For this week’s Classic Steel we are going to look back at one of Harley-Davidson’s ill-fated excursions into the off-road market, the 1970 Baja 100.
In the early 60’s Harley-Davidson realized they were missing out on the entry level bike market. The cheapest bike they offered was a V-twin Sportster, and with the market for small, inexpensive machines exploding, they realized they needed an answer fast. Their solution was to buy the Italian Motorcycle firm Aeronatica-Macchi and sell the Italian bikes over here under the Harley name. These inexpensive Italian Harleys were mainly small two-stroke singles that served as a stepping-stone to Harley’s bigger models. As the off-road market heated up in the late sixties, Harley decided to convert one of these Italian runabouts into a “scrambler” of their own. With that questionable bit of engineering done, the AMF/ Harley-Davidson Baja 100 was born.
In 1950’s America, motorcycling meant big heavy twins from the US and Britain. BSA’s, Triumphs, Harley’s and Indians were the pick of most motorcycling enthusiasts. Even off-road machines of this era were often little more than striped down street bikes with the lights removed and knobby tires installed. Then in the sixties, Americans began to discover the charms of the lighter, more off-road ready bikes from Europe. Machines from manufacturers like Husqvarna and CZ introduced the American public to the joys of a lightweight two-stroke made specifically for riding off-road. These new machines from Europe, and later Japan, left traditional American marques like Harley-Davidson scrambling to compete. To remedy this, Harley went looking to Europe for a suitable provider of smaller, less expensive, lightweight machines. In the end, Milwaukee’s finest settled on Italian motorcycle manufacturer Aeronatica-Macchi to provide them with the low cost machines they were looking for. Harley purchased a half interest in Aeronatica-Macchi and formed Aermacchi Harley–Davidson. The new pairing would produce small single cylinder motorcycles for the European and American market. These new two-stroke singles would give Harley an entry-level machine and an inroad into the quickly growing small bike market.
The 98cc motor on the Baja was a sleeved down version of an Aermacchi Rapido (an ironic name in light of the motor’s chronic lack of speed) 125cc street bike engine. Simple to the point of being rudimentary, the 24mm Dellorto carb’d, piston-port two-stroke single was mellow and easy-to-ride, but too slow for any serious racing application. Competitors like the Kawasaki 100 Green Streak and Hodaka Super Rat were more than a match for the weak motored Baja in any test of speed. The new Aermacchi-Harleys bikes were basically little Italian runabouts spruced up with H-D badges and given names like Pacer, Sprint and Bobcat. Using small lightweight two-strokes for power, these Italian Harleys were a mild success, and did give Harley the entry-level machines they were looking for. In addition to these small street bikes, Harley decided they needed to move into the quickly exploding off-road market with a “scrambler” of their own. Their answer would be to take a 125cc Italian street bike, downsize the motor, and slap on a set of oversize off-road spec wheels and bars. With that little bit of surgery done, the Harley-Davidson Baja 100 was born.
One look at the Baja’s motor reveals a few interesting points. The motor’ complete lack of any protection seems a glaring oversight in a machine supposedly designed to blast across the desert wastelands (one well placed rock and you were in for a VERY long walk). Further inspection also reveals that the gear shifter is actually on the right-hand side of the motor. In 1970, the manufacturers had not yet made the universal decision to mount the brake on the right and the shifter on the left, so many bikes had this arrangement reversed. While I’m sure a rider would get used to either location, switching back and forth between bikes must have led to some sketchy moments from time to time.
In the early seventies, the 100cc class was actually a pretty hotly contested division. Machines like the Kawasaki 100 Green Streak and Hodaka Super Rat all fought for the hard earned paper-rout-money of aspiring racers everywhere. The 100 class would eventually fall out of favor by the late seventies, but in the early part of the decade, machines like the Super Rat sold in droves. With Hodaka selling their inexpensive little scramblers as fast as they could make them, Harley was determined to grab some of that cash with the Baja 100.
Even though the stock Baja 100 was a pretty terrible machine, Harley’s factory race effort actually enjoyed a great deal of success in the early seventies. With a future desert legend like Bruce Ogilvie, and a very young Mitch Payton at the controls, Baja’s dominated the 100cc class in desert racing for a time. It was good PR for the brand, and helped sell a lot of Baja’s early on. Eventually, however, reality set in and people started to catch on that the race bikes actually shared nothing with the abysmal stock machine.
