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Harley-Davidson MT350E Army Bike (part 2)
Most people buy Army-surplus combat jackets or boots. We bought a whole motorcycle! Rowena Hoseason gets de-mob happy and takes the Snarley onto the street...
'Just how fast did you think were you going?' grumbled the Bigger Half as we pulled into the caff on a crisp, brisk morning. Oh no! Had I been riding so abysmally slowly that I'd held up him along the twisting lanes? How embarrassing! Frantic excuses were in order. The roads were all greasy. The front tyre's worn. The bike's still running-in, really, so I didn't want to over-rev it. My speedo said 50-55mph; perhaps it was over-reading? It's only a 350 single, after all. It's not meant to be that fast. And I was very cold…
'Only,' he continued; 'my speedo cable's broken but from the revs we were doing about 75mph. Thought you said we were going to take it real easy!'
Oh. So… my speedo is under-reading, by between five and 10mph. Oh! Blimey. That's the last time I think of the little Snarley as being slow!
Since road-registering the de-mobbed MT350E (see previous installment), I'd been using the Harley trailbike mainly for trips into town from our hillside retreat. It's a 15-klick round trip, 20 if you go the scenic route (and now I have to think in terms of kilometres for journey distances because the odometer is in km, although the speedo is still in mph. Not that the speedo seems to be anything like accurate, mind. Could be in zlotys for all the use it is!). Over those distances and travelling on rough-rutted country lanes, top speed is pretty immaterial. There's no Gatso cameras around here -- they would only catch speeding sheep, after all. So this was our first trip of any real distance, out on 'proper' roads -- ones with tarmac from edge to edge: cor, luxury.
You fire up the air-cooled 349cc Rotax motor using the extremely convenient electric foot. The older 500cc Armstrong bikes have only kickstart; my smaller capacity Harley-Davidson version comes with all mods cons which is just as well -- the kicker is on the left on these machines and I've never successfully managed to use a left-footer. (although FW is getting the hang of it now that he has to, on his Harry Matchless). With the choke full on the 4-valve SOHC single purrs immediately into life. It should do; versions of this motor have been powering motorcycles (speed boats, lawnmowers, generators and Uncle Tom Cobbly) for donkey's years now, and the water-cooled evo-development is good enough for BMW's F650 range.
In this guise however it propels 'a means of transport for liaison, reconnaissance and courier duties', and because the Army obviously expected it to be doing these things in muddy fields they gave the MT350 a first gear which would be suitable for riding vertically up the sheer face of K2. Really. You give the engine some revs and whap it into first -- clutch always sticks a little when cold so you need to keep the throttle open a little and be prepared for the bike to tug forward -- and by the time you've let the clutch out then it's time to pull it in again and change up. Could probably forget first gear altogether and pull away in second!
By the time you hit third the Snarley is fair rasping along -- I think the exhaust is blowing a bit, which adds to its gruff note. Although this MT has only done a touch over 2000km, it's of 1996 vintage so some corrosion in the metalwork is to be expected. Not that I mind too much as a little bit of rasp just adds to the enjoyment, don'cha think? Maximum power on this matt-drab baby is 30bhp at 8000rpm, although I've tried not to venture too far into screaming madness just yet -- effectively the engine is being run-in all over again. If you buy any bike that's not been used for a couple of years then this is a no-brainer precaution. Treat it with respect, build up the usage across the rev range over several hundred miles and change the oil at around 1000km. (You can't stop me mixing metric and imperial measurements now, oh no. I'm aiming to beat NASA at their own game!).
More important to most of us than top-end power is the torque we have on tap. Although the MT's output compares pretty well to the likes of a Beesa B40 and its 20-plus horses, the modern WD machinery doesn't have the torque of the old kit. 28NM at 7000rpm sounds respectable, but we're living in the land of little (or no) flywheels here, so rev-rev-rev becomes the order of the day. Mind you, Snarley's reservoir of grunt is enough to shuffle the bike off the stop in good order, especially if you're quick through the box and don't hang about in those short lower gears. Get into third and fourth and this single-cylinder slugger will snort away while modern multis are still bogged down in their flat-spots. The A65, however, has a tendency to romp off as if Snarley were standing still. Dammit.
