Sunday, December 12, 2010

Legendary Motocross Bikes - Book Review

Last time I ripped around on a dirt motorcycle was probably 1981, though that era of bikes and associated fun is still a fond memory for me. During the mid to late '70s, my friends and I were seriously into dirt bikes, trail riding, and motocross - sprinkle some observed trials in there as well. We entered the occasional motocross race, along with hare scrambles events - a longer cross-country type race. These were the days before land access issues and other kill joys that eventually neutered the fun of it all. Ignorance was bliss.

During that time, the '70s and into the early 80s, motocross racing was exploding in popularity, along with the general dirt bike boom. A colorful time of many companies producing bikes and sponsoring riders. Besides the big Japanese companies - Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki - many European companies produced bikes as well, some that are no longer around today - Maico, Bultaco, Montesa, Husqvarna, CZ, Puch, and a few others.

Riders sponsored directly from the manufacturer rode what was known as "Works Bikes". These bikes appeared something like you could buy off a showroom floor, from a distance anyway. In fact, they were handmade works of art that pushed the technology required to lap a motocross track as fast as possible. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were poured into the research, development, and construction of these works bikes. Some of the technology trickled down to production bikes you could actually buy, though certainly not at the same build quality of the works unit. The works bikes were the test bed and ultimate motocross machines of that era.

During this time, suspension technology really developed and took off. In a few short years, suspension travel jumped from 4 inches in the rear, and 6 inches of fork travel, to 12 inches or so at both ends. Plus the quality of the suspension improved dramatically as well, changing the style in which the bike was ridden and the speed it could fly over bumpy terrain.

Some famous names of motocross were paid to ride these bikes in the search of championships, and increased sales of production bikes to people like my gang of friends, who idolized the likes of Bob Hannah, Kent Howerton, Roger DeCoster, Marty Smith, Tony DiStefano, Marty Tripes and many others. This era was (not so) arguably the golden era of motocross. A truly great time to be involved with the sport.

I recently picked this book up from the library, Legendary Motocross Bikes, subtitled Championship Winning Factory Works Bikes, written by Terry Good. This book captures the story and details behind many of these works bikes of that era, with great photography and inside information. Being from that time and with plenty of past knowledge from those days, I pored over this book, analyzing the photos and enjoying the related stories.

A few examples to give you a taste of what's included...

1971 was Yamaha's first real attempt at a motocross bike. It doesn't look all that different from a production DT dirt bike, but was in fact completely hand built. Also notice the short travel suspension, long travel was a few years away. The YZ637 was the code name for this bike and doesn't reflect the engine size, which was 250cc.

1972 example of Suzuki works technology as ridden by Joel Robert and Roger DeCoster. Many motocross bikes of that era still sported down pipes, that were often dented and flattened from rocks and other impacts. This age of motocross bike speaks to me. Simple, light, yet trick for the time. Look at that hand welded expansion chamber - nice.

Here Roger DeCoster pilots the 1973 Suzuki RN73 in Belgium. The rear shocks feature cooling fins cut by Roger himself. I personally owned a 1974 Suzuki TM125 that featured the same tank graphics - about the only similarity between a production bike and a full works racer. Still, having a bike that looked like Roger's was cool - especially for a teenager in the '70s.

Yamaha works racer for 1973, big change being the monoshock rear suspension, replacing the standard dual shock setup - single shock now located under the gas tank. That technology helped push the suspension revolution forward into the modern era.

Interesting info on the development and sale of the monoshock idea. Belgian Lucien Tilkens came up with concept, as noted by the modified CZ frame pictured, complete with Citroen car shock. The technology shopped around between various companies, including Suzuki who built ridable prototypes, but passed on the idea. Yamaha of course, did purchase the concept and ran with it. At the time, no one could figure out why it worked so well. No one realized the increased travel was the key. The concept was being sold with some mathematical reason that actually didn't make sense, causing some factories to pass on the idea. When the long travel light bulb finally went off, other companies developed their own way of increasing wheel travel.

