STORIES FROM THE 'SEVENTIES
THE MEN, THE MACHINES AND THE MEMORIES
The personal reminiscences of MCW publisher, Bruce Cox
The American Trail Bike Boom
Everyone who has ever ridden a motorcycle for the sheer pleasure of it has recollections of their own golden days – periods and places where, in retrospect, it just couldn’t have got any better. For me, and literally thousands of other dirt riders, that time was in the first years of the nineteen-seventies and the place was Southern California. When I arrived in the USA back in the winter of 1968, preparatory to launching the California newspaper Motorcycle Weekly, off-road motorcycling was in the early stages of a phenomenal growth spurt. During the last half of that decade it erupted from being a relatively small and mainly competition-oriented enthusiast pursuit into a true ‘leisure pastime’ enjoyed by the public at large.
Back in the early ‘sixties, a famous advertising campaign had just convinced Americans that “you meet the nicest people on a Honda” and sales of their ‘step-through’ 50cc and 90cc models were rocketing. Many purchasers of these lightweights found that they fit perfectly with another popular Southern Californian pastime - which was getting out of the crowded metropolitan areas and heading for a camping weekend in the great outdoors. The skinny and lightweight little bikes were easy to hang on a rack on the back of a camper van and Honda was quick to come up with an off-road ‘campground’ version that had an upswept exhaust, wider wheels and deeper-treaded tyres.
It didn’t take long for folks to realize how much fun could be had with these new additions to the camping weekend. And it also didn’t take long for California motorcycle dealers to realize that there was a market for ‘play bikes’ that appealed to a whole new group of people – first time riders who just wanted a little bike purely to have fun with in the wide open spaces. Previously the only dual-purpose motorcycles even resembling dirt bikes were the ‘street scramblers’ from the British manufacturers – essentially 500cc and 650cc road bikes with upswept exhausts to give them a ‘desert racer’ look. It was a look of latent power and performance that immediately scared off any likely first timer purchasers.
What was needed for the potential new wave of weekend fun riders was a bike that looked like the bigger beasts but which was smaller in size, lighter in weight, simpler to maintain and a lot less powerful. A bike that looked much cooler than Honda’s moped-style ‘step-through’ but which didn’t immediately set the prospective purchaser thinking of roaring out-of-control engines and broken limbs!
The smartest and swiftest response to this call from the market came from an unlikely source - a joint venture between the Hodaka motorcycle company in Japan and the Pacific Basin Trading Company in the USA. In 1964 they introduced a little motorcycle powered by a 90cc Fuji two stroke engine and kicked off the ‘trail bike’ boom. By 1966 the ball was well and truly rolling and 11,000 Hodakas were sold in that year alone!
Major manufacturers naturally rushed to follow Hodaka’s lead into the new market. Yamaha introduced its seminal DT (for Dirt Trail) range in 1968 and Honda soon followed up with its own MT range of two-stroke off-roaders while Suzuki and Kawasaki also joined the party before the ‘sixties were over. Sadly, the British manufacturers missed the boat. Ironically, something like the ‘Bushman’ version of the well-proven BSA Bantam could easily have done what Hodaka did but BSA and its US dealers had the blinders on and, even though none of the new breed of trail bike riders wanted their heavier four-stroke bikes, they still had no inclination to promote the already-existing small two-stroke model.
The rest of the world thought differently and by 1970 single-cylinder two-stroke off-roaders were flooding into California from east and west with the Japanese ‘big four’ naturally quick to join Hodaka and grab their share of the lucrative trail bike pot of gold. But there was still plenty from that pot to go around. So from Spain came Bultaco, Montesa and OSSA, while from Italy came Moto Beta plus Aermacchi two-strokes sold under the brand name of that company’s new owner, Harley Davidson. From West Germany and Austria came Hercules/Sachs, Puch and KTM (sold in the USA under the Penton brand name by John Penton, a famous name in Midwest US Enduro competition). From Sweden there was, of course, Husqvarna and from behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ came bikes from the Czechoslovakian Jawa-CZ combine and MZ in East Germany. There were even a couple of dirt bikes from ‘south of the border, down Mexico way’ – the Moto Islo 250 that importer Frank Cooper branded with his own name and a neat little 125 from Carabela. This all added up to what was probably the widest selection of off-road motorcycles ever offered to the public.
