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Built to race – Aermacchi


Designed for grand prix racing, this Aermacchi Harley Davidson Ala d’Oro lured its owner back onto the track for the first time in 40 years

The Aermacchi Harley Davidson Ala d’Oro is something of an enigma.

It’s an Italian bike with an American name that was honed to perfection by a British importer. It’s also a bike out of its time; one built with a highly-developed 350cc air-cooled single-cylinder engine at a time when Japanese multi-cylinder bikes were beginning to dominate grand prix racing.

Andy Webb’s gorgeous 1969 example is one of just 13 built that year – all of which came to the UK via Syd Lawton of Lawton and Wilson. The Southampton firm acted as a tuning shop, customising the ‘Lawton Aermacchis’ to their owner’s requirements and developing them for various forms of racing.

Unlike the road-going Ala Rossa, the Ala d’Oro was a pure track bike, weighing in at just 95kg and revving to more than 8,500rpm. The vast majority of the 74 examples built between 1967 and 1972 went to club-level racers, although a handful were raced by the factory, including one that came third in the 1968 350cc World Championship in the hands of Kelvin Carruthers.

The bike that you see here was supplied to Scottish racer Ronnie Niven in January 1970 for the princely sum of £757. He continued to race it until 1996, competing in four Isle of Man TTs and no less than 13 Manx Grands Prix along the way. His best result on the island was a 10th place in the 1982 Formula 3 TT, finishing in 1 hour 48 minutes 7.2 seconds and averaging 83.75 mph.

Ronnie Niven Aermacchi

Current owner Andy came across the bike almost by accident. “We were on the lookout for an Aermacchi road bike for my wife when I spotted the ad for this one,” he recalls. “I knew I wanted it, but I didn’t have a clue what I’d do with it. I thought I might restore it as an ornament and put it in my conservatory.”

Despite dabbling in motorcycle racing as a teenager, Andy had spent most of the last 40-or-so years riding large tourers. The Aermacchi now sits beside half a dozen bikes, including two Harleys, a Ducati Darmah and a Motoconfort. Donning a pair of leathers again to compete on track simply didn’t feature in his original plans, but that would all change.

First of all, he had to get it running. A quick inspection when he bought the bike had revealed that it hadn’t run for many years. The engine wouldn’t turn over because the oil had congealed inside the crankcase and the gearbox was ceased solid. This was to prove just the start of his problems, but fortunately Andy, who runs an engineering business, had the skills to do most of the work himself.

It soon became apparent that he had something a little bit special. “When I took the gear cluster out I realised it had six ratios, which was a bit odd as it’s supposed to be a five-speed bike,” he recalls. After a bit of investigation, it transpired that the crankcase was one of a batch that had been copied from the works grand prix bikes. These had a different bearing arrangement that allowed them to run a six-speed gearbox. However, a number of the crankcases had been rejected following an issue with the machining process and it appeared that Andy’s had been part of the failed batch. Fortunately, he was able to borrow one of the correct crankcases to measure and use as a guide to re-machine his own. The result was that he now had a six-speed Grand Prix-spec crankcase.

Andy’s bike also benefited from a number of improvements, including an enlarged big end bearing, a much more aggressive cam, a shorter connecting rod with a revised cylinder barrel (to reduce inertia while maintaining the same stroke) and a grand prix-style exhaust. This all adds to the interest, but it also makes the Ala d’Oro something of a temperamental thoroughbred, Andy explains: “It’s an entirely handbuilt engine. Nothing fits off the shelf and everything has to be adjusted by hand.”

Following a complete mechanical restoration, Andy set about finding somewhere to run the bike. “I just wanted to say I’d done it, basically,” he recalls. “But once I’d stripped it down and ridden it for the first time, I thought ‘this is incredible’. I knew I had to find some way to use it.”

credit Peter Wileman

Andy decided to have a go at sprinting. He ended up winning his class in the NSA’s Southern Championship in 2017. It was around this time that he came to know Dick Linton of the Classic Motorcycle Racing Club who had worked with Syd Lawton in-period.

“Dick said ‘if you want to get that thing going properly you’ve got to take it out on the track. Go round some bends on it and see what it does’. I told him that I was too old and the bike was too loud, but Dick was having none of it and he persuaded me to sign up for a ‘noisy’ day at Donington,” says Andy.

credit Peter Wileman

“There were so many emotions coming as I lined up in the pit lane. I never thought I’d get a pair of leathers on at my age, let alone ride around a track again. The first two or three laps were utterly terrifying. It’s quite an intimidating circuit if you haven’t ridden it before, particularly on a new bike. I managed to do five of the seven sessions then called it a day because it was so physically tiring. That inspired me to get fitter and since then I’ve lost four stone. I looked like the Michelin Man when I first did it. I’ve since done quite a few track days and got to know a lot of people with similar bikes.”

credit Peter Wileman

The little 350cc single makes just under 40bhp at the crank. That doesn’t sound like a great deal, but at half the weight of a modern superbike, it gives the Ala d’Oro sprightly performance. The fastest Andy has seen so far is 107mph on the runway at Dunsfold, but it’s said to be good for over 120mph with the right gearing. “The first time I rode it I could have sworn it was a 500 rather than a 350,” he says. “It pulls right from low revs and from about 6,000rpm it takes on a life of its own. It’ll rip past a Honda 400.”

He starts the bike up in his back garden to give us a taste of what’s involved. The starting procedure itself is somewhat unusual. Due to the use of a vertically-mounted carb on a horizontal engine you have to lean it over to the left hand side to fill the float chamber; this results in the carb flooding, which means you then need to start it straight away or roll it back onto the right side to stop the petrol running out. “How it’s never caught fire I haven’t got a clue. I always have a fire extinguisher next to it when I start it up,” he notes.

There’s no kick start, so Andy uses a homebuilt roller starter (“originally they would have been push started, but I’m too old to mess around with that,” he jokes). What follows is spectacular. The Aermacchi coughs for a second then fires with a deep percussive sound that’s like a single-cylinder motocrosser mixed with a pneumatic drill. It sounds quite unlike anything else. And that seems rather fitting for this machine.

Even when it was new, the Ala d’Oro was something of an oddity; the last of a dying breed. But thanks to Andy this one is now back on the track where it belongs.

Ronnie Aermacchi period