Harley-Davidson Sprint: The Spaghetti Hoglet

Note: Another motorcycle history by my friend, Lee Wilcox, of Texas. Republished here with his permission. Enjoy. -TK

Why is the Harley Davidson Sprint such a contradiction? In the hands of a slug like me they become a heavy, somewhat awkward, vibrating, slow, and uncomfortable machine. In the hands of some of the guys that grabbed U.S. and World titles, the bike was a champion. You know how some machines just make the rider better? Well, this was not one of them. But it said Harley Davidson on it, and they did sponsor racers. You get the picture. How Harley Davidson (and I) came about to have this little Italian one-lunger is a bit of a longer story.

Aermacchi is shortened from Aeronautico Macchi. For you folks that don’t speak Italian I am told that means Macchi’s Aeronautical company. They made airplanes. Still do. Their first planes were in 1917 and they were flying boats. As I recall (no I’m not that old, but I can read) they were on our side in that war and came out fairly prosperous.

Between the wars they continued to grow and then in a fit they picked the wrong side in the second war. While it paid off in the short term, in the long term it proved very detrimental.

Actually all of Europe was in the same boat no matter which side you had been on if you were a civilian trying to feed yourself. At any rate, Aermacchi and everyone else knew that fuel was precious and that motorcycles would sell. They found an engineer named Lino Tonti who had been at Benelli and worked on aircraft engines during the war. Tonti designed and built a 50cc bike that set the land speed record for it’s size. While it’s not their first bike this is a good example of Italian bikes in 1950.

Probably because of their involvement in racing, Aermacchi was quite successful in postwar Italy. They incorporated the Italian word “Ala” in the name of their bikes. They had (at least) Ala Verde – Green Wing, Ala Blu – Blue Wing, and Ala Oro – Golden Wing (take that Honda).

Their 250 cc four-stroke single had a rather unusual near-horizontal cylinder, which in the case of this handsome vintage example, allows for an interesting use of the body fairing to also channel cooling air to the cylinder.

Because Aermacchi fell on hard times (supposedly bad investments), Harley Davidson acquired 50% of their stock in 1960. The light bike market had been growing since WW2, and Harley’s little 125 cc Hummer left too big a hole between it and the firm’s signature the big V-twin bikes. Harley was feeling besieged by the onslaught of Honyasakis. They got a real deal, reportedly $250k for 50% of a competitive motorcycle manufacturing company. At the time of the purchase, it was as good as any in Europe.

Harley Davidson first imported the 250cc and named it the Wisconsin. Someone in the sales department must have reminded them that there were 49 other states and that good regional citizenship does not sell bikes (outside of Wisconsin). They renamed it the Sprint so quickly that I cannot find a picture of the Wisconsin with that label. You can see the resemblance between the Italian Chimera 250 and the Sprint (Wisconsin) if you look past the aerodynamic panels. The horizontal engine made for a low center of gravity and the torque was lawn-tractorlike. With some effort there was obvious promise.

Well folks, this might come as a shock knowing how receptive most people are to change but many Harley dealers resisted selling the small Italian bikes. “We reely don’t care how they do it in Yurrup.” That makes me a little curious about something that has been in the trade pubs recently.

ATK is a brand that has been around for a while selling small to midsize bikes. Right now they are packaging Hyosung 250’s and 650’s as entry level bikes to be sold by Harley dealers. The Harley factory does not appear to be involved. Considering the early success of Aermacchi’s and the dealers’ resistance to change, I guess we will see if 50+ years changes anything. (www.atkusa.com)

Harley raced the sprint pretty successfully during the sixties. In AMA racing in the sixties, championship standing was determined by the combined points for road racing, motocross, and flat track. If you have read about the era, perhaps the names Romero (above), Resweber, and Leonard might ring a bell. Prior to the XR750, the Sprint was for their flat track competition and for one class (250) of road racing.

The Sprint was successful on both short and long tracks, because there were actually two versions of the engine.

