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Bike Review - Posted 18th December 2015
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Armstrong MT500

Steve Todd encounters the squaddie's salvation, which makes a pretty fair winter hack for the civilian old bike rider...

Following the end of WW2, the Army concentrated on a pair of machines to meet their two-wheeled needs. These were the Matchless G3L which was more or less state of the art and the BSA M20 which wasn’t. In the 1950s the Triumph TRW appeared but this offered little more in terms of performance or comfort. So by the mid-1960s even Whitehall realised that something more modern was needed, and BSA produced the WDB40 which was almost up to date having such new-fangled features as rear suspension. Naturally, a severely detuned engine prevented any hint of performance. However, with the demise of BSA, the hunt started afresh.

The result was the CanAm 250 which was lighter but suffered the disadvantage of being a two-stroke. After all, who in their right mind would ever want to ride a popper, given that the two-stroke engine is, as any fule kno, an invention of the devil, crafted by Beelzebub himself in the fiery depths of hades? They had one other problem. An ex-Army mate told me that if your foot slipped off the footrest whilst on the move, it became jammed between the pannier frame and the ground and broke your ankle. At one point, his unit had no operational despatch riders as they were all in plaster. This was eventually solved by taking the pannier frames off, so not a great success then. Having said that, both the WDB40 and CamAm are now much in demand for off road use, so perhaps you can make a silk purse...

Armstrong MT500

In 1985 after yet more evaluation, enter the Armstrong MT500. This was very much an international product as the engines were made in Austria by Rotax, the forks and wheel rims in Spain, the electrics in Italy and the indicators in Germany. The frames were made by Armstrongs in Lancashire, the carb by AMAL and the plastics in rural Worcestershire.

I bought mine in Derbyshire from a policeman. It was one of the first batch and carries chassis no 13 (unlucky for some). It looked quite tidy but may well have been subjected to a hot climate at some point as the tyres were shiny and had a plasticky feel to them. This was not promising as it was snowing and I had to ride some 40 miles home across the Peak District. The Armstrong had to be bumped down a steep hill to get it going which should have told me something but this was, the seller said, because it had been fitted with a non-standard Bing carb. I fell for this as the MZs fitted with this engine did have Bing instruments but when I got home I had a close look at the carb. It said AMAL in large letters...

First impressions were of quality components, good sized brakes, black anodised alloy rims robust plastics and tank etc and some sensible touches such as the chain tensioner incorporated into the centre stand that comes into play when the stand is raised. The prop stand was on the right suggesting use abroad (Germany?) but works fine. However, in my eyes a few things needed changing. I have a thing about high front guards which generally do little except throw mud / water / animal poo everywhere. In this case the guard shielded the engine from cooling air so it had slots incorporated in the design... This made it even more useless so it was replaced with a Yamaha TY250 item secured by a couple of exhaust clamps.

Small indicators were also fitted for better clearance on narrow lanes. As a final touch, it was tidied up with a respray as it came in a variety of different green shades. On the inside of one of the side panels was the original Army reg no which was 04 KE 84 – I wonder if any readers may have ridden this bike in the 1980s or early 90s?

Armstrong MT500

The riding experience is very pleasant. Power is ‘adequate’ as Rolls Royce would say and I would guess at about 30bhp as the performance feels similar to my old and much-missed SR500. The exhaust is quiet (I think it was required to be inaudible at any reasonable distance to avoid attracting too much shot and shell). Handling on the road is fine, even with off-road geometry and trials tyres. This is useful for venturing out on to the potholed wasteland laughingly referred to as the Shropshire road network. It’s not that these roads are bad but some of them haven’t been touched since the Romans left. Still, at least they get gritted when it snows unlike the roads in neighbouring Worcestershire. Off-road handling is also OK with light weight and wide bars allowing swift changes in direction and it crashes well with minimal damage.

The drum brakes are more than adequate for the performance and gearing is also OK, allowing relaxed cruising at about 60mph when it will return 65-70mpg. I imagine that top whack would be around 90 although it starts to run out of steam at 75. I’m not brave enough to explore the corners of the performance envelope, especially in the dark as the lights are not brilliant. The engine is pretty bulletproof, especially in its soft state of tune, and even if the easily replaced cam belt should break the design prevents the piston tangling with the valves. The gearbox is fine and the built-in chain tensioner keeps the final drive in order.

Of course, all this assumes that you can get it started. I found it really unpredictable sometimes starting second kick and sometimes not at all. Eventually my son and his mate Dave from Shropshire Quads who knows lots of useful stuff (he can even fix things broken by farmers!) worked out a technique which usually proves successful. This involves kicking over ten times with fuel and choke on and ignition off, then choke off, ignition on and kick again. This normally persuades the MT into life after one or two further kicks.

Kicking is not that easy, as the kickstart is on the left and quite high so best done when on the centre stand if possible. This procedure might be OK for commuting but far from ideal for a squaddie when running away from (or is it making a tactical withdrawal in front of?) the Red Army. Some people have replaced the Amal carb with a Mikuni which seems to improve matters.

The bike itself proved to be a successful contraption and later won an order from the US Army. Unfortunately, the Armstrong name didn’t make the transition, as apparently the Great American Public wouldn’t countenance their boys riding anything with a foreign name and the operation was sold to and badged as the Harley-Davidson MT350. This model is fitted with an electric start (hooray!) but reduced in size to 350cc (boo!) although claimed power is similar. There are a fair few of these in civilian use now and some are fitted with useful front panniers. I even saw one finished all in pink at Stafford last year.

Armstrong MT500
Military Stuff on Now...

But what of the future? Most armed forces are trying to standardise on diesel fuel for all their vehicles and the Royal College of Military Science (RMCS) at Cranfield and an American company HDT, spent some time in the 1990s and early 2000s developing a prototype diesel bike using a modified Enfield engine, followed by a number of development machines using a heavily modified Kawasaki KLR 650 unit. Not sure why they used this as I recall that the KLR lump wasn’t the most robust design that the Big K ever produced. However, these developed about 30bhp although carrying some extra weight and several were entered in the National Rally some years back.

All this was some time ago and I could find nothing further to say what may have happened since so I contacted the MoD and asked for an update. They replied that this wasn’t information they normally placed in the public domain so they could either tell me and then kill me or I could put in a FoI (Freedom of Information) request. Not surprisingly, I chose the latter option and the reply stated that ‘The Harley Davidson MT350 is no longer in service and there are no plans to introduce diesel motor cycles at this time’. This being the case, no point in joining the Army to be a dispatch rider then… although I think that Special Forces have used Hondas at times.

The US seems to have taken a different route as the HDT website claims that some 2500 diesel bikes have been sold to the US military. This dates from some time back and one ex-US example was recently offered on eBay for £6300, so not exactly a cheap Winter hack. However, the MT500 (or 350) is well worth seeking out if you want a no frills machine which will cope with most eventualities.


Armstrong MT500

More on the MT350 here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

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