IT'S ALIVE, but just barely...
So, in this week's Cycleweird we're discussing the worst production bike ever made. Pretty bold statement, eh? I mean, "worst" is pretty subjective when it comes to more than a century of worldwide production history that includes such gems as the Chang Jiang 750 and the truly horrible Ironhead Sportsters. This week's bike is so widely derided by both bikers and the motorcycling press, or at least those who have heard of it, that it pretty much counts as the worst bike ever. Friends, let me introduce you to the AME Amazonas 1600.
What is the Amazonas, you ask? At its heart, the Amazonas is a parts bin-engineered, Volkswagen-powered frankenbike from São Paulo, Brazil, that was produced in the 70s. Why was it ever made, you ask? Well, that's kind of a tricky question. Like a lot of Cycleweird machines, the Amazonas has a hazy history that tells at least three different stories about how and where it came from. I'll be going with what appears to be the truest, most logical story, but just keep in mind that this monstrosity has other origin stories.
Our story starts in the mid-60s, after a military coup deposed the previous Vargas dictatorship and installed a brutal military dictatorship that would last more than twenty years. At some point, Brazilian economic apparatchiks had the bright idea to institute a series of truly draconian protectionist trade policies in an effort to bolster the country's foundering industrial and agricultural sectors. Basically, they taxed the hell out of any foreign imports as a way to spur domestic technological development and production. It, uh, it didn't work.
By the mid-70s, the country was in a pretty bad way thanks to oppression, poor decision making, and mismanagement by the junta. The government was on its hind legs, the economy was a complete shambles, and people everywhere were pretty desperate. There's a whole lot more social and economic baggage here to unpack, but that's way outside the scope of this article. Let's just say that, by the time our story starts, the country was kind of a disaster.
In the late-70s, one of the groups hit hardest by the trade policies was, strangely enough, the country's national police force. See, Brazil had no domestic motorcycle companies at that time. This put the national cops, who maintained a fleet of motorcycles for official use, in a serious bind. Their ride of choice was a herd of 50s-era Harleys that, by the late-70s, was spending more time in the shop than on the road due to attrition and parts scarcity. The effective ban on imports made it impossible to get parts to fix the old bikes, and forget about ordering new bikes, so the motor cops were left with nothing to ride. Into this desperate situation walked a man named Daniel Rodrigues.
Rodrigues, a tinkerer and shade-tree mechanic from São Paulo, got wind of the motor cops' desperate situation and had a brilliant idea – he'd design a rugged, reliable, heavy-duty motorcycle for the police using Brazilian-made parts and home-sourced ingenuity. To meet the needs of the police the bike would have to be fast, easy to maintain, and able to stand up to a whole lot of punishment. First, he started a company called Amazonas Motocicletas Especiais, Ltda (AME) to produce his bikes, then he went looking for parts. Since the most widely available, domestically-produced mechanical parts were car parts, that's where he started.
Volkswagen – along with Ford, Willys, and a handful of other manufacturers – had been producing vehicles in Brazil since the first round of import sanctions went into effect in 1953. Banking on the company's reputation for reliability and simplicity, Rodrigues started with VW's 1600cc air-cooled flat four Type I engine found in, among other vehicles, the legendary Beetle. The old Beetle mill was mated to a standard VW 4-speed transmission complete with first gear. The final drive problem was solved by welding up the VW's differential gears and running a sprocket and chain off a standard-issue half-shaft. The rest of the parts, such as the carbs, brake rotors, and other miscellaneous bits, were sourced from both Ford and VW parts bins.
Ponch? Is that you?
The bike's frame was a duplex tube design that, much like the crude, overly-stiff suspension, was totally inadequate for the task at hand. In testing it handled like a garbage truck and the VW engine produced just enough power to get out of its own way. Fully assembled, and draped in some rough-hewn trim and body work, the massive Amazonas weighed in well north of 900 pounds.
Despite all these flaws, the Amazonas was accepted by the Brazilian government for police work and was immediately put into service. Hilariously enough, the Amazonas police bikes proved insanely reliable during their government service. The VW engine was bullet proof, the engineering, while suspect at best, stood up incredibly well to the wear and tear of police work, and if they ever did break down they could be fixed anywhere in the country by anyone with a minimum of mechanical know-how, an adjustable wrench, and a twist of baling wire.
With the "success" of the Policial, AME decided to start producing bikes for the civilian market. By the mid-80s, the Amazonas' heyday, AME produced four models – the base model Esporte, the "performance minded" Super Esporte, a fully-dressed touring bike called the Tourismo, and the old reliable Policial. The only real difference between the four was body work, a mildly tuned engine in the Super, and the police gear mounted to the Policial. They sold relatively well, especially since they were the only game in town, and even gained a small but passionate following among Brazilian gearheads.
