Right now, most of you are looking at me with that expression you usually reserve for someone who just jumped from a 10-storey building and walked away; shocked incredulation. How could I even begin to start to compare Harley-Davidson, the epitome of hairy, lairy and scary (the bikes are quite wild too) with the espresso-sipping, pointy-shoe-wearing folk you tend to find on Vespas? You may well be saying it’s a reach too far, bitten off more than you can chew, credibility irrevocably lost… and you may be right! But have a listen here first, and you might start to see what we’re on about.

Who are the two biggest bike-only manufacturers in the business? Yup, Harley and Vespa, or strictly speaking Vespa’s parent company, Piaggio. These are the two that have endured basically unchanged through two or three generations, have gained fanatical followings, and whose names are definitions of what biking is to certain groups of people. And both brands are so steeped in the righteous lore of the Silver Screen, celebrity indiscretion and post-war transportation that they’re practically drowning in it. What you might not have realised, however, is the similarity in cost. No, I haven’t taken a fresh puff on the opium pipe: the most expensive Vespa currently available as a standard model, the 300 GTV i.e. model, is actually almost R5k more expensive than the cheapest Harley, the 883N Iron. That’s not a misprint. So we decided that this situation warranted some investigation: just how can a scooter be the same kinda cash as a piece of pig-iron heavy enough to be worth the money just on metal alone?

Harley 883N Iron

Let me state, right from the outset, that I’m not a Harley guy. I think that they are fat bikes bought by even fatter people who use the vastness of the bike to disguise their own bulk, and spend their days roaring around in a cloud of self-importance. I said as much to the Harley guy, and he just laughed, “Go ride it, then we’ll speak.”

The bike itself is quite a good-looking thing, as Harleys go. Relatively small for a Harley, it sits low with a 735mm seat height, making the bike’s 254 kg weight fairly easy to handle at low speeds, and therefore relatively accessible to a new rider. Hop on, helmet up, and fire up the fairly long-stroke (76.2mm x 96.8mm) 883 Evo motor, which farts its way into a fairly steady idle, setting up a combination of vibrations that would make any lady smile in a vaguely distracted, cross-eyed way… only problem being it has a solo seat, making it a little tricky to take her along for the experience!

Thunk the very deliberate shifter into first, an action that makes a sound halfway between breaching a round in a rifle and kicking a tin, and feed in the power gingerly to set the mass in motion. The 70Nm of torque the 883 produces immediately makes its presence felt, effortlessly whumping the little Harley up the road on a blare of V-twin dissonance and rumble, shifting its mass in a very convincing fashion. And the “little” 883 motor has more than enough oomph to get you quite far into Gareth Cliff (illegal) territory, combined as it is with a fairly long-ratio’ed 5-speed gearbox. The limiting factor is generally the strength of your neck and arms, as the wind makes its best effort at peeling you from your mount…

So it’s got the go to match the pose factor, which is pretty high. Styled on one of the more popular classic speedster styles of yesteryear, it’s a long, low slab of chrome and black, with low sweep bars and a peanut tank giving it a classic speedster profile, and cutting a stylish swathe as you surf along on your wave of torque. Make no mistake, it can be fast; it just doesn’t necessarily want to be.

Settle into the way it wants to be ridden, and a whole new experience starts to avail itself to you. Suddenly you’re slouching back on your seat, burbling along in top gear with the bike practically idling at 120 km/h, hand on the tank, soaking up the joy that is riding a bike and being a part of the scenery, as opposed to a disinterested spectator in your car. The wide front wheel gives the front a nicely keyed-in feel, with good stability and a positive turn-in feel through the bar, although you tend to ride through the bumps with the bike, as opposed to the suspension soaking up the impacts. The bike makes no bones about its envelope of performance, and does things the way it feels like doing them. You either adjust, and start to see the special brand of enjoyment it uniquely offers, or y ou’ll feel limited, and ultimately walk away.

