Harley-Davidson is many things to many people, whether they're riders or not. As one of the most famous brands in the world, there's a certain image of motorcycling that it projects.
While you might think of Electra Glides, CVOs, Sportsters, and perhaps even V-Rods if you feel like being controversial, one thing that probably doesn't immediately come to mind is motocross bikes.
Yet for a blink-and-you'd-miss-it amount of time in the 1970s, Harley-Davidson momentarily caught motocross fever and dove into development headfirst. It took place during the AMF Harley-Davidson years, while the company still owned Italian firm Aermacchi. If you've already guessed that Aermacchi built the bike in question, please get yourself a little bar and shield cookie as a treat.
To be completely accurate, Harley actually built two motocross machines, but only 65 of the first version were reportedly ever built by hand in Milwaukee. That first bike never actually made it into production.
The one MX bike that did find its way to dealerships was the 1978 Harley-Davidson MX250. It was sold in dealerships for about one entire year before disappearing. Since then, it's only occasionally been brought up by motocross historians and international collectors as something of an historic curiosity.
Here at RideApart, strange stories like this are kind of like our catnip, so let's dive right in.
Setting The Stage
In 1960, Harley-Davidson purchased 50 percent of Aermacchi, an Italian motorcycle company that originally got its start making seaplanes before eventually moving on to other aircraft and finally, to motorbikes. The name is short for "Aeronautica Macchi," or "Air Machine." Its founder in 1912, incidentally, was a man by the name of Giulio Macchi.
In 1965, Harley had gone public. But by 1968, it was hurting financially as it fought to stave off new competition from the rise of Japan's Big Four. Facing serious market pressure, a massive conglomerate of the time called Bangor Punta Corporation attempted to take over the Motor Company at the beginning of October 1968.
But Harley president William H. Davidson wasn't having it, and said that the company was not for sale. Instead, company executives worked behind the scenes to find their own solution. By Halloween 1968, the Motor Company officially announced a deal to be acquired by American Machine and Foundry, more commonly known as AMF. It, too, was a conglomerate. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel noted, "Harley didn't comment on why it had chosen AMF as its white knight."
By 1973, AMF Harley-Davidson took control of the remaining 50 percent of Aermacchi, taking complete ownership of the Italian motorcycle manufacturer but maintaining its factory in Varese, Italy.
Since Aermacchi mainly made small-displacement bikes for its home market, AMF Harley-Davidson saw the opportunity to rebadge several of these bikes as Harleys, in an attempt to compete with the wide array of smaller-displacement Japanese bikes now on the market. This approach didn't go over terribly well at the time, though you will still find some Harley Aermacchis at classic bike meets in the 21st century.
Why Make A Motocross Bike In The First Place?
To put it simply, motocross was cool AF in the 1970s. Seemingly everyone was doing it, from dominant forces like Maico to comparative upstarts like Suzuki.
In that context, AMF Harley wanted what motorcycle manufacturers have been chasing for decades: Love from the ever-elusive youth market. Supporting the riders of tomorrow today. You get the idea. It was also a time when "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" still had some meaning, and hadn't yet been relegated to cliché status.
Seeking both development help and a leg up in establishing its legitimacy as a force to be reckoned with, Harley hired Southern California legendary pro MX racer Rex Staten. Also called Rocket Rex (possibly one of the coolest nicknames ever), AMF Harley and Aermacchi got to work developing what would eventually become the MX250.
The 1978 Harley-Davidson MX250
Sourcing components for this bike was seemingly its own Motocross of Nations-level international effort. The Aermacchi factory made the bike in Varese, and it also constructed the 242.6cc two-stroke single-cylinder engine that powered it.
The carburetor came from Dell'Orto. The ignition came from the Italian (not Japanese, as it's sometimes mislabeled) firm Dansi. The forged levers came from Tommaselli. The shoulderless rims came from the Spanish firm Akront. The bodywork came from Harley, and the Kayaba suspension came from Japan.
Here are the specs, in case you're curious:
|1978 Harley-Davidson MX250
|Width (including handlebars)
|2.2 US gallons
|Bore and stroke
|72mm x 59.6mm
|11.8 to one
|21-inch front and 18-inch rear spoked
|Drums at both ends
|$1,695 new (the equivalent of about $8,327 USD in December 2023, adjusted for inflation)
How Was It To Ride?
Few journalists of the time were reportedly invited to ride the bike. Those that did reported that the engine had a very narrow power band, coupled with extremely sluggish torque down low down in the rev range. The mid-range was slightly better, but still not great. For best results, they said, you had to keep it pinned or face disappointment.
The Kayaba suspension, seemingly chosen after looking over Suzuki's shoulder and copying its homework on the RM250, got high marks. However, the comparatively hefty weight of the MX250 was at least 25 pounds heavier than its competition.
As you can probably work out, a suspension that worked well on a lighter bike might not work as well on a heavier one, and that's reportedly what happened here. Pulp MX wrote, "with the Harley [MX250], you had the suspension of a trail bike, mated to a motor only a MX pro could make work. Not a great combination."
What About Sales?
When all was said and done, fewer than 1,000 of these bikes were ever made. AMF-Harley required dealerships to carry them in their inventory, which in hindsight seems like an obvious misstep.
From the point of view of Harley dealers, they were there to sell Harley's road bikes, not this strange dirt bike. Different kinds of riders like what they like, and may like multiple disciplines, but road riding and MX riding are worlds apart. Would existing Harley riders be interested in the new MX bike? Maybe some of them would, but probably not enough to make it worthwhile.
Similarly, people interested in dirt bikes probably wouldn't have a Harley dealership on their list of places to find their next bike. For multiple reasons, this positioning resulted in the opposite of sales success.
As for racing, Rocket Rex and fellow Harley Factory MX racers Marty Tripes and Rich Eierstedt did pretty well for being a brand new team, as 999Lazer illustrates in this video. Given time and support to develop the bike further, they might have done even better.
Unfortunately, though, they weren't racking up the wins right out of the gate. This lack of instant blockbuster success on both the professional racing circuit and at the dealerships ultimately sealed the MX250's fate. It was unceremoniously dumped as a failed experiment after just one year.
As for Aermacchi, AMF sold the firm to Gianfranco and Claudio Castiglioni shortly after this failed MX experiment. The two brothers proceeded to turn Aermacchi into Cagiva (short for Castiglioni Giovanni Varese, named for their father).
The paths of Aermacchi, Cagiva, MV Agusta (which currently exists in the same spot where Cagiva and Aermacchi once stood in Schiranna, Varese, Italy) and Harley-Davidson would converge once more in the 2000s, but that's another story for another day.
In 2023, it's not clear how many MX250s still survive. That's why it's extra cool that you get to see and hear the one in this video start up, so be sure to give it a watch if you enjoy weird motorcycle history as much as we do.