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.
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 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 automaker, Proton, purchased a controlling 57.75% interest for 70 million euros (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 an 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.
Gunnar Lindstrom Husqvarna Interview
Born in Sweden, in 1943.
Inducted to Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000
Factory Racer / Engineer
As a youth, Gunnar Lindstrom dreamed of working for Husqvarna. Paying no heed to the Swedish authorities, he started riding early and began racing at the age of 16. Once in college, Gunnar made the decision to change his studies from agriculture to engineering, steering him closer to his career goal. He started as a test rider, tasked with logging 125 miles per day in the saddle, all the while competing in Swedish motocross and GP events.
Other manufacturers, and even Husqvarna itself, weren’t sure why the bikes were so dominant when the Silver Arrow and its subsequent offspring first started to excel. ?We had underestimated, at the time, the importance of weight,? says Lindstrom. ?We all did.
?These bikes were lighter and considerably more agile than any of those,? he says of the early Husky 250 and its competition from Greeves, Bultaco, CZ and Maico. ?So we were at a very powerful and favorable position in the marketplace.?
By the time 1966 rolled around, the 360 was refined and available to the public. Though relatively small in displacement for the big-bore motocross class, Husky again enjoyed a significant weight advantage over the thundering 500s which led to success. ?At that time we were almost invincible in the open class,? he recalls.
Thanks to the efforts of Edison Dye, Husqvarna’s popularity exploded in the late ’60s and Lindstrom was sent to America and based out of Husky’s New Jersey locale. In the engineering trenches, he worked with other test riders on one hand and upper management on the other, trying desperately to find a solution for both. His racing career wasn’t over either, and he continued to compete in the Inter-AM, Trans-AM, AMA National Motocross, ISDE and other off-road events. His full-time racing days came to an end in 1972 just as some interesting changes affected the model line.
Gunnar Lindstrom navigates the Superbowl of Motocross at the L.A. Coliseum in 1972 where fellow Husky riders Arne Kring and Thorleif Hansen also competed. Gunnar made the jump from Sweden to America where his racing career continued alongside his role as a Husqvarna engineer.One was the production of new-generation 250, a bike he says was over-designed to the point that it was no longer competitive with the Japanese. They immediately started working on a smaller engine but it wouldn?t become available until ?74. In the meantime, production rose to 14,000 units with the introduction of a 125cc bike.
A disagreement with top management found Gunnar departing Husqvarna in 1974. Sales started to stagnate around the time Electrolux took possession, but by then Lindstrom had a spectator’s view as it spiralled downward through changing hands.
There were a lot of people in Europe and the rest of the world who were unhappy about the way Cagiva appointed new distributors. However, the big one’s Germany and France maintained the same people? That was probably the most negative effect of Cagiva taking over, nurturing their own distributorships.?
In terms of actual products, the Husqvarna bikes were a little behind in technology by the early 1980s. The suspension wars were raging and the Swedes struggled to keep pace against the Japanese with the advent of a mono-shock.
?Two shocks worked very well because in ’83 there were updates to the geometry, but that was not the issue, he says. It was like selling bellbottom pants 10 years later. They’re fine as pants, they work great and keep you nice and warm, but nobody wanted to be seen with bellbottom pants? You had to have one shock to sell bikes, and Husqvarna didn’t realize that.
(L to R) JN Roberts, Lars Larson, Bill Silverthorne and Gunnar Lindstrom produced some impressive results for Husqvarna.?They were good bikes,? continues the engineer, ?they were OK and some were actually rather good. But it was the people, people like (Dick) Burleson and Scot Harden. You would call them up? and they would try to help you.?
In compiling a complete Husqvarna history (see sidebar) Gunnar still travels back to Sweden and Italy where the passion Husky employees have for their heritage and racing background is evident. Travis Preston’s 125cc West Supercross victory at Houston in 2001 aboard a Fast By Ferracci CR125 is still hailed as one of the greatest modern achievements for Husqvarna ? a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy era.
There’s still a lot of empathy for the brand,? he says, noting how since BMW has taken control, loyal patrons are emerging from the woodwork. ?In many ways, it’s the people that make the brand great.?
Brad Lackey Husqvarna Interview
Born in California, in 1953
Inducted to Motorcycle Hall Of Fame in 1999
Factory World MX racer 1974-76
Contrary to the present-day status quo, there was a time when riders from America headed to Europe because the World Motocross Championships was home to the best talent. Brad Lackey was one of the first Americans to cross the pond and find success, but it wasn’t without tribulation. He first attacked the 500cc GP circuit in 1973 with limited support from Kawasaki, but his results were strong enough to catch the attention of Husqvarna. Without a commitment from Kawi, Brad agreed to a three-year contract with Husky at a time when the Swedes were the best in the world.
I decided I had better find a team that was more interested in Grand Prix racing,? he says. ?Husky had Heikki Mikkola? and they were the top team at the time.?
