VARESE IN NORTHERN Italy has an impressive history when it comes to motorcycles. It has been home to MV Agusta, Aermacchi, Cagiva, SWM and, briefly, Husqvarna and BMW.The glacial Lake Varese is encircled by a fine motorcycling road that’s certain to bring out the best in those lightweight motorcycles the Italians do best. It is a perfect track on which to to test the limits of handling on the edge of the stunning Italian Alps.
One reason for this concentration of precision engineering efforts at Varese was the use of the lake by aircraft manufacturers building seaplanes, flying boats, military aircraft and Schneider Trophy racers until the end of the SecondWorldWar.The primary aircraft company was Macchi, founded in 1912. In the late 1940s the company renamed itself Aermacchi and branched out from aircraft, first into vans and trucks and then started building motorcycles in 1951.
AERMACCHI MOTORCYCLES ARE BORN
THE FIRST AERMACCHI bikes were large-wheeled scooters. These were of an unusual design, and featured leading link forks, 17 inch wheels and 125cc two-stroke engines. In 1956 they produced their first overhead valve four-stroke engine. This 175cc powerplant developed by Aermacchi’s designer, Alfredo Bianchi, was fitted into the radical, space age-styled Chimera, which had the engine cylinder sticking out of the front horizontally. Moto Guzzi also used the flat-single concept on its Falcone models, and Motobi built a horizontal single too.
Using the flat single layout had many benefits and became the standard engine for Aermacchi into the 1970s. The biggest advantages in using the flat single were compactness and a low centre of gravity, which made the handling something to write home about when mated with top-notch Italian suspension from Ceriani or Marzocchi. Sticking the single cylinder out in the open made for better engine cooling, too.The first Chimera had a 172cc ohv engine that knocked out 13bhp. It had a roller bearing bottom end, alloy head, a generator, coil ignition, wet sump lubrication, a four-speed gearbox, multiplate clutch and helical gear primary drive. Not a bad specification for 1956.
By 1958 the Chimera was available in a 250cc version.The steering on both models was praised by road testers, being described as light and positive with a “conscious desire for bends and corners”.The Chimera wowed the crowds at shows and the press gushed over the design, but the Chimera sold poorly, even when expanded to a 250.
Facing the failure of his creation, designer Alfredo Bianchi was sent back to the drawing board. Despite all the favourable coverage, the Chimera struggled in the marketplace and just 177 250s were sold, with a similar quantity of 175s leaving the factory.
In 1957 Aermacchi built two more conventionally styled machines to sell alongside it. These sporty models were powered by the same single-cylinder ohv engines as the Chimera, the 175 being dubbed the Ala Rossa and the 250 AlaVerde.
HARLEY’S ITALIAN JOB
IN THE HISTORY of motorcycle manufacturing there have been some curious partnerships. Rikou built Harley-Davidsons in Japan in the 1930s, Meguro and Kawasaki built the BSA A7 and A10 under licence and Douglas built Vespa scooters. But there can be few partnerships as odd (and as successful) as that which took place in 1960, when Harley-Davidson paid just under $250,000 for a half share in Aermacchi.
Harley had decided it needed smaller capacity bikes for its US customers. Rejecting a UK partnership as British manufacturers already had strong bases in the US and were selling big bikes that competed with Harley’s V-twins, Willie G Davidson went instead to Italy. He considered Ducati, Parilla, Benelli and Gilera, but as they had US importers already, they were dismissed. After deciding Moto Guzzi designs were too dated, he plumped for Aermacchi. The first product of the partnership was a touring version of the 250 AlaVerde, sold as the Ala Bianca in Italy and rebadged as the Wisconsin for US buyers.This proved popular as a street scrambler too, badged the Sprint H. The 250s went through slight stylistic changes through the 1960s and were joined in 1964 by a long stroke 350cc single, also called the Sprint.
In 1972 AMF (American Machine and Foundry) was the owner of Harley-Davidson and bought the other half of Aermacchi. It promptly dropped the Italian brand name, badging all the Varese offerings as AMF Harley-Davidsons. The singles, particularly the 350 version, continued in development. The 350 gained an extra gear, 12v electrics, a dry clutch and an electric start. They also redesigned the perfectly serviceable frame, fitting it with an ungainly front cradle that served little practical purpose other than getting in the way. Harley had financed a successful racing team based at Varese, at first using a highly-tuned version of the four-stroke single and later with a series of excellent two-stroke racers that competed on equal terms with the Japanese, winning the 250cc world championship in 1974, 1975 and 1976 and the 350cc world championship in 1976.
The flat singles were expensive to make and were pricey as a result. AMF launched a range of basic, cheap-to-produce two-stroke singles, from 90cc to 250cc. However, the build quality was poor and although the US styling was popular in Italy, elsewhere they were less enthusiastically received.
In 1977 the Varese factory developed a 350cc two-stroke single to replace the 350 four-strokes which had gone out of production in 1975. This never made it into production as a Harley-Davidson, and AMF pulled the plug in 1978 while the factory was on a summer shut down. Newly established firm Cagiva bought the factory and the rights to the model range.
It started out rebadging the two-strokes as Cagiva HD, including the 350. A single prototype using a 350 four-stroke engine Cagiva found in the factory was produced. This looked a lot smarter than the Harley offerings, but sadly it never went into production.
The site of the old Aermacchi factory is still the home of a motorcycle manufacturer. Nowadays it is owned by a Chinese-Italian partnership making SWM models.
A SINGLE-MINDED OBSESSION
IN THE HEART of Nottinghamshire there’s a shed full of Aermacchi Harley-Davidsons. The bikes in Alex and Rob Maulson’s possession aren’t perfect, though some come close, and others are at the earliest possible states of restoration – Alex and Rob would rather they got them running well than looking perfect and never seeing the road. Parts for Aermacchis are in short supply in the UK, which means that some of the stable are robbed of parts to get others running.
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