The Rise and Fall of Husqvarna Motorcycles

February 24, 2010
JC Hilderbrand
JC Hilderbrand
Off-Road Editor|Articles|Articles RSS|Blog |Blog Posts |Blog RSS

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.

Kent Howerton lofts his Husqvarna at Red Bud  1977.
Kent Howerton lofts his Husqvarna at Red Bud, 1977.

Picking Up the Pieces

Husqvarna has wound a path filled with controversy, success and massive failures to its present-day position in the motorcycle world. It was sold out, bought out and nearly ground out, time and again. Yet it prevails. From an American standpoint, Husqvarna essentially bred off-road motorcycling in the US. It bore our heroes, our technology and the sporting competitiveness among motorcycle manufacturers and consumers that changed the entire industry.

Like many old European brands, Husqvarna’s history is steeped in armament. Originally founded in 1689 in the town of Huskvarna, the company produced weapons for the Swedish king, but once the fight was over, idle wartime production equipment was left seeking a new use, and that’s how Husky transgressed into the motorcycle world. First it was hunting guns, then household appliances, white goods like stoves and sewing machines, and finally motorcycles and power equipment. Its first bike was produced in 1903 sourcing engines from other manufacturers. Thirty years later the company started road racing with its own V-Twins under the guidance of renowned engine-builder, Folke Mannerstedt. Like most brands at the time, off-road machines were nothing more than modified street bikes. This, combined with age restrictions, eventually led to unexpected success in the dirt.

Motorcyclists had to be 18-years-old to ride, but bikes under 75 kilos (165 pounds) were deemed appropriate for riders aged 16 and up. Husqvarna first targeted the lightweight motorcycle realm with a 98cc moped, inadvertently starting down a path that would change off-road racing. In 1955, the “Silverpilen,” or “Silver Arrow” was introduced in Sweden with a 175cc motor and three-speed transmission. Consumers immediately began modifying the 2-stroke for off-road use, and by 1959 the factory produced five special machines for its racers which featured an enlarged 250cc engine and 4-speed tranny. Rolf Tibblin claimed the European 250 Motocross Championship that year and Husky began toying with a 500cc 4-stroke. But, for all intents and purposes, it was the 2-stroke design that launched Husky to fame. Husqvarna produced 100 replicas in 1963 which instantly sold out, and production began virtually doubling for the next several years.

Malcolm Smith  shown here during the 1967 Baja 1000  became synonymous with the Husqvarna brand following years of success.
Malcolm Smith, shown here during the 1967 Baja 1000, became synonymous with the Husqvarna brand following years of success.

Fighting other European brands like Triumph, Bultaco, Maico, Greeves and CZ, Husky’s critical advantage was the difference in weight. Success on the World Motocross GP circuit made for an easy transition into the American market where the sport of motocross was lagging. In January of 1966, Edison Dye imported two Husky 250 machines and gave them to Malcolm Smith and John Penton. In the fall of that same year, Dye brought over someone who could fully demonstrate the potential using the proper style and technique. Torsten Hallman won every race he entered in what came to be known as the 23-Moto Streak – an exhibition of superiority that ignited Americans’ imaginations and put Husqvarna on the map in the US.

Penton took the role of East Coast distributor while Dye handled things on the Pacific side until 1974 when Husky took over. With sales and racing success in the States and abroad, Husqvarna’s management was content to rest on its laurels, refusing to make a 125cc machine despite Penton and Dye’s feverish requests for a small-bore.

Husqvarna began constructing a new plant for its motorcycle production, called M73, but the vision was never realized. Swedish white goods powerhouse, Electrolux, purchased Husqvarna in 1977. Acquired for its line of appliances, Electrolux took on the motorcycles simply as part of the deal. After realizing the profit available in chainsaws, it headquartered that effort at M73. Motorcycles were split off into their own division, Husqvarna Motorcycles AB, and transferred nearly 50 miles away to a separate factory in Odeshog.

Husqvarna became the target acquisition for Cagiva, a conglomerate owned at the time by the Castiglioni brothers, Gianfranco and Claudio, which made a habit of purchasing small European brands including Aermacchi, Ducati, Moto Morini and MV Agusta. A young company with grandiose visions of its role in the world motorcycle economy, Cagiva purchased Husqvarna on April 1, 1986, taking complete control three months later and eventually moving the entire operation to Varese, Italy.

Edison Dye is widely considered the grandfather of motocross  but Torsten Hallman  shown  was the man responsible for demonstrating Husqvarnas motocross prowess. His fluid  aggressive riding style was unimaginable for Americans at the time.
Edison Dye is widely considered the grandfather of motocross, but Torsten Hallman (shown) was the man responsible for demonstrating Husqvarna’s motocross prowess. His fluid, aggressive riding style was unimaginable for Americans at the time.

From the time Cagiva took over operations of Husqvarna until BMW bought the brand in 2007 were two of the darkest decades in Husky history. It was during this time that longstanding employees and loyal dealers started falling by the wayside. Unit sales dropped from the thousands into the hundreds, and a once-glorious brand was reduced to tatters.

The 1990s were a decade of polar highs and lows. Though production was slow in the beginning, by 1993 it was beginning to pick up and Husqvarna came out of nowhere to win the World Motocross 500 GPs with Jacky Martins on a 4-stroke. However, by ’96, the company experienced its first year without producing any motorcycles. A year later, Gianfranco left to pursue the other Castiglioni business interests, leaving Claudio to handle the motorcycle side on his own, and from there the company underwent a series of financial changes. The buy-buy-buy attitude that had elevated Cagiva to the fifth-largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, quickly switched to sell-sell-sell.

Ducati and Moto Morini were off-loaded and the remaining Cagiva and Husqvarna brands were consolidated under the MV Agusta (MVA) label. In 2002, MVA filed for the Italian equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy which it labored through for two years. Castiglioni’s financial woes were temporarily eradicated when Malaysian auto maker, Proton, purchased a controlling 57.75% interest for 70 million Euro (approx $54 million). But just over a year later, fearing a complete bankruptcy by MVA, Proton decided it would be better to simply dump its share, selling the entire thing back to Italian investment company, Gevi SPA, for a single Euro ($1.19).

Once the Proton deal was complete, Husky/Cagiva/MV Agusta was again piloted by Castiglioni. Claudio made one final deal, this time much closer to home. BMW Motorrad purchased Husqvarna on July 19, 2007, and has been picking up the pieces ever since.

Husqvarna’s influence has reached countless riders. The list of heroes who rode Huskies at some point in their career is a Who’s Who of motocross, enduro and desert racing legends. We spoke with men who played a role and witnessed first-hand the greatness, demise and resurgence of America’s off-road racing heritage; men who designed, built, tested, raced and sold Husqvarna motorcycles.