So does it sound like I’m the newest Harley convert? Well, no, actually. The tank is a touch small, making the trip to the garage a common experience if you use the performance. The vibration is literally enough to turn all contact points into a buzzing mass of pins and needles after an hour and around town it has the slow-speed manners of a hung over mule, too big to realistically filter between lanes in traffic. It also suffers from mild driveline shunt, making mooching along at walking pace a fraught affair of too little/too much, foot down/foot up, unless you clutch in and coast along, and changing direction is an exercise requiring notification in triplicate a week before the event. People also immediately think that you are a lawyer, and start pelting your with their take-out coffees and chewing gum.

So where do I stand then, on this entry point to Harley? Well, I’m ambivalent. The power is nice, and it delivers in the way that only a large-capacity naturally aspirated motor could, from below-basement in one large, juicy slug. It is also a very well made specimen. It does look like an R82k bike. It just doesn’t look like my kind of R82k bike, and I guess that’s my point. If your idea of a bike is the laid-back variety by this Milwaukee manufacturer, you can’t get into the fold for less money. It’s eminently competent, and I must admit that I did enjoy my time on it. Now I can understand why people buy these things in their droves; Harley does things in a way unmatched in the bike world, and that is still a good thing. You wouldn’t trade in your grandfather just because he farts at the dinner table (bless you gramps); he’s got character. Same story here.

Harley Davidson Sportster Seventy-Two

If your boss was particularly kind over bonus season, your R90,000 could potentially stretch out to this fine little example here. The lads at Harley invited me to have a go on this new-for-2012 model that’s been styled to evoke the best of the 70’s custom era, in a bike you can get off the shelf.

This bike also uses the Sportster chassis, but runs the 1200cc Evo motor for a significantly uprated dose of, well, everything. The major chassis difference comes up front, where there is a much narrower gauge front fork holding a classic slim line wheel. This, and the tiny eight litre “peanut” tank conspire to make a very potent little package indeed. Even smaller than the Iron, and rocking mini-ape handlebars that seat the grips at just below shoulder level and provide an astonishing amount of tactile interface when cornering spiritedly.

Of course, the fact that none of your weight actually rests on the handlebars, but merely tugs upon them does make for a lively front-end when you press on, but it’s engaging rather than fearsome, and requires only a light drag of the back brake to correct. Or just more cowbell. This thing is an utter hooligan, scraping its feet and belching great gobs of forward motion onto the road in a vulgar display of excess, and yet it’s all quite involving and subversive. You become the devil. Your name might change to Toby.

You also become both bankrupt and irritated. It drinks like an Irish Russian after losing the love of his life. The shot glass of a petrol tank means you can only realistically do about 90km a fill if you ride like your pants are on fire, and that’s eight litres going bye-bye each petroholic glug it consumes. Do mileage, and it becomes a devil-on-the-shoulder experience, the good advocating low revs and long gears while the bad is burning his cassock and rigging a pulley on the throttle to crank it full taps all the time.
It’s all good fun though, and the metallic paint, Easy Rider paintjob and masses of chrome get looks, which is also okay on a thing of excess like this. It’s all okay when you’re on it, and you walk away each time thinking, “Next time I’ll take it easy and cruise.”

GTS Vespa 300 i.e Super

Right, into the deep left field no w. This is where that healthy dose of scepticism comes romping in through the door, kicking over your Jack and Coke and keying your paintwork. How in pluperfect Hell can I even be doing this?!
Truth be told, they can’t be compared as tools, excepting the fact that they are both motorcycles, with two wheels and a motor powering one of them. It’s transportation, pure and simple. But yet, somehow, Vespas are something more than just that. After all, Vespa means “wasp” in Italian. Maybe it’s the PLAYBOY days of the swinging 60s, with pictures of impossibly gorgeous women perched behind Italian cads, blasting through the Roman streets on their Vespas with a smoke in his mouth; they personified a decadent, devil-may-care era where it was All Good. I’ll grant you, those rose-tinted specs are now firmly removed with today’s economic situation, but the heritage of the brand cannot be denied.

