Home » This Rare Harley-Davidson Is Different Than Any Harley You’ve Ever Seen. Here’s Why

This Rare Harley-Davidson Is Different Than Any Harley You’ve Ever Seen. Here’s Why

Harley Military Motorcycle Ts1
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Harley-Davidson has enjoyed a long and colorful history of producing what many would say is the first name in American motorcycles. Most Harleys, like the Road Glide, Street Glide, and Sportster, are bikes so common you’ll practically trip over them in the summertime. Others, especially vintage models like the Harley-Davidson Strap Tank or the El Knucklehead, came in few numbers and are valued into the stratosphere. Among those rare motorcycles is a machine that sticks out. The Harley-Davidson MT500 isn’t a cushy cruiser or a century-old piece of history but a military bike. And the weirdest part is this rare motorcycle technically isn’t even a Harley.

Every week, I scour the pages of Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist in hopes of finding an affordable diesel motorcycle. I keep holding onto the idea of finding that cheap Royal Enfield Diesel or HDT M1030M1. Sadly, I am not that lucky, but during my searches, I did find some weird military bikes, and these claimed to be Harley-Davidsons.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Yet, despite the badging, these mil-spec Harleys trace their lineage back a couple of decades with stops in the United Kingdom and Italy. Look closely and you’ll even find that the engine isn’t even one of Harley’s iconic V-twins. So, what’s going on here?

Let’s Go To Italy

Armstrong Motorcycle Harley Davi (2)
American Classic Motors

Harley-Davidson’s military motorcycle history spans over a century. In 1917, the United States entered World War I. As the Vintagent writes, American companies stood up to the plate to assist in the war effort. This included American motorcycle manufacturers including Harley-Davidson, Indian, Henderson, Excelsior, and others. Motorcycles were formed into all sorts of vehicles from mobile gun platforms to compact ambulances.

Here’s a Henderson outfitted with a sidecar-mounted machine gun for the New York City Women’s Machine Gun Squad Police Reserves. Motorcycle-based combat was serious business!

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Bigassgun
National Archives

Harley-Davidson pressed its J series into military service and the company calls these motorcycles its first-ever military bikes. Those bikes housed 61 cubic inch V-twins punching out 15 HP and featured a three-speed hand shift transmission.

Some notable changes happened with Harley’s and Indian’s military bikes back then. While civilian models had electric headlights, the military bikes had gas headlights. The military bikes also had rear brakes, but no front brakes. Harley-Davidson which previously painted its motorcycles gray, started painting its motorcycles in what we now call olive green. Harley continued to paint its bikes green until 1931 or 1932, depending on who you ask.

Gunbike
National Archives

Harley-Davidson sent over 20,000 motorcycles out into WWI battlefields, fewer bikes than the 50,000 sent in by then-bigger Indian, but Harley sweetened the deal with motorcycle mechanic training schools. This is to say that Harley-Davidson has a long history of providing motorcycles to the military and you won’t be surprised to read that Harley stepped up to the plate again when it was time to send over 80,000 motorcycles into World War II.

Motorcycles have an advantage that trucks don’t. Bikes can squeeze through tight environments, like cities, that might slow down something like an HMMWV/Humvee. Motorcycles are also great for messenger duty and can scoot through rough terrain, too.

Harleywwi
National Archives

Harley’s more modern attempt at a mil-spec bike started in Italy in the early 1980s.

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SWM, which is an abbreviation for Sironi Vergani Vimercate Milano, was founded in 1971 as a manufacturer of trials, enduro, and motocross racing motorcycles. The name of the brand smashes together the company’s founders Pietro Sironi and Fausto Vergani. SWM’s early motorcycles were saddled with German Sachs engines before later getting outfitted with Austrian Rotax engines. The bike that matters the most to us is the Rotax-powered XN Tornado, which was reportedly launched in 1982 as a roadgoing dual-sport.

I could not find photos of the exact motorcycle, but here’s a photo of the brochure for SYM’s XN series. You can see the origins of the military bike in there:

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eBay Seller

Unfortunately, SWM’s first stint was short-lived and the company went out of business in 1983 or 1984. Then came Clews Competition Machines (CCM), a company founded by motorcycle racer Alan Clews after BSA’s competition department went bust. Another company, Armstrong, scooped up CCM and also the rights to the SWM XN Tornado. Some riders may be familiar with Armstrong-CCM as this company would become the final stewards of Bombardier Can-Am motorcycles in the 1980s.