Now we're talking - '76 Honda factory RC500. Total open class weapon of that time. Honda dumped mega money into their motocross program with bikes like this as the result. As you can notice by the space between the wheels and fenders, suspension travel was in the long travel phase. The overall look, fit and finish, and of course the technology is worlds ahead of bikes just a few years older. Oh yeah, the engine is also painted red. I thought that was cool as hell at the time and just screamed "works bike". I also owned a '76 Honda CR125 Elsinore back in the day, the paint color being the only thing they shared.

The European companies had their own works bikes as well, though generally not up to the insanely expensive examples from the big Japanese companies. The book includes a piece on this interesting Puch 400 ridden by Joel Robert at the end of his career. The European bikes were always a little cruder then the slick Japanese bikes, though that gave them a different sort of trickness factor - my opinion anyway.

This bike is famous for putting Bob Hannah onto most people's motocross maps. I remember reading about this bike and Hannah back in '76. Yamaha upped the game with water cooling on this 125cc machine, though water cooling never fully took off until the early '80s. Bob Hannah went on to become one of the best motocross racers of all time.

The book features stories about various bikes in the words of the talented folks who actually raced them. People like Bob Hannah, Roger DeCoster, Joel Robert, Marty Smith, Kent Howerton, Rex Staten, Rick Burgett and a few others. A great addition to the book that I really enjoyed, as these were my heros from the glory days of MX.

Bob Hannah's 250cc OW40, complete with famous lightening bolt stickers. I personally watched Hannah at speed on this in '79 racing at Unadilla. Great memories from that time.

I remember when this bike was released in 1980 and raced by Johnny O'Mara. It looked space age at the time, complete with water cooling. This was a semi-works bike sold by Mugen to the general public for $4000 a copy. That was four times the cost of a typical 125cc race bike. Only 5 were ever sold in the US, including one to Terry Good - author of the book.

Kent Howerton's Suzuki RH80 looking fantastic. This era of motocross just looks right to me - still air cooled, two-stroke, drum brakes, twin shock suspension, but serious wheel travel. I also owned a production '79 Suzuki RM125N, so maybe I'm just biased.

The works bike era lasted until 1986 in the US, derailed by a new production bike rule - meaning factory bikes were required to be production based. Works bikes were still legal in Europe for a few more years however. Even the "production based" bikes were highly modified by the factories, though not the extent of the big bucks one off models featured. It was the end of an era.

The book features more examples of works iron, all impressively photographed and detailed. More amazing, the bikes featured are real time - meaning restored to their original condition, or actually in their original condition. Finding and rounding up a group of bikes like this is an impressive feat in itself. Older photos of the bikes in action during their heyday adds to it all.

This is the total gear head book that older motocross fans will enjoy - no doubt. Newer MX fans will little to no knowledge of old school MX may get a kick out of it as well. A great document that displays the history and development of motocross technology. Highly recommended.


  1. Remember the Harley Baja, made in Italy in the late 60s and early 70s? Developed to get into the 100cc competitiion with 21 inch front wheel
    Gutty little bike fun to ride. I also had had the Harley Rapido 125cc, modified for the dirt. My youngest son rides the motorcross.

  2. I do remember the Harley Baja, but only from old magazines, never saw one for real.

    The Harleys you mentioned were actually Americhi motorcycles, sold by Harley while they owned the Italian company back in the AMF days.

    Some interesting history there, Harley actually sold a full motocross bike in '77 or '78 - a 250cc deal - all orange paint.

  3. Dan, was that the Sprint? I know they had a 250 and a 350 Sprint with a single horizontal cylinder.

  4. The Sprint was a street bike with a horizontal cylinder as you mentioned. The MX bike was an actual race bike available for short time in the '70s.

    A Google search on both models will get you plenty of pics to check out.

  5. The Harley 250 MXer had a set of forks on the rear! LOL It was ridden by Marty Tripes and Rex Staten.

  6. @clawblog - I remember versions of the Harley 250 MX running forks on the rear as well. That was a wacky, but fun time of suspension experiments and evolution.

    There's a lot of parallels between the '70s motocross and '90s mountain bike suspension revolution.