South of the Border, Down Mexico Way
Back in my MCW days (the 1970s) Southern California’s off-road motorcyclists surely enjoyed more riding location options than any others back then. These ranged from city-close commercial ‘motorcycle parks’ to the dirt roads and trails of the mountain ranges that ringed the Los Angeles Basin and, beyond those mountains, the literally millions of square miles of the Mojave Desert.
Finally, for those who sought even more adventure, there was the mysterious 1000-mile narrow finger of land that runs south from the US Border at San Diego. It is part of Mexico and known as Baja California (For those who don’t speak Spanish, by the way, Baja is pronounced “bar-har” and means Lower). It is wild enough country today and back in 1970 only about 100 miles of the 1000 were paved. That’s why the Baja 1000 race established back then has become a legend.
Even now there is only a single paved road running the length of the peninsula, plus two or three hundred miles of east-west highways in the north of the state. The rest is still a spider web of dirt roads. Riding in Baja is still a real-time adventure and was even more so back in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies/
Perhaps, therefore, going ‘south of the border’ for my first real experience of off-road riding was not a totally sensible thing to do. Even though I went with a group of experienced aficionados of Baja’s wilderness country I was still truly ‘a stranger in a strange land’. Rutted dirt roads, rocky trails, monster ten-foot-tall cactus plants and endless sand and sage brush out to the wide horizons – all completely alien to a lad from deepest Oxfordshire with zero experience of off-road riding!
In terms of jumping in at the deep end it was akin to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel - and that pretty much also describes the amount of control that I had over the BSA Gold Star 500 Scrambler that I had been loaned for the weekend!
More by luck than judgement I avoided falling off but must have covered half as much distance again as the rest of the guys by way of riding innumerable great looping arcs dodging rocks and cactus after repeatedly running off of the ‘two rut’ dirt roads and out into the boondocks!
The closest I came to actual disaster was when I got up on some high ground and I could see the dust trails of the group crossing the valley a couple of miles ahead. The dirt road at this point was dead straight, much wider and well-graded, making it the perfect opportunity, at least in my mind, for me to close the gap. So the Goldie was thundering along nicely in top gear before I suddenly realized that there was a deep crevasse right across the trail. The road had been completely washed away by one of the devastating ‘flash floods’ that come roaring down from the mountains of Baja during the wintertime rains!
There was only a split second in which to decide whether to try and jump the gap or jump off the bike! I decided to try the hero option, so stood up on the pegs, hauled back on the handlebars like my local scrambles hero, Dave Curtis, and almost made it! Luckily the front wheel was still in the air when I touched down rear wheel first on the upward slope of the opposite bank. But the landing used up all three inches of the minimal travel offered by the Girling shocks and I then shot skywards again on the rebound. It felt like a jump of supercross proportions and for a few seconds I hung in the air, looking out over the sea of green vegetation that was the surrounding cactus forest viewed from above.
Then came the next contact with Mother Earth: the front and rear wheels touched down simultaneously, my tender bits hit the tank milliseconds later and I floundered and footed my way to a winded halt amongst the cactus with the handlebars turned down through 180-degrees into a sort of ‘clubman racer’ position! Pride had almost come before the kind of fall that you wouldn’t want to make 200 miles from the nearest hospital and out in the middle of nowhere. Therefore, I burbled on ‘low and slow’ into the dusty main (and only!) street in the remote village of Valle de Trinidad, where I was rewarded with a loud cheer (jeer?) from the guys and an ice-cold can of Mexican Tecate beer that went down like the nectar of the Gods! “Mas cerveza, por favor” was my almost-immediate next request. And after a couple more thirst-quenching Tecates and some lunchtime tacos, the 70-mile return ride back to the Sea of Cortez on the eastern side of the peninsula started to look a little less daunting – especially when one of the guys who was on a 175cc Kawasaki kindly offered to take it easy (!!!) and let me cruise along in his wheel tracks.
