The 70s was an odd time for the world, let alone Harley Davidson. This was a period in the company’s timeline that featured much experimentation when it came to motorcycles. This was the era when we saw H-D diving in to dirt bike and motocross racing with the Baja model. This alone exemplifies everything weird about Harley during the 60s to the 70s; the brand wanted popularity so badly that it was willing to sacrifice quality performance over it. The story goes that Harley’s racing team won so many races with the Baja that people started buying the model. However, those new Baja fans realized quickly that the Baja they bought weren’t the same bikes that the Harley team raced and won with. In short, H-D oversold and underperformed.
Let’s just say that this was their story in the 70s, quite unfortunately, and the H-D mini bike just happened to come out during this era. In 1969, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought Harley Davidson and effected changes within the infrastructure of the company that brought out the worst in the brand. Apart from the production of the Baja model, H-D also saw a sustainable decrease in workforce, which ultimately meant lower quality bikes. The decrease in quality resulted to a decrease in sales, which translated to a decrease in customer loyalty—something that the brand has been working to cultivate since its founding.
Most of Harley’s inadequate efforts in 70s manufacturing were due to the rise of a competitor in the American markets—Japan. The Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM) was introduced to North American markets in the 60s to wildly popular acclaim. Japanese motorcycles were more affordable and therefore made biking accessible to the masses. During this time, American bikers were first introduced to the original Honda Monkeybike, a mini bike designed to entice and carry both children and adult riders. H-D did its best to compete with the Japanese Moneybike buy creating a mini bike of its own—the Harley Davidson Shortster. Not a lot of people even know that H-D sold mini bikes at one point in history because this model was much short-lived. Here’s a quick account of whatever happened to the Harley Davidson mini bike.
Aermacchi is an Italian aircraft manufacturer that started dabbling in motorcycles after World War II. The war created a void in the transportation industry that motorcycle companies desperately tried to fill. Aermacchi jumped into the opportunity, and they partnered up with the best in the industry at the time: Harley Davidson. In fact, Harley Davidson owned Aermacchi completely in 1974. H-D manufactured the Shortster in partnership with Aermacchi. Although this wasn’t Harley’s most memorable move, it did produce a unique product that now represents a moment in history.
Why mini bikes?
Aside from competing with the Japanese car manufacturers, Harley created mini bikes for another reason. Surely, the Honda Monkeybike became quite a popular product. When it came time for Harley to get into the enthusiasm, public interest had already begun to wane off. In truth, the public just wasn’t as interested. Many critics later on surmised that the bike’s design just didn’t cut it. Perhaps Harley’s objectives were misaligned. The purpose of the mini bike, after all, is to attract both young riders and adult riders. However, mini bikes naturally attract younger riders to begin with, and the Shortster just didn’t appeal to the younger demographic the way the Monkeybike did. Harley Davidson believed that attracting younger riders meant customer loyalty in the end; younger riders could naturally translate to lifetime customers—that Shortster buyers would eventually become Sportster buyers. However, Harley needed to make people like their mini bike first.
1972 MC-65 Shortster
In 1972, Harley released its very first mini bike entry in the industry. The 1972 Harley Davidson MC-65 Shortster was nothing like the Monkeybike. The 1972 Shortster became one of the more rare bikes in history given their single year production. This mini bike actually used one of Harley’s lightweight engines already in the company’s lineup. It looked like a true mini-Harley than any of its competitors at the time. In fact, it had a little more sophistication when it came to design. However given its true nature as a mini bike, it served its purpose of being a bike for children and teens—not much for adults. Because of this reason, many of these bikes sat in garages as soon as children outgrew them. If you have children or know of kids, you should know that even magnificent machines like this become disinteresting after only a short period of time.
1972 Shortster specs
As mentioned above, this Shortster used a lightweight Leggero 2-stroke engine. It features a kick lever start and a 3-speed transmission that utilizes a foot shift. The clutch is hand-operated, and the fork is hydraulic. The 1972 Shortster uses a steel tubular frame and backbone. It uses 3.00 x 10 tires on a 39.2in wheelbase. It has a quality leather padded seat and comfortable high handlebars. With an overall weight of 126lbs., you’d have to be a bigger kid to truly enjoy this machine. It’s a stark contradiction to the image this mini bike represents. Truly at first glance, it looks like a motorcycle toy more than anything. Regardless of how this mini bike was first received, it’s still a great piece of machinery that probably deserved more praise. Perhaps, H-D might’ve simply been ahead of their time with this one. Decades down the road, the 1972 MC-65 Shortster would become somewhat of a classic collectible, especially given how few of these machines ever existed in the first place. We’ve seen plenty of them restyled and remodeled over the years, including this particular one custom designed for the 12thRonald McDonald Charity Bike Ride.
