Aeroplanes have played an important part in the history of many Italian motorcycle manufacturers, with MV Agusta, Piaggio, and Aermacchi all evolving from aviation backgrounds. But after WWII aircraft manufacturing was banned in Italy and Aermacchi was forced to investigate new industrial opportunities. And, like so many companies in war-torn Italy, it saw the future in cheap two-wheeled transportation.
When it first entered the motorcycle business, Aermacchi was extremely adventurous when it came to design. As far back as 1943 it proposed an electric motorcycle, following this with Cigno and Chimera scooters. The Chimera was the star of the 1956 Milan Show, its sweeping fully-enclosed bodywork including a large scoop around the engine. But underneath the bodywork was an excellent and innovative motorcycle. The 175cc engine was a horizontal overhead valve four-stroke, housed in an advanced single-spine frame with monoshock rear suspension.
Ultimately the Chimera was a sales disaster, but Aermacchi simply undressed it and installed a more conventional twin-shock rear end.
The result was the classic Aermacchi horizontal single, initially a 175cc but soon a 250. The success of the new singles saved the Aermacchi motorcycle division from extinction, and in 1960 Aermacchi sold 50 per cent of the motorcycle division to Harley-Davidson in America.
One of the positive by-products of the Harley involvement was an increase in factory-supported racing. The horizontal single evolved into the sporting Ala Verde (green wing), followed by the higher performance Ala d’Oro (gold wing) production racer. Although fragile, the early Ala d’Oro proved fast and competitive, and during the 1960s Aermacchi continually updated it. The Ala d’Oro eventually grew to 350cc, the horizontal engine layout providing a low centre of gravity and epitomising the finest attributes of a four-stroke single.
Ultimately the pushrod single was outclassed, but Aermacchi never produced an overhead camshaft Ala d’Oro because Harley vetoed it.
The Harley-Davidson connection saw Aermacchi produce a range of models specifically for the US market during the 1960s. The Wisconsin and Baja were prime examples, and by the mid-1960s around 90 per cent of production went to the US. This concentration on the US market saw the single grow to 350cc in 1969, with the SS 350 and SX 350 trail bike.
The 350 engine was a long-stroke design (74 x 80mm) and with a 9:1 compression ratio and Dell’Orto 30mm carb, it produced a modest 27hp at 7000rpm. It may have not been fast but the SS 350 soon garnered a decent following, and more than 15,000 were built before the updated 1973 version (as shown here) appeared. This year saw Aermacchi’s traditional open frame make way for a double downtube frame, plus an electric start, 12V electrics, and a left-side gearshift.
Harley-Davidson bought the rest of Aermacchi in 1972, and while the Aermacchi horizontal single continued as an AMF Harley until 1978, the SS 350 finished in 1974.
Aermacchi finally died when Cagiva bought the plant at Varese. Cagiva later bought Ducati and MV Agusta, then the wheel went full circle with Harley-Davidson buying Cagiva. Aermacchi no longer exists, but its spirit lives on upon the shore of Schiranna.
FIVE ARRESTING AERMACCHI FACTS
Aeronautica Macchi was arguably the leading Italian aircraft manufacturer prior to WWII, and was created by Giulio Macchi in 1912. He set up a factory on the lakeside at Schiranna in Varese, this location proving ideal for the production of seaplanes.
In 1921 and 1926 Macchi won the famous Schneider Cup, beating the best seaplanes that Britain and America could offer. In its heyday more than 250,000 spectators lined up to see these specialised planes race over a 350km course at speeds of up to 550km/h.
After the demise of the Schneider Cup in 1931 Aermacchi concentrated on world air speed records, Francesco Agello’s 1934 speed of 709.21km/h still standing for a piston-powered seaplane.
When the horizontal four-stroke single became obsolete as a grand prix racer, Aermacchi built a 125cc two-stroke single. In 1970 Aermacchi put two 125cc engines together to create a 250 twin, with Pasolini going on to win three GPs in 1972. Pasolini was killed on the 250 at Monza in 1973.
The 250 gained water-cooling for 1974, with Walter Villa winning the 250cc World Motorcycle Championship in 1974, 1975 and 1976. Against the might of Yamaha Villa also won the 1976 350cc World Championship on the Aermacchi twin.
Here’s a site with info on the SS 350, America’s freedom machine:
Have a look at this Aermacchi Racing site:
Here’s a virtual Aermacchi museum:
Contact the Australian Aermacchi H-D Register:
c/- Michael R. Newman
18 Westcott Parade
Rockbank VIC 3335
Tel: (03) 9747 1284