England’s Golden Era
The Great Depression effected motorcycling differently between Great Britain and America. With an abundance of affordable Fords to provide basic transportation, the American motorcycle industry very nearly disappeared during the 1930s.(1)
However, in England, where motorcycles, especially with sidecars, were still widely used for transportation, the British industry went from strength to strength. This popularity of motorcycles spilled over into sporting use as well, and large crowds turned out at famous venues like Red Marley, Rushmere, Donington, and Lilleshall to see their favorite riders aboard BSAs, Nortons, Ariels, Matchlesses, New Imperials, Velocettes, Rudges, Cottons, AJSs, and other well-known brands.(2)
Racing machines of the era differed little from machines used on the street. They had rigid rear suspensions and were set up similarly for hill climbing, scrambles, and road racing. In fact, “road races” sometimes ran over an unpaved course, and some events used both smooth and rough sections, almost like a modern supermotard.(3) Scrambles, which had begun in 1924, continued to grow in popularity.
These fun and games came to an end in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, initiating the Second World War. Following the war, Great Britain had a further depressed economy, though not moreso than other nations throughout Europe. Its motorcycle industry had weathered the storm with military production, and the continuing need for economical transportation made it a centerpiece of post-war British industry.(4)
It was during this era that BSA became the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Consequently, while fuel, rubber, and money were hard to come by, the motorcycle sport resumed, based on its strong popularity and traditions.
By now, British scrambling had been taken up on the Continent, where it was given the French name “moto-cross.” In fact, motorcycle competition provided a common ground on which the previously warring or occupied nations of Europe could re-establish relationships and return to normalcy.
Motocross Goes International
In 1947, the Dutch national motorcycle federation decided to host a competition for national teams, and staged a motocross event on an estate near Duinrell, the Netherlands. Only three nations entered the competition: Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The riders raced two eight-lap heats over a two-mile circuit, and team scores were determined by computing the aggregate times of the best three riders from each national team. The British, represented by Bill Nicholson, Fred Rist, and Ray Scovell on 500cc BSAs, and Jack Stocker and Bob Ray on 497cc Ariels, won the event, besting the Belgians by only nine seconds.
This was the beginning of the Motocross des Nations, and the extent to which the event gained popularity was clearly demonstrated at its second staging at La Fraineuse, Belgium where 30,000 spectators turned out to see the international stars.
Supported by its vital motorcycle industry, especially BSA, the British quickly established dominance in international competition, and teams composed of talented riders like Bill Nicholson, Fred Rist, and John Draper, and later Jeff Smith and Dave Bickers won the Motocross des Nations 15 times during its first 20 years.(5) With Bert Perrigo running its racing program, BSA became the overdog of motorcycle racing.
Its big four-stroke singles set the standard for performance and design, and were copied by Continental brands such as Husqvarna, Monark, and FN. In fact, BSA gear boxes and other components were sometimes used in the construction of works racers in other nations.
Stiff competition over the natural terrain of motocross led to technical improvements for better handling. Rigid frames gave way to plunger suspension by the early 1930s, and swinging arm suspension appeared by the early 1950s, several years before it was incorporated on production street machines.
As the sport gained in popularity and importance, in 1952 the FIM, motorcycling’s international governing body, created an individual European Championship, then upgraded it to a World Championship title in 1957. Though their depth of talent served the British well in team competition, in individual competition they found themselves hard-pressed by riders from other nations.
In the five years that an European title was offered, John Draper won aboard a BSA in 1955 and Les Archer won aboard a Norton in 1956. Otherwise, Belgians, including Victor Leloup, Auguste Mingels, and Rene Braeton dominated, earning first and second in the championship in 1952, ‘53, and ‘54. Likewise, from 1957 through 1965, Belgians or Swedes won the 500cc World Championship except for ‘64 and ‘65 when England’s Jeff Smith took the title. Swedes Bill Nilsson, Sten Lundin, and Rolf Tibblin – with two titles each — took control, except for 1958 when Belgian Braeton earned the title.
As engine design and power improved, competition for 250cc machines – the category in which the two-stroke came into its own — began to gain in popularity. In 1958 the FIM created an European Championship title for the 250cc class, and upgraded it to a World Championship in 1962.
The brands of choice in this class were the Czechoslovakian CZ, the Swedish Husqvarna, and the British Greeves. It was largely through the 250 class that the importance of lightness and agility in motocross became apparent. Designers of racing machines began to adopt the new low-weight, high-strength materials that had been developed during the Second World War, primarily by the aircraft industry.
The Rickman brothers of Southampton pioneered the use of chromium alloy tubing with their famous Metisse frames, and at one point BSA experimented with an all-titanium frame. However, what would become the greatest motocross machine of the next decade was never intended as such.
Sweden’s Husqvarna, known mainly for the manufacture of weapons and sewing machines, had been in and out of the motorcycle business since the beginning of the century. After the Second World War, Swedish society was starved for personal transportation, and Husqvarna decided to reenter the market.
To increase its sales potential, the firm wanted a motorcycle that could be sold to young people, and to qualify for the teenage market under Swedish law, the motorcycle had to come in under a strict weight limit. Consequently, with the development of the 175cc Silver Pilen (meaning “Silver Arrow”), Husqvarna made extensive use of light alloys for its frame, brake drums, rims, and engine castings. The Silver Pilen was never intended to be a racing machine, but young riders like Rolf Tibblin quickly saw the potential, and began to modify it for racing, including increasing the engine capacity for the 250cc class.
In the mean time, a young engineer in East Germany achieved a technical breakthrough that advanced the usefulness of two-stroke engines and ultimately revolutionized the worldwide motorcycle industry. Walter Kaaden (at right), who had worked for DKW prior to the war, was charged with making the MZ brand competitive in international road racing
Studying harmonics, he discovered the principle of the expansion chamber, which, when properly shaped, instantly increased the power of a two-stroke engine by over 25 percent. This, plus experimentation with improved cylinder porting and rotary disc valves, gave the two-stroke engine a power-to-weight ratio that easily exceeded the four-stroke. Besides, a two-stroke was less complicated and much cheaper to mass produce, and practically every industrial nation, including Germany, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, Sweden, Spain, and Japan quickly embraced the new technology.
By 1963, Husqvarna began limited production of a purpose-built motocross racer powered by a two-stroke engine and making extensive use of light alloys. It would become the vehicle on which a Swedish storm would carry motocross out of Europe and into America.
(1) In 1934 Harley-Davidson and Indian combined manufactured only 600 motorcycles, and sales for all brands were probably less than 1,000 units.
(2) Red Marley was a course over 550 yards long up a steep hillside in the West Midlands where huge crowds turned out for an annual event on Easter Monday. Today, Great Britain, like America, is in the midst of a historic motorcycling revival, and Red Marley has been revived so enthusiasts can again test their courage and skill aboard vintage machines.
(3) Excellent photographs of the British motorcycle sport during the 1930s may be found in “Memories of Motor Cycle Sport in the Midlands — 1930 to 1950,” by Bob Light, published by Ariel Publishing, 2002.
(4) By the 1950s, motorcycles were Great Britain’s third-largest source of export income, surpassed only by automobiles and whiskey.
(5) The story of Great Britain’s early dominance in motocross is excellently recounted in “Moto-Cross: The Golden Era” by Paul Stephens, published by Osprey, 1998.