Back in the little fishing village of San Felipe, we toasted our riding achievements with cervezas and tequila all evening long, during which session my humiliation was totally completed as my riding ineptitudes led to me being accorded the dubious privilege of eating the ‘worm’ that lay at the bottom of each of the several bottles of tequila that we drained dry. The ‘worm’ incidentally is a big larva grub which traditionally occupies the bottom of the bottles of cheaper brands of the fiery cactus-based spirit. Its ceremonial consumption provided a most suitable finale to an introduction to dirt bike riding that I wouldn’t have missed for the world!
After my initial baptism by fire and firewater, that introduction led to many more riding expeditions into Baja over the years. A favorite destination was the little bay of Santo Tomas on the Baja’s western Pacific coast. It is reached by about ten miles of dirt road between the highway and the beach, where we would set up camp, ride during the day, come back and wash off the dust in the Pacific Ocean, cook dinner on the portable barbecue and then kick back by the campfire to sample some of the herbal smoking specialties for which Mexico has always been famous.
On an evening I will never forget, we had just come out of the surf when one of the locals drove up in an old pick-up truck with a load of watermelons and a wetted-down sack full of live California lobsters. As I recall the guy wanted two dollars for a lobster and one for a watermelon and was quickly relieved of his entire stock by half a dozen hungry dirt-bikers! Barbecued lobster and the always-good Mexican beers provided the perfect end to an off-road riding day during which we had climbed up into the coastal mountains, discovered old abandoned silver mines and Spanish missions and ridden on trails through olive groves and fields of corn and peppers while taking care not to scare the chickens and goats of the friendly small farmers. That was the kind of riding that has forever endeared me to ‘Lower’ California and its people – ‘adventure touring’ before that became a motorcycling genre all of its own,
In at the deep end with Sammy!
Back in 1970s Southern California there was no need to spend a whole weekend ‘adventure touring’ if you simply wanted to do it in the dirt. You could do so much closer to home thanks to a number of commercial ‘motorcycle parks’ that offered riding opportunities near the Southern California urban areas. Within half an hour of the beach town where I lived, for example, there was the choice of either Saddleback Park or Escape Country. Both were in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains that begin just south of LA and they offered miles of off-road riding for those who didn’t want to make the two hour trek out to the Mojave Desert. For me they provided the opportunity to sneak off work early and have a couple of hours climbing the rolling 500ft hills and generally playing with my Sherpa T trials bike in the cool of the summer evenings.
These motorcycle parks were also the places to which we at Motorcycle Weekly often took visiting factory trials riders to play around and have some fun when they came to visit California to run riding schools and give demonstrations - and it was at Escape Country, where I had another memorable (and mortifying!) motorcycle moment. There were a number of old and flooded gravel pits on the property and while trickling around the edge of one of these just ahead of Sammy Miller (of all people, it had to be him - the 11-times British Champion and winner of over 1000 trials!)
I came to a point where a small stream was running into the pit. For some still unknown reason, but presumably a desire to show off my skills to the maestro, I decided to jump across the gap, rather than go down into it and climb out the other side. This was foolish indeed as we were too close to the edge of the pit to allow for any errors.
I made the jump but the rear shocks bottomed out on landing and the rebound launched me at an angle straight into the water…from under which I surfaced, without the bike, to meet the amazed (and undoubtedly amused) gaze of the world’s greatest trials rider! Luckily it was at the top end of the pit, where the water was only ten feet deep. There were other areas where they went down forty feet deep and the Sherpa T would have been lost forever! As it was, I was able to swim down with a rope and get it around the bike so that we could haul it back to the bank. Then we drained out all of the fuel, took out the spark plug and cranked the kick-starter numerous times to expel the water through the plughole from the cylinder. Finally, we turned the bike upside down and left it standing on its handlebars and seat in the California sun whilst we went for lunch. When we came back I put in a new spark plug and the bike started first kick! No wonder I loved my Bultacos…
These days both Escape Country and Saddleback Park have disappeared, swamped by an eight-lane toll road along the base of the mountains and new residential areas with many thousands of homes, shopping malls and the rest of the paraphernalia of suburbia. There is still, however, more than a hundred miles of dirt roads in the mountains above the ‘burbs’ that are there to provide access for the National Forest Fire Service crews in the event of wild fires. These ‘fire roads’ could, and still can, be ridden in the wintertime when there is no fire hazard and as long as the machine’s exhaust is fitted with a government-approved spark arrestor.
