Motocross Milestone - Feature Review - Dirt Rider Magazine

VINTAGE IRONThe sport of motocross is actually quite young in the grand scheme of motorsports. Despite that relative youth, it's safe to say there has been a radical technical evolution, especially when it comes to the machinery. During the trip from Gold Stars to supercross superstars, some motocrossers have become milestones--milestones that mark the critical points of the past 50 years. These machines are important whether they arose from designer genius or plain dumb luck. Some benefitted from visionary thinking or simply good timing. Some innovations lasted for years while others were fleeting moments in time, but every one of these motorcycles and the noteworthy features that defined them contributed to modern techno moto marvels. A look in our sport's rearview mirror illustrates the interesting and educational story of how we ended up with the bikes we have today. It may even hold some clues to where we are headed in the future.The YZ-F of the '50s '55-'62 BSA Gold StarThe period spanning the late '50s to the mid-'60s was without question the BSA Gold Star era. It was a do-it-all bike that was the first choice for roadracing and scrambles (a pre-motocross term) alike. Strip off the street equipment (lights and such) and the Goldie was a 500cc four-stroke T. rex--definitely top of the food chain. It boasted good horsepower and even better handling. Impressive when you consider it tipped the scales at somewhere over 300 pounds.Chrome-MOLY under glass '62-'65 Rickman MetisseBy the mid-'60s, the sport of motocross was entering its teen years and the fresh-thinking Rickman brothers had a better idea when it came to building the perfect moto weapon. Prior to the Rickman chassis kits, most motocross machines were stripped down and modified from AJS, Triumph, Norton, Matchless and BSA streetbikes. The typical chassis design of the day was never intended to take the rigorous pounding motocross tracks dished out. Then Don and Derek Rickman came along with their purpose-built chrome-moly frames that carried the engine oil in the frame tubes. Their design did away with bulky oil tanks that prevented the use of any kind of reasonable airbox, and (by recirculating the oil through the frame) it lowered the operating temperature markedly. The Metisse (French for "mongrel dog" because they used many different engines) was a forerunner in bodywork design with integrated fiberglass sidepanels and an ergonomically tailored gas tank.The Japanese Invasion'71 Suzuki TM400 and '72 Yamaha DT-2MX The Japanese were neither huge fans nor participants of motocross in the '60s, but they did pay attention. The major factories, such as Suzuki and Yamaha, had made some early forays into the sport with little success. They knew they needed help, and they knew right where to get it--Europe, or more precisely, Scandinavia. Suzuki chased after Swedish GP star Olle Pettersen to be its development rider. Yamaha pursued fellow Swede and multitime world champion Torsten Hallman.Fed by seemingly endless financial resources, the two companies worked at a fever pitch to get into the motocross game and to do it right. As soon as it had a bike worthy of competition, Suzuki hired Joel Robert and the world championships started rolling in. Roger DeCoster was the next big news for Suzuki in the premier 500cc championships. Yamaha wasn't far behind, winning its first 250 title in 1973.So all this development should have made for one hell of a production bike, right? That is probably what would have happened at CZ or Husqvarna. Little did most American consumers know that the race department rarely shared secrets with the production department. While the average consumer got to ride a bike that looked like Robert's or Hallman's, it was anything but. Success or disaster? Neither really. The bikes may not have been a home run, but they made it possible for an average Joe to buy a reliable, ready-to-race machine for a budget price. That pushed motocross into the mainstream, and it surely put the Japanese factories in the game and in a big way. The TM400 and the DT-2MX are perfect examples of the time period and of the pluses and minuses of the early Japanese influence in motocross.Euro two-stroke assassins'66 Husqvarna 250 and CZ 360The late '60s marked the completion of the transition from four-stroke powerplants to two-stroke. The big booming four-strokes were replaced by a new breed of lighter, faster and, in many ways, more reliable two-strokes. Husqvarna and CZ were fierce rivals of the time, and their drive and determination to win pushed the development of motocross