Most folk have an immediate bad reaction to the idea of a modern, ex-military tromper. Perhaps they are thinking about the earlier (and admittedly ghastly) Can-Am 2-strokes; or perhaps they need their bikes to be in dayglo colours and with one shock-absorber less. But owners of the older Armstrong 500s are full of praise for these rugged machines -- and when Harley took over production to make the MT350 they tidied up most of the earlier bike's irritating foibles. When the MT was being made by CCM-Armstrong in Bolton in the 1980s it earned the company the Queen's Award for Export, thanks to orders from Canada and Jordan among others. Armstrong beat 11 other motorcycle manufacturers to win the contract, including the Big Four Japanese boys. Production of the military bikes reached 65 motorcycles per week and the value of the orders came to over five million quid with more than 2500 bikes joining the world's military might.
When NATO also chose the MT design as its ideal two-wheeler, Harley-Davidson bought the right to produce the bikes and production moved to the US of A. Harley needed to meet American emission standards and the Federal Codes of Practice; they wanted to reduce the bike's weight and the overall manufacturing cost; they needed to add extra features like the tool box and helicopter lift capability. So for production in Pennsylvania the MT was given a thorough overhaul and general development -- and an electric start. Hurrrah!
So the complaints I've heard about the 500 (difficult to start, poor lighting, over-heating, poor pillion arrangements) have all been addressed for the 350. No one seems completely happy to tell me why the capacity of the bike was lowered -- some say it was to make sure that US servicemen weren't tempted to exceed the double-nickel speed limit at every opportunity. If so, that ploy didn't work -- 55mph is a breeze! The MT350 obviously proved popular across the water, as the last 500 made in Y2K were all sold to domestic customers in the USA. Most of the military machines are still in service, but the first batches of bikes are being released onto the Army surplus market. And that's where this Snarley came from.
You might have noticed that I'm a bit coy about referring to it as a full-blooded Harley-D… and that's because, although the MTs are assembled in the land of the free, their components come from just about everywhere, including Austria, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy and Japan. It's a bitsa if ever there was one!
And it's a tough old bitsa, too. The chief attraction of the MT for me was its utter indestructibility, its rough-and-ready ruggedness. I wanted a bike which could land in a ditch and wouldn't give me a hard time about it afterwards. This is that bike. What I was amazed to find was that it turns out to be a fun little thing too, and surprisingly practical. Unlike most fashionable trail bikes, the MT has a large, squashy saddle, comfy enough for several hours on the trail. It has masses of carrying capacity -- the toolkit lives in a special cubbyhole, and the forward panniers are perfect for most groceries, videos and the odd bottle of plonk (although you'll need to develop a taste for French sticks rather than fat farmhouse loaves). The gun carrier Had To Go however, as it made it tough to scramble on and off -- and I don't have a gun to carry in it. Yet.
Parked up at Prees last April (sob), I was amazed to see that amid a couple of thousand other motorbikes, someone chose to park their Aprilia 350 trailbike right next to the Snarley. My word, that Rotax engine looked familiar. In fact -- it was the same engine! The major differences between the bikes seemed to be that the Aprilia had dayglo clothes and the Snarley wears infra-red reflective paint; the Aprilia had a monoshock and the Snarley has two huge springers; the Aprilia had luggage bungeed all over the place and the Snarley had space to spare in its panniers; and the Aprilia had a plank of a seat while the Snarley has a sofa. Call me biased, but I know which one I'd buy. Oh I did, already!
Threaten me with the Spanish Inquisition and I will admit that the Snarley ain't perfect. The comfy chair means that it's slightly wider than yer usual trailbike, so adding to the stretch needed to manage the bike's 889mm seat height. Fuel consumption is supposed to be in the region of 50mpg, so giving 150 miles from the three gallon tank, but I seem to be hitting reserve shortly after 150km. The tyres it came with are both mismatched and knackered, so I'm going to have to fork out for replacements pretty soon. And the sidestand is impossible for me to kick out when I'm on the bike so I have to gracelessly slither off and knock it down when standing alongside.
But hey -- I've got a blackout switch. And a bike that can easily keep pace with the pack. What more could a girl need?
The MT350E British Army manual is possibly the best motorcycle maintenance guide I've ever encountered. It covers just about anything that could happen, and explains it all in words of one syllable so that anyone can solve anything. The best bit is the fault-finding guide; obviously written with the non-motorcyclists in mind…
Most folk see the Snarley and then tell me that I'm going to have a real tough job finding spares for it, oh yes. Oh no I'm not. Rotax have excellent spares and servicing back-up, and there are several options for chassis spares in the UK. There are just some of them:
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