A couple of friends of mine had actually made their homes in Silverado, a little canyon village in the Santa Ana Mountains, just so they had direct access to these fire roads directly out from their back doors. A favourite ‘Sunday morning ride’ of ours covered a loop of about 50 miles. First, out from Silverado and up to the 5,680ft summit of the nearby Santiago Mountain, often riding in snow for the final ten miles or so. Then we would take about ten miles of trails along the ridge line before finally dropping back down to base via Holy Jim Canyon. This was a narrow trail that was named after an old 19th century silver prospector, and which descended off the mountain through trees and stream crossings before conveniently ending at a rustic bar and restaurant that served great barbecued steaks and burgers as well as much appreciated cold beers. The perfect end to a perfect ride…
Nowadays the new city of Santa Margarita runs up into the mountain foothills in that area but, almost incredibly, the steakhouse is still there, sitting just outside the city boundary as a genuine reminder of the old rural days. Dirt bikers and mountain biking cyclists still appear out of the hills and share the parking lot with the shiny machines of the cruiser crowd that have rumbled up on the two-lane blacktop. Not surprisingly it is a spot that I always visit when I am back in California, a place where I can pay homage and recall my dirt-riding ‘golden days in the golden state…’
RESPECT FROM A RIVAL
Whether in racing or in business (writes Bruce Cox) respect from your peers and rivals is always much appreciated and was reciprocated by us at Motor Cycle Weekly for our competitors at Cycle News in California back in the 1970s. Which is why I was so pleased, some forty years on, to read a feature by CN contributor, Larry Lawrence, assessing the effect of MCW on American motorcycle sport long after it had ceased publication. There could be no better way, I felt, to kickstart this ride down Memory Lane.
LARRY LAWRENCE WROTE:
Motor Cycle Weekly was the brainchild of Bruce Cox, who also later founded the groundbreaking promotional group Trippe/Cox Inc. along with fellow Brit Gavin Trippe (who sadly died in a road acident in 2018).
Already a publishing veteran at 26 years old, having worked as a newspaper and magazine writer and publisher since he was 16, Cox came to America during a radical time“In 1967 I had a bit of money to spare, thanks to the success of my freelance publishing services business in the UK, and decided to spend the winter in California,” Cox remembered. “I’d been reading Cycle World from the USA, listening to the Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix, heard about free love and mind-expanding substances in Haight Ashbury so it seemed like the place to be. Not surprisingly, I wanted to get out there in the sunshine, riding across the desert, surfing in the ocean and doing whatever else was on offer.
“In November 1967, I made that California trip with an up-and-coming racer by the name of Rod Gould, who coincidentally was and still is, my oldest friend. He had met Joe Parkhurst of Cycle World at the Isle of Man TT and told him of our plans to head west. Typically, Joe (who was one of the most generous and nicest people I have ever met) invited him to stop by the office to see if they could help us in any way. We duly turned up for lunch and by the end of the afternoon I had a job as a Cycle World journalist for the winter and Rod had been fixed up as a mechanic with a local Honda dealer as well as securing a ride at a Willow Springs race for a Kawasaki dealer. Rod won that race and several others that winter and ended up with places on the Kawasaki and Triumph teams for Daytona 1968. So began a trip that changed both our lives.”
While on his four-month trip Cox hatched the idea of trying to start a new weekly motorcycle newspaper in the USA .Back in England he persuaded Gavin Trippe (who was at the time the motocross beat writer for the British weekly Motorcycle News) and another young journalist Bob Berry (who later ended up as Editor of MCN back in the UK and then the owner of Classic Racer and Classic Motorcycle Mechanics magazines) to come back with him and give it a go.
