Tanshanomi's Snap Judgments

Harley Davidson SX-350

Wed, September 7th, 2011

1973-74 Harley-Davidson SX-350
The last of the Harley horizontal cylinder bikes were the aging Aermacchi motor's swan song. It was and still is a satisfying motor with some real charm, but its power output, weight, and engineering and manufacturing details were all outdated by the time the final iteration hit the streets.
The final models' cradle frame was overbuilt, though heavy. On-road handling wasn't bad, but brakes were substandard even for the time, and the combination of outdated 'street scrambler' suspension and excess mass made it a poor performer in the dirt.
The lay-down engine is quirky but pretty, with lots of sculptural detail. I like the later cradle frame better than the earlier, traditional Aermacchi backbone frame, especially for an off-roader. The SX's high pipe is also more attractive than the contemporary SS version's odd bifurcated low pipe and dual mufflers.
Aermacchi's four-strokes were at their heart robust and durable, but let down by lousy chassis accessories, worn tooling and horrific quality control by the time the cradle-frame SX came out. The last '73-'74 models had a host of important upgrades, however, including 12 volt electrical systems, modern electric starter and revised transmission with left-side shifter.
Aermacchis were (and are) a complicated way to feel good about going not terribly fast. Once a budget classic, prices are now on the rise. While in production they were generally considered underperforming, rather crude bikes. Since then they've gained a reputation for solid engineering and metallurgy (neither of which can be said for their two-stroke replacements) and a dose of 'soul' other bikes lack. Many of the faults and shortcomings of a stock SX-350 can be remedied, but an SX-350 is best suited as a Saturday morning recreation toy for an experienced workshop wrench. All spagetti Harleys were left orphaned by The Motor Company, whose dealers hated selling and working on them, but engine parts for the four-stroke models are generally still available—if you get plugged into the right network of riders.
I have a genuine but slightly distant fondness for lay-down Aermacchis, and and Harley's SX-350 is my pick from among them. Practically speaking, I can't imagine that I'd ever put one in my garage.
The SX-350 and its late four-stroke brethren were better bikes than their bad reputation (which cannot be said for their two-stroke replacements), yet were still worse than their Asian competition—despite Aermacchi/Harley's semi-sincere attempt to bring them into the '70s.