One of the reasons GP riders were so dominant was their physical conditioning. Lackey was already familiar with training camps, having attended one in Czechoslovakia, but Husqvarna had its own version of the camp located above Stockholm in the northern part of Sweden. Riders from different manufacturers were allowed, but it was a gruelling regimen that lasted for several weeks. The daily routine was only made worse by the cold weather.
It was a frozen tundra, he recalls. You could walk outside and break your mustache off like snapping a twig!
We’d get up in the dark, have some breakfast, go to the gym and work on cross-training by going station-to-station at a rapid pace? We’d do that until lunchtime and then we’d cross-country ski 15 kilometers because you couldn’t run in the snow? Then we would get on the bikes with spiked tires and ride on the frozen motocross track. We’d put in a couple of motos there and then it was dark and we’d go back to the hotel, eat dinner and sleep.?
Much of the time it was too nasty to ride, so most of the bike testing and development was completed at pre-season international races during the first few months of the year. This was the start of some major difficulties for the Americans. Just because he wanted to ride GPs, didn?t mean Brad had the same riding style. Consistent with the company’s top-down management, Lackey was offered little in the way of personalizing his machine. Basically, what’s good enough for Heikki should be good enough for the whole team.
Brad Lackey races his Husqvarna 360 during the 1975 Trans-AM series. It was Husqvarna that gave Lackey his first factory support in World Motocross, launching a GP career that ultimately led to the first-ever title by an American in the 1982 500 class.
Long-time Husqvarna rider, Mikkola was coming into his prime during the 1974 season after finishing third in the 250 class the year before. During his tenure with Lackey, the Finn scored a title in ’74 and runner-up in 75 in the 500 division, followed by a title in the 250 class in ’76. Lackey used his time to learn what he could about GP racing and the top competitors but struggled in the champion’s shadow.
It was really difficult back then it was like, here’s the bike, you all run the same bike, and they couldn’t get past that. I was trying to convince them that it didn’t work that way.
Just establishing himself as a top-10 GP rider, whereas Mikkola was the top dog, Brad’s comments fell on deaf ears and he was plagued with mechanical issues while riding Heikki’s replica 360. Despite the hang-ups and frustration, Lackey got progressively better, finishing his three years in 10th, sixth and fifth overall.
They were a small factory that committed to spending a lot of money on the race team in order to build a good production bike? If you bought a stock bike it was the same thing Heikki won GPs on the previous year. That was very ahead of its time, and they put out a very good product for the average guy.
?I think my time with Husky really was beneficial,? he continues. ?If I would have picked a different team at that time I think I wouldn’t have gotten to the top of the World Championship as fast as I did.?
Lackey scored his first GP victory on the Husqvarna. Eventually, he became the first American to win the 500cc World Championship while riding for Suzuki in 1982. He retired the same year. Though none of his major personal accolades came on a Husky, Brad played a role in the factory effort when Husqvarna was seemingly unbeatable.
Mark Blackwell Husqvarna Interview
Born in California, in 1953
Inducted to Motorcycle Hall Of Fame in 2000
Racer / V.P. of MarketingMark Blackwell (right) went to Europe for the ’71 GP season which he contested under the guidance of Rolf Tibblin (left) and ended with a career-ending eye injury. Mark Blackwell would become inexorably linked to Husqvarna motorcycles for his role in the company’s sale to Cagiva. But before all that, he raced for the company as a teen and later steered it toward profitability in the US.
In his youth, Mark was enchanted by stories of European GP riders and, like many Americans, was drawn to their style and equipment. ?Right away Husqvarna became a very big aspiration, the premium image brand in my mind,? he says. When he saw Torsten Hallman during his 1967 tour in the States, it was sealed.
Blackwell started racing motocross with CZ in 1969 and at the end of the year was approached by Edison Dye with an offer to race Husqvarnas as an up-and-coming prospect. In 1970, Dye shipped Blackwell off to Sweden to gain experience and training in an exchange for some Swedish riders. The move paid off as Mark returned to America and won the Trans-Am title by a single point. Under the guidance of Rolf Tibblin, Mark dominated the Florida winter series and then moved back to Europe to contest the entire 1972 GP season. At the final round in Luxemburg, he was struck by a rock, which left his left eye temporarily blind. His vision would return, but the accident led to a cataract which hampered his racing efforts until mostly calling it quits in 1975.
That really was the beginning of the end of my racing career,? he says.
Mark worked with Suzuki in developing the RM models and started managing the race team from 1977 through 1981. He went back to school to earn a degree in marketing and rejoined Husqvarna as the Product and Regional Sales Manager. Mark ascended to Vice President of Marketing over the next year-and-a-half where he was left to jointly run the distribution and management of Husky in the United States.
It was a pretty remarkable time, says Mark. The company had never really made money (since taking over the distribution from Dye and John Penton) and we had it profitable and made money four out of the five years that I was there.