There was the original long stroke “long rod” motor, and the later (1965 up) short-stroke “short-rod”. The long-rod’s torque curve was better suited on the dirt tracks. The short rod engine would rev to 10,500 rpm, pretty good for the times (and a single cylinder 250).

There is a very interesting web site dedicate to the Sprint’s racing career, and where many of these shots came from. If you want to become the bore of the party by knowing more Harley Sprint esoterica than you can believe possible, click here: SprintCR

Cal Rayborn was perhaps the most famous of the Harley stable during the late sixties and early seventies. You may know of the competition between him and Don Vesco for the land speed record. Vesco raced Yamahas. They each ran dual engined streamliners for their brand. Each owned the land speed record for a time..

Well, before Harley had Rayborn they had Roeder. George Roeder piloted a streamliner for Harley that ran with a single 250cc sprint engine. He shattered Class A and C records with an amazing 177mph two-way average run.

In 1969, competition from the Japanese caused HD to enlarge the sprint engine to 350, and were now called SS350.

In 1972 Renzo Pasolini finished second in the world in the 250cc class. He raced for Aermacchi. Evidently that wasn’t good enough for Harley (then owned by AMF) because in 1974 they acquired control. Then Aermacchi bikes rebadged as Harleys won the 250 championship in 1974, 1975, and 1976. They also won the 350cc championship in 1976. For those years you will not see Aermacchis name in the records at all. From 1974, they were all rebadged as Harleys.

Walter Villa was the top rider during this period. He was a pretty quiet guy who became anything but quiet on a bike. He was short and had weight problems even while he was racing. Not the Kenny Roberts type at all.

Even with excellent race prep, there was no way that a heavy four stroke bike could keep up with the two stroke hordes. The Sprint single cylinder was already a living dinosaur among all the high-revving Japanese twins. Harley tasked the Aermacchi factory with producing competitive two strokes. The result was the ss-250. Reportedly, it was based on a Yamaha design. Certainly the engine bears a resemblance to the DT250 that I rode around Panama. The fact that the SS250 too was a single compared to all the two-stroke twins from japan made it look pretty obsolete as a street bike from day one. the SS250 didn’t sell, has a rep for iffy quality, and HD soon abandoned the whole program, and started focusing on what it did best: big twins.

One of my favorite Aermacchi racers was the Linto 500. This is essentially two sprint cylinder barrels grafted on a single bottom end.  That type of bike was commonly called a twingle.

Dick Mann attempted to introduce such a bike utilizing OSSA barrels on a completely new frame. In performance it was said to be excellent and was built for the International six day trials (ISDT) but it was a commercial failure. It was easier to win Daytona and AMA1 then to sell new concepts. I had not been aware of the Linto until doing research for this article.

In a move that puzzled many and stunned some, Harley sold its italian operations to the Castiglioni brothers who founded the Cagiva Motorcycle Company. Cagiva continued to produce bikes for Harley that were labeled HD Cagiva until 1980. But Harley surely must have learned their lesson. Right?? MV Agusta anybody?

So now to the second part of my story(if you’re still with me), of how I came to own a Sprint.

Until shortly before I bought the bike, I was riding the USS Sailfish and we had just completed a cruise in the Tonkin gulf. With the work done and time to play, we pulled into Yokosuka Japan. At that time, for whatever reason, your future starving teacher began to experience internal bleeding. Without going into detail, that disqualifies you from riding submarines. I was surfaced.

Once stabilized, I was flown from the hospital in Japan back to the Naval Hospital, Great Lakes, Il. I was caged with a group of other young, now relatively healthy men, who were awaiting transfer back to active duty. Since I had money to burn, I burned some on this.

That’s from Google images but it could have been mine. Two extra doors here but otherwise a spitting image. It was just a little 230 inline six with three on the tree. You know the drill. Wish I still had it. I think old guy code requires me to say that. It’s probably true.

