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The Aermacchi Harley Davidson Relationship

The Aermacchi Harley Davidson collaboration is a situation that even today is considered controversial, with Harley hardcore fans snubbing the Aermacchi branch of the American company completely.

Some even consider the Aermacchi Harley Davidsons as disrespectful to the big V-twins, claiming they were re-badged bikes from Japan.

However, it is more complicated than that and the bikes that came out of this investment from Harley Davidson are worth discussing, this situation is part of the history of the American company, so let’s get to it.

Aermacchi Harley Davidson History

Aermacchi Background

The best place to start with any story is right at the beginning and in this case we first need to establish who were Aermacchi and how did Harley Davidson get involved with them.

Aermacchi was originally set up as an Italian aircraft manufacturer titled Nieuport-Macchi in 1912. The founder and owner was Giulio Macchi and the company would later change its name to Aeronautica Macchi.

In the early days the company produced aircraft for the Italian military. After a dabble in motorcycles which we will get into, the Aermacchi factory went on to specialise in civil and military training aircraft. Today the company is operated under Leonardo aircraft after Aermacchi (known as Alenia Aermachhi) was merged in 2003.

After World War II Aermacchi Motorcycles was created as a branch of the company that could fill the need for cheap, efficient, effective transport. The Italian company also knew that this avenue of business was growing worldwide and from their little stronghold in Italy they wanted in on the potential profits.

Interestingly the first model Aermacchi produced in 1951 was a scooter/hybrid called the Convertible, it was mostly an enclosed type scooter affair with a conventional motorcycle style fuel tank.

These early models were largely small capacity 2 stroke motorcycles, it wasn’t until 1956 when the first OHV four stroke single motor was built called the Chimera. The Chimera retained more of a hybrid scooter/motorcycle design despite the progress to a four stroke engine.

Unfortunately scooter production in Italy was dominated by Vespa and Lambretta who had a stronghold on this segment, so in order to be successful Aermacchi needed to shift their scooter designs into more modern classic style motorcycle models.

Before we shift gears though, it is worth looking at some pictures of the early models, it might just be me, but they were quite cool looking, at least you can certainly see the Italian fashion and style pulsing through them, as you can with any Ducati.

Aermacchi Harley Davidson
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The single cylinder 250cc Ala Verde Aermacchi Harley Davidson was capable of 90mph

Harley Davidson Investment

Now in 1960 Harley Davidson bought 50% of the Aermacchi motorcycle division. The rest of the motorcycle holdings were eventually sold in 1974 to AMF-Harley Davidson before the business was sold off to Cagiva in 1978.

We quite often look at the British motorcycle industry in the 60’s as a bit of a mess business wise with companies merging left and right, but it is safe to say trouble and strife was prevalent around the world during this era for the motorcycle industry.

The question really is why did Harley Davidson invest into a small manufacturer in Italy?

Well, as many amateur motorcycle history buff’s know, the Japanese manufacturers like Honda and Yamaha were taking over sectors of the motorcycle market, in particular the lightweight segment.

Bikes like the 250cc Suzuki Hustler and the Honda CB450 had been hits in Europe and now they were beginning to infringe on Harley’s reign in the US, in their own country.

Even the Italians were doing well in 1960’s America with lightweight, small bikes like the original Ducati Scrambler.

HD weren’t about to sit back and watch it happen.

The very first model produced under the new Aermacchi Harley Davidson branch was a subtly modified version of the Ala Verde. A sports type lightweight two-stroke 250cc.

Now at this time every manufacturer worth their salt in the industry knew that the way to make an impact, create the best selling point and gain important advertising was to enter the world of racing. That is exactly what Aermacchi Harley Davidson did but more on that later.

Let’s first take a look at some of the most significant motorcycles to come out of the Harley Davidson Aermacchi era.

Aermacchi Harley Davidson Model Range

Aermacchi Harley Davidson TX-125

The TX-125 is one of the models that is very rarely mentioned in the press, it was produced for one year only in 1973 and was a simple little trail bike.

Shepsters make an interesting observation of the bikes ad in Playboy magazine “Marketing may well have been out to lunch (or returning from a liquid one) when boasting that it’s Great American Freedom Machine – a 125! – was audaciously ‘the nicest way you’ll ever go from one place to another’. It expanded further to say that it was an ‘on-road, off-road, five speed, oil injected goodtime machine.’”

The TX bridged the gap between the MLS Rapido and the SX series of lightweight enduro’s.

The best way to think about the bike is as a first bike, as your first time on one, a moped, a BMX even, a cool vehicle to freedom that you never had before.

If you try to think of it as anything else, especially anything else badged as a Harley Davidson then you wouldn’t look at a TX-125 twice.

There are a few of these 125’s around and so if you fancy re-living that first time feeling again, maybe a Harley 125 is the way forward.

Aermacchi Harley Davidson 250 Sprint

The 250 Sprint is arguably the most well known model that came out of the partnership. The Sprint was essentially an already existed Aermacchi bike that HD built upon.

It wasn’t meant to be that way, initially Harley planned to use the lightweight 250cc engine and put it in a modified Sportster frame for the introduction of a lightweight version of their popular model.

Sales were respectable in dealerships but where it excelled and why it is memorable is on the race track. Variations of the Sprint were used in scrambler racing, flat track, road and Grand Prix racing.

George Roeder rode a Harley Davidson Sprint on the famous Bonneville Salt Flats to set a land speed record of 177mph two-way average run. The Sprint had the single cylinder 250cc engine housed in a streamliner chassis specifically built for the challenge.