Late in 1968, Cox went back out to California to lay the groundwork for his dream and early in 1969 the other two of the talented trio traveled back to America and together launched Motor Cycle Weekly, The paper, with its trademark orange and black masthead, made an immediate impact.
“The US industry advertising and PR guys were very supportive right from the start,” Cox recalls. “It was as if they had been waiting for us to come along. And I had met lots of them during the previous winter with Cycle World, so it all came together amazingly quickly, in fact.
“One reason we got noticed quickly, I think, was that we kicked off by giving away thousands of pre-launch sample newspapers at Daytona 1969 - and there on track was Rod Gould - running right up front in both the 200 Mile National and the 250cc Lightweight race on a pair of Yamahas with Team Motorcycle Weekly identification prominent on the fairings. The whole industry was there and those who didn’t know about us by the start of Daytona Bike Week certainly did by the end of it”.
Rod led the Daytona 200 main event for many laps and finally finished fifth after pitting to secure an expansion chamber that had come adrift. In addition, he finished second to Yvon DuHamel in the 250cc Lightweight race. A year later, he was World 250cc Champion for Yamaha and carried the distinctive orange and black MCW decals on his fairing throughout his Grand Prix campaign, as did many of the leading AMA Grand National Championship riders back in the day. Either wittingly or unwittingly the new paper made the domestic American championships seem all that more important by association with international coverage.
“I think with Motor Cycle Weekly, Gavin and Bruce knew a lot of the international racers and sort of brought that closer to home,” said Don Emde, who had sponsorship from the paper on his Daytona 200 winning Yamaha in 1972. “Instead of focusing just on domestic racing they really mixed in coverage of the international events and made American riders feel like they were a part of a larger global racing scene if you will. And, of course, there were the other things they did to truly make American riders part of the whole international racing community such as their involvement with the Anglo-American Match Races, the US Motocross Grand Prix and the ABC-TV Wide World of Sports Superbikers. They were really influential in getting Americans to realize that there was a bigger world out there and more opportunities for them outside of our domestic racing series”.
Cox and Trippe ran MCW for almost ten years from 1969 onwards but cash flow was always a problem as printing, distribution and staff costs had to be met on a weekly basis and that never fully coincided with advertising income. Fluctuations had always been ironed out by income from their allied promotions company but after suffering big losses in staging two national championship races at Riverside in California, there came a point when a decision had to be made, That decision saw MCW disposed of to another publishing company, leaving Trippe and Cox to the more easily manageable task of running their international events, including continuing to handle the American team aspect of the Transatlantic Trophy series.
A CALIFORNIA TRIP AND A CHAIN REACTION
The familiar term “chain reaction” refers to the often-unexpected effect that one action can have on another and how continuing progressive links in the chain can lead to originally unimaginable happenings ranging from world wars to important scientific discoveries.
In the world of motorcycle sport, the chain reaction resulting from connections that followed a trip to California made by World Champion-in-waiting Rod Gould and would-be newspaper publisher, Bruce Cox in the winter of 1967 was an almost incredible one for all concerned. In fact, as well as being a pivotal point in the careers of both Rod and Bruce, that trip started a chain reaction which literally helped to change the face of worldwide motorcycle sport.
For Bruce Cox that trip in 1967/68 led to a return to California the following winter to launch the newspaper, Motor Cycle Weekly, a business for which he had laid the groundwork before leaving the States in the spring of 1968. While they were working together in England on Motor Cycle News during the 1968 summer, Bruce had persuaded fellow journalist Gavin Trippe to partner him in the new publishing venture. Gavin headed out to the States early in 1969 and the pair launched MCW at the Daytona Bike Week that March.
For Bruce and Gavin, some opportunities to promote events under the MCW banner in 1969 led to the formation of a parallel company, Trippe Cox Associates, to organize motorcycle races on a professional basis. The partnership introduced World Championship motocross to America with the US MXGP that they staged at the now-legendary Carlsbad Raceway in California for 10 years from 1973 onwards as well as the first visit to the USA of the World F750 Championship series in 1977. That one was the culmination of six years of American National Championship road racing organized by TCA at the famous Laguna Seca, California track.