The powers that be decided they would send me back to active duty but not to sea. Therefore, I received my first duty ashore, in the states, in nine years.  A frequent subject while awaiting orders became what we were going to do with our new duty stations and temporary wealth. Many of the guys wanted to buy bikes. So did I. I really didn’t know what I wanted (certainly Honda had caught my eye) and one of the men I was caged with said he had a Harley that he wanted to sell. I told him that I didn’t want to spend that kind of money and felt I needed a smaller bike for a first bike. He laughed, told me it was a 250 that was made in Italy and that he wanted $400. That got my attention.

We went to his home in Dale, Indiana to see the bike. I had already received orders to Frederick, Md. and knew I could return to retrieve the bike. I fell in love. Once again, the picture is a spitting image.

Well that weekend I had my first motorcycle ride, got my first taste of homemade beer, and had my first solo ride on a motorcycle. I would love to tell you that I turned into Kenny Roberts during that weekend but the truth is that I rode it into a ditch and needed help getting out. Then I managed to keep it on the road and develop some rudimentary skills. Very rudimentary.

Over the next year I did become adept with the bike and actually think I was pretty good. For the first time as an adult, I had time and I took to the mountains by Hagerstown and anywhere else that looked worth seeing. I even rode with snow on the ground. I learned about point of entry over railroad tracks the hard way and saw my first motorcycle racing death (flat track) at the Frederick fairgrounds. Whether I actually became good or just a legend in my own mind is a moot point as I am now old and do not ride.

I wasn’t going to let age stop me from building another bike but I had a stepladder collapse this past May and it broke my leg. I told my wife that if I couldn’t ride a stepladder I shouldn’t be riding a bike. There is now a mostly complete XS650 disintegrating in my yard. I wish it weren’t true but time passes. As we get older, our memories transform us and we were excellent riders when we were young. Regardless, I thought my Sprint was the coolest thing on two wheels. And this resto-mod version captures its essence better than any other.

24 Replies to “Harley-Davidson Sprint: The Spaghetti Hoglet”

  1. John C.

    Interesting that Harley felt the same pressure with cheap small bikes as the big three felt with early compact pickups. It must have galled them to go the same captive import route. No one it seems could figure out how to price on a level with the foreign nothings while paying their workers and suppliers at a reasonable rate. Then Harley discovers it wasn’t only the prices, the buyer actually prefers the foreign nameplate because it was part of their rebellion to think whatever happened in Japan or Axis Yurrup was better than what was happening here. Bet it drove a few Harley execs to drink.

    • stingray65

      Harley under AMF management made absolute garbage bikes in the US – no engineering advancement, no quality control. They were big, heavy, slow, unreliable, and expensive, which opened the door to the Rice-Rockets. Expensive union labor, high overhead costs, and poor attention to engineering and quality control does not make for good business results, and Harley and much of the Big 3 during this era suffered from all these things, and were only kept in business by US customer patriotism and the brand equity they had built up in earlier years when they made excellent products and offered reasonable prices.

      • John C.

        The government could also have decided not to allow in the foreign competitors whose costs were so low and therefore protect the living wage earning workforce. With the unsurmountable pressure off, natural development by the talented engineers would have continued. As happened with the no foreign competition full size pickups by these same companies that you would have us believe were so incompetent.

        AMF kept it going where many others failed. For that they should be thanked, not ridiculed. Seeing what Honda was paying their workers and seeing how the young were lapping it up without the slightest thought of what buying a Honda instead a domestic bike would do to Harley, the communities that depended on them, or their countries’ wealth. Even after Harley had lowered themselves to satisfy that thirst by involving themselves with Macchi. You see the attitude from Lee ignorantly assuming Harley execs don’t even know how to spell Europe. In many cases the parents of kids with Lee’s attitude were telling him different, but it sure must have been fun wearing that ignorance like a flag while rushing over to the Honda dealer to hand your money over to God/Emperor Hirohito.

