//-------------------------------------------------------------MAIN MENU LEFT--------------------------------------------------------------///>
//-------------------------------------------------------------MAILING LIST LEFT------------------------------------------------------------------///>
If you look at the motocross rider’s motorcycle today, it is state-of-the-art. The motorcycles manufactured now for racing are designed with that purpose specifically in mind.However, when the sport of motocross, or more specifically,off-road motorcycle riding first began, the men and their machineswere a different breed, in a different time.
Motocross scholars will debate forever the date of the first truemotocross race. While the motorcycle, or as they were called atthe turn of the century, auto-cycles, competed in races back asearly as 1904, it is difficult to call them motocross anything. In retrospect,having seen the motorcycles of that era and pictures ofthe roads that existed, or barely existed, one would be inclined tobelieve that even the early road-racers were more motocrosserthan they knew. These early racers were the founding fathers ofall forms of motorcycle competition.
Our focus here is the beginning of motocross. The generalitycan be made that motocross racing, in its most basic form, startedduring the 1920’s. Spawned from open course off-road competition,Riders took motorcycles that had been designed as over-theroadtransportation and began to use them to slide, jump and plodtheir way through forests and fields in competition with one another.Compared to today’s motocross events, the first races weremore like cross-country events than what we know today asmotocross. One can also presume that the British may havehelped give rise to this new sport with their love of scrambling, amad dash on motorcycles about the country side. Since the earlycompetitors raced on courses that were many miles long and ranthrough the forests and far from most spectators the progression ofthe sport from cross-country to a closed course would allow fans towatch the riders at all times during an event.
While the early racers of England and Scotland were enjoyingtheir scrambles and trials riding the sport of motocross would sputteralong until after World War II. It was after the war that thetraces of the first official use of the name motocross can be found.The FIM, sanctioning body of motorcycling in Europe, gave out thename Motocross des Nations in 1947 to a team-racing event beingheld in the Netherlands. Teams competing in that first event werefrom France, Holland, Belgium and Great Britain. This event survivesto the present day as the one competition that brings ridersfrom all over the world together for a single event each year.Perhaps like every other form of motorsport competition it wasonly natural that motorcycle racing would be popular. Comparedto the automobile of the day, a motorcycle was less expensive andwas at least in theory easier to maintain as a racing vehicle.The literal meaning of motocross stems from the meshing ofmotorcycle, or as the French call them Moto, and cross-country.As students of the sport will attest, the true evolution of the sportwas to ensure the spelling of the name MOTO-cross, and notMOTOR-cross as has been the bain of riders and participants alikefor over forty years.
The variety of manufactures whose motorcycles were used tocompete during these early years includes companies that are stillin existence today as well as those who closed their doors half acentury ago.
Listed here are some of those early manufacturers:AJS Cotton James PuchAriel DKW Jawa RickmanAmerican Eagle DOT Maico RokonBSA Ducati Manx SuzukiCCM ESO Matchless TriumphCZ FN Monark VelocetteCanAM Greeves Montess VincentCarabella H/D Norton WhiteCheney/Triumph Hodaka Ossa ZundappCooper Husqvarna Parilla PentonThrough the early years of off-road motorcycle racing thebikes were roadsters stripped down for weight, safety and performance.Until 1949, no single manufacturer is credited with producinga motorcycle strictly for racing. Then Matchless put telescopicfront forks on their motorcycles and swing arm suspensions followedsoon after that. During this time the majority of the engineswere all four-stroke and the most of the bikes weighed in at anywherebetween 350 to 385 pounds. Considering the prehistoricswing arm and plunger type suspension of the day, the abuse to arider was substantial by all accounts.
The early years of motocross are marked with stories of interestingriders, events and conditions. When the first 500ccEuropean Championship event was held in Italy in 1952 theBelgian rider who won the event, Victor Leloup of Belgium, hadonly one eye. Even in these early races the Belgium influence anddomination of the sport of motocross was taking hold.