At a selling price of $670, the Harley Baja cost almost $150 more than its main competitor, the Hodaka Super Rat. At over a 20% premium in cost, you would have expected it to smoke the little Hodaka, but that was just not the case. In nearly every category the Baja was an inferior machine. From the start, it was pretty clear Harley’s half-hearted approach to building an off-road machine had resulted in a lackluster product. The Baja 100 was a lesson in compromise.
In perhaps the oddest arrangement ever to be used on a motorcycle, the Baja actually had two rear sprockets mounted on the rear in an “overlay” fashion. The large off-road specific rear sprocket sat overtop of a small street-geared one and was held on by four bolts. This cobbled together arrangement was problematic at best, and was notorious for coming loose at the most inopportune moments.
The Baja’s 98cc piston-port mill was a sleeved down version of the Italian market Rapido 125 street bike motor. It produced a smooth, torquey delivery that made the Baja easy to manage for beginners. Unfortunately, after its excellent low-end, the Baja petered out as the revs climbed. Both the Green Streak and the Super Rat would easily leave the little Harley in their dust any time the track or trail opened up. The Harley may have been easier to manage, but for any kind of hard-core racing, it was in need of a major power injection.
AMF/ Harley did a good job of marketing the Baja. Their Factory supported race team turned out to be very successful on their highly modified race bikes, giving an impression of performance that was not truly there. That and ads like this one, proclaiming the Baja motor to be “the hottest 2-stroke single that ever hauled past a heavy sled in a sandwash”, suckered many a teen into parting with his lunch money.
The Baja’s chassis had been originally designed as a street machine for the Italian market. Initially, it had been fitted with sixteen-inch wheels and tires. When Harley decided to produce the Baja, they threw away those sixteen’s and spec’d out a more off-road appropriate twenty-one, eighteen-inch combo. Unfortunately, this led to the Baja being hopelessly tall and top heavy. While ground clearance was an excellent 12 inches, the seat height soared with the addition of the big wheels. In a class where most riders tend to be young and small beginners, the Baja was so lofty any rider less than six feet tall would need to be on tippy toes to touch the ground. The wheelbase on the Baja was likewise too short for its tall stature, making the bike very twitchy and unstable in the rough. Turning on the Baja was less than stellar, and trying anything as fancy as a power-slide usually resulted in a rather spectacular get-off by the rider. Apparently, Harley was surprised to find that a bargain street bike, saddled with jumbo wheels, was not a recipe for excellent handling (amazing… I know). In yet another bit of engineering genius, Harley had the brilliant idea to leave a road-spec low mounted front fender on the Baja. This meant that any rock, or even the slightest bit of mud, could jam up the front wheel and send the rider flailing unexpectedly at any time. With the Baja, any ride was guaranteed to be a true adventure.
The Baja’s literature touted the machine’s use of a Ceriani fork as a real advantage over the competition. At the time, Ceriani was a highly respected manufacturer of off-road suspension and could be found gracing the machines of many stars on the GP circuit. The problem was, the only thing these Ceriani’s shared with the works versions were the name. The forks actually used on the Baja were spec’d from an Italian street machine and were woefully undersprung and underdamped for any off-road use. Even with a 100-pound pilot aboard, the Baja’s pathetic forks would bottom and top out over any medium sized bump. Your average Bic pen offered more control than these wrist busters. When you add in the Baja’s laughably low mounted fender, that would jam up with debris at the slightest provocation, you could see that there was not a lot of thought that went into the little Harley’s design.
Disappointingly, things did not get any better in the suspension department. While Harley advertised the fact that the Baja came equipped with highly regarded Ceriani front forks, the actual units used on the Harley were, in fact, a world away from the ones on Torsten Hallman’s works Husky. The Baja made due with under-damped and understrung budget forks taken right off a street machine. They were so bad, that even a 100-pound pilot would bottom and top them out over any medium size obstacle. Even in an era of low suspension expectations, the Baja’s low budget Ceriani’s were considered awful.
In another brilliant bit of detailing, Harley was kind enough to mount a hook at the base of the tank, right where it could grab your man jewels at the most unexpected moments. And who ever said the Italians lacked a sense of humor?