        • stingray65

          90+% of those early Honda buyers probably wouldn’t have purchased any motorcycle if the only choice had been limited to big Harley hogs. Honda created a whole new market for motorcycles for the young boomers who wanted cheap, easy to ride, reliable, and fun toys, but without all the “Hell’s Angels” baggage attached to the expensive, unreliable, and not easy to handle Harleys.

          In fact, if Honda hadn’t created those thousands of boomer motorcycle riders in the 1960s and 70s, Harley likely would have soon died off from lack of interest, because it was those same boomer Honda riders that revived Harley in the 1980s when they had more money, riding experience, and the bad boy outlaw image came back in style. One of the reasons that Harley (and most other bike makers) is struggling today is because those boomers have become too old to ride, and the younger generation hasn’t had a Honda Cub type experience to get them started – instead they have an app for that on their iPhone.

          • John C.

            A locally developed small bike would have probably not have cost much less than the big hogs as they would have had to develop it and then make it probably on a separate line still with the high costs of paying people properly. With pressure from the dealers and all the imports Harley went the captive import route. Without the imports, they would have seen the market potential at the higher price and made a sensible decision. Without the foreign stuff, there would have been more than one USA maker and someone would have tried it. If the small bikes were really important to the young and not just a toy or an expression of politics, there would have been domestic makers and buyers.

        • Dirty Dingus McGee


          Based on your comment lauding AMF, I believe you did not own a Harley during that time frame. A brief story based on my experience follows;

          In 1976 I decided that as a real ‘Murican, I would sell my Kawasaki 750 and buy a Harley. I decided on a 1000cc Sportster, brand new. Out the door price was almost $2600, about $1000 more than my year old Kawasaki cost new. I managed to get 18 miles from the dealership before the motor locked up. I walked about a mile to a pay phone and called the dealer to come get me, as I had no idea what had happened. They sent a trailer out to get me and then drove me home (on a Saturday). 3 days later they called me, a wrist pin had come loose and jammed into the cylinder wall but they were going to replace the engine. Took 3 weeks. In the meantime, it’s May and I don’t have a street bike. I was able to “rent” a bike from a buddy, Yamaha RD350. Finally get my Sportster back and off I go again. This time I got to 390 miles (about 1 week) on the odometer before it seized up again. I was fit to be tied. I had the year before bought the Kawi and put 6,000 trouble free miles on it so was familiar with the drill on breaking in a new engine. This was the last straw and I was able to get most of my money back from the dealer. Bought a 2 year old BMW and put 275,000 miles on it, with NO rebuild (I still have the bike, 45 years later, since restored)

          While AMF might have saved Harley, they nearly drove it out of business in the process. Quality was iffy at best. It wasn’t until the early 80’s when a group of employees bought the company from AMF, and introduced a new engine, the EVO, that Harley had any quality control. However, over the years quality has again took a lower priority to profit. Case in point; when Harley introduced the “Twin Cam” in 1998, it was a strong, well engineered engine. Cost cutting over the years reduced the quality; end play in the crankshaft was gradually increased from .002″–003″ to .010″ as being acceptable, the outboard cam support went from Timken needle bearings to engine supplied oil fed into an aluminum plate. This on a bike with a price in excess of the cost of a Honda Goldwing (also built is the US)

          I have owned about 75 bikes in my lifetime, street and off road, some new some used. Of all the street bikes, the Harleys require the most maintenance repairs. You will be hard pressed to get 80,000 miles on one before you need to go through at least the top end of the engine. At a cost of around $1200, unless it needs to be bored oversize. Then you can plan on at least $1500.

          For what it’s worth, I own 2 Harleys currently. One is a hot rod FXRS with a 117″ aftermarket engine. The other is a slightly upgraded (pipe, mild cam, intake and aftermarket tuner(chip) Roadglide. The upgrades in the RG cost about $2000, but included fixing known problems before they became problems (the aforementioned cam bearing issue being one). I have NOT had to do any of those upgrades on the 2 BMW’s (not including the old 750 I bought in 1976) I currently own.

          • John C.

