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MMC Husqvarna Army Automatic

Friday, August 15, 2008
Frank Melling as a young motojournalist testing the Husqvarna Army Automatic.
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, the highly polished PR team offer smiling greetings then the press are whizzed round a dinner and technical presentation, get their launch gift and are 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 called 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 and getting 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 whilst the Husky boys enjoyed themselves.

Just after the Christmas of, I think, 1978, Norbert 'phoned me in England and asked 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 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 whilst I was convinced that we certain to die.
Husqvarna Army Automatic
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, we are a limp-wristed nation when it comes to any extreme of weather. Here 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 their 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 practice and nothing radical. As the rpm increased, a series of dog clutches engaged ever higher gears until top in 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.

Husqvarna Army Automatic
In deep snow the Husqvarna Military Automatic pilot would stand on the outrigger skis and let the rear wheel spin for traction.
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 tyre 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 which 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. 30 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 and 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 minus 15 centigrade.

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.
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 knobble on the motocross tires carried a little metal stud which meant perfect grip was assured. I look at the tiny stud - 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.
Husqvarna Army Automatic
Considering its initial reviewer ended up in the hospital, Frank's test ride went much better.

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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Big Sven -English Wimps...  November 9, 2010 12:50 PM
Melling complains about 'the cold' and the 'snow and ice' in Sweden - to us who lived there and worked there it was just another day in paradise. We haven't had any real winters on the west coast these last 15 years, but prior to this we were literally up to our butts in snow for 4 months, and more, minus 10-15 was a summer's day to us. I worked in the Gothenburg shipyards in all weathers, it had to be at least minus 25 and a lot of wind-chill before they relented and let us huddle in the toilets, smutting vodka, until it got warmer again. (It was said top medical and insurance people put pressure on, but it was mainly that the welds would crack when they cooled!) This cost us, we worked piece-work and sitting doing nothing only gave us a very minimal wage, but sooner that than than frostbite. So going riding mx after work, in the dark, in the cold, was almost a relief for me, after a few laps you got so hot you were sweating! (What light there was reflected off the snow so we could see enough of the track to ride). I tested the first HVA auto prototype in '73-'74 (?) more or less a 3-speed '71 Hallman mx-replica with a detuned cylinder. This was during the summer and I wasn't allowed out of the factory but had to try and find somewhere I didn't risk mowing-down the employees wheeling fridges about! The bike was ok, of course, but the box was crap. Huge gap from 1st to 2nd, bags of vibration, you simply had to wait for enough speed for it to decide to change and in the confines of the factory it only ran in 2nd occasionally. Helmin wasn't really interested in entertaining a part-time 'journo' representing an Aussie-mag (Trail and Track, Derek Pickard editor) as they barely sold a bike there. I did enjoy spending time with Urban Larsson, who was obviously very busy with the new auto-box Melling tested, but still had time for me, and I realised here was a man who was something special. He was a chainsaw man, and he saw a racing bike as a chainsaw on wheels and quietly sneered a bit at the previous motors and bikes. He knew 2-strokes, he knew high-pressure die-casting, he knew magnesium, he knew sprag and slipper-clutches. He had tried some enduro earlier, so had a basic idea of what racing entailed. I later enjoyed the best chainsaw ever made, the '76 CR250, for 3 years, before the ever increasing suspensions ruined it all. If you need more than 200mm front as back there's something wrong with you or the track. After '76 the bikes just got heavier again, and wallowed in the bends. I later observed the enduro-riders using the auto in mx, and noted though they worked the box did limit the riders. No auto ever did well in, or won a race, as I know of, and I heard rumours servicing and repairing them was expensive. The idea of training a squadie to use the bike in 5 days was ludicrous, they were limited to riding on the roads anyway, no chance they could ride off-road - they would get stuck or ram a tree! Torleif Hansson was a despatch-rider, on the earlier Jawas - despite the viscious rumours excellent machines he never had any problems with - and his comments on the majority of his comrades was-and-is unprintable. The 'easy-to-ride' auto project was a total waste of time and money, better a normal gearbox and an auto clutch. Larsson's time would have been better spent developing the mx-racers (I felt he thought this too). Well, we saw how successful he was when he DID find the time. The skis were lethal when not in use, I didn't want to crash with them on, so when I tested the Hägglund along with the 5-star Generals visiting the factory in 'Ö-vik' I asked to avoid them when out for the real test the next day. Despite the snow and icy roads I didn't need them. By the way, Frank, it was minus 20 degrees plus when I rode off at 0700 in the morning, with no complaints, and studded tyres are normal fare in Scandinavia, all cars were required to use them during the winter until recently, and we even used them on our mx-tyres to get some grip on the icy-sections. At one point I was haring-off on the icy highway at 70+ mph with the chase-car and 2 Hägglund engineers on bikes trailing way behind, too frightened to try and keep up! But it was an interesting time....
Peter Schmitz - MMC Husqvarna Army Automatic  January 24, 2010 04:45 AM
Grat articel!!
I think I found a video of the motorcycle: