Harley's Italian fling
Harley-Davidson Sprint H
Years produced: 1961-1968
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 21hp @ 7,250rpm
Top speed: 76mph (period test)
Engine type: 246cc, overhead valve, air-cooled single
Weight (wet): 123kg (271lb)
Price then: $750 (1967)
Price now: $1,800-$4,000
Ross Puleo is a man with a mission. A lover and restorer of Aermacchis, the little Italian imports that Harley-Davidson sold in the Sixties and Seventies, he wants to spread the word about the Italian-American classic known as the Harley-Davidson Sprint H.
Ross’ family hails from Sicily, and as the owner of Sonny’s Motorcycle Repair, specializing in HD Aermacchis, in Lowell, Mass., he’s well-placed to speak on the subject. (“Italian Americans restoring Italian Americans” is his official motto.)
When Ross was a kid, his dad would buy him junk bikes to repair, figuring they’d keep him out of trouble. His first fling with the Aermacchi brand came in the form of an Aermacchi Leggero found sitting on a trailer at a flea market. The 65cc machine was in sad shape, but to the 14-year-old mind, it had possibilities. The tank said Harley-Davidson, just like Dad’s friends’ bikes, but unlike those big hogs the Leggero was small and uncomplicated, something that a 14-year-old could both afford and fix. Ross bought it. “I got it running,” he says, “I brought it back from the dead.”
Time passed, Ross graduated from high school and then joined the Coast Guard as a boat mechanic. But motorcycles were still big on his list, and drawn again by the lure of the swap meet he encountered another sad example of the Varese factory’s output, a 125cc Rapido two-stroke. “I was in my early 20s and wanted to be an authority on something. I figured if I had two Aermacchis, it would make me an authority. Now I have 10.”
The Harley-Davidson Sprint comes to the U.S.
As first imported into the U.S., the Sprint produced 18hp at 6,750rpm with an 8.5:1 compression ratio. It had good brakes and excellent handling, but was let down by an outdated oiling system and six-volt electrics. The Italians believed that a 250 was serious transportation, something to be cared for and maintained. But in the U.S. a 250 was a kid’s bike, often used, abused and put away wet. The electrical system wouldn’t stand up to typical kid punishment and many Aermacchis were shoved into the corner of the garage to gather dust after they broke down once too often.
But the bikes were appreciated by some. Cycle World tested a Sprint H in 1962, recording a standing quarter-mile time of 19.2 seconds and a 0 to 60 time of 15 seconds for the 280lb bike. Top speed was 76mph. The same year, Car Life tested a Sprint C. The C was a little slower (72.5mph top speed, 19.5 second quarter-mile) than the Sprint H, and despite its full bodywork and larger tank weighed 5lb less.
Ross’ 1966 Harley-Davidson Sprint H
To hear Ross tell it, there are a lot of Aermacchi motorcycles to be found across North America. Some are loved and cared for, but most of them are basically junk, Ross says. His bike shown here fell roughly in that category when Ross found it.
“The bike was in an accident,” Ross remembers. “The forks were bent. The tank was full of bondo and someone had painted it candy-apple green. There was a peace symbol on the battery box. It was so from the Sixties! I mostly put it back to original, but dolled it up a little bit. The seat was a genuine Corbin from the 1960s and the seat mounts had been modified for this seat, so I decided to keep it. The shocks are new-old-stock. I pulled them out of the box, brand new,” he says.
And while he’s put a lot of time into making his Sprint a real looker, Ross isn’t afraid to ride it. “It takes corners like it is on rails. You just lay it into a corner, and whatever line you pick, it will go there. It’s got lots of low end torque. The original single-leading-shoe brake is OK, but the double-leading-shoe is like having a disc brake. You get positive stopping.”
While Sprints may be small, that doesn’t keep riders from racing them today. “I know a lot of people who are into AHRMA [American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association] racing events [on Aermacchis],” Ross says, though he’s never set up a Sprint for racing and prefers restorations. But that didn’t stop him from racing his Sprint against a friend’s 1972 Sprint during last year’s AMCA meet in Oley, Pa. On an eighth-mile track, the Sprint’s best time was 9.491 seconds, with a best exit velocity of 52.69mph.
When it comes to owning a Sprint, Ross points out that one big difference between an Aermacchi and a modern bike is the maintenance. “I always stress maintenance,” Ross says. “Change the oil every 500 miles. It’s cheap insurance. There’s no oil filter, just a screen, like on a Volkswagen Beetle. If you are going to let the bike sit, take the gas out. Go over it with a wrench every now and again. Make sure the points and condenser are up to snuff, and change the spark plug every year. Everyone wants a 12-volt electronic ignition, but I wouldn’t install one even if a customer asked, because it isn’t really necessary.
“Lastly, I like to run my Sprint on Cam 2 racing fuel. Sprints don’t run really well on pump fuel, they were built for leaded gas. The valve seats don’t go bad if you use pump fuel, the bike just runs better on racing fuel.”
Though not stock, Ross is quite fond of his Sprint. “I keep everything that has some meaning to me. The Sprint is something I love. You could say I did it my way.” MC