            I am sorry you had trouble with your seventies Harley. The pressure that must have been on Harley must have been beyond severe. It after all had knocked out all the other domestics. AMF cost cutting made it the survivor but all the pressure could have been prevented by easy, cost free, government action.

          • John C.

            Interesting you mention BMW being able to keep up their quality and pricing in this time frame. Wonder if the fact that Germany limited Japanese imports and slapped a huge tariff on those they allowed in had anything to do with it ?

          • Jack Baruth

            I agree with you that Japanese motorcycles enjoyed a huge, and unfair, advantage in the USA during the Seventies due to the weakness of the yen.

            With that said:

            * Honda spent a lot of money, and effort, expanding the appeal and image of motorcycling in the United States. It was a niche activity here before “you met the nicest people on a Honda”.
            * H-D clearly didn’t give a shit about marketing, promotion, or any youth outreach whatsoever. This was true before the AMF era as well. Harley saw their customer as the working-class man who wanted to ride a motorcycle to his farm job, and their advertising, when they bothered to do any, reflected that.
            * H-D didn’t bother to field a full lineup of products.
            * H-D’s quality control was about what you’d get from a pre-WWII American car.
            * Their pace of development was GLACIAL. You note that full-sized American trucks have progressed without much foreign competition, but that statement is only true of recent years. The f-100/F-150 didn’t change much from 1980 to 1996, nor did the equivalent Chevy or Dodge. Harley-Davidson didn’t spend a penny on engineering for all of the Sixties and Seventies and it was obvious for everyone to see.

            As with the American automakers, just fielding a DECENT vehicle during the Seventies would have preserved their business. A million people bought the first twelve months of Citation production. If the Citation had been a good car, or even a safe one, it would have made a big difference. The same is true for H-D.

          • Dirty Dingus McGee

            ” had knocked out all the other domestics.”

            It was more a matter of “last man standing”. WWII was more or less the final straw for the other, Indian, domestic. And their (Indian’s) lack of progress, ie staying with a flat head engine, made their days numbered.

            ” BMW being able to keep up their quality and pricing”

            BMW has always been a “premium” priced bike. Even in the 59’s their pricing was similar to HD.That was why British bikes were popular. That and the performance was superior from the Brit’s.

            Both HD and the British bikes lost market share mainly on quality, but also lack of innovation. The smaller bikes took some market share from both, but the game changer was the 750 Honda. Quality, performance AND price? How they done that?

            In recent years, HD has tried to re-enter the middleweight market, with 500cc and 750cc bikes. Both have been underwhelming in performance and sales.So with great fanfare, HD decided to double down with an electric motorcycle. It has been so successful they recently shut down production for a while due to unsold inventory.

            Price is always important to a young buyer. Any 17 year old can scrape up the money to buy a 2 year old Honda. Not so much for a 2 year old HD or BMW (or an Aprillia or Ducati for that matter).

  2. Texn

    Great story and history lesson. Speaking of Honda Cub, they have a new 150cc Cub and it looks like a great time. Too bad it won’t support John’s antiquated socialistic pro-union views. But buying a Volvo from our future Chinese overlords won’t help either.

    • John C.

      Protecting the prosperous, privately owned, multi brand industry from our Japanese friends who were paying their workers 20% of American wage rates circa 1970 is only sensible. It leaves in place domestic competition and avoids government bailouts. or ownership. The unions will always be wanting to give concessions to the smaller, struggling domestic guys, giving them a fighting chance against the big guys.

      There are no more American sedans and wagons. The only domestic platforms are the trucks and maybe muscle cars. The trade war is over and we lost. Leaving me with a precious few Swedes standing between me and our would be Chinese friends/overlords. Now Harley is making master/slave relationships in India with Harley playing the slave. Their war too is over

      • Texn

        The unions are what turned US automakers from the big guys into the small guys. Well, can’t blame it all on the unions (the leaders not the workers), because the fat cat execs also intended to screw the American consumers.

        • John C.