machines at a previously unequaled rate. Fueled by an international audience and a growing customer base, the two companies forged ahead with vastly improved chassis design and strength while making major strides in weight reduction. The average motocross bike became some 70 pounds lighter. Can you imagine if that happened today?The joke gone serious'73 Honda CR250R Elsinore and '74 Yamaha YZ250While the European factories acknowledged that their Japanese counterparts could outspend them in rider salaries and R&D; budgets, they were more amused than threatened by the bikes that were being offered to the public by the Big Four from the Far East. The snickering stopped when Honda introduced the Elsinore. The bike oozed with trick parts--such as an aluminum gas tank and finned shocks--light weight and a level of fit and finish never before seen on a motocross machine. Just when the Euro marques thought it couldn't get any worse, Yamaha dropped a bomb of its own, the YZ250A. The original YZ250A was a full works replica costing 50 percent more than Yamaha's garden-variety MX250 model and was an unmistakable trickle-down from the factory racebikes with turned-down, drilled-out, paper-thin parts galore.What was once a race for bragging rights among the factories of Europe had overnight become a race for survival."FACTORY" FOR SALE'76 SUZUKI RM125/250/370By '76, Suzuki's full line of motocrossers had embraced long travel and switched to protected and unobtrusive through-the-frame exhaust pipes. The bikes worked well on all types of tracks for all levels of riders. The RM lineup was a starting point for many successful privateer racers. The design stayed largely the same and successful through '78.Supercross wonders '78 Yamaha YZ250/400Yamaha was in the thick of motocross every year after the introduction of the YZ models, but the company truly arrived in 1978. All of the '78 YZs were strong and versatile performers. The large single shock under the fuel tank was still an advantage the other brands couldn't match. In '78, Yamaha finally got the weight of the complex system under control with an all-new 250 engine and aluminum swingarms. Yamaha riders Broc Glover, Bob Hannah and Rick Burgett won all three outdoor titles on their works bikes, but Hannah won the supercross crown, often aboard totally stock production YZs. The bikes were so stock that Yamaha raffled off the winning bike to a lucky fan in the stands at each supercross. It was a public relations dream that paid off big.Sex sells'78-'79 HONDA CR125/250RThe year 1978 marked the first, totally new motocross machine from Big Red in what seemed like an eternity during the fast-changing environment of the late '70s. Other manufacturers were introducing new models--in some cases every six months. Honda elected to go with the extended R&D; approach with its CR program.The engineers would have told you the '78 CR250R was certainly newsworthy in terms of technology with first-generation cartridge forks, 17.5-inch-long shocks and a state-of-the-art motor, but all that took a back seat to the striking good looks of the bike. It was red, very red. There had been red production CRs before that did a poor job of mimicking the bikes of the factory team, but the new CR250R looked just like a works Honda right down to its all-red motor!In 1979, Honda brought out the matching CR125R with a flash-in-the-pan 23-inch front wheel and just as much sex appeal as its big sister.Last hurrah '81 Maico 490Maico had always enjoyed the reputation of making the best-handling motocross bikes money could buy, but the bike's fatal flaw was reliability. If it wasn't the ignition, it was the clutch or the transmission or some other part that would fail, leaving the Maico pilot a spectator. Such failures had cost the grand old marque two 500cc world championships with Ake Jonsson and Willie Bauer.The Magnum engine was released in 1978 and made huge strides in improving the "Maico Breako" public image, but 1981 was without question the high-water mark for the German manufacturer's Open-class offering, the mighty 490. To this day, many still consider the 490 to be the best Open-class motocross bike ever built. It struck a near-perfect balance in power, chassis design and suspension. Had the factory been able to afford the services of a truly world-caliber rider it may have well put itself on a different course for the future. As circumstances would have it, Maico's success was short-lived, with the '82 machines suffering again from suspension reliability problems. Sadly, it was downhill from there.Floats like a butterfly'81-'82 Suzuki RM125 and RM250The Suspension Revolution