Husqvarna Motorcycles: Picking up the Pieces

February 24, 2010
JC Hilderbrand
JC Hilderbrand
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Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA's Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn't matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

Torsten Hallman leads Rolf Tibblin.
Torsten Hallman leads Rolf Tibblin during the Husky heyday.

The Swedes are known for their industrious engineering and product development, while the Italians are all passion and panache. A generalization, yes: But one that can’t be ignored since the dichotomy of these two business approaches nearly drove a once-great motorcycle marque into oblivion. Nowadays, BMW is at the helm and by most accounts, the German business model is leaning back toward the side of logic and reason.

As terrible as it sounds, Cagiva wasn’t all bad. For one, Ducati may have perished rather than survive to become the epitome of Italian motorcycle design. As for dirt bikes, those two sour decades were arguably as influential on present-day motorcycling as the good times. Husqvarna’s dealer network evaporated, and it subsequently lost its stranglehold on off-road racing. Many of those dealers were drawn into the developing KTM network and as we all know, today the Austrian brand has diversified into an enduro and desert-racing powerhouse in its own right. Husqvarna’s fall wasn’t entirely the result of poor management either. The Japanese competitors were absolutely relentless in their progression and the motorcycle economy as a whole fluctuated.

If anything, there seems to be a common theme among individuals who have seen the company from the inside. One of Husqvarna’s greatest strengths is its people. Employees, dealers and customers – the history has been a violent roller coaster, but through thick and thin it has always been the people who keep it anchored. New management obviously has a level of appreciation for the past 20 years of work, and the people who are responsible for it. Rather than cleaning house, BMW has opened a new production facility in Varese and only placed three Germans in the new factory to help oversee operations.

Brad Lackey pilots his factory Husqvarna.
Husqvarna touched the lives of countless motorcyclists. Painful in its scarcity, this list of former Husky racers should contain a few names that at least sound familiar:

Bengt Aberg Pierre Karsmakers
Mark Blackwell Dick Burleson
Hakan Carlqvist Alessio Chiodi
Torsten Hallman Scot Harden
Kent Howerton Jack Johnson
Dan Ashcraft Brad Lackey (Pictured)
Danny LaPorte Gunnar Lindstrom
Mitch Mayes Jacky Martins
Whitey Martino Steve McQueen
Heikki Mikkola Bill Nilsson
Mitch Payton John Penton
Travis Preston Larry Roeseler
Gary Semics Bill Silverthorne
Dan Smith Malcolm Smith
Chuck Sun Rolf Tibblin
Brent Wallingford Jim West

For now, the plan appears to be working. American sales in November and December posted figures 98% higher than in 2008. Overall, Husqvarna says it grew sales by nine percent over the entire year, despite the entire motorcycle industry being down 41%. While motocross racing victories are difficult to achieve, successful GNCC, EnduroCross and desert racing efforts have put Husqvarna back in the off-road limelight, helping it earn credit as Marque of the Year for the 2010 AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days.

Husky looks to have come full circle with a new line of 250cc dirt bikes introduced this year. Harkening back to the original philosophy of building light, good handling bikes that made them a force some 50 years ago, engineers emphasize a size and weight advantage with incredibly compact engines. A new big-bore 630 has already been showcased and fresh open-class models are promised as well. Everyone involved knows that product development alone won’t carry Husqvarna into the future, but it’s a good start, and more importantly, Husky realizes it this time around.

“We know it’s going to be tough. The motorcycle market in the United States is going through a period never seen before,” says Harden. “It’s at a real turning point for what’s going to happen in the future, and it’s going to take really smart, really open-eyed, well-organized and focused companies to survive this. It’s going to take strong companies that have the financial resources to weather the storm here in the next few years. Husqvarna is positioned very well to do that.”

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