While riders in Europe competed regularly in those earlychampionships, there were American riders who participated aswell. California desert racer Bud Ekins showed up at the Cotswoldrace and learned that the event that day was in fact a Grand Prix.Racing a Matchless 500, he would finish well enough in that 1952British Grand Prix to earn a championship point. Other Americanscompeting on the continent during the early 50’s included TommyMcDermott of New York and Vern Hancock. The points earned byEkins in 1952 would be the last by an American for over twentyyears. Many riders chose not to compete in the Grand Prix events,instead racing in English and International races that unfortunatelypaid significantly more money than a Grand Prix. Even as late as1978 a rider could only collect $150 as start money, and winingboth Grand Prix moto’s would provide him take home pay of $500.
While money may have moved many riders to races otherthan the Grand Prix, there were still many who coveted the title ofWorld Champion. In 1953 and 1954 a Belgian dancing championname Auguste Minges would win the title both years. We have alisting of all the world champions from the early years to presentday listed below. As you can see the championships over theyears were won by a variety of riders from a variety of countries. Itseemed however, that certain countries would dominate the sportof motocross in Europe from time to time. The Belgians were andare still a dominating force in the sport, and into the late 50’s andearly 60’s the Swede’s also began to assert their presence in worldmotocross competition.
It is into the later half of the fifties that motocross really beganto gain momentum. In 1957, the FIM granted world championshipstatus to the 500cc class. That year also saw the introduction of a250cc series. It was in this 250cc class that the first two-strokemotorcycles began to exert their soon to be dominant force withinthe motocross community. This was also the period when some ofthe legendary names of motocross racing were first heard. BillNilsson, Rolf Tibblin, Dave Bickers, Torsten Hallman, Jeff Smithand others are today revered as the first generation of motocrossheroes.
During this period, Swedish riders would win five straight worldchampionship titles, and during one period from 1959 to 1961,Swedish riders would win seventeen consecutive Grand Prix.In 1960, Bill Nilsson won the 500cc championship and quitepossibly changed the face of open-class motocross competitionA History of Motocross - “The Early Years” 7Motocross Resource Guide - Summer 2004 www.motocrossguide.comforever. Nilsson competed on a Husqvarna. While the companyhad converted an engine design first used in the 30’s, this pushrodsingle coupled with some Ceriani forks cut the weight of this motorcycleto less than 300 pounds. Very significant when you realizethat the FN and BSA bikes of the day tipped the scales at over 360pounds.
In 1962, the 250cc class was given its world championshipstatus. Torsten Hallman would win the first championship thatyear, while countryman Rolf Tibblin would win the 500cc championship.Tibblin had won a 250 title before the championship wasgranted world status by the FIM, but it still made him the first riderto win titles in both classes.
Ironically, even though riders from Belgium and Sweden werebusy dominating the world championships when it came time at theend of the year for the Motocross des Nations team event GreatBritain would claim 10 titles from 1947 to 1960 while Belgium andSweden scored two each.
In 1963 manufacturers like BSA and CZ were busy buildingmotorcycles that would be lighter with more horsepower formotocross competition. That same year Jeff Smith would finishsecond to Rolf Tibblin aboard a BSA that had been modified toweigh-in at 255 pounds. That was over 60 pounds lighter thananything the Swedish manufactures had at that time. The next fiveyears would see tremendous development of motocross equipment.Not only motorcycles but also the evolution of riding gearand the maturation of riding technique as well.
As the battle to shave weight from the motorcycles waged onthe FIM stepped-in and in 1966 set a minimum weight standard foreach class, a rule that exists to the present day. It was this initialeffort by the factories that led to innovations such as magnesiumengine cases and covers, and rear disk brakes. Jeff Smith wouldtake his BSA to two world titles in 1964 and 1965. As Smith wasdominant those years, a Belgian rider name Joel Robert would winhis first 250 championship on a motorcycle made inCzechoslovakia, the CZ. The CZ factory would win a world championshipa year from 1964 through the 1970 season. From 1964on the sport of motocross would evolve, change and eventuallyexpand to include riders, manufacturers and fans from every cornerof the globe.
