Our Memorable Motorcycles man, Frank Melling, 30 years ago experiencing the cold of a Swedish winter and the country’s new army motorcycles.
In normal circumstances, “Memorable Motorcycles” wouldn’t feature two very similar bikes in consecutive episodes but last month’s story about the Husqvarna 390 Auto attracted so much interest that I thought it would be worth breaking the normal caveats which apply to the series.
It is also an excuse to open the door on the chaotic world of freelance journalism as it was 30 years ago. These days, bike launches are slick, controlled and focused PR events run by professionals on industrial production lines.
Journos are flown in to some location, where highly polished PR team offer smiling greetings. The press are then whizzed round to a dinner and technical presentation, get their launch gift, ride the bike (usually for a full day, but sometimes only a few hours) and are then back off home before they have even discovered which country they are in. It’s factory farming compared with the cottage industry of highly personalized contacts which was the norm three decades ago.
Husqvarna’s PR, press and advertising man was a charming Austrian named Norbert Kunze. He was a very lovely person, and would have laid down his life for Husqvarna, but, like many of the Husky staff, he was something of an individual. Truly, he did march to the beat of his own drum.
At the start of the Second World War, Norbert had been studying Scandinavian languages in Sweden. Given the choice of being drafted into the German army, where he would get shot at and bombed, or staying in a very pleasant neutral country full of pretty girls, Norbert chose the latter. Not being stupid, he wanted to take a view on which way the war was going and by 1942 it was clear to anyone with a grain of brain that Germany was going to be defeated. And Norbert had a lot more than just one grain of brain.
Norbert and I got on very, very well – for a number of reasons. First, I was a hardcore biking nut. All that I wanted to do was to ride exclusive bikes and get good stories. Other journalists came to Husqvarna with very different agendas. Some demanded big, blonde call girls as part of their hospitality package – others free fridges from Husqvarna’s home products factory. By contrast, I just wanted to ride bikes and meet key Husqvarna staff.
Another reason for my popularity was that I could take or leave alcohol. Drink was mind-numbingly expensive in Sweden at the time, but Norbert was given an entertainment allowance for visiting journalists. I would spend three of four days at the factory and drink only water and coffee while the Husky boys enjoyed themselves.
Just after the Christmas of, I think, 1978, Norbert phoned me in England and asked if would I like to try an all-new bike which would change the face of the motorcycling forever. I was keen on anything which would make a good story, and so we agreed that I would fly into Jonkoping, the nearest big town to Huskvarna where, somewhat confusingly, the Husqvarna factory was based.
In those days, the flights to Sweden were a big deal. First, I had to fly from the north of England to London and then from London to Copenhagen. There, I transferred to a small, piston-engined aircraft and set off in a near whiteout blizzard. Even today I can remember the last five minutes of the flight. All the locals were reading newspapers and chattering away while I was convinced that we were certain to die.
When the Swedish army wanted a motorcycles that could handle the snow and be user-friendly for green recruits, Husqvarna delivered an automatic version of its 250 enduro.
The little plane bounced around in the blizzard as we lurched lower and lower. Finally, we were at tree height and there was still no sign of anything I recognized as a runway and my fingers had clawed holes in the aluminum sides of the seat. I was petrified. As we were about to plummet into the trees and be consumed by a dreadful fireball, a narrow strip of tarmac appeared from nowhere, the little plane floated down like a feather and everybody disembarked as if nothing had happened. Just another normal day of landing in a blizzard in an aircraft borrowed from a museum.
The big culture shock for me was the cold. In England, we don’t truly have cold – or hot for that matter either. If we have half an inch of snow, the country grinds to a halt and all the TV stations carry stories of mothers unable to trudge through snowdrifts so deep that they are covering the tires of their baby carriages and of schools closed because of the dangers to kids of snow blindness. Truly, England is a limp-wristed nation when it comes to any extreme of weather. Here in Sweden it was cold – eyeball-freezingly cold.
Norbert explained the idea behind the Army bike. The Swedish army wanted a motorcycle which could transform a raw beginner to an expert rider in five working days. The bike had to be a true multi-purpose machine which would have decent highway performance, be good on the tens of thousands of miles of forestry trails which cover much of Sweden and, critically, would work in deep snow.
Husqvarna’s solution was an elegant piece of engineering. Using most of the bits from its existing 250cc enduro bike, the factory designed a truly remarkable gearbox. Initial drive was taken up by a centrifugal clutch, just like a Honda 50 Cub. This was well proven in practice and nothing radical. As the rpm increased, a series of dog clutches engaged ever higher gears until the top of the three speed ‘box was reached.
When the throttle was closed, the engine free-wheeled. As power was applied again, the rear wheel speed told the gearbox what gear it needed – and off you went. It really was that simple. In fact, it was easier for non-motorcyclists to ride the bike because they knew nothing about engine braking or using a clutch.
Pivoting on the side were two enormous skis. The concept was, in theory, very simple. On highways or trails clear of snow, the rider put his feet on the normal footrests. Once in snow, he half sat on the saddle and half stood on the skis whilst the rear of the bike provided the motive power. To give drive on ice, the rear tire was studded with what looked like pop rivets – but with sharp heads. These dug into the ice and gave, it was alleged, enormous traction.
