonably “convert” just about anything these days.
The big question is now, judging by past practices and the limited shelf life of so many highly hyped new offerings, which of the current crop of 2017 models might be a thing of the past come 2018. Get your wagers down. Mine is on the Breakout.
It’s all right here in the diaries.