Keeping with the Baja’s overall quest for excellence, the twin Ceriani shocks bolted out back were just as abysmal as the forks. Once again pilfered off an Italian street machine, they were sprung far too stiff, with a complete lack of damping. Essentially a set of pogo sticks, the Baja’s rear end bounced up and down like a mechanical bull in the rough stuff. The hot set up was to replace both the Baja’s cruddy stock shocks and its flimsy swingarm with a longer and sturdier unit. If you left them stock, you were in for a rocky ride.
Because Harley had seen fit to only mount bigger wheels on its Frankenstein street-to-dirt conversion, the Baja was extremely tall and short for its overall size. This made the bike very unstable and hard to turn in the corners. Anyone serous about racing the Baja needed to dump the atrocious street bike shocks and install a longer aftermarket swingarm to tame its twitchy handling.
If you were brave enough to actually get the Baja up to speed, you would quickly find out its meager brakes were not up to the task of doing much stopping. The rear in particular, was feeble even by early seventies standards and virtually useless. Because the lever was on the opposite side of the actual brake, it needed to be cable operated and stretched badly enough to use up all the available adjustment in only a few hours of use. The front was better, but not by much, so it was probably a good thing the Baja was so slow.
In the seventies, Harley’s excursions into the off-road business were largely met with failure. While their 250 MX bikes never took off, the Baja was a sales success for a while. Even so, Harley had abandoned the off-road segment entirely by the end of the decade.
In the detailing department, the Baja once again fell short of the better machines in the class. The stock grips were straight off the Rapido and far too big and hard for off-road use. The levers were likewise too large and difficult to reach for the Baja’s target customer. If you were going to ride a Baja, small or tender hands need not apply. The seat was both hard and oddly shaped, as it actually got wider at the seat tank junction, making sliding forward difficult. In addition to that, the back of the tank actually had a large hook right where the seat and tank came together, in just the right place to change an unsuspecting rider into a permanent soprano (and you thought ATC’s were dangerous). Perhaps the oddest leftover from the Baja’s road-based lineage was its bizarre rear sprocket arrangement. Instead of just bolting on a whole new, more off-road ready sprocket, Harley actually bolted on a second larger sprocket over top of the small street one. This weird “overlay” sprocket was notorious for coming loose, and looked to have been cobbled together in someone’s back yard. If there was one thing that you could say about the Harley-Davidson Baja, it definitely had personality (kind of like your crazy cat loving Aunt, but personality all the same).
Yet another hold over from the Baja’s street origins were its hand controls. The full-waffle street bike grips were incredibly fat, hard and impossible to hold onto in rough terrain. The levers were awkward in shape, extremely hard to reach for anyone with small hands (a major oversight on an entry level bike) and prone to breaking in a crash.
Incredibly, in spite of its many failings, the Baja was actually a very popular bike in the 100cc desert racing class in the early seventies. Riders like Bruce Ogilvie and Mitch Payton (yes that Mitch Payton) actually got their starts racing Baja’s in the desert. While several pros made the little Harley look good in competition, in truth, those machines were actually heavily modified bikes that shared very little with the machine you could buy off the showroom floor. Unfortunately, many an unsuspecting buyer was lured into throwing down their hard earned $670 on a Baja, only to find they had purchased a Yugo instead of a Lamborghini. If you were willing to spend major time and money, the Baja could be made competitive, but it would cost you twice the cash and effort of a rider on another brand.
At $670 the Baja 100 actually cost a premium over its 100cc rivals. For that additional cash you got a slow motor, weird handling and gruesome suspension. Initially a sales success, the Baja would eventually loose out to superior machines from other manufacturers, which offered better performance for less money. In the end, the Baja would turn out to be yet another example of the poor execution that was the hallmark of the AMF/ Harley era.
Today, the Baja is just a footnote of the dark AMF/ Harley-Davidson alliance. While it may not have been a very good racing motorcycle, it did introduce many young riders to the joys of off-road riding. On that count, it is hard to call the Baja a complete failure. The Baja 100 would actually not be Harley’s last foray into the lucrative off-road market. They would continue to dabble with off-road machines throughout the remainder of the seventies, before finally throwing in the towel to refocus on their ailing core business in the early eighties. Only time will tell if we have truly seen the last of the bar and shield on motocross tracks across America.