Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Swedish Time Machine

 
          There was one time when small European manufacturers dominated the world of off road motorcycle racing with their lightweight, snarling two-cycle engines and knobbly tired race bikes.
The Husqvarna was a serious race bike, in a no fool around Swedish kind of way.  It responded well to the serious input of an experienced rider, and was the most reliable machine available. Certainly the fact my hero Malcolm Smith rode one,  and the king of cool himself, Steve McQueen competed on them as well helped my decision to move from Spanish motorcycles to Swedish made.
      During the early seventies I was to own a string of them with some help from the Canadian importer. I would get a pair a season of different engine displacement, enabling me to ride two classes. That would be up to six motos every race I went to, then load them in the back of my van and drive 6 or 8 hours home. I look back now, and have to marvel at the endurance of the young me. My last Husqvarnas were in 1974, by then writing was on the wall for sport domination by the Japanese factories. 
      I moved on to other life experiences and put the bikes away. Ten years later, though unplanned, I returned to competitive riding. I had sense enough to ride Honda's that time around, but all that is another story. I've owned many motorcycles in my life. But for some surviving snapshots, for the most part, they have faded from memory in the ensuing decades. There is one that stands out above all others. A 1974 Husqvarna CR400 that by fate has shared many experiences and brings back many memories from that era.
      We met in April of '74, at which time I was an experienced mechanic and motorcycle racer at the ripe old age of 20, and working at one of the better known shops. It was a big deal when a truck dropped off the two crates from Sweden and I remember it well. I could hardly wait for the business day to end so I could drag them in. The crates were handmade of white pine from northern Sweden, with Husqvarna stenciled on the sides.  The one crate held a smaller displacement bike that lived a complacent life then sold off and has faded from memory. The other crate held a CR400cc model, and I could hardly cut the wire holding the top of the crate on fast enough. The original Husqvarna factory was not that big, and what I had in the crate was not far removed from what Heikki Mikkola won the 500cc world championship on.
      There is some assembly required and I got the wheels on and put it up on an elevated work stand and checked all the fluid levels and did what we called in the trade a pre-delivery inspection.  The next day, at 10 o'clock coffee break I went out, poured some pre-mix fuel in and turned on the gas petcocks. I booted it about a half dozen times to bring it to life. 'BANG! BANG! BABANG! BANG!....  I warmed it up good then turned the racket off. The first test-ride would have to wait until noon lunch break on the vacant lot out back. The larger displacement open class bikes were my favorite, probably because there was less riders in the class so there was always more room on the track, but they were a handful to ride. I wasn't like a big guy or anything either, so with a little runt like me in the saddle of a powerful open class race bike it was like an advantage. Those old bikes had little for suspension so it wasn't a smooth ride, but we didn't know any better, at the time it was what we had. At a time when a race bikes were kept for a year then sold off, when I fired that bike up for the first time, I never figured it would go on to earn its own level of celebrity, with a penchant for attracting attention to itself. And I certainly never thought I would be talking about it 40 years later.
      Our adventures together began a week later at the first race of the season up in Kamloops. A car load of buddies made the trip to offer some moral support, so right there was an indication something was bound to go awry. All this moral support had hiked to an upper area of the moto-cross course where few other spectators had ventured. Every time I went by they would jump up and down and
holler enthusiastically. Or else they would point horrifically at my bike like there was something falling off and of course I would have to slow and look, they seemed to think there was something pretty funny about that and they were still laughing when I came around the next lap.
