Our Memorable Motorcycles correspondent, Frank Melling, teaches us young whippersnappers about the true cutting edge automatic motorcycles. (FYI, the young guy in the photo is Frank, so it wasn’t yesterday!)
I am in danger of breaking out in a fit of old wrinkly’s crankiness. You know: “In my day we walked ten miles to school every day wearing a pair a shoes fashioned from hardened mule dung. Then we got soundly thrashed by the Math teacher for not knowing the difference between our log tables and our pine chairs.”
And yes, there is a deliberately obscure joke in there but, unless you too are a biking ancient, you’ll have to do some e-research – or ask your Dad.
Regardless, back to the main theme. My outbreak of crankifullness is because I am becoming irritated by younger riders looking at classic bikes and declaring that “real” motorcycling commenced with the first Fireblade in 1992. It didn’t my children, it really didn’t.
In particular, I object to the idea that prior to the 1990s motorcycles were crude, ill-conceived junk. Remember, Rudge had a four-valve engine and linked, anti-lock, brakes in 1928 and the legendary Honda “6” was winning races 40 years ago – and that wasn’t exactly a piece of High School engineering.
So it is with automatic gearboxes. The “must-have” design feature for 2009 will be an automatic, or at least semi-automatic, gearbox and we should all bow down to the technical wonder of this earth shaking innovation. Except that auto boxes are old hat. We’ll come back to the semi-auto Zenith Gradua of 1907 at another time, because today I want to look at a completely automatic bike which was totally and utterly reliable and effective and would be the state-of-the-art if it were launched today – the 1980 Husqvarna Auto.
The Husky Auto was a serious race bike but it came about as a spin-off from a Swedish Army contract. In essence, the contract specified that raw recruits, who had never ridden a bike before, had to achieve complete motorcycle competency in a week. However, the Swedish Army didn’t want recruits merely to cruise up and down the highway wearing mirror shades, looking cool and waving to the girls. No, they had in mind full blown enduro riding skills – and on snow and packed ice too.
Husky’s answer was a 250cc, fully automatic motorcycle complete with the option of permanent skis for winter terrain. The squaddie merely sat on the Army bike, opened the throttle and away he went – and over killer difficult terrain too.
Husqvarna was a small factory but was packed full of clever engineers and, unlike the Japanese, very used to working on micro budgets. The Auto racebike reflected this low budget approach to engineering.
Most of the bike was a direct lift from existing Huskys. This included the reed-valved, single-cylinder two-stroke engine and all the chassis. Only the gearbox was unique to the Auto and this fitted inside a regular Husky engine case.
A 384cc two-stroke Single, the Husqvarna 390 Automatic featured a gearbox with a centrifugal clutch and a series of dog clutches.
The heart of the gearbox was the clutch mechanism. Initially, drive was taken up by a centrifugal clutch – like a Honda 50 Cub – and then a series of a dog clutches engaged sequentially locating higher gears. It was brilliantly simple and even more brilliantly effective with bomb-proof reliability and faultless changes even under full power.
When the throttle was closed, the engine free-wheeled and the clutches disengaged so that the correct gear was available when the rider need to accelerate again. If the bike had a problem, it was the freewheeling element.
Hill descents became a real, hardcore thrill. Not only was there no engine braking available – a very, very scary experience for the first time auto rider – but the rear wheel stability which even mild two-stroke braking provided was absent. Although the Auto had state-of-the-art handling for its day, it skated and skittered downhill in a very disconcerting manner.
The lack of engine braking was exacerbated by the brakes – or lack of them. It’s worth remembering that, at this time, dirt bikes had drum brakes – not the discs of today. The Husky’s brakes were as good as anything around at the time but once the linings were wet, they didn’t work for some time afterwards. Get the wrong combination of a river crossing followed by a steep hill and Auto riders could crack walnuts between the cheeks of their bottoms on the way down.
The 384cc, single-cylinder, two-stroke engine didn’t provide the engine braking of a modern four-stroke but it was vastly better than nothing – and riders missed it badly!
There was also another odd by product which no-one had predicted. Once the drive engaged lever had been released, the rider’s left-hand didn’t do anything until the next time check. This could be 90, or more, minutes later. I was International Enduro fit when I had the bike on test in 1979 but, even so, I got savage cramp in my left forearm simply because my hand remained in a fixed position for so long.
Against this, the Auto did have some real advantages. It was brilliant on tight woods trails where the bike was up and down the ‘box like a yo-yo. However, its party trick was bogs. The Auto would float across the sort of bogs which simply ate normal enduro bikes. You simply aimed the bike at the bog, nailed the throttle and, as the bike sank ever deeper, it simply changed down and powered out the other side whilst everyone around you was sinking.
A combination of factors killed the project. By 1979, manual gearboxes were excellent and riders were reluctant to convert to something unknown. Residual values were also disastrously poor. The Auto was totally reliable but came with only a 60-day warranty. After this the rider was on his own and in unknown territory. Japanese bike dealers, whilst quite happy to take the manual Huskys in part-exchange, shied well clear of the unknown Auto. This Husky was very much a one-way ownership street.
But the one thing which sealed the Auto’s fate was power – or rather the lack of it – combined with a four-speed gearbox. It was simply just that little bit slower than manual bikes, and racers would not forgive this trait. Had it been 10% faster than the manual six speeder, then every dirt bike made today would have a variation of the Husky auto ‘box. But it wasn’t and so it was consigned to one of motorcycling’s many “very-nearly-but-not-quite” cupboards.
Today, with disc brakes which work wet or dry and limitless power, the story might well be very different. Now that BMW owns Husky who knows what might appear in the next few years. If there is an auto BMW dirt bike – remember where you saw it first!
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