The following day we met the design team. Rubin Helmin was Husky’s Chief Designer and he explained how important the Army contract was to the factory, patiently talked me through the engineering and was at pains to stress that the joy of the concept was that it required virtually nothing new in the way of fresh tooling or R&D. Clever though the new ‘box was, it was a real “garden shed” effort which would have horrified the Japanese.
The Army bike was built in Husky’s race shop. This was a tiny affair for a factory which lived and died by its racing success and, again, reflected the fact that the Swedish factory really had its back against the wall. There is another anecdote which might bring a smile to modern readers. I was introduced to a young man with a smile that almost split his face. He was building a 250cc Husky motocrosser, which I was told he was going to race in GPs. At night, he slept on the floor of his van, which was covered with ice and snow. Husqvarna’s primary sponsorship was to give him limitless food in the works canteen. The young man was Hakan Carlquist and he went on to be the 1979 World Champion. Thirty years ago, there were very, very few celebrity bike racers!
That night, Norbert took me out to dinner. The Husky team drank my alcohol allowance as I sipped water and listened to stories which, even today, are wholly unprintable.
If nothing else, the Swedes could hold their drink and in the cold, dawn light I was heading out in a Husqvarna van to try out the new bike with Husky R&D staff as fresh as daisies. We arrived somewhere deep in the countryside with an arctic wind blowing and the thermometer showing a brisk -15 degrees Celsius (5° F).
I went to get changed in the back of the van. By now, I was getting distinctly edgy over the whole exercise and just wanted to finish the job and get back to some nice English drizzle and liquid mud. My first mistake was to put a damp finger on the unlined van wall. It stuck instantly and one of the Husky staff melted the area above my frozen fingers with a cigarette lighter. They sighed at my stupidity and were even less impressed with my motocross gloves. Ride in those, I was told, and you are certain to get frostbite. This was even less encouraging.
They dug around in one of their toolboxes and found some reindeer skin mittens which were the most essential piece of winter riding kit. Check out the pictures and you will see them.
Side skis helped the Husqvarna Army Automatic navigate the terrain frequented by Swedish military units.
Everyone was really tense and this worried me. They kept on re-assuring me that the concept, and the bike, were both totally idiot proof and that nothing could go wrong. As the snow whipped through the flat grey light, I was given my instructions. Take the Army bike on to the damp, surfaced road. Open the throttle flat out and the bike would accelerate effortlessly. Continue – still flat out – on to the sheet ice of the access road. And no, don’t worry because each knobbie on the motocross tires carried a little metal stud which meant perfect grip was assured. I looked at the tiny studs – and the sheet of polished ice on which we were standing – and felt sick.
When I hit the packed snow, I was told to treat it like firm loam in an enduro and when I finally arrived at the big right-hand corner, I was to lean forward just as if I were broad sliding an enduro bike, put my foot on the ski and the bike would float round effortlessly. I had one question: If the brief was that simple, how come everyone was looking so very nervous?
I felt under a lot of pressure and the fact that virtually the whole of Husqvarna’s Senior Management, all wrapped in their heavy coats and fur hats were lining the outside of the big right-hander only heightened the tension. Something was not as it seemed.
Norbert waved encouragement and I set off down the tarmac with all the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner on the way to his execution. I was immediately impressed by the Auto. I nervously opened the throttle, just as a raw novice would do, and it pottered away like a 50cc scooter. The studded tires made a droning noise on the tarmac but not to worry – I wasn’t going road racing.
Half a mile away, I turned the bike round and the Husky staff waved to me – more desperately than enthusiastically. I whacked the throttle full open and the little two-stroke ambled off briskly down the tarmac. So far, so good. We hit the sheet ice and I tensed – the Husky wriggled a little and just carried on effortlessly.
Now we were doing around 50 mph. On to the snow and another wriggle but nothing worse than riding in loose soil. This was fun. Those studs – tiny though they may have been – really worked.
Then into a right-hander. I dropped the bike in, leaned forward and put my right foot firmly on the ski. The springs allowed it to touch the snow, the back-end floated out and a really satisfying rooster tail sprayed snow over the great and good from the factory. This was easy – and fun.
In really deep snow, I simply put both skis down and the bike’s rear wheel acted rather in the fashion of a Mississippi paddle steamer and we powered along leaving huge grooves in the snow. A change of career beckoned. Did the Swedish army want an English recruit?
They eventually dragged me off the bike, ignoring my pleas for just another ten minutes. I got changed without touching the van wall and was driving back to the factory hot, happy and feeling good about life in general. Norbert was happy too – and visibly relaxed from the morning. I pressed him to know what had caused the tension.
He explained. There were a lot of jobs hanging on the success of the Army project. I was only the second person outside the Husqvarna test staff to ride the bike – and the first one was still in hospital recovering from his injuries on the fast right-hander where I had playfully been showering the Husky staff with snow.
That night, I did drink my beer allowance.
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