1973 to 1975 X90 Shortstop
Harley Davidson decided to take a different route with their next Shortsters. The X90 would be the last time mini bike model we’d see from H-D, but the motorcycle giant actually did not manufacture these mini bikes to begin with. Harley capitalized on its partnership with Aermacchi on this venture. As a brief recap, Aermacchi started manufacturing fighter aircrafts during World War I and transitioned into manufacturing practical vehicles for transportation. In fact, Aermacchi built all the X90 Shortsters in Italy. Harley Davidson then saw it fit to slap on its Bar and Shield insignia on every single piece of production. It’s one of the smallest machines to ever get the famous American logo. The X90 looked remarkably similar to its predecessor, and unfortunately, the reception to it was also similar.
X90 Shortster specs
Because of how popular 2-stroke engines were at the time, Aermacchi decided to feature this on the mini bike. According to this article, the Harley Davidson X90 Shortster was “powered by an air-cooled, 90cc, two-stroke engine married to a four-speed gearbox.” Every single model year featured something different from the first 1973 model. The front suspension is telescopic oil dampened; each model from 1973 to 1975 featured a different type—Cerrani, Marzocchi, and Betor, respectively. It utilizes a primary kick starter system and a wet multi plate clutch. The tires are 3.00 x 10 Pirelli MT 74 with a front PSI of 18 and a rear PSI of 22. The overall length of the mini bike is only roughly 4ft 39in.
The X90 fuel tank can hold up to 1.4 gallons, which can’t get anyone too far. It’s really designed for a single rider to take on recreational and fun rides. The mini bike sure looked fun enough with the three colors it came in: black, sparkling red, and sparkling blue. On every model, only the gas tanks were painted in color; the frames were always black, and the fenders were always left as raw steel. Every model also featured a different decal design.
One of the few things that set the 1973 X90 from the 1972 MC-65 is the handlebar. Aermacchi created fold down handlebars on the X90, so that riders can easily transport the mini bikes. Upon closer inspection, you’ll start to see that the X90 is quite different from the MC-65 in parts and components—although they still look similar in make. You’ll also find that the 1973 sparkling blue X90 features a long silver stripe, which changed at some point to shorter stripes. Black gas tanks had three different stripe colors: red, blue, and white.
Why didn’t they sell well?
Much like their 1972 predecessor, the Harley Davidson X90 didn’t fare well in the market, especially not in the US. Majority of the bikes that were manufactured in Italy ended up in the European market, so they’re likely to be more abundant there even today. Again, the X90 didn’t attract many serious adult buyers. These mini bikes were purchased more for the use of recreational riding by kids and teens, which likely didn’t last for long. If they did, many of these X90s were battered from careless use—exactly the way kids or teens would’ve done. They just didn’t get enough traction to become as popular as some other mini bike models.
What to do with a H-D mini bike?
Today, many people are finding MC-65s and X90s to turn into restoration projects. It’s difficult to find H-D mini bikes in pristine condition today because of how they were treated back then. Although, H-D mini bikes have become a classic these days, even though they didn’t receive quite the reception in the 70s. As restoration projects, you can totally restore these bikes to become design pieces, or you can also restore vintage mini bikes into actual working motorcycles. Mini bikes have gained more popularity over the years, and they are certainly more popular amongst adults and families today. If you were looking for a restoration project to sell, these Harley Davidson mini bikes would be the perfect projects. These mini bikes are so rare that you’ll surely find a collector or a bike enthusiast willing to buy for a decent price.
There’s no exact number for the production of the Harley Davidson MC-65 Shortsters. We do know that production only lasted a year, so that number could easily be anywhere between a few hundred to a couple of thousand. With that count, you can probably expect that only a handful made it to today. As far as the X90 is concerned, we definitely saw more of these in the 70s than the 1972 Shortster. In 1973, 8250 X90s were produced. That number decreased to 7019 in 1974. And in 1975, production became extremely limited with only 1568 bikes ever produced. These were all manufactured over 30 years ago. Given the way most of these mini bikes were used and treated, it’s highly likely that only very few survived to this day. Many of those who decided to sell their mini bikes early on are feeling regret today because of it. The Harley Davidson Shortsters are now vintage motorcycles that have a unique part in history.
If ever you come across one of these bikes and you happen to be interested, you should consider buying if you can afford it. Back in the 1975, a Harley Davidson X90 would’ve set you back about $2,680. Calculating for inflation, that amount would cost about $12,947 today in 2020. So the X90s weren’t exactly the most affordable toys there were. However, you can very much find these mini bikes for just a few hundred dollars depending on the condition and usability. If you are buying a restored H-D mini bike, you might find yourself paying up just a bit more. Otherwise, we don’t recommend paying any more than $400 for a total restoration project. You might even find a H-D mini bike for about $200 or find it in your friends’ garage. You could get lucky and get it for free—it’s likely they have forgotten they even had the mini bike to begin with.
Written by Benjamin Smith
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