This motorcycle was a result of economic solutions rather than engineering designs, which may explain its questionable status as one of the worst motorcycles ever built.
In the early 1970s, Brazil was getting its economic act together after 25 years of mismanagement and heavy borrowing to keep the country afloat. Industry was now beginning to compete with agriculture as the biggest moneymaker, both internally and with exports, and there was a lot of creative thinking in the manufacturing world. Because of the colossal debt incurred over the previous quarter-century, anything not made in Brazil, such as big motorcycles, were either not imported or were heavily taxed, often tripling the price.
Along came Daniel Ferreira Rodrigues, a good businessman who saw that the 25-year-old Harleys used by the police and army were literally falling apart. He told the government that he would build a Brazilian motorcycle in a São Paulo shop, the idea of which appealed to them enough that they gave him a contract before ever seeing a running example. Not having much in the way of R&D facilities, he decided that instead of developing an engine, he would use one from Brazil’s Volkswagen factory, which was happy to turn out some extras and sell them to Amazonas Motocicletas Especiais, Ltda (AME). Rodrigues used the 1300 for the real cheapskates, the 1600 for those who relished the power of 50 horses.
But what about a chassis? No record shows who Rodrigues hired to do the job, but whoever it was certainly had a very rudimentary understanding of motorcycle technology. Instead of using the flat four as a stressed member, the engineer chose to build a clumsy cradle frame and shoehorn the engine inside. There was a little trouble with the VW 4-speed transmission, which did not seem to take kindly to being altered to utilize a foot-shift, using a Brazilian-made drum. Reverse gear was included, shifted via a hand lever down behind the rider’s right heel—which turned out to be quite useful when having to back this 900-pound machine away from even the slightest downhill curb. Instead of developing a sensible hypoid gear to get power to the rear wheel, the design team saved money by using a chain for the final drive.
Suspension? A huge 48mm front fork had springing better suited to a Mack truck. At the rear was a curious system using a very stiff, locally made damper shock, along with a very primitive plunger-type system at the rear axle. Nobody explained why the spring rates were better suited for a vehicle carrying two rhinoceri than a motorcycle with just a rider and, perhaps, passenger.
Brakes? AME bought those from the Ford car plant near São Paolo, which used cast-iron discs 10mm in width and over a foot in diameter; unsprung weight was certainly not a concern on this bike. Up by the right hand was a very large, much-finned fluid container connected to a VW master cylinder. Unfortunately, even a good strong pull on the lever imparted very little squeeze on the discs.
The wheels were wide 16-inchers using 5.00 car-type tires that actually had AMAZONAS printed on the side.
The aestheticians saw a need to cover all this up, since above the engine was an unattractive hodgepodge of essential parts like the starter motor, an alternator, a fan to keep things cool and all of the connectors. Multiple sheets of fiberglass did the job. Since Brazil had long stretches of road and few gas stations, the company had the good sense to create a large gas reservoir, and the 8-plus gallon tank could take the bike more than 300 miles.
Apparently the first running example came off the assembly line in 1977, and several hundred were shipped off to the armed forces over the next few years. Handling was atrocious both at low and high speeds, while cruising along at 55 mph was the sweet spot. Since many of these bikes were used for very slow parade duty, the riders rapidly built up good biceps.
Time moved on and Rodrigues made some minor improvements, like reducing the size of the front fork to 41mm…except it still didn’t work worth a damn. And mounting actual 3.25 motorcycle tires on the wheels. He also expanded the line, which now included the Super Esporte, the Sport and the Turismo. Then he sold AME to a fellow named Guilherme Hannud Filho, whose notion was to open up markets in Europe and the U.S. In 1985 Filho set up shop in Houston.
Since that pre-Pleistocene engine would never meet 1986 DOT standards, Filho came up with a novel idea. Break the bike down into three parts—chassis, bodywork and everything else but the engine—and sell each third for $1,500. Americans could easily obtain a DOT-approved motor from a local junkyard. Put it all together and register it as a homebuilt kit bike.
Nobody seems to know how many three-part Amazonas motorcycles actually made their way to Houston—probably less than a dozen. It is estimated that the factory turned out some 450 motorcycles over the years. If anybody knows the whereabouts of one, do let us know—and the lonely owner of this stunningly original 1983 model, including paint and engine, will be happy to start a very small owners’ club.
Last note: The Brazilian economy imploded in 1989, and AME was one of the many businesses to disappear. Then, in 1999, Harley set up an assembly plant in Manaus, a city on the Amazon River, and thus avoided many of the onerous import taxes.
(This Retrospective article was published in the June 2015 issue of Rider magazine.)