Amidst all the ballyhoo over the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 last winter, the MoCo wanted to remind us that “Harley has always been about adventure bikes,” or something like that. Uh, kind of. The original Harley-Davidson bikes definitely filled the go-anywhere role that current ADV machines do. And, there were the DKW RT125 clones, followed by the rebadged Italian imports, all made to handle unpaved roads.
And then, there was the built-for-military MT series. While Harley-Davidson didn’t do start-to-finish manufacturing on these bikes, these motorcycles were made in America, unlike the Aermacchi machines of the ’60s and ’70s. However, they’re a rare find today in the States, because almost all the buyers were outside the US. They aren’t hard to find if you know where to look, though, and occasionally you even see one at auction in the US.
The pre-history of the MT
You can’t tell the tale of the American-built MT dual sports without starting with the made-in-England origin story.
The MT series was originally put together by British manufacturer Armstrong-CCM. Never a major competitor on the UK market, CCM generally focused on niche machines, particularly big-bore four-stroke offroad machines, at a time when the MX and enduro worlds were mad for sleek Euro two-strokes.
In the early 1980s, Armstrong bought a big chunk of CCM, changing the name to Armstrong-CCM. Then, the new company nailed down the rights to manufacture SWM’s Tornado dual sport design. If you look at photos of the old SWM models, you can see where Armstrong-CCM got the inspiration for its MT500 military motorcycle, first released in 1983. You can observe the same general lines, the same dual rear shock arrangement (definitely outdated by the mid-1980s), and the same Rotax-built four-stroke single-cylinder engines.
Armstrong-CCM built the MT500 for the British military, as well as electric-start variants for armed forces in Canada and Jordan. Most of the examples you see on the used market today come from either the UK, or Canada.
Of course, as this is the British motorcycle industry, there was another corporate change-up; Armstrong sold its share in the company back to CCM founder Alan Clews in 1987, and around that time, Harley-Davidson bought the rights to the MT500, and commenced American production of the machine. From what I’ve heard, the MoCo built these bikes in the York factory, in Pennsylvania, but I’ve never seen that confirmed officially.
Taking things down a notch
Harley-Davidson wanted military contracts with the MT500, but did not see the sales it hoped. So, what to try next? Why not build a better version?
The MT500 was looking pretty dated by the early 1990s, with a drum brake up front; most machines were sold in the kickstart-only configuration, too. So, Harley-Davidson released the MT350E in 1993.
This bike was very similar to the MT500 (and also to the SWM models that preceded it). The frame held the bike’s engine oil. It used an air-cooled Rotax single-cylinder SOHC engine with four-valve head, with dual rear shocks. Obviously, going from 481 cc to 348 cc resulted in some power loss, but it wasn’t as significant as you’d think. The MT500 was rated for 32 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, and 28 pound-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm. The MT350E was rated for 30 horsepower at 8,000 rpm and 21 pound-feet of torque at 6,500 rpm. The difference in horsepower would barely be noticeable; the torque difference would be more noticeable, but the other improvements on the bike would make up for the lost grunt.
The biggest improvement was standard electric start. The left-hand kickstarter was by far the biggest complaint on the original MT500; paired with a finicky carburetor, this was a constant source of frustration to anyone who rode the machine in the army, or bought a surplus bike after its release from service.
The MT350E had the electric boot fitted as standard, and an updated carburetor also supposedly improved its starting. As well, the MT350E got nine-inch brake discs front and rear, a welcome improvement over the 500’s front and rear drums. The regulator/rectifier unit was moved, for better air cooling.
As a result, the 350 version is generally considered a superior machine to the 500, even though it’s smaller.
A company secret
You do occasionally see Harley-branded MT350E or MT500 machines for sale, with civilian origins. It seems that at least some dealers got their hands on them and tried to sell them, but it didn’t work out. When production ended in 2000, the design was definitely a couple of generations out of date, so even if Harley-Davidson had decided to abandon its high-margin V-twin sales and push these bikes, it probably wouldn’t have sold well. Harley-Davidson doesn’t seem interested in promoting this part of its company history anymore.
Now, when you see them for sale in the US, they’re obviously on the used market, generally army surplus from the UK, and generally quite expensive. This machine pictured above, which was up for grabs at Iconic Motorbike Auctions, should still be available as the auction did not meet its reserve. See more details at that site, and who knows—maybe you can pony up a big wad of cash and get this bike for yourself? There’s certainly many other gorgeous and/or interesting machines on Iconic’s website, if you can’t nail this one down.
A couple notes with the ad: It doesn’t say if this was a surplus machine, only that it was previously reg’d in California. It also says the gun case on the bike’s rear is for a Steyr AUG, but it might actually be made for a British SA80 rifle. Some idjit drilled a hole in the forward-mounted panniers to install a radio, but you can probably find replacement panniers through some UK surplus site or MT owners’ group, if you don’t want to fix them.