meant engineering groups everywhere were working overtime to develop new and different suspension designs. That was particularly true in Japan where it was possible to patent a concept. Yamaha patented the Monoshock, so the other Japanese companies needed a different style of single-shock setup to get around the patents. The Suzuki Full Floater rear suspension may have looked a bit like an Erector set, but it worked astonishingly well, as did the new-for-'82 liquid-cooled RM125 and RM250 motors. The RM engine was a radical departure from the razor-thin powerbands that had become typical on Japanese 250s. This mill produced near-Open-class power from a quarter-liter engine. Prior to '82, just about any Euro-crosser handled better than a Japanese motocross bike; the RM changed all that.New weapon of choice'86-'87 Honda CR250RThe sport's evolutionary process hit another milestone in '86 with the CR250R, and unlike in '78, its beauty was more than skin deep.The CR250R became the weapon of choice with great suspension in the form of a cartridge fork and a dialed-in rising-rate rear linkage combined with excellent handling. Even more important was the right kind of horsepower delivery for supercross-oriented track designs. The wide-open and flowing track designs of the '70s gave way to tighter, more obstacle-strewn courses. The advent of disc brakes also contributed to the newer track layouts allowing riders to turn quicker and sharper. The '87 Hondas were the first to get front and rear disc brakes right. None of these changes boded well for the 500cc bikes with their overabundant horsepower and cumbersome reciprocating mass.The '87 CR250R marked the end of the need for an Open bike and the beginning of the superior 250s.Computer-age Main Frame '90 Kawasaki KX250In the early '80s, Kawasaki made some less-than-memorable motocross bikes, but many forget that Kawasaki was the first Japanese factory to introduce linkage rear suspension with its Uni-Trak. It was also a leader in using disc brakes, so it shouldn't have been a huge surprise when the company introduced its superbike-inspired perimeter frame for the KX125 and 250. It was the first truly unique chassis design in years for an MX bike. The traditional single-backbone design was scrapped for an all-new wraparound design that engineers claimed would give new rigidity and stability to the overall chassis, which would improve handling dramatically. Was it better? Absolutely. Was it as groundbreaking as the engineers and ad agencies would have had us believe? Well, considering that Kawasaki still uses the perimeter frame and Honda has adopted it as well (albeit in aluminum), the answer would seem to be yes. On the other hand, Suzuki, Yamaha and KTM might have a different view given the fact that they still use the single-backbone design with great results. Either way there is no doubt the perimeter frame created a big stir among the motocross faithful when it arrived and earned a place as a significant high point in the story of machine design.The choice of the boy who would be King '93 Honda CR250RJeremy McGrath may well have his best days behind him, but those days were many and began with the '93 CR. MC liked this bike so much that he refused to give it up year after year, instead changing plastic and graphics to fool the average consumer. This was not a fact Honda wanted to have widely known, but as long as Showtime kept winning races and championships, he could ride any year bike he wanted...just so long as it was a Honda. Win he did, four supercross championships and an Outdoor title, all with the same bike!The three essential elements came together with this model: handling, power delivery and refinement of suspension. The '93 CR250R is still a competitive racebike today.Booming success '98 Yamaha YZ400FHusaberg, KTM and a few small companies around the world produced four-stroke motocross bikes in the '90s, but they all shared one very similar trait: They were fat, almost impossibly bulky. They revved too slowly and did not change direction quick enough for the typical motocross track.Yamaha's YZ400F changed all that. It featured the most two-strokey feel a four-stroke has ever produced. It revved like a two-stroke but hooked up better, and despite the massive power output (for a 400), it was dead reliable. It was only slightly heavier than a two-stroke and was able to change directions with the best of them. It was truly the best of both worlds and marked the beginning of the new era of motocross four-strokes.New Millennium Size matters'01 Yamaha YZ250FFollowing in the wake of the YZ400F, the 250 was probably a bigger surprise than