          Harley and the big three had unions long before the imports came for them and the USA decided it was okay to invite them into our market with nothing given in return. Jack says that Harley should have spent more of their big 70s profits. Like say GM did on the Citation. Oh wait…..

          Who were these fat cat executives? Be sure to misspell their names to make them sound like hayseeds. Like it would never occur to you to do to with an Asian industrialist/Godman. It is only some dead and buried American guy. He can take it. He has had to.

      • stingray65

        “The unions will always be wanting to give concessions to the smaller, struggling domestic guys, giving them a fighting chance against the big guys.”

        I guess those union concessions to the small fry are why the UAW organized Studebaker plants in South Bend had the highest labor costs in the industry, and why I can’t find a local Studebaker dealer to buy a Lark or Avanti.

        • John C.

          I was referring to AMC and 80s Chrysler. Studebaker was a small car division of a big company that made college professor cars. Until they discovered college professors want American cars about as much as hippies want small bikes called Harley. No wonder they tried moving to Canada at the end.

  3. -Nate

    Gotta love the revisionist history, of course from the usual alt right sources .

    I rode Harleys long ago, two of them : a 1965 FK PanHead ex L.A.P.D. cruiser that some lard ass had bought, re sprayed in beautiful black lacquer, by the time I bought it in …1972 (?) the lard ass’s DeLuxe Harley “Chumm – Mee” dual seat had bashed a 4″ deep by 12″ round dent in the rear fender…..

    Yes, it was a *VERY* good bike if tractor like and slow, Ioved it, washed and waxed the badly cracked lacquer paint every Saturday and joined the Victor McLaglen Motocycle Stunt And Drill team and in time, was part of setting a worlds record on another member’s 1964 FLH .

    In 1976 I stored my Harley and moved to Guatemala where I soon found and bought a 1837 Harley EL Knucklehead with the frame broken in three places, stripped it, replaced the frame and re built it rode the living crap out of it .

    I loved my Harleys and still have the faded tattoo but they really were not very good bikes, by the 1970’s it was common for the frame’s jig work to be so bad, so out of spec. that they used mallets and hammers to force the engine to line up with the frame holes….

    No amount of rah-rah can change the facts .

    I also, during the same time owned and rode Japanese Motos, mostly elderly Hondas that became worthless over night in 1968 when the new, 350 Honda twin bust on the scene ~ all the fun and lack of problems that had made the 1957 50CC Honda Cub a smash hit were there plus, it now went faster than 65 +/- MPH .

    And as always, had electric start .

    Damn ~ my Sweet says I have to take the Foster boys now, more on this if nyone cares but Harley nearly killed it self, no one did anything to it, not the Unions, (that old 1%’er trash is lame) not !!LIB’RALS!!” or anyone else .


  4. Dirt Roads

    I’ve ridden Harley choppers, Harleys with sidecars, and the Glider Harleys. Hated all of them.
    The Euro bikes were too expensive to fix and didn’t hold their value.

    The Jap bikes were the shit. I’ave had the Suzukies, the Yammer-hammers and then Hondas. Never a Kawi, never liked ’em. But I’ve put thousands upon thousands of miles on Honda motorcycles and loved it. They could take corners when Harleys couldn’t. We derided the HD clan as straight-line riders who couldn’t take a corner. And it was largely true. Except for Lawell who could take lefties time and time again at faster miles an hour.

    Rode for 40 years then gave my last Honda (a V65 Sabre) to a good friend who loves it. And it was built in 1984, still going strong.

    There’s something to be said about that, even though I’ve never had a Jap car. Those mfg’s irritated me when they lied so much in their advertising in the 1970s; didn’t matter if they were dependable. Look up Al Cosentino 🙂

    Cars are a different matter though. Yeah I drove a lot of Fiats, they were fun and somewhat reliable, but it didn’t hurt that I was in my 20s and worked at a car shop fixing Fiats, Volkswagens and BMWs. Even the local Fiat shop would call me for advice; they knew I loved a machine with soul. The Japanese bikes had no soul but they served me well.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.