Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Still in love with the bike from hell

Harley-Davidsons are horrible motorcycles, clunky two-wheeled tractors that barely go and have difficulty stopping, enormously heavy, utterly outmoded lumps of expensive American iron. They are, however, enormously popular with accountants and the kind of 40-plus male media tarts who possess dodgy ponytails and receded hairlines. Despite being designed - if you can call such ham-fisted happenstance design - for the cornerless roads of middle America, they tend to be used for pose-commuting within cities, where their weight, risible performance and non-existent turning circle make them dangerous and unstable. Somewhat like their boring owners wish they were.

The father of the Davidson after the hyphen was from Fife, which is no excuse for the proliferation of Harleys in Scotland. For many years, Edinburgh was the only place in the country you could buy either a bike or some of the grotesque range of Harley accessories such as boots, jackets and bandanas (to disguise the baldness when the helmet comes off). Now an agency, part-owned by the brother of the Rangers supremo, David Murray, has opened in Glasgow, and Fat Boys, Electraglides and Road Kings will be trundling from both west and east coast franchises to the garages of the gullible.

If you think all this sounds a tad sour, you may have something. You see, in my teenage years I yearned for a Harley, simply because of its engine's hugeness. And this was before it expanded to an almighty 1,340cc. Just the thought of a 1,200cc bike, when British Triumphs, BSAs and Nortons, God rest their souls, could barely nudge 750cc, was intoxicating to a 15 year old. Besides, you never saw one in Troon. They were unthinkably exotic. And large.

But size - as anyone who's ever ridden a Fat Boy (don't get Freudian, please) will tell you - isn't everything. The chopped Hogs (the owners' club is called the Harley Owners Group) of Fonda and Hopper in Easy Rider may have inspired many an adolescent to pass their test on a Honda 50, but the Japanese moped would certainly have outperformed the two unwieldy Harleys on anything but a straight, dry piece of motorway. And broken down far less.

The truth is that a Honda 50 was for years the most powerful motorcycle I owned. My mother banned me from riding pillion on my friend Stewart's Honda CD250 so we could go and see Easy Rider at the Odeon in Ayr; his bike was too big and fast, and anyway I was 16, and the film was an 18-and-over X-certificate.

Forty-nine cc was considered safe, though, and so, in a tweed jacket and yellow plastic helmet, I would zip around Ayrshire at speeds of up to 35mph, dreaming that instead of a mild buzzing, the steam hammer thump of a Harley big twin was throbbing between my spindly thighs. Dressed courtesy of Dunn & Co and British Home Stores, I was the Mild Born to be Wild, despite never having dared to buy the Steppenwolf album. Then I passed my car test, discovered the delights of carrying female passengers in conditions of accessible dress and, with parental approval and cash, traded two wheels for four.

I was in my late thirties by the time motorcycles re-entered my life, and by then Harleys were the province of middle-aged saddos who were determined to indulge the forbidden fantasies of their youth. People like me, in other words, only with money. My circumstances led me to oddities such as the then East German MZ, smoky two-stroke belchers of pollutant which are now made in Turkey. Since then, I have periodically rid myself of bikes only to find the hankering for all they represent - escape, freedom, near-death adrenalin, cold so intense your penis can completely disappear for days - returning with irresistible force. And I head for the newsagent, buying armloads of magazines and weekly leafing through Motorcycle News and Bike Trader.

"Why not just buy a Harley," said my wife recently. "You know that's what you really want." She couldn't be more wrong, I replied. I hated Harleys and wouldn't be seen alive on one or dead underneath one. Which is a possibility if you so much as stumble when trying to get on board such a behemoth. She just smiled. I continued to peruse my pornography of machinery, arguing with myself that if we only lived in America a Harley might make sense. Straight roads, less rain. And I began examining the family finances, checking to see if I could afford a Honda . . . 90.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser