Classic motocross bikes for vintage-style scrambling

A new breed of off-road enthusiast is fuelling the market for the sport's pioneering machines. Simon de Burton reports

The annual Vets Motocross des Nations is held at the historic Farleigh Castle track near Bath
The annual Vets Motocross des Nations is held at the historic Farleigh Castle track near Bath

Find a bumpy track, add some tough motorbikes and riders, and mix well. The result: a scramble, a sport that today attracts thousands of followers.” Not my words, but those of the late Irish television presenter Eamonn Andrews, who provided the voice-over to a 1960s documentary about the now-defunct Greeves motorcycle company, broadcast during its heyday as a producer of off-road racing bikes that were exported around the world. As Andrews intimated, it was the golden era of scrambling, the very English sport that gradually expanded into Europe and the US before evolving into what is now called motocross.

1967 Cheney BSA Victor, sold for £8,050 at Bonhams
1967 Cheney BSA Victor, sold for £8,050 at Bonhams

Modern motocross is the domain of lean and muscular athletes who are as highly tuned as the machines they ride (or sometimes fly) in what is now an extreme sport of the type beloved of the Red Bull generation. However, recent years have seen a revival of interest in the slightly gentler art of motocross as it was in decades gone by, when the bikes were less powerful and the tracks less intimidating. Known, inevitably, as classic motocross, the scene is attracting a growing number of enthusiasts who are drawn by the opportunity to race the type of motorcycles they might have watched on television or read about in magazines as impecunious youngsters during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and – despite values having rocketed – now have the means to acquire them.

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Rather than taking place on the sort of purpose-built circuits designed for the modern sport – which have towering hills and giant jumps artificially created by earth-moving machines – classic motocross races are normally held on the type of naturally undulating terrain used in the past, with the twists and turns of the course being defined by a rustic arrangement of marker posts and rope. To ensure fair competition, racing is divided into a series of classes based on the eras in which machines were built. The very earliest bikes, used at the dawn of the sport (almost all of which were British-made four-strokes by marques such as Norton, BSA and Ariel), fall into the pre-65 class, with the next category being pre-74, then the popular twin-shock classification for models made prior to 1981, after which more effective single-shock absorber suspension systems became the norm. Such bikes, built between 1981 and 1989, fit into the Evo range, which has recently been extended to allow so-called Super Evo models, built from 1990 to 1996.

Classic motocross fans are following in the tyre treads of greats like Ake Jonsson
Classic motocross fans are following in the tyre treads of greats like Ake Jonsson

Probably the most heavily subscribed of the five classes is twin-shock, since it encompasses the two-stroke-engined bikes produced by manufacturers such as Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki of Japan, the former-Czechoslovakian marque CZ, Germany’s Maico, Austria’s KTM, Sweden’s Husqvarna and the rare and beautifully engineered racers from Italian makers such as Beta, Aspes and Moto Gori. It was the arrival of these fast, light, powerful, sharp-handling two-strokes during the 1970s that turned the off-road racing scene on its head, making the heavy British four-strokes redundant virtually overnight and extending the reach of the sport around the world, notably to the US, where huge numbers of bikes were sold. And it was the US’s enthusiasm for the sport that led to the major manufacturers investing vast sums of money into developing machines and hiring top riders, with an ensuing wave of publicity that helped to sell thousands of bikes in the country and put their brands well and truly on the map.

A rare Yamaha HL500, about £12,000 from Owens Moto Classics
A rare Yamaha HL500, about £12,000 from Owens Moto Classics

“Motocross was a hugely important business for the major manufacturers back in the ’70s and ’80s, and it resulted in a very special form of motorcycle culture that people who remember it and were excited by it now want to relive,” explains Anthony Sutton, editor of Trials & Motocross News, the UK’s leading off-road motorcycling publication. “If you’re an enthusiast, the whole aura surrounding classic motocross is really quite amazing. The distinctive sound of the bikes, the very specific graphic styles that evolved through the decades, and the old-school riding kit that many competitors like to wear instantly transport people back to another era.

1970s Honda CR250 Red Rockets can fetch more than £4,000
1970s Honda CR250 Red Rockets can fetch more than £4,000

“It is still a niche sector of motorcycle sport, but it is certainly one that people are happy to spend considerable sums to get involved in, and the costs are spiralling,” adds Sutton. “A fairly basic machine in usable condition that might have been worth less than £1,000 a decade ago probably costs at least £3,000 now, and the rarer or most sought-after bikes can easily cost five-figure sums. People tend to gravitate towards the type of bikes that, perhaps, they aspired to own when they were young, or the models ridden by the motocross heroes they saw on television or at race meetings they were taken to by their parents.