I jump onto the latest offering from the Pontedera-based giants, the 300 i.e Super. These puppies are significantly more advanced than the isithuthuthu’s (ask someone, if you don’t understand) I’m used to from Vespa, sporting disk brakes front and rear, a water-cooled 278cc thumper (4-stroke) motor with fuel injection and impressive 35 km/l fuel consumption figures at 70 km/h, a figure that Frans Steyn’s the Harley into a deep touch. And this is one seriously flick-able little scooter!

The low centre of gravity and micron-perfect positioning of all of the interfaces, combined with the plucky little motor punching well above its weight in delivery of its maximum output of 22.7bhp @7,500rpm all collude to make the sprightly little Italian quite a laugh around the cut and thrust of the city centre. It seems genuinely eager to please, dosing out engaging acceleration while allowing you to weave about between the traffic like a particularly energetic Muhammad Ali. Okay, maybe Baby Jake…

It’s not a Harley. But then it was never intended to be. This was a bike first designed for a post-war Europe (Italy, specifically) that allowed people to get about their business in a cost-effective and timely manner, while still adhering to the Italian God of Style. They really do look like the racing snails from The Neverending Story. Just don’t buy into the putrid metallic lime rhino-snot colour scheme they offer; looks too real then…

It’s an immensely competent and well-built bike with aerospace design influence and a healthy dose of brio, and compared to other scooters the quality does shine through in a number of noticeable ways, like the milled aluminium passenger footpegs that fold flush with the bodywork when not in use, or the electronic push-button release for the front cubby stash. This is a tool of utility, for those who find time an adversary at the dawn of each new sunrise. They allow you a step-in, step-out super-taxi to any reasonable destination, with predictable handling that somehow remains engagingly responsive to those more skilled in the art of the motorcycle. It makes sense in a transport way, but I’m not convinced that it’s quite swimming in the rarefied waters it finds itself. R85,950 is a lot of money, proper actual money, for a scooter, even one as well specced as this one is. It finds itself in a wasp’s nest (pun intended) of activity across a number of bike types, from commuters to adventure bikes and, of course, the Harley.

These bikes should have no space in our chase-the-bottom-line world, but yet they both remain as relevant as ever. They remind us that things don’t have to be refined beyond all recognition to make them better. I won’t lie and say that I would buy either, because I wouldn’t. But for the first time in my life, I can properly understand why people would buy them. You can offer me a ride on either, and I’d have it.

Vespa PX 150

I had to. There it stood, like grandpa with his Zimmer frame; the PX 150 is a throwback to another era. Two-stroke motor, 4-speed, cable operated hunt-box, it’s all present and correct; its only the major issue of brakes (disks, instead of the terrifying drums previously employed) and a handy electric starter that are different from the formula used so effectively since time immemorial. It is a stroke of genius this, a genuinely ground-breaking design as lauded by industrial designers and artists as engineers and bikers. This is Vespa 101.

Fire up the 148cc, single cylinder and you’re immediately transported back – I don’t care what age you are, you’ve heard a Vespa caning past you at some point, usually trailing a smoky cloud behind the student riding it. It’s as much a rite of passage as owning a classic Mini used to be about 30 years ago, an experience that will shape your appreciation of motorcycles no matter what angle you approach them from. I cracked the biggest smile on this one, cursing as I missed changes or shifted a gear too far and bogged down, wringing the little two-stroke’s neck as I hooned along past the Cape Town stadium, the steering entirely too lively and under your feet, yet never actually causing any harm. It’s like taking a ride on the Union Buildings, balanced on a skateboard; entirely as shaky as you’d expect from the derivative of a 66-year old bike should be, and yet entirely epic. You can’t help but love it a little. It’s like a pet – imperfect, but better because of the fact. You and it are engaged in an adventure, whenever you climb aboard.

This is probably the last really authentic motorbiking experience you can on planet Earth right now, and it’s something that’s making a resurgence in biking circles recently, the classic reworked. This bike is as crazy and Italian and fun as it’s always been, but you get real brakes, electric start and all of the old school charm. It’s a wonder these things aren’t more popular, until you see the price. R54 950. Buy it on nostalgia alone, but test it and you’ll understand why you’d think about it twice.

by Tim Houghton

Published in Playboy South Africa May 2012