This is, sadly, the best resolution I could find of this amazing ad. That's the face of a man who is suffering from buyer's remorse right there.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world wasn't so happy with the Amazonas. While the VW engines were reliability itself, on the whole the bikes were slow, heavy, under-braked, under-suspended, underpowered, and a complete nightmare to ride. They were absolutely savaged in the foreign press by those writers brave enough to ride the export models. One review, in the 1987 issue of Dream Bikes magazine, had this to say about the ponderous Brazilian bikes.
"The outdated Russian Dniepr/ Ural flat twins used to be the means by which we reminded ourselves of the excellence of most latter-day Japanese and European motorcycles, but now the Amazonas has amply - and that’s the motjuste for a two-wheeler scaling 386 kg dry and with a wheelbase of no less than 1680 mm - usurped the Eastern Bloc bikes in this educational role. The Brazilian Behemoth, built in São Paulo and powered by the air-cooled flat-four horizontally opposed pushrod Volkswagen engine, is so lacking in sophistication and finish that you can scarcely credit that someone, somewhere is actually building them in series production, still less finding buyers for the end result.
Curiously, instead of using the VW engine’s inherent strength to advantage by making it a fully stressed member, Ferreira has constructed a crudely welded full duplex chassis, into which the unit isshoehorned, thus adding weight and reducing rigidity. The overall design concept of the Amazonas is basically amateur, as are the details: look at those evil castings for the footboards, or the brake master cylinder, carelessly sculpted by hand complete with many shaky lines where the artisan paused for a slug from the sugar-cane still. Or look at the massive front forks, no less than 48 mm in diameter with barely noticeable damping, and fitted with weighty 10 mm-thick cast-iron disc brakes, borrowed like the large ATE calipers from a local Ford car, and twice as thick and many times as heavy as most normal bike brakes.
However, the conversion from hand to foot change is crude and unwieldy, although the single-conversion to chain final drive, which is cheaper than making their own hypoid rear unit for bike use, results in a very long chain run and inevitable snatch. Theoretical plate, cable-operated VW diaphragm clutch is light to use. There’s the VW crown wheel and pinion, but Amazonas’s own top speed is 100 mph (160 kph) with the twin-carb engine, but you’d have to be a brave man to push an Amazonas to those extremes. Apart from the clutch, all the controls are unbelievably heavy, directional stability is a problem at almost any speed, and the rock-hard rear suspension, itself a primitive layout combining totally ineffective locally made dampers with a primitive plunger-type rear-axle location that went out of style thirty years ago in Europe, gives a bone-crushing ride."
Brutal, just brutal.
As an aside, I actually saw an Amazonas way back in 2002 at a place called Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, South Dakota, while the wife and I were on our honeymoon road trip. Let me tell you, they're no better looking in person than they are in pictures. I'd completely forgotten about them until I started researching weird bikes for this feature, and as soon as I saw the Amazonas I remembered seeing one all those years ago and I knew I had to tell you guys about them.
Amazonas Turismo and Esporte. Peep the flame job on that Esporte back there.
AME soldiered on into the late 80s, offering the same four models with various small upgrades that did little to improve the bikes' fit, finish, or ownership experience. In 1989, the Brazilian economy completely self-destructed and took many Brazilian companies with it, including AME. Rights to the Amazonas were snatched up by a company called TECPAMA, who continued to produce the bikes in limited numbers. By the early 90s, sales of the original four models had completely flatlined, and TECPAMA released a more modern – for lack of a better word – sportbike called the Kahena 1600.
Ladies and gentlemen - the 90s.
Rare as hens teeth, the Kahena was allegedly—I say "allegedly" because no one knows how many, if any, were actually built—produced between 1990 and 1992. A bloated, awkwardly-proportioned thing, it featured a spruced up VW 1600 engine, a twin-spar frame, painfully 80s neon graphics, and actual motorcycle parts like controls, tires, and even a shaft drive. It was also way, way lighter than the old Amazonas bikes, tipping the scales at a lean 675 pounds. If you have a Kahena, or know someone who has one, please send me photographic evidence. I really want to see one in the wild, as it were.
Death finally came for the Amazonas and the Kahena in the mid-90s. Relaxed trade restrictions and a newly-opened Harley plant were the final nails in the old bikes' coffin, and with an influx of Japanese imports and home-grown iron both bikes faded into obscurity. Fewer than a thousand Amazonas bikes were made, and fewer were exported. Those that were exported were sold in pieces and assembled by a Houston-based importer to get around emissions and safety restrictions, a scheme so cunning that you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel.
Today, you'd be hard pressed to find an Amazonas owner, let alone someone who's even heard of them. Personally, I kind of love them despite their terrible reputation. While truly awful, they represent an attempt to make the best of a bad situation and provide a home-grown motorcycle for a suffering country. I just can't hate that.