1961 BSA Gold Star, sold for £18,975 at Bonhams
1961 BSA Gold Star, sold for £18,975 at Bonhams

“But the great thing about classic motocross is that everyone who gets involved in it does so simply to have fun and enjoy the whole retro feel that surrounds it. No one is out to win money or fame, and half the charm lies in the fact that neither the bikes nor most of the riders are capable of navigating the sky-high jumps and challenging hills seen on modern circuits – which is why classic motocross courses are laid out to be appropriate to the age of the machines.”

This year’s Vets Motocross des Nations drew around 480 riders from across the world
This year’s Vets Motocross des Nations drew around 480 riders from across the world

That said, the most anticipated classic motocross meeting of the year, the Vets Motocross des Nations, held at the historic Farleigh Castle track near Bath each September, is decidedly hard-fought. The largest event of its type in the world, this year’s attracted around 480 riders from countries including the US, Canada, Denmark, Austria, Germany and Belgium, who turned out to race on a challenging circuit that remains almost as it was when regularly used for international meetings during the ’60s and ’70s. “The weekend of racing attracted more than 1,500 spectators including, along with the hundreds of clubman-level riders, many retired professional racers who were the stars of their time,” says clerk of the course Brian Higgins. “The standard of riding is extremely high throughout – despite ages ranging from 30 to 72.”

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A regular competitor at such events is retired aeronautical engineering lecturer Mike Eveleigh, who has owned and raced a string of machines ranging from British-made Triumph, BSA and Greeves models to his current Spanish-built 1970s Bultaco Pursang. “For me, the draw of classic motocross lies in its very special combination of nostalgia, competition and the sheer thrill of hearing the thunder of a group of British four-strokes racing up a muddy hill, or the howl of a gaggle of two-strokes emerging from a tight corner. There’s real camaraderie among riders and, while everyone puts effort into competing, winning doesn’t seem as vital as it might in a modern event.”

Director of product management for Bentley Motors Paul Jones, meanwhile, appreciates the design aesthetic of classic motocross machines as much as the enjoyment of riding them. “I own a 1971 AJS Stormer 410 and a 1960s BSA Metisse, both of which I was attracted to because of their workmanlike design. There’s nothing superfluous on them anywhere – they were designed to be lean, agile and fast and, as a result, are somehow beautiful to look at,” he says.

Both models are stocked by dealer Jason Bell, who founded his business, Essex-based JK Racing, a decade ago. “I keep around 100 classic motocross bikes available for sale, all of which I source from the US because they tend to be in good condition, original and little used,” says Bell. “Of the mainstream models, Hondas tend to be the most popular due to their reliability, with machines such as the CR250 Red Rocket from the 1970s fetching upwards of £4,000. Bikes by CZ, which was a very successful competitor during the 1960s, with famous riders such as Joel Robert and Dave Bickers, are also really popular and sell for a minimum of £3,500 in good, race-ready condition, while a British BSA-engined CCM can make £10,000-£20,000.”

According to Mike Owens of Owens Moto Classics in Staffordshire, the rarity and value of a machine does not deter owners from using it in anger. “I source and sell classic motocross bikes around the world, and there are certain models with holy grail status that are rising in value very quickly, but are still bought to be raced,” says Owens, citing a 1956 ESO he sold three years ago for £13,000 that has since almost doubled in value, one of around 100 1979 KSI Hondas built that he has on offer for around £20,000 and a rare Yamaha HL500 that is worth about £12,000. “Clients remember seeing professional riders on these rare bikes decades ago, and can’t wait to get their hands on them.”

And, as lifelong motocross fan Adam Waite realised a few years ago, classic racers often like to have the right kit when out on the track – which led him to found 250London, his Chiswick store that specialises in old-style off-road clothing. “We design our clothing with a nod to the past, often using the motocross shirts of the 1970s and ’80s as inspiration,” says Waite. “We sell a lot to classic racers who want to look the part, and for many people it’s the final touch that takes them right back to that golden era. I first raced motocross as a schoolboy during the early 1980s and believe me, once you’ve had that thrill, it sticks and never leaves you. What motorcycle fan wouldn’t want to relive those days?”

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