In 1966, Torsten Hallman was invited to come to the UntiedStates by Edison Dye who wanted to promote the Husqvarnamotorcycles in the US. Husqvarna in 1963 had only manufactured50 bikes. In 1964, they bumped that number up to 200. In orderfor Dye to get his distributorship in the US, he went to the factorywith a check for 50 motorcycles. Husqvarna was still not that excitedabout entering the almost non-existent motocross market in theUS.
Most of the racing in the United States during this time wasflat-track, TT and Scrambles. TT racing used much of the flat-trackcourse and added some additional turns and jumps. Scrambleswere what scrambles have always been, races through the woodson pre-set courses of significant length. Motocross was somethingthey did, “over there.”
Torsten Hallman’s motocross education of the American riderin the late sixties would start a revolution that is still changing thesport today. American riders and fans were amazed at Hallmam’sspeed, style and abilities on a motorcycle. His influence turned anevent in Southern California near what was Saddleback Park froma scramble into being called the first motocross race.
In the late seventies, a Husqvarna dealer name John Pentonwas looking for a small-bore motorcycle for competition. SinceHusqvarna didn’t make one at the time, Penton set about buildinghis own. He built a prototype with a piece of this and a piece ofthat, put a Sachs engine in it, and went shopping for someone tobuild it. He finally found an Austrian moped manufacturer to buildhis motorcycle, that company was KTM.
As the sport grew in Europe, it was growing even more quicklyin the United States. In 1967, Hallman returned to the US andthis time brought riders, Joel Robert, Dave Bickers, Ake Jonsson,Staffan Eneqvist and a young Belgian named Roger Decoster. Atthe time Robert, and Decoster rode for CZ and Bickers andJonsson rode for Maico. Their appearance would be a big boostto sales of both brands of motorcycle. Still riders in the US competedon Greeves, Triumphs, AJS, and others. In the desert,Husqvarna was beginning to have a presence, especially with riderslike J.N. Robert and the now legendary Malcolm Smith.
It was in Europe during the 1967 season that the sport beganto prepare itself for its biggest change. A group of personnel fromJapanese manufacturer Suzuki came to the races, they took notes,they filmed riders, they signed a rider, Swede Olle Petterson towork with them in the development of their motocross motorcycles.
The next year, 1968 Suzuki went racing. They were the firstfactory to provide complete support for a rider. When they came tothe races they had vans, extra bikes, spare parts and mechanicsand engineers all outfitted in their team apparel. Their rider,Petterson would finish seventh in the 250cc world championships.
Meanwhile across the sea the United States witnessed its firstinternational racing series. Organized by Edison Dye, the Inter-AMin 1968 was a twelve race series. Dye began by bringing 25 ormore European riders to the US to race against 20 American riders.Start money for these events in the late 60’s was anywherefrom $350 to $1,000. Ironically, at that time one of the lowest paidstarters was that young rider from Belgium on a CZ, RogerDeCoster.
Whether Husqvarna had their crystal ball out or not, there wasno denying the growth of the sport of motocross. In 1968, theysent Gunnar Lindstrom to the US as an engineering coordinator.Together with J.N. Robert, they would win that years Mint 400desert race and hold what is considered the first US motocrossschool in a town in New York State called Unadilla. As a side noteone of the students listed as attending that first event, DickBurleson.
So many of the sports great champions come from this era.While the late 60’s and early 70’s were indeed the end of “the earlyyears”, they were the foundation on which a motorsports phenomenonwas founded. During this period only a few American riderswere going to Europe to race, ant then mostly the internationalraces. Meanwhile in the US, Suzuki was getting involved by sponsoringriders like Preston Petty. Unfortunately, the bikes at the timewere pre-production models and were not the equal of the bikesbeing raced in Europe.
In 1969 more American riders headed overseas, included inthe group were, Russ Darnell, Gary Bailey, John, DeSoto, RonNelson. Interesting, that year is probably remembered more forspawning the instructional careers of both Ross Darnell and GaryBailey than it is for their race results. Bailey and his son Dave continuethe tradition of motocross instruction to this day.
That year would not only be the end of a decade, but justaround the corner the sport of motocross was about to leap ontothe international stage and begin to assert itself as a premiermotorsport not only in Europe, but perhaps more importantly in theUS as well. Next issue: Motocross Comes of Age.A