By Harley standards the Sprint was very much more of a conventional motorcycle, practical fenders, large gas tank, long saddle, mildly high (American) handlebars, and it was a simple OHV single cylinder engine.

Compression of 8.5:1 pushing out around 18 horsepower and 0-60mph in 15 seconds. Straight out of the factory it wasn’t going to the set the world on fire.

Alfredo Bianchi was the designer credited with the unit construction engine that Aermacchi had first introduced with the Chimera and then the Sprint.

The chassis was equally simple with a long down tube holding the engine by just 3 bolts. Bianchi created the chassis and slightly horizontal cylinder design to ensure everything was within easy access such as the Dell’Orto carb; this was especially important for racers.

Twin rear shocks, telescopic forks and 17″ front and back wheels made up the rest of the bike along with 7″ drum brakes. The suspension lacked adjustment but the brakes were more than up to the job on the lightweight model.

The C model was the first bike, followed by the H which had a racier edge with a big air cleaner and larger wheels. The H model had increased compression ratio and more horsepower. In 1967 a R model was produced which was racing only.

The engine was enlarged in 1969 to a 350cc.

Aermacchi Harley Davidson Ala Verde

The Ala Verde was developed as a sports version of the 250cc Ala Azzurra. It used the single cylinder engine from the Chimera which was tinkered with to increase power from 13hp to 16hp.

They also changed the carburettor from a 22mm to 24mm and by the time the engineers had finished the Ala Verde was capable of close to 90mph out of the box.

It’s Cafe Racer looks, top end speed, and renowned road holding made it a popular choice with Aermacchi customers.

The one featured throughout this article was at this years Isle of Man classic TT and a friend photographed it for me parked outside The Railway in Union Mills on the mountain course.

Ammacchi Ala Verde
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A recent visitor to the Isle of Man

Aermacchi Harley Davidson SS-350

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The SS-350

In essence the SS-350 (released in 1973) was just the Sprint with the bigger 350cc engine and an electric start.

The problem was the SS-350 had to compete with the likes of the two-stroke Yamaha RD400. Sales wise it just couldn’t compete because the RD and other similar Japanese racers were the best money could buy for power and fun.

Contrary to the Sprint the SS-350 gained a two-tube chassis with the idea being it would add extra support for the bigger engine and protect the cylinder.

Unlike the 250, the engine was made more difficult to maintain as a result, plus the tubes were a little thin, so instead of actually being protective they created an illusion that they were.

The SS-350 had a very short swing arm and just a 56″ wheelbase, the engine was quite far back and so was the weight. The same high handlebars, as was the fashion in the US at the time made for quite an interesting flighty ride.

Steering was certainly light, fortunately there wasn’t enough power to make anything too scary happen often, at least not without you trying.

The SS-350 had a short run of around two years before Harley shifted their focus and sold the company off to Cagiva, who for a short while sold Cagiva/Harley Davidson models.

Aermacchi Harley Davidson Racing History

Out of the factory in Schiranna, HD created several motorcycles under the Harley Davidson Aermacchi brand, these were small models between 125 and 350cc in capacity.

These were aimed at the European and American markets. It wasn’t long before the 250cc bikes were producing 28 horsepower, then 30hp, and eventually the 350cc was making 33hp.

This increase in power in the small models was no coincidence, far from it. The HD Aermacchi motorcycles were hitting the race circuits.

In 1972 Renzo Pasolini raced to 2nd place in the 250cc Road Racing World Championship. Upon acquiring complete control of the company in 1974 HD stripped the Aermacchi name and rebadged them as bonafide Harley Davidson’s.

It was during this period of time that they went on to win the 250cc Road Racing World Championships 3 years in a row, 1974, 1975, 1976. in 1976 they also took the same title in the 350cc segment.

Buying an Aermacchi Harley Davidson

Today there is an enthusiastic following of the Harley Davidson motorcycles produced in Italy; the Aermacchi Harley Davidson era is one that provokes interest and has captured the hearts of those who like something a little different.

Of course just like Buell and the latest Harley branch off from tradition in the form of the Livewire development, there are more riders that focus on traditional big V twin powered motorcycles as opposed to these offshoots.

What that means for enthusiasts though, is that the market is carefully cultivated, the bikes are looked after, parts are available, and there is a wealth of information for Aermacchi Harley Davidson owners who love to talk about their bikes. All you need to do is hit up the forums or a Facebook group and your half Italian half American family is there waiting.

Prices in the UK vary from £3,500-£7,000 depending on the model, condition of the bike and year.

If you want a true racer there is a 1969 Ala D’oro currently in Italy with an asking price of £39,000 on Car and Classic.

In the US $3,000 seems to be the sweet spot.

There is also a heavily modified Sprint 250 due to be auctioned off in the US with no reserve. If you are looking for something truly special from this era this could very much be it. Click here to the Worldwide Auctioneers site to register for bidding.

There are plenty of affordable bikes available to pick up for around $1,500 but it should be noted that these will need some work to get them in running order, and a full restoration if you want a more accurate representation of the original model.

www.harleyaermacchi.com is the perfect start point for specialised parts for all models from 1961-1978.

Final Thoughts

There it is, a breakdown of the Aermacchi Harley Davidson relationship that spawned some of the more unusual Harley bikes that we are ever likely to see.

As with many things Harley do they didn’t invest in the Italian company without committing to the process and in many ways the venture was a success. You only need to look at their racing involvement and the large following that the bikes from the era still have to see that.

Ala Verde Aermacchi Harley Davidson rear view
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Aermacchi Harley Davidson Ala Verde rear view
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