The Weird And Wonderful World of Non-Harley Harleys
Harley-Davidson is famous for rumbling V-Twins, but the company has a remarkable and little known history with some different bikes
Think Harley-Davidson, think rolling down an endless ribbon of asphalt—perhaps in New Mexico—at 70 miles per hour, with the engine ticking over at 2500 rpm. You could ride this way for hours, tons of people do. It's the Harley way. Did you know there is a complete Harley-Davidson history of amazing and innovative machines that are not V-twins, though? It's true, and today we're going to check out some of the least-Harley Harleys ever produced.
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We'll begin in 1948. Peacetime, sunny skies, and overtime paychecks throughout America meant lots of new riders, but not everyone could handle a huge, 42 hp, 1000cc Panhead. The Motor Company filled out its line with the dramatically named S-125. Sometimes incorrectly called the Hummer, the S-125 was a direct copy of the the 1938 DKW RT125 two stroke commuter bike. The design was given to the world as part of German war reparations. You've seen this bike before, made in England as the BSA Bantam, in the USSR as the Minsk, others were produced in Poland, Italy, just about everywhere, including Japan with Yamaha's YA-1. With three horsepower and a 50 mile per hour top speed, these little beasts put millions of people on the road.
The S-125 was replaced by the 165cc hot rod version and earned the name "Hummer." Our marketing pals also confused everyone calling it the, Pacer, Super 10, Scat, and Bobcat. A DKW based Topper scooter joined the club around 1958.
The little bike that could finally bit the dust in 1965. One quirky version of the Bobcat showed up in 1966. It came with a one piece molded seat, tank, and rear fender unit. A footnote historically, but this forgotten and rare bike influenced the original boattail Low Rider, the later XLCR Sportster, The Triumph X75 Hurricane, and the Spanish built Bultacos and Ossas.
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In 1960, H-D bought a small Italian company called Aeronuatica Macchi, or Aermacchi, and some glorious lightweights rolled out of this partnership. Aermacchi had impressive horizontal cylinder 250 and later 350 with a solid roadracing pedigree.
For America off-road versions of the Aermacchi 250 did quite well even with odd weight balance and poor ground clearance. Most Harley fans ignore the AMF days, but some serious fun and roadracing successes came along with AMF. By 1977, H-D had nine different lightweight models.
Walter Villa worked with the Aermacchi factory in Varese, Italy and developed a remarkable 250 two stroke twin. Villa's twin poked a big stick in Yamaha's eye by winning outright the 1974 and 1975 Italian Grand Prix, setting new lap records on the Monza race course. After that, Villa moved up to the 350 class and continued the wins until 1977. Back home, Harley was rolling out a range of two-stroke singles. My favorite is the 50cc Shortster, an entry product into the minibike and family riding boom of the time.
Next up the SS125 came in road and enduro formats. The king of the hill was the ss250 a pretty darn fast 250 in an era of fast 250s. By 1980, the show was over for Harley lightweights, sadly. Fierce competition form Japan, a worldwide recession, and deep trouble at the motor company brought an end to the partnership with Aermacchi. End of story? Not quite, there is one more piece. Read on.
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The 1970's also included the great snowmobile boom. Everyone was doing it. Harley-Davidson partnered with Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC) to market 340 and 440cc sleds and a terrifying buddy trailer with which you could tow your friends and family around. If you like flipping over on your head, this could be for you. Sadly, in 1974 spiking fuel prices clobbered the snowmobile business and fun was over. H-D sleds, for reasons unknown, are highly sought after today.
The Motor Company tried tons of ideas to get people on two wheels—some worked, some failed, and some were wildly goofy. You can't say they never took a chance, though.
Photos courtesy of Mecum and Bonhams.