Ah, our first street-legal vehicle ... that life-changing moment when freedom from family finally becomes possible. In 1971 Tennessee, it could happen when you were at least 14 years old, got your parents' signatures, had a motor-driven cycle with 5 brake horsepower or less, could see, paid $6, and rode within a 7-mile radius of your home during daytime hours.
I had the luxury of learning to drive a tractor at 6, a car around 8, all on our farm. We had bicycles, a mini-bike, and a go-kart, so going to a slightly larger motorbike was not a problem. But, unfortunately, choosing one was. Honda was breaking ground with its fantastic line of bikes, and I saw their reliability and features through my friends. I wanted a blue 1972 Honda CL100
, a dual-purpose on/off-road bike that sadly is not made anymore. However, my father was writing the check, and he wanted *American*
- a Harley-Davidson.
Anything sold by Harley-Davidson under 500cc
was built by Aermacchi in Italy, but my father could not grasp that concept because the bikes had "Harley-Davidson" written on them. He grew up in The Great Depression, was still fighting World War II, and simply would not give his money to the Japanese, though the only two new cars he ever bought were German Volkswagen Beetles--in fact, he bought the third VW ever sold in Nashville. We had a great family friend, the late Bill Abernathy, who had just purchased the first 1972 model Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide 1200 sold in Tennessee, so it was deemed by the powers that be that I would have the first 1972 H-D 125cc Rapido sold here (Do we see a pattern forming?).
It was Saturday, Sept. 4, 1971, that we went to Boswell's Harley-Davidson in Nashville and got the bike. Mr. Abernathy loaned us his bike trailer to bring it home. At $604.72, including tax, two optional mirrors, and a legally-required crash bar, the Rapido was a bit pricey. The CL100 I wanted was available around $500, but again, I had to forego blinkers, decent lighting, underseat storage, reliability, color choice, peer acceptance, and 4-stroke engine mechanicals due to patriotism.
The 2-stroke Rapido's gas tank cap had a built-in cup to measure oil for every gallon of gas bought. Such an unnecessary hassle. I think the dealer did not hook the battery up correctly, as the magneto poorly powered everything on the bike ... lights, horn, etc, at different engine rpm. The horn would change tempo and volume simply by revving the engine, and the lights would dim and brighten. I never found any factory-related use for the tiny 6-volt battery.
Most H-D dealers would like to forget these bikes, both then and especially now. A few months after getting the bike, I perused the accessories catalog and found a luggage rack and tool kit for the Rapido. At first the dealer said these items did not exist, but after I pointed them out in the fine print, he gladly ordered them. The tool kit came in very handy ... the single spark plug would often foul, leaving the bike immediately dead wherever that happened, day or night. A bud and I fashioned trouble lights on our bikes, which were not only life savers at night, but also the only use I ever got out of the exposed battery.
If I seem ungrateful about the bike, I don't mean to be. But for the same money, we could have had such a nicer motorcycle. Once on a trail ride, the carburetor literally fell apart. Yay tool kit! The Rapido was a 4-speed, most of the others had 5. Less than a year after getting the bike, the once-lustrous metallic red paint turned pink, and the Harley-Davidson cans of touch-up paint were horrible, not even close to the original color. Oh, and though the bike was dual-purpose, my father and Mr. Abernathy deemed that it should have the optional lower front fender and windshield for road use. Shall we say "Dork-cycle," and beyond my control.
The Rapido ran by a single-cylinder, 2-stroke engine displacing 123.15 cc, true horsepower unknown to me. Maybe the only clever thing on the bike was a rear wheel hub with two sprockets... one for street, the larger for trail. Just loosen the back wheel, slip it forward, and replace the chain onto the larger sprocket for getting muddy. It sat 30.5 inches off the ground, cleared Mother Earth by 6.3 inches, held 2.38 gallons on gas, and weighed 211.5 pounds. I remember the bike as being very smooth and quiet, but the brakes would disappear at the first sign of a wet road. Not a reassuring feeling at all.
Some things on the Rapido were backwards... shifter, shift pattern, brake pedal, kick starter, all were on the opposite side and/or function compared to every Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha made then. Whenever anybody else rode the bike, they hated it because the brake pedal was on the wrong side, causing them to shift up rather than slow down. The next model year, 1973, all of this was corrected ... the new bike even had blinkers! But that came too late for this nice little motorcycle.
In August, 1972, a motley crew of the four of us (Mr. Abernathy, me, David, and Kevin, shown here), packed the three small bikes into the back of Mr. Abernathy's new Chevy pickup, and the Electra-Glide followed on a trailer. I don't remember where the luggage went. We drove four hours east to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
and had a great weekend, limited license legalities aside. The two Harleys performed well; the Kawasaki died from a clogged exhaust, and Kevin immediately went broke, spending all of his money on a "Lamp of China"of unknown origin.
If you ever visit the Smokies, please use a bike, convertible, or something with a sunroof. Nothing else on wheels can give you the proper view.
We traded the Rapido in Dec. 1972, for a new black 1973 H-D SS-350 (Formally called the Sprint
), identical to the cop bikes in the James Bond film "Live And Let Die."
The SS-350 was another Italian-made disaster; the vibration from the single-cylinder "thumper" engine, as it was called, cracked the license plate into several pieces in less than six months. But I was 16 soon anyway, and we sold the bike for cash to go towards my first car, a red 1972 Chevy Vega
, less than a year old.
So even though I consider the Aermacchi Harley-Davidsons to be an epic fail, why do I lust for this bike? Well, simply because it brought me my first feeling of freedom in rural Middle Tennessee. It got me off the farm and to my friends that lived relatively far away (five miles). The purchase price and serial number have stuck in my head for 38 years ... 7A10333H2 was stamped on the frame.
I doubt this bike still exists, but you never know. This time last year, I saw somebody was restoring a similar bike. I emailed them and said I had an original Owner's Manual for their bike, and they were welcome to it if they wanted it--but no reply ever came.
I can't believe I still have a sales brochure for this bike after all these years. Somewhere in the living room is the Owner's Manual. Our family took very few pictures through the years, yet the first one here is me at 15 on the bike in 1972. Mr. Abernathy passed in 1981. I still see David and his family every Friday night; his son Daniel helped me with this post. Kevin is probably enjoying his "Lamp of China" somewhere.
--That Car Guy (Chuck)