THE WORKS BIKE ERA

THE WORKS BIKE ERA

Roger DeCoster

Is the works bike an endangered species? Back in 1979, there were probably 50 works motocross bikes being raced in the world. By works bike, I mean a bike developed and built specially for racing, that might or might not have anything in common with the production version. Today there are probably 10–and I think that’s being generous.
Works MX bike have been around for a long time. At first, they were based on sporty single-cylinder street bikes. Parts were specially made to withstand the increased stress of racing, then whole bikes were made. The English were making racers out of street bikes, and then the Swedes started making personalized frames and special engines. There were several significant stages in the history of works bike that I remember.

THE SWEDES
Aside from Husqvarna, you wouldn’t recognize many of the names of the early Swedish works bikes. There was Lito, a printing equipment manufacturer that eventually won two motocross world championships despite the fact that it didn’t sell motorycles. Then there was Hedlund, a one-man company. The owner made his own engines, castings and everything. The Swedes were very good at combining the best production parts from existing motorcycles and coming up with something completely different. Bill Nilsson did this in the late ’50s, combining an AJS 350 road-race engine with Norton forks and some homemade parts.

FN
The biggest factory effort up to the early ’60s was by Belgian arms manufacturer FN. This was the biggest effort of the period, with special engines developed just for chasing the world championship. FN even had a leasing program like HRC’s road-racing deal, where a works bike, complete with maintenance program, was sold to whoever had the cash. FN pulled out of racing after winning a world championship with Rene Baeten.

RICKMAN
The Rickman brothers came up with their famous chassis as a independent works effort, one with no assistance from the major manufacturers. Soon, they changed the way the big manufacturers did business.

BSA
There were really only three major works efforts during the ’60s. The first of these was BSA. Jeff Smith won the world championship in ’64 and ’65 on an exotic machine that used more titanium than ever before. During that time period, no one spent more than BSA on winning races. Adjusted for inflation, BSA’s spending would be impressive, even by oday’s standards.

CZ
While CZ didn’t spend nearly as much as BSA, its racing program was the most successful of the time. Between the 250 class and the 500 class, CZ won 10 championships in the ’60s. The factory bikes were based on production machinery much more than their BSA counterparts. The works CZs did have many sand-cast magnesium parts.* Husqvarna: Husky won four 250 titles and three 500 titles in the late ’60s. Husqvarna was conservative about its works hardware then CZ

The ’70s
The heavy involvement of the Japanese led to a race toward lighter and lighter machines. The 250 works Suzuki that I raced in 1972 international events weighed about 193 pounds. Joel’s was 189 pounds.High-tech works bikes started springing up everywhere. Lucien Tilkens started the move toward single-shock suspension, first with CZ and Suzuki prototypes, eventually leading to the Yamaha Monoshock.then with Yamaha.
Puch got tired of all the attention that KTM was getting with Moissev winning the world championship, and built a twin-carb two-stroke that Harry Everts won the title with in 1975. One carburetor lead to a piston port, the other to a rotary valve. As the ’70s came to a close, things started getting a little crazy. I started experimenting with the Ribbi front suspension, and there were all kinds of shock designs popping up. Soon the emphasis went to engine work. By the ’80s, liquid-cooling started appearing on all the works bikes.
You might notice that most of the innovations went on to production bikes. That was how the manufacturers justified spending so much on racing. Racing was used as a testing ground for new ideas. That was why it made such an impact when the AMA changed its rules in 1986. From that point on, there would be no more true works bike in America–just works parts. That affected Europe, too, because the per-unit expense of works machinery went up drastically.
I was disappointed when the production rule came into effect in the U.S. There would be no more perfectly machined engine parts or ultra-light materials. The rule also slowed down development of new ideas. The most creative people in the factory were reassigned to other projects and the advancement in motocross bikes slowed dramatically. Then, of course, there was the problem it created for racing teams. If there were a major problem in the production bike, the team was stuck with it for at least a year. That could have made the sport less competitive.
After all these years have passed, though, I have to admit that the end of the works bike era in the U.S. has had several benefits. For one thing, it has reduced the cost of going racing. It’s possible that one or more of the Japanese manufacturers would have pulled out of racing in the U.S. by now if the works bike war had continued. As I’ve said before, the total number of motocross bikes sold today is much less than in the past, and that makes it hard for a manufacturer to justify spending huge amounts of money on racing, year after year.
You can also argue that production bikes have benefited. Since the race teams are forced to work with production parts, they figure out ways to make the parts work better, rather than just replace them with titanium, hand-machined pieces. That information makes it back to the production department, and so you have bikes being improved by evolution. Production bikes [have] to be very competitive today. That wasn’t always so.
Finally, today’s privateers have benefited. There is less of a gap between what the non-factory guy rides and what Jeremy McGrath has. So yes, overall, I must say that the works bike phenomenon had gone too far, and that the AMA’s difficult, unpopular decision was for the better. The production rule left room for some works parts (like suspension components), and if the factories really need to do some race testing of non-production parts, it can be done in Europe.
Interestingly enough, next year might well see the return of experimental bikes and race testing to America. The AMA has announced the Fall Classic Series, which will replace the 500 Nationals. Virtually anything goes for the Open class, as long as the bike is over 251cc. We will no doubt see four-strokes designers taking a big interest in this class. As for full-factory works bikes…well, we shall see.

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