Armstrong Mt500 Army Motorcycle
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Armstrong Mt500 Army Motorcycle (1)
Suprememotos.com Seller

Most reports say that Armstrong-CCM began production of the MT500 around 1983 or 1984 for the British Army. Those sources will then say soon after that the motorcycles were used in the Falklands War campaign. Those of you who know your history will see a problem with this as the Falklands War lasted for 74 days in 1982, not 1983 or 1984. CCM says production began in 1983, well after the Falklands conflict.

What I can tell you is that the Armstrong MT500 was similar to the SWM it started life as, but was painted in that familiar military green and was adorned with features you’d want in a military bike, like a switch to quickly turn off all lights. Power came from a kickstart 504cc single from Rotax making 28 HP. Small changes came in the form of a new carburetor and some electric start models were produced for the Canadian and Jordanian militaries.

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Harley Scoops Up The MT500

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Harley-Davidson

Reportedly, Armstrong-CCM went bust in 1987. Harley-Davidson picked up the military bike program while the rest of the company folded back into CCM. Scoring a big military contract wasn’t Harley’s only mission. Reportedly, the company wanted to use the Rotax engines secured in the deal in its dirt track racers.

Harley-Davidson developed the Armstrong MT500 into the Harley-Davidson MT500. The bar and shield also had a smaller version, the MT350, which used a 348cc Rotax engine. Harley’s version of the MT500 was largely the same as it was from England, only now the name Harley-Davidson was molded into the bike’s plastics.

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MT500s feature a steel tube frame and utilize the engine as a stressed member. The rest of the bike is adorned in plastic parts from the tank to the optional front-mounted panniers and rear-mounted rifle case. Another report says that Harley mounted the panniers up front to mask engine heat from enemies using infrared scopes. Production began in Pennsylvania in 1989 and lasted through 2000. Early models featured front and rear drum brakes while later examples got disc brakes. Like the Armstrong MT500, only some examples got electric start.

I found an owner’s manual for the MT500 and it’s a fascinating read. Since these motorcycles were simple, but built for extreme use, the manual describes situations that no normal motorcycle manual covers. Harley recommends that people operating the MT500 in extreme humid heat should lubricate the motorcycle more often and check the battery’s electrolyte level daily. The Motor Company recommends distilled water or just plain rainwater to refill the battery.

Harleymt500 16
Revival Cycles

Other interesting bits in the manual are the notes that the motorcycle should not sit uncovered in hot dry heat and that if you store it somewhere freezing, the bike can freeze to the ground. The bike was also good for fording water a foot deep. Some other figures from the manual include a dry weight of 358 pounds and the engine itself, which is claimed by Harley-Davidson to be a 482cc unit from Rotax, weighs 101 pounds on its own. That engine is said to make 32 HP and 28 lb-ft of torque. The bike also has a single seat but can carry about 400 pounds of weight.

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As the book, Arms & equipment of Special Forces, writes, Harley-Davidson also outfitted the motorcycles with convoy lights, a handlebar gun mount, and the option for a night vision headlamp. The motorcycles were designed to be light enough to be deployed by low-velocity airdrop and to be secured on a pallet to fall to the ground under a T-10C cargo parachute.

A Rare Failure

So, what happened? Why is this motorcycle one of the rarest machines to be built by Harley-Davidson?

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It comes down to those very Rotax engines Harley-Davidson wanted. See, those engines run on regular 87 octane gasoline. However, that’s a bad thing. When Harley-Davidson pitched these bikes to America, the military was working on streamlining its fueling. Here’s a paragraph from my history on the Hayes Diversified Technologies M1030M1:

As the Modern War Institute and SAE International write, in the late 1980s NATO nations began an effort to streamline the fueling process. Instead of carrying various fuels for different vehicles, the militaries worked towards “one military fuel for all the land-based military aircraft, vehicles and equipment employed on the military arena.” It’s known as the Single Fuel Concept (SFC) and the fuel selected for the task is JP-8 fuel, which is similar to commercial aviation Jet A-1, but contains a corrosion inhibitor, a lubrication additive, and an anti-icing additive. The advantage of JP-8 is that it could be used to fuel a jet and also be used to fuel a truck. Our Jason Torchinsky further notes that this stuff is similar to the fuel used to heat some homes. Or, in this case, JP-8 also fuels a motorcycle.