How I crossed the finish line that race has become a mute point, it was what happened next that has made the day stand out in the annals of motorcycling history. I passed the flagman and instead of turning off to the pits  continued, at a subdued pace of course, further around the track, up to where my buddies were congregated. They got a big laugh when I came around once more and they held the track side ribbon up so I could ride the bike under. I had only intended to chat and hang out for bit. The next class had started and I'm having a pretty good visit with my haywire friends while it is going on. In the final few laps, someone, I don't know who, but I'm pretty certain it wasn't me, one of my so-called friends suggested to buddy Dale that it would be 'pretty funny' to streak the track on my bike. For those of you that don't remember the 1970's, to 'streak', was a thankfully short lived fad that meant to remove ones clothing, and dash through a public gathering. I had heard of it on the news, maybe happening in the States, or at a tennis game someplace, but I didn't think someone would actually do it.
My buddy Dale was not a person to be given on a dare lightly, "I'll do it!" he states.
"You don't have a helmet!" I argued, figuring this would put an end to the scheme.
All my so-called friends answered at once..."He's got yours!!"
And so he did. On went my helmet, off came his clothes, back on went his boots, up went the course marker, and off charged Dale in his skin tight riding suit.
      We were all killing ourselves and I was doubled over getting a sore gut from all the laughing. Suddenly, my hilarity went to stunned silence on the realization people were going to think it was me. The bike had my racing number on it in three places, he had on my distinctive painted Bell helmet, and anyways, there were only a few new Huskys around.
"Oh hell", I said to myself as bike, rider, and helmet disappear down the back straight.
     The race was in its final lap, the back markers began to overtake a tall bony fellow standing up on the pegs of a barking Husky 400, and not only is the man naked, he's not even in the right class. They would do a double take or two over their shoulder on the way by. Spectators began to notice the new addition to the class, causing a stir of hoots and cheers that proceeded him around the course. The flagman waved the finish flag enthusiastically for the unexpected straggler and his jaw drops when the big Husky roars by with its naked rider and continues on. The volunteer girls up in the lap scoring tower had thought their sheets where complete, when another bike and rider pass the finish line, "# 172" they wrote down, then realized what they had just seen. Dale accelerated over a series of jumps and whoop-de-doo's then braked for the slow hair-pin corner where he of course stalled it and it took awhile for him to get the beast kick started and going again.
The crowd cheered and I would loved to have seen the smile Dale had on under his...er, my helmet.
Vic Blewitt, my employer and sponsor, stood at track side pointing, "Look!" he is purported to have shouted, "That quiet little bastard is streaking!".
Others along the way apparently wondered, "My goodness, what ever got into Robin?".
Some came to the conclusion I must have fallen on my head too hard, and this being the end result.
      Arriving back after his naked victory lap, we lifted the ribbon and a giggling Dale rode under. The guys were all slapping him on the back and still thinking this is all pretty funny. Pretty funny for them maybe, they didn't have to try and sneak back into the pits and prepare the bike for another race. I coasted most of the way back, using sagebrush for cover.
"Its him!" someone remarks from the spectator area, and to my mortification people begin to point, cheer, and whistle. By the time I get my bike to my van, the pits were a buzz with the news about that quiet long haired kid from Kelowna on the big Husky, streaking the entire track and freaking out the lap score girls, the parents of several children present, and the entire Shady Grove bible study group, out on their annual field trip. The race promoter stomped in, holding the sign-in sheets.
"OK son, you had your fun, don't let that happen again!" he told me sternly.
"Don't worry sir..., it won't." I told him sheepishly.
      I was of course absolutely mortified that people thought it was me, they might think I looked like Dale under my riding gear, or would stall it on the hair-pin corner. I hid in my van to escape all the jokes, which I won't repeat here. But that was nothing compared to the ribbing I got on the start line for the next open class moto. Waiting for the trophy presentation later seemed to take hours, and I was fair game for every would be comic around.
For instance..."Hi Robin", giggled the girls to my red face at the concession stand, "...we didn't recognize you with your riding pants on".
Some people just had to walk up and stare at me out of curiosity, just to see what kind of kook would ride around a race track naked.
Well it took me some time to live that one down.

Unknown to the participants that day, to my horror, and my so-called
friends hilarity, a part-time photographer and sometime submitter had the presence of mind to snap a picture as Dale went by. I had just quit hearing about the whole incident at every race I went to when a national motorcycle magazine publishes the photo, along with a short by-line that states while they published this first time novel streaker, it would be the last. They were right too, there was a rash of streakers at events across the country and finally, the national organizing body had to clamp down to discourage it.
Theres nothing like being first,...even if it wasn't you.

 
   


 Later on that season, I had an opportunity to ride for a crew putting together footage for a series of television commercials. We met the film crew at a location in the Okanagan mountains with a trailer full of motorcycles and a change or two of riding gear and helmets. The plan was to shoot some scenes of general interest, then some footage of me performing on my Husky, and I never needed much encouragement to perform, believe me. There were a few jumps around and a few things, and then I started driving around on the back wheel, which they didn't expect, doing a slow wheelie by the camera and giving it a peace sign with one hand, things like that which totally blew these people away, and going to look really cool slipped into the tail end of a TV commercial.
Soon I get bored of course, and suggest a few high speed passes by the camera on the back wheel standing on the seat. "Sorry" I added, "Its a little rough to give you a peace sign too".
They are kind of..."Whaaaat?".
      There was a dirt road along there and not ideal for what I had in mind, but everyone agreed it would make great footage shot in high speed and slowed down. I'm being rather casual about riding on the back wheel standing on the seat, but I did it all the time, so it was no big deal under ideal conditions. I made a few dry runs in both directions so the cameraman can sort out his tracking, exposure, panning, and other film school terms they liked to use.
      A major drawback to riding your dirt bike on the back wheel standing on the seat is you can't reach to tap the rear brake if you begin to go over backwards.  I was 20 years old and made from rubber I'm sure,  since I was a kid I had of gone over backwards plenty as part of the never ending learning process. It was always a tough way to unload because you let go and drop a few feet to the road then immediately have to try and run at a very high speed.  You can usually figure on getting 2 or 3 steps in before you fall hard on your face and skid to a long, long stop. Though I'd jump right up and run after my bike and pick it up before the gas drained out, then have a quick look at any new scuffs and sore spots on me. My poor Mother, it is a wonder she managed to get any sleep.
      None of that crossed my mind as I put the bike in 4th gear and stepped up on the seat. Weight transfer is such that even in a high gear, it is sort of easy to lift the front wheel up. I remember it was going pretty good when I crossed a dip about where the crew is all set up. The uneven ground threw me off  and the front wheel came up too high, at that point I had the throttle turned off completely, and the bike balanced precariously as if deciding which way to go. But I had a pretty good idea, as there was a very serious case of deja vu going on inside my helmet.
 The bike overbalanced and slowly rotated over backwards. With no little amount of reluctance, I pushed the bike away and stepped down onto to the fast travelling ground. It sure hurt to watch that brand new Husqvarna going away without me, it dug the back fender in then came back down on both wheels before it veered into rough ground and cartwheeled into some bushes.
I hit the ground running, determined that this time, I would run fast enough to stay on my feet. And I did too, for a moment, before doing a tremendous face plant and skidding along and tumbling for some distance. I jumped up and ran for my bike, turned the gas off, gave it a quick check then put it on the stand. I wasn't hurt, a little scuffed up in front, but that was part of the territory, we expected to get bucked off these things once in awhile.  I was more sore about the broken rear fender. The film crew was speechless. The television commercials were a big hit, but the footage of my wreck ended up on the cutting room floor, as being deemed not  particularly indicative to selling motorcycles.
The producer brought around some stills that have been tacked up on the wall of every motorcycle shop I ever worked in.
I'm already headed for disaster here.



      For one week that summer of '74, at a resort in the Alberta foot-hills, the Husqvarna factory sponsored a training center for a handful of Husky riders, headed by several times world champion Rolf Tibblin. His big thing was conditioning, and we really put some serious miles on our running shoes, starting early, worked out severely, then chased each other around a dusty track in the hot sun all afternoon. In all, it was a unique experience to look back on, but it was a hell of a way to spend my one summer week off work.
      Seasons and interests change, and I moved onto other things. I took the Husky with me, pulling it out for rides and many adventures in the north on days off. I remember one time in the outskirts of Edmonton where I worked for a time at an equipment yard. The conversation around the coffee pot got around to putting on a show for the guys at lunch break by going out and doing a wheelie  the length of the paved road out front. I made a pass or two, sitting down of course. On my return pass I see a plain looking car coming towards me, sort of slowing down and taking particular interest in my nicely executed 1 km long wheel stand. Well I figured that was OK, I'd just wheelie right on by, in the process of which I catch the shoulder patch, police uniform, and wide open mouth. I didn't have anywhere to go but back in the fenced equipment yard from which I originated, skidding in and trying to hide like some idiot behind a dumpster. I took off the helmet and wondered what would transpire next. That came in the form of a police cruiser, flying in and skidding to a stop. I just smiled and shrugged, and accepted the ticket that was as long as my arm. The guys went back to work fixing equipment, but the policeman and I could hear all the laughing going on over in the shop.
      Then another time, minding my own business I was riding around a vacant lot, next to a warehouse I think, going around in circles, doing wheelies for the kids, and jumping off dirt piles enjoying a Sunday afternoon. After awhile a muddy cop car skids in and puts an end to my fun. I had noticed that large white building a short ways away, but I didn't realize it was a hospital, and some spoil sport had called me in.
That dang bike had gotten me in trouble once again!
    Not too long after the bike was turned off for the last time, parked and neglected. I sold it to my cousin Will when I left to find Yukon gold, who parked it in a barn.
It seemed an inglorious end to the purebred Swedish race bike .

