We all know that Harley-Davidson is trying to break into the popular adventure bike scene with the upcoming Pan America. What many may not know is that this isn't Harley's first dirt rodeo. Back in the 1960s and 70s, Harley offered a variety of rather un-Harley-like small dual-sports, and even briefly got into the motocross game.
It was the early 1960s. Although Japanese manufacturers hadn't yet hit their stride in North America, they did offer something that Harley didn't: small motorcycles such as the Honda Super Cub. Harley wanted to fill that gap in their lineup, and the fastest way to do that was to buy a smaller company that already had small bikes. That company was the Italian manufacturer Aermacchi.
Rather than dilute (or improve, depending on your point of view) its traditional lineup, Harley's small Italian-made bikes remained completely separate and different from its traditional American models. The 250cc Sprint was their first import, which was a standard road bike as opposed to Harley's traditional cruisers. Other models followed, some of which were suited for dirt as well as pavement. YouTuber Do It With Dan restored such a bike, a 125cc Rapido, that he got from his grandfather.
In the 1970s, Harley wanted to try its hand at full-on motocross racing, which was exploding in popularity at the time. They built 65 prototype bikes in 1975. These featured the unusual choice of using shortened front forks as the rear shocks. As you might expect, Harley had a difficult time getting its dealers to offer a bike that was such a vast departure from the bikes they typically sold.
They tried again on a larger scale in 1978 with the MX250. This bike had a traditional rear suspension, but still used the same basic design of the older Aermacchi-based bikes. It also used the same engine, a two-stroke 250cc that put out a mere 32 hp. Motocross Action Magazine was unable to actually test the MX250 because Harley was afraid of how it would perform, which is another way of saying it would embarrass itself.
The MX250 was also priced like a Harley-Davidson, much more expensive than its more capable contemporaries. This time Harley built around 900 examples and pretty much crammed them down their dealers' throats. As before, they didn't sell. Harley riders weren't interested in dirt bikes, and dirt bike enthusiasts were extremely unlikely to come into a Harley-Davidson dealer. After this failure, Harley gave up on the idea of small bikes and sold Aermacchi, which eventually became the company we know today as Cagiva.
Eventually, Harley did sell most of the bikes, and few remain today. Harley had the right idea in the 1970s of trying to tap into a growing market, but the product they offered and the price they charged just didn't add up to the competition. Let's hope Harley has better luck with its latest attempt, the Pan America.