If the Grand Prix road-racing record books came with footnotes, you’d see a reference to this Italian-built motorcycle next to the only GP titles ever credited to Harley-Davidson.
Yes, you read that right. Back in the 1970s, Harley-Davidson actually was a force in international road racing, winning the 250cc class three years in a row and topping the 350cc class once.
How did a company known for big, slow-revving, four-stroke V-twins rack up such an impressive streak in a form of competition dominated by small, hard-running two-strokes?
In a word, Aermacchi.
When small, technically sophisticated machines from Japan began flowing into the United States in the 1960s, Harley responded by buying a 50 percent stake in the Italian motorcycle firm Aermacchi, spun off just a few years earlier from airplane-maker Aeronatica Macchia. Aermacchi’s trademark 250cc four-stroke singles, with one horizontal cylinder sticking straight forward, formed the basis of the Harley Sprint line of 250s and 350s.
Aermacchi officials, who in the Italian tradition believed that race performance was integral to success, continued to contest the Grands Prix using two-strokes under their own company name. Then, in 1973, the same machines were rebadged as Harley-Davidsons. A year later, factory rider Walter Villa began a string of three 250cc championships. In that final championship year, 1976, Villa also topped the 350cc class on a bored-out version of the same bike.
Early air-cooled versions made about 50 horsepower at 10,000 rpm. Later water-cooled bikes like this one pumped out 58 horsepower at 12,000 rpm.
It’s hard to say that all this grand-prix success had any positive impact on the parent company, which was staggering through its years of ownership by the AMF conglomerate. Still, the GP race program continued through 1978. A few years later, the Aermacchi plant in northern Italy was sold to the new Cagiva brand, which continues to build motorcycles there today.
As a race machine, the RR250 was built in extremely limited numbers, which makes any surviving examples, like this 1975 model, owned by Benjy Steele of Huntington, West Virginia, pretty hard to find. But this particular RR250, now on display in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio, is even rarer: It’s never been started since it left the factory