It served as a roost for birds for 10 or 12 years before we swapped back for a generator and I put it in my own barn.  It has been exactly 40 years since I opened that crate, and 34 since it has run.
I turned 60 back awhile. Quite a traumatic experience I must say.   I felt a sudden urge to re-live my youth, and after all these years brought the Husky down, cleaned it up, and spent a week going over it and getting it race ready once again. It had sprung a few leaks over the years, I had fork-seals in stock, and matched up a leaking shift shaft seal to one from an old Honda, and cut a new clutch cover gasket from an old drum head carton.




40 years ago, when I un-crated this bike and looked into the distinctive chrome panel of the gas tank for the first time, there was a much younger man looking back at me. With much longer hair!.



      Out in the sunshine, gassed up and ready to fire up, or not, I wasn't sure it would go after all this time. I turned the gas petcock on and stood beside it to boot it with my right foot. And you need to boot these things with authority too or it may backfire your knee back into your face. It gave a couple of pops then about the 6th kick it fired up with a big racket that almost startled me.
It settled down and I was fiddling with the idle and this big noisy bike is going BANG! BANG! BABANG! BANG!.... once again.
It sounded different somehow, and I looked back and see something being shot out of the exhaust. What the hell. I shut it off and reached down. Well darned if it isn't cat food. Mice had taken cat food and squirrelled away a pile of it inside the exhaust chamber.



I chuckled and fired it up again, reved it up and blew the remaining cat food out the tailpipe and  on the ground.
It struck me then that the moment of truth had arrived, and I was about to re-live my youth.
I climbed on and pulled the clutch in, it gave a clunk as I put it in gear,  I fed it some gas and slowly let the clutch out. I felt a strange transformation take place.
 What was intended to be casual putt around the yard reminiscing about the old days turned into anything but. No sooner had I let the clutch out when I felt the throttle roll on hard and my hair suddenly grew from under my helmet, flying freely in the wind. I felt my foot going through the gears and the bike tore across the lawn with a big rooster tail of grass clods that is going to take me a week to repair, blipping the throttle and throwing it over to slide in and square up on the poor driveway. There was an ensuing shower of gravel and debris and tore a trench the length of it. I flew by the gate like it was standing still, then skidded to a stop before I flew out onto the main road, with my luck I would pile into side of the tribal policeman's pickup or something. I burned a donut around and had a more sedate ride back in the yard, turning the fuel off and shutting it off.
 My heart was racing with an exhilaration I've not felt for some time, and its a good thing I took my pills that morning. I was short of breath and my cheeks hurt from smirking. That was it, all I needed was to just ride it once, then put it away. I have no interest in riding it anywhere, It was built to go fast. Anyways, it scares the deer. Maybe I don't really want to be 20 all over again, I don't think I have enough energy, but I would sure go for 40.
   Awhile back, I thought I might sell it to someone for vintage racing, or to a collector, along with old photos and trophy's won on the bike for provenance. But hell, I think I'll just  put it away again. Just in case when I turn 80, I might want to wheel it out, blow cat food from the exhaust once more and feel like 20 again, if even only across the lawn at the old folks home.