even the 400/426F. It was one thing to make a good open-displacement bike that was competitive with a 250 two-stroke, but no one had ever made a 250cc four-stroke that could take on a featherweight 125cc two-stroke. And the rumor in the industry is that other manufacturers are having trouble equaling the YZ250F with their new four-strokes, and not one has been able to better it. The YZ250F has been called everything from the perfect bike to the ultimate cheater. It has created more controversy than any single model in the history of the sport, which is all the more interesting when you consider it has not been a dominant bike. Milestone, yes, exciting, yes, but not dominant.HONORABLE MENTION Inciting revolution '74 Maico 400 Trans Am replicaMaico was a small German factory that had built a big reputation for fabulous-handling motocross bikes. During the 1973 World Championship chase, a mechanic on the factory team modified the rear suspension on one of the bikes to compete with Hakan Anderson's Monoshock Yamaha. As cobby a job as it was, it worked wonders. Moving the rear shock mounting position forward on the swingarm and using stiffer springs yielded a whopping 60 percent more travel and a huge advantage in the rough.This single bright idea gave birth to the Suspension Revolution. It showed that factories could compete in the long-travel arena without the complexity and production expense of Yamaha's Monoshock. In the fall of 1974 Maico released a replica of this milestone in technology.PredictionsHold on! Before you conclude I've hit my head more times than Travis Pastrana has, remember this is a review of significant designs in motocross machinery, not a top-10 list of great bikes. From that perspective the Rokon is quite relevant in that it embodied some very progressive theories, such as an automatic trans in the form of a centrifugal (snowmobile) clutch, cast wheels, disc brakes and no kickstarter. It didn't do away with the kickstarter because it was visionary; the Rokon had no kickstarter because it used a snowmobile motor with a recoil pull-starter like a lawn mower's! The Rokon had some very innovative concepts, but the execution was less than successful.If these were the highlights of the past 50 years, what can we expect in the decades ahead? Ultimately, computer-controlled everything--from traction control to fuel injection to power curves to electronically modulated suspension. A laptop may one day be as common as a spark plug wrench. Once an efficient drive shaft can be developed, we will do away with things like chains and sprockets as a drive system. Five- and six-speed manual gearboxes will most likely be replaced with automatic, electronically shifted two- or three-speed transmissions, and some form of anti-lock braking system will make its way onto motocross machines. As material sophistication improves, we will most likely move away from wire-spoked wheels in favor of a cast-type wheel. This has been done in the past, but the materials available at the time were both heavy and too rigid for motocross applications. Last but not least, we predict we will see the total extinction of the kickstarter, especially as we move into the four-stroke-only era. Consumers have put up with the first generation of hard-to-start four-strokes, but they won't stand for it in the long run. Expect to see small, lightweight starters and power sources in the next three years. What about hydrogen-powered Hondas and solar-power Suzukis? The old internal-combustion engine may be on the endangered-species list, but it is doubtful it will perish before we do. So over the last 50 years, what bike has given us the most accurate look into the future? Believe it or not, the funky bike they called the Rokon. Sometimes history is scary.Rick Doughty is a major driving force behind the vintage-motocross movement worldwide. He promotes vintage events and the survival of vintage machines with his business, Vintage Iron. Vintage Iron sells parts and accessories for vintage motorcycles and offers complete restoration services. If this story gives you the bug to restore that old war wagon, contact the firm at 714/694-0066; Return'01- '02 KTM 125The European bikes of the last 20 years have occasionally held their own against the Japanese 250 and Open-class offerings but have never fared well in the 125 class. The KTM 125 not only fares well but may also be the most potent 125 package currently available.KTM's fit, finish and creative approach to suspension have been well-documented, but to produce one of the best all-around 125s in the world is a true milestone for the small (by comparison) Austrian company.