Those seasons at Laguna Seca saw Trippe and Cox introduce a new class of racing in 1973 that featured highly modified versions of production bikes. Essentially, it was a two-wheeled version of America’s hugely popular NASCAR stock car series and TCA created the concept so that the ABC-TV network could air two different types of racing from a National Championship weekend. It was a big success with both the race fans and the TV audience and formed the basis of a new US Superbike Championship for the following season. One of the stars of the new class was an ambitious and talented young hustler by the name of Steve McLaughlin, He saw the potential of the concept and lobbied tirelessly for the next few years to create what has become WSB - the World Superbike Championship. Another truly significant link in the chain!
Another result of the relationship between Trippe, Cox and the giant ABC-TV network in the States was the creation by TCA of another new event. Designed specifically for television audiences, it was aimed at showcasing the talents of riders from the different disciplines of motorcycle racing and seeing how they matched up against one another on a ‘level playing field’. That was created by a clever mix of the road race and motocross courses at Carlsbad Raceway as well as a diversion into one of the dirt parking lots where a special sweeping flat-track turn was incorporated into the lap.
Courtesy of a big budget from ABC-TV, Trippe and Cox attracted the World Champions from every discipline of the sport to the inaugural 1979 event as well as US National Champions and other superstar challengers, Given the title of the ‘ABC Superbikers’ it played well with the TV ‘armchair fans’ and was aired for a further seven years. It also caught the imagination of event organisers in Europe and thus was born Supermoto – a new racing discipline that went on to be given World Championship status.
Another successful concept devised by Trippe and Cox was that of the well-known TransAtlantic Trophy road race series of Anglo American Match races. They brought it to the British fans in 1971 by linking with Motor Circuits Developments, owners of Brands Hatch, Mallory Park and Oulton Park. The series ran until 1986 and, of course, introduced all of America’s World Champions to Europe during the decade from 1977 onwards. Kenny Roberts, Steve Baker, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwanz and Fred Merkel all made their first trips to Europe as members of the US TransAtlantic Trophy team. The history of the road racing World Championships would have been very different indeed without those original California connections as the catalyst!
Another significant link in the chain reaction that followed the visit of Rod Gould and Bruce Cox to California in 1967 was the success of Rod’s home-built hybrid with a Yamaha engine that he had acquired during his California trip and had installed in a Bultaco rolling chassis. He raced it to fourth place in the 1968 World 250cc Championship and that success started Rod on the road to the 250cc GP world title two years later
The final almost unbelievable link in the chain came when Rod retired from racing at the end of the 1972 season and took up an influential position as PR manager of Yamaha Europe. Using his connections in the world of motorcycle racing, he was the ‘behind the scenes’ Yamaha man who poached Giacomo Agostini away from MV Agusta, motocross star Heikki Mikkola from Husqvarna and trials ace. Mick Andrews away from OSSA!
So going link by link through the subsequent chain of events connected to that 1967 trip by Rod and Bruce, you realize that it was even to have a bearing on the careers of those three superstars and the subsequent effects that their career changes had on their various areas of motorcycle sport! Significant chain reactions indeed…and ones that would never have been made had not Rod Gould and Bruce Cox boarded that American-bound jet in November 1967.
Rod Gould (left) and Bruce Cox enjoying the California lifestyle in the winter of 1967,
When Bruce Cox launched Motor Cycle Weekly at Daytona in 1969, Rod Gould raced with the name on the fairings of his 250 and 350 Yamahas to help get MCW noticed by the fans. And it worked! Rod led the big Daytona 200 race for many laps on the 350 but dropped to fifth after pitting to fix a loose exhaust pipe. He put the 250 into Victory Lane by finishing second to Yvon Duhamel in the Lightweight class. Rod is pictured below racing wheel to wheel with American Champiom. Gary Nixon, in that race,