The Harley Davidson "Road King" is a resolutely American vehicle which, like all great brands, mirrors the character of the nation that created it. The motorbike is large, noisy and expensive. Some call it stylish; others brash. For better or worse, it tends to stand out in a crowd. Last week, I drove a chrome-covered "Hog" almost the entire length of California's Pacific Coast Highway. It was a meandering journey along one of the world's most majestic coastlines. And it was also an education.
Lesson number one: it's hard to feel out of place on a Road King. You can bestride its saddle in a leather waistcoat, with tassels, plus an actual bandana, and not think yourself overdressed. You can roar into the quietest village, and remain convinced that heads are turning in envy, rather than anger. No man will ever open the machine's beefy throttle and not crack a smile.
Lesson number two: the Road King is technically flawed. It boasts a 1,500cc engine (bigger than many London cars), yet remains bizarrely sluggish. It guzzles petrol so fast you need to refill every couple of hours. It has the cornering capability of an oil tanker. A small child could break into the saddle-bag.
This doesn't prevent Harleys being beautiful, star-spangled machines, of course. But neither does it help their commercial prospects. Being expensive-yet-quirky makes them luxury goods. Buying one represents a careless expression of consumer confidence. And right now, we all know what that means.
Last year, Harley Davidson's share price dropped 62 per cent. Its most recent quarterly earnings were down 58 per cent and 1,100 members of its workforce are being made redundant. The firm's credit wing, which has for years financed the purchase of bikes on the never-never, is losing $25m each quarter.
The other day, meanwhile, Warren Buffett ploughed $300m into the company, to keep its head above water. It was a bold move. But it also underlined a pressing fact: right now, Harley Davidsons really do mirror the nation. They are large, noisy, expensive – and scraping by on bailouts.
Drivers make poor shots
The trip provided an opportunity to peruse the California Driver's Handbook. Among the many local rules of the road: "Never shoot firearms on a highway, or at traffic signs." Just in case you were tempted!
Costume not included
Passing through Las Vegas at the weekend (it's a hard life), a startling discovery: the City of Sin's major hotels have introduced "topless" swimming pools, where guests may sunbathe "in the European style". Entry generally costs $30 if you're a man – but just $10 for women. Canny.