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In short, Harley-Davidson tried to sell the military a gas bike when the military was looking for ways to reduce the number of fuels in the field. Despite that, Harley-Davidson still managed to move some units. The Motor Company has never released any production data for either the MT350 or the MT500, but it’s believed that around 500 MT500s were built. MT350 production is even less clear than that, but it’s reported they were sold back to the British Army. It’s said that some MT500s found their way into Operation Desert Storm, but military applications were otherwise limited.

Some MT500s reportedly found their way into Harley-Davidson dealers, where they were sold for either $12,000 or raffled off for charity. The option list was tiny and consisted only of the front storage compartments and the rifle case.

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As I noted before, Harley-Davidson built these motorcycles through the 2000 model year, making only small improvements such as electric start and disc brakes. Despite the rarity, these motorcycles aren’t very hard to find for sale. Just today I found two currently for sale at dealerships and three for sale on Facebook. The cheapest is $7,995 from American Classic Motors while the most expensive is $19,500 from a guy on Facebook. Most I’ve found for sale are above $10,000.

So, there you have it. One of the rarest motorcycles produced by Harley-Davidson is American in name only. The MT500 started off as an Italian enduro, served for the Brits, then made it over to America where it didn’t quite fit the mission. Today, you can sort of view these as a weird Harley off-roader that isn’t a Pan America, doesn’t say Buell on the side, or isn’t one of the Aermacchis from the past. The MT500 and its MT350 sibling may not be wild 100 mpg diesels, but they’re still weird artifacts of Harley-Davidson history.

Here’s where I’ll turn things to you. I want to fill in some holes in the MT500’s history. Did these motorcycles really serve in the Falklands War and Desert Storm? How are they like to ride? Send me a message at mercedes@theautopian.com.

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Mike B
Mike B
1 month ago

Bikes & Beards on YT got ahold of these awhile back and did a few videos on it.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 month ago

DO NOT mess with the New York City Women’s Machine Gun Squad Police Reserves. They will Ef you up. Especially that one in the sidecar with the rifle, she means business.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 month ago

As a coda of sorts the US military eventually bought a bunch of Kawasaki KLR250s converted to run on JP-8 which occasionally show up on eBay.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
1 month ago

I’ve seen one of these! About twenty years ago I got invited to go to a warehouse of a friend-of-a-friend. Unknown to me, the guy had like 20 warehouses full of war memorabilia – tanks, troop carriers, Jeeps, motorcycles, etc. – including one of these oddball Harleys. I remember it because I noted the Harley logo and asked him about it, to which he replied “That?! Biggest piece of sh*t I’ve ever bought. Even by Harley standards it sucks.” My friend who knew the guy was a big Harley fan, so he was not amused while his friend and I had a good laugh at his expense. I then promptly when back to looking at the Tiger II tank the bike was next to.

Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
1 month ago

The former owner of Harley-Davidson of Cincinnati had a mini-museum of his personal collection set up inside the dealership (which HD corporate hated btw) and there was one of these in it and every time my dad took us there I would ogle over it.

Dudeoutwest
Dudeoutwest
1 month ago

Now do the Aermacchi partnership bikes. 😀

William Domer
William Domer
1 month ago
Reply to  Dudeoutwest

I loved my sprint back in 1969. I miss it

Dudeoutwest
Dudeoutwest
1 month ago
Reply to  William Domer

My wife learned to ride motorcycles back in the late 70s on a 250.

JDE
JDE
1 month ago

I do recall seeing an MT500 at the Harley dealership in Ames Iowa complete with a rifle holder for sale around 1993 or so. it was really just an expensive dirt bike to most of us though. I also recall seeing a diesel Version later on. that one was especially interesting and is probably still running red diesel on some farm in Iowa.

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