It’s true: Harley-Davidson did in fact once have a snowmobile, and it wasn’t powered by a big, thumping V-twin! David Wells, a 2015 inductee to the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame, authors one Flashback article in each issue of Snow Goer magazine. This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of the magazine. To read more flashback/timeline articles, along with destinations stories, sled tests and shootouts, aftermarket product tests, how-to stories and more, subscribe to Snow Goer magazine.
1972 Harley-Davidson Y 400
AMF’s Swan Song
By David Wells
At the beginning of its entry into the rapidly expanding industry in 1965, recreational equipment conglomerate American Machine & Foundry Company (AMF) focused on the sport segment of the snowmobile market. But by the turn of the decade, it was obvious that the quality-challenged AMF snowmobile was falling behind in the competitive marketplace.
Pushing forward nonetheless, AMF acquired Harley-Davidson in 1969 – a company that was actively contemplating expansion into the snowmobile market for several years, but lacked the resources to enter it. Merged together, AMF could now provide those resources.
So in 1971 a new effort began with a test batch of 80 Harley-Davidson snowmobiles built at the AMF factory in York, Pennsylvania. The sleds incorporated interesting new ideas, but lagged behind the industry in other areas.
Familiar But Different
For the 1972 season, the new Model Y snow hog entered full production at Harley-Davidson’s suburban Milwaukee plant with a run of 2,000 units that were basically re-worked orange AMF sleds in a new color scheme styled by Willie G. Davidson. It was the final season for the AMF brand snowmobiles, with the last 1,000 orange sleds built in York, Pennsylvania.
Other than graphics, the biggest change was replacing AMF’s Hirth engines with Aermacchi ones.
In 1960, AMF had purchased a 50 percent stake in the motorcycle division of Italian aviation pioneer Macchi. It was already selling Aermacchi’s single-cylinder motorcycles in the U.S. under the Harley-Davidson label, but the snowmobile engine was always referred to as a Harley-Davidson (with never any mention of its Italian origin or builder).
As one of the early adopters of Capacitor Discharge (CD) ignition in the snowmobile industry, the unusual installation had two ignitions and would fire one cylinder even if the CDI on the other side had failed. The engine was mounted with the cylinders tilted forward about 60 degrees to lower the center of gravity, and this required unusual steering geometry.
The sled also featured an exclusive hydraulic steering damper. Essentially a horizontally mounted shock absorber linking the steering arm to the frame, this unique feature would not allow the sled to yank the handlebars out of the rider’s hands when a ski took a big hit or dropped into a rut. It was a good idea because the steering column was unusually horizontal so the rider could not get much leverage on the bars – which were also adjustable (an early appearance of this feature).
Despite these advanced ideas, initial Harley sleds lacked many common convenience and safety features. There was no gas gauge, no kill-switch, no handlebar pad and no storage compartment. All instruments were extra-cost options. Also, the hood was secured by the fuel cap and a pair of over-center latches on the backside – removing it required unplugging the headlight.
The Fat Lady Sings
At a very hefty 465 pounds with fuel, the modestly powered wide-track Harley-Davidson Y was not a performance sled despite the company’s claims to the contrary. Nevertheless, sled magazine reviewers liked the porky-and-pokey but sharp-looking and easy-handling sled.
“The Model Y…. proved to be most maneuverable and comfortable,” Snow Goer magazine published, while Invitation to Snowmobiling magazine concluded “The Harley-Davidson simply is fun to ride.”
What they left out was that the sled was really loud, even for its day. Owners noted that the engine pulled-over easily when warm, but air intake noise and engine vibration just above idle were problems. The sleds also lacked power and performance, while some criticized the ride quality and passenger seating, noting that the chrome parts rusted quickly.
Reliability issues continued to dog AMF-built sleds regardless of brand, or plant of origin. The Aermacchi engines and their electrical peripherals proved to be a weak point as the machines aged. Harley-Davidson Y models were lightened with an aluminum tunnel and otherwise improved in later years, but they never really caught on.
Marketing the sleds mostly through Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealers didn’t help, because only 200 or so U.S. outlets offered the product initially and there was no distribution in Canada until 1975. Many dealers were indifferent to the snow product, and some only took on sleds to earn extra road bikes to sell profitably.
At the root, AMF and Harley-Davidson simply did not understand that motorcyclists and snowmobilers were not interested in the other’s sport, so the brand brought them nothing except expanded publicity.
The sled was AMF’s “Swan Song” in the snowmobile business. Continued engineering and marketing mistakes – compounded by ongoing quality issues – left AMF snowmobiles at a competitive disadvantage throughout their multi-brand history, which included AMF, Sears and Harley-Davidson.
After a decade of futility – including four years marketing the sluggish and slow-selling Harley-Davidson Y – AMF finally threw in the towel and exited the snowmobile business after the 1975 season.