Retrospective: Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero: 1967-197

Year/Model: 1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero; Owner: David Brown, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Year/Model: 1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero; Owner: David Brown, Knoxville, Tennessee.

This is one cool-looking motorcycle, with Harley-Davidson writ large on the gas tank and molded into the crankcases. A bit on the small side, but what the heck—if you were the coolest newspaper boy in town, who cared?

1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero
1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero

The M65S had a price tag of a mere $265, which even the bag boy at the supermarket could come up with. A little four-cubic-inch (65cc) two-stroke engine powered this nonlethal beast, with a 3-speed transmission that could wind out to a dramatic 50 mph—assuming the rider was in a crouch.

The styling was the key—it had a long, narrow gas tank leading to a long, narrow saddle—which ended with a racy little backstop. The basic design could not be faulted. Maybe the handlebars were a little too up-ish, but that was the style in the late 1960s.

Did this smooth creature come out of the same factory that built big Sportsters and humongous Electra Glides? Not quite. Back around 1960, Harley management realized two things. First, lightweights were becoming real popular, especially those Japanese ones on which you met the nicest people. Second, Harley’s rather antiquated two-strokes like the Ranger and the Scat, descendants of the Hummer 125, were not very appealing to the young crowd. The bean counters determined that it would be a lot more efficient to buy into some European company, which already had the manufacturing plants, than to try to build a whole fleet of brand-new tiddlers.

1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero
1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero

The Italian Aermacchi Company looked tempting. This company began building airplanes just prior to World War I, and following World War II—anticipating the Italian lust for private transportation—got into the motorcycle business with a very successful two-stroke 125 single. Then came a 175cc OHV single, which grew to be the 250cc Ala d’Oro (Gold Wing).

In the late 1950s, the company’s aviation business took off and it became a partner with Lockheed. So when Harley-Davidson came to have a look, Aermacchi was familiar with American dealings and offered 50 percent of the motorcycle company. It was producing a variety of models, from 250cc down to a 50cc two-stroke with a step-through frame…not a true step-through, though, as the seat almost touched the gas tank. The first Aermacchi-Harley to appear on American showroom floors was the 250, labeled a Sprint for the U.S. market, instead of Gold Wing. Was that a wise marketing decision? But as Harley execs saw the Honda 50 and its Japanese ilk get gobbled up by the college crowd, they decided to bring in the 50 as well—and brought some 9,000 into the U.S. in 1965. About 5,000 were sold that year; not so good.

Year/Model: 1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero; Owner: David Brown, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Year/Model: 1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero; Owner: David Brown, Knoxville, Tennessee.

For 1966, the factory brought in a second M-50 model, the S—for Sport. This had a much racier look with the same engine, entirely different chassis. On the S the frame was simple, very strong, with a tubular backbone going from the steering head down behind the engine and then looping back up again to support the seat and shock absorbers. The unit-constructed powerplant, made by a Bologna-based company called Minarelli, was suspended from the backbone, attached to the frame at the back of the cylinder head and behind the gearbox. A slender telescoping fork led down to the front 17-inch wheel, which carried a 2.50 tire and had a small single leading shoe drum brake. At the back, a swingarm went out to support two lightweight shock absorbers, and the 18-inch wheel had a 3.00 tire and similar SLS drum brake. After all, since the weight was only 140 pounds, not much brake would be needed. Wheelbase was just under 45 inches.

1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero
1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero

By this time the 50cc market in the U.S. had peaked, and for 1967 the engine was enlarged to 65cc. This 44mm bore and 42mm stroke actually came to 63.8cc—but 65 sounded so much more refined. A cast-aluminum head on an iron barrel compressed the fuel 8.5:1, and the power rating was given as approximately 4.5 horsepower. A mag/dyno fired the plug and lit the lights when the engine was running. The fuel needed to be mixed in the tank at a recommended ratio of 25:1, using 30-weight oil. The carb was an 18mm Dell’Orto. Gears took the power back to the wet clutch and 3-speed Cascade transmission, which used a scooter-type gearshift, done by twisting the left grip. Two versions of the M65 were produced, the semi-step-through and the S.

However, it turned out that Yanks liked to shift with their left toes, perhaps considering the wrist-shift a bit too girly. So Aermacchi quickly devised a boot-shift as an alternative to the handlebar mechanism. It looks a bit like an afterthought, as can be seen on this 1970 model, and it definitely was. But it worked, with a curious linkage going into the transmission.

1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero
1970 Harley-Davidson M65S Sport Leggero

This was definitely not an electric-start model, and had the kickstarter located on the left side, using a forward kick. Not hard to do with a 50cc engine, and it was easily fired up while in the saddle. A small battery (missing on this model, which is on display at a Harley dealership in Knoxville, Tennessee) augmented the electrical system, keeping the lights on and the horn tooting when the engine was not running. Turn on the petcock for the fuel, tickle the Dell’Orto, turn the key, kick—and you’re away. No astounding quarter-mile times, but a pleasant little in-town runabout. The chassis could get a bit twitchy if it was treated like a road racer. MSRP was a low-bucks $265.

In 1968, a new 125 two-stroke was introduced, at twice the size, three times the horsepower, and a decent $425 price; that took away a lot of the 65’s appeal. Boys wanted bigger. The 65 went off the market after 1972.

(This Retrospective article was published in the March 2015 issue of Rider magazine.)

8 COMMENTS

  1. My dad bought me a used one of these in 1970 for $35.00 A 12 year old never had so much fun. We installed a trail kit from the local Harley dealer andI was in heaven. Mine was blue with a silver frame. Sure the shifting on the handlebar was kind of girlie but I sure did enjoy it on the local trails until I graduated into a Yamaha DT1 enduro !

  2. I bought a new 1970 leftover in early 1971 from the Yamaha Dealer in Iron Mountain, Michigan. Price paid was 175.00 plus 4% sales tax. 182.00 out the door! My dad said what ever money I could save he would double it. I had 85.00 and some loose change so it cost him a bit more! I delivered papers and picked up pop cans n bottles from side of road to buy it. 10.00 per month on paper route it took a while. .50 allowance each week helped. Turns out it was the biggest piece of junk ever. The bellcrank shift linkage always broke, could not keep a piston in it & a gutless wonder but it got me thru until I bought a 1967 Yamaha YR1 in early 1973. Why am I here? because if I found the right bike would buy another for old times sake. See if I could fix the inherent problems.

  3. Hello, I inherited a 67 from my father that is the same as the one in your photo. It hasn’t been started in over a year but is should still run. It has just over 1000 miles on it. All original I think. Where is the best place to sell this bike? It needs cleaning up and there is a lot of rust on the rims and a few other places. Probably could have the fenders painted. Any thopughts or know any interested parties that would like to restore it?

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