A hidden gem in a dusty basement
Editor note: Mark Zweig of Janus Motorcycles has contributed several stories from his younger years of riding, and we’ve been happy to share them here with our Road Dirt friends. We hope you are enjoying his “Moto Memories” as much as we have been.
Back in the late 1990s I lived in the Boston area town of Sherborn, Massachusetts. By that time I had amassed a small collection of motorcycles, European and Japanese bikes from the 1960s and 70s, some original and some that I did total restorations on. I had them all lined up in two rows in a lower level room that was 48 feet long with a bar at one end. One day a friend of mine was over, and while we shared a beer, he told me about a guy he knew with an old Italian Harley in his basement that he wanted to get rid of.
I was really into small Italian bikes from the 60s at that time. I always had a fascination for the Sears-Allstate Gilera 106SS, and owned one that was like new with only 600 miles on it, still wearing its break-in sticker on the speedometer. I also had a beautiful black Motobi 125 with clip-ons that I restored and a completely mint, restored (with all NOS parts) 1967 Wards-Riverside Benelli 250 scrambler. But I didn’t own an Aermacchi H-D, and I thought this could be a good opportunity to get one cheap.
So I called the guy with the bike, and it turned out what he had was a mid-60s Aermacchi Harley-Davidson 250. He said it hadn’t run in years, and that although he had planned on getting it going someday, he had finally come to grips with the fact that that day would never come. He wanted $150 for it. So we set up a time for me to go to his place in Framingham to check it out.
An early magazine ad for the Harley-Davidson/Aermacchi Sprint 250. This is what the “basement bike” was.
He lived in your typical crusty 100+ year old New England house- with asbestos shingle siding and about 25 layers of checkered paint that you’d see all over the Boston area. We accessed his basement through heavy metal exterior bulkhead doors, turned on the single bare bulb ceiling light, then cleared a path that was blocked with old furniture, lawn tools, and moldy cardboard boxes to get to the bike. It was a dirty maroon color with a white stripe, had two flat tires, and looked like it had been there for at least ten years. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the least bit rusty and the motor wasn’t stuck. I gave the guy $150 and together we pushed, pulled, and hoisted the little Italian bike out of that horrific dungeon of a basement.
As we loaded it in the back of my Dodge Dakota pickup, he and I talked. I told him I liked old bikes and was always interested in finding another one to restore. He mentioned that the guy he got this one from was a friend and one-time coworker, and that guy had some old Nortons and a Ducati he might part with. I got his friend’s name and number, and headed home.
The bike actually looked better than it first appeared.
First thing I did is wash that Aermacchi thoroughly in my driveway. The bike actually looked better than it first appeared. It wasn’t maroon, but rather more of solid red color. I spent some time on it and got myself some super fine wet or dry sandpaper and gave the fuel tank a little attention. Then I got out some polishing compound with wax and wow- total transformation! It had been painted at some point in the past but the paint was thick and it looked fantastic.
Fortunately, because the fuel tank was dry when the bike was put away for storage, that saved it. Those who know can tell you that one of the most common problems with old bikes is rusty tanks that have to be replaced—which then sets off a costly restoration process because that would typically mean the whole bike needed to be painted, which of course then led to redoing everything which took a lot of time and money. I was relieved!
A fully restored 1963 Harley-Davidson/Aermacchi 250 Sprint H, similar to Mark’s. Beautiful. Photo by Bike-Urious.
I aired up the tires, installed a good battery, put on a new fuel line and added gas. A few kicks and the little 4-stroke “lay down” single was thumping away perfectly!
Over the next couple of days I worked on the rest of it, cleaning and polishing. I also took the seat to my local upholsterer who I had redo it with a small hump in the back and red piping. Within a couple weeks, I had the bike finished and was riding it on the two-lane roads where we lived. While I didn’t keep that particular bike very long (no pictures remain of it), I have always held a fondness for small single-cylinder machines. They do what most of us really want to do on a bike, which is short trips for fun or commuting perfectly.
That’s why today, as a senior citizen college professor with a Medicare card, my daily rider is a Janus Halcyon 250. It’s like a brand new old bike, except it’s reliable and has good brakes- with a build quality unlike anything else you can buy today. Of course, I still can’t leave good enough alone, and am slowly tweaking the thing to make it faster and look cooler, because it’s such a great platform to work with. Lately, I have been fantasizing about selling a 2034-mile ‘66 Benelli 250 I’ve owned for years, and ordering another new Janus to play with. But please don’t tell my wife…
Oh, yeah, about the other guy with the Nortons and Ducati- I did get together with him and he turned out to be a real character! But that’s a story for another day!
Mark and his loves- Sonya, their cat, a classic motorcycle (in the living room of course), and their lovely home. Photo by Talk Business & Politics.