The Japanese OEMs were decimating the European brands, especially in motocross, so Husqvarna tried to dramatically modernize the look of its bikes by switching from the old styling to a new white motif to appeal to a younger audience. The move, along with continued success in off-road racing, worked to a certain degree, but Electrolux still wanted to sell its motorcycle business which would open up the Odeshog factory in Sweden to produce a new riding lawnmower. Cagiva was particularly interested in the American side of Husqvarna as a means to promote its other brands in the country. Blackwell was approached by his superiors and asked to create a presentation for the Italians.
Mark Blackwell ran the Number 1 plate during the 1971 Florida Winter Series where he battled the likes of Yamaha-mounted Gary Jones (88x).?It served several purposes,? says Mark about the deal with Cagiva. ?We did the pitch to the representatives for the Castiglioni’s and that was it. I went back to my office literally the next day and was scratching my head and saying if this goes through, what do I want to do?? Quite frankly it was very unsettling.?
Blackwell was hopeful that the Italians could pair their emotional panache and cutting-edge styling with the Swede’s cool-headed, solid engineering, but the Castiglionis immediately strayed from the original plan. The idea was to place Cagiva on top of the Husqvarna business and use the same distribution channels, warehouse and staff. Instead they tried to position Cagiva as a major independent player right away and flailed without proper infrastructure. Mark and Suzuki had parted ways on pleasant terms, so when a position for Advertising Manager opened with the Japanese brand, he made a swift decision to make the jump.
?It was really hard to leave Husqvarna, but I really had question marks about what would happen with the US business. And, sure enough, it didn’t go very well.?
The Cagiva reign proved devastating for Husqvarna, more so in the United States than elsewhere, but Mark never left the motorcycle industry and is now leading the resurgence of another brand in his role of Vice President of Motorcycles for Polaris Industries, Inc.
Scot Harden Husqvarna Interview
Born in California, in 1956.
Inducted to Motorcycle Hall Of Fame in 2008
Factory off-road racer and management (1973-1986)
Sales and Marketing Manager/Head of Racing Department, Husqvarna North America (2008-Present).
Scot Harden is in a unique position. He first played a role in Husqvarna’s American success as a factory off-road racer before transitioning to the job of corporate businessman. From there he was painted into a corner and forced to watch helplessly from the sidelines as the company stumbled and fell. Although he removed himself from the debacle of the late 80’s he has recently reconnected with the brand, picking up where he left off and impacting its recent return to prominence.Like many others, Harden was influenced by Husqvarna as a young man from the moment the credits rolled on the epic film, On Any Sunday. Pursuing his love affair with two wheels earned him a supported ride in 1974 to race Husqvarna in the 250 division. He was promoted to the factory Baja squad in ’76 and picked up his first Baja 1000 victory the following year. From there he continued to rack up titles at the Baja 500, SCORE championships and eventually turned his attention to International Six Days Enduro from 1980-?82. He used Husky equipment to score a silver medal in France, then gold in Italy and finally, bronze in Czechoslovakia as part of the highest-finishing American Trophy Team in ISDE history.
Using Blackwell as an example, Harden made a successful transition from racer to management in 1982 as a District Sales Manager. When Alberto and Daniela Carnelli were appointed to run the American operation in ’86, they tapped Harden as National Sales Manager. During the time of the Cagiva takeover, Scot realized that major changes were bearing down. But, unlike his mentor, he refused to see the writing on the wall, doggedly going through the motions of moving the company and arranging the dealer meeting for the 1987 model launch. As it turned out, that dealer convention, held just outside the Los Angeles International Airport, proved a pivotal moment for Husqvarna in America.
At that meeting there was a lot of tension because the dealers were all concerned about what was going to happen, remembers Harden. They (new Cagiva management) had already dismantled the company that they (dealers) knew and loved. Everybody loved Husqvarna, the way it was run, the management there. The Carnellis and Castiglionis turned all that upside down.
That period was a pretty ugly period. It lasted four months for me and it was the worst four months of my life. There was a lot of dishonesty, a lot of lying about certain things that were going on. We were all so passionately committed to Husqvarna; it was all I ever wanted to do, to be a part of Husqvarna all my life.
Scot, for one, had finally seen enough. Shortly after the Cagiva takeover, he quit – no severance, no bonus for 1987 bike sales, no prearranged job replacements – he quit.
At a point in time, I realized that what they were asking me to say wasn’t true, and I just couldn’t, he says. It was a really rash, emotional response by me, something I learned a good lesson from because it put me in a bad spot for a while. I was thinking with my heart more than my head at that point.
Unlike his motocross counterparts, Scot Harden expanded the tradition of Husqvarna’s desert racing dominance. With Harden back at the US helm, it’s no surprise that Husky is re-establishing a strong emphasis within the off-road community.
Scot spent the next two years living in Europe and racing rallies around the world along with Danny LaPorte before signing on with burgeoning KTM. After nearly 20 years with the Austrian brand, in what he describes as a tremendous experience, Scot was ready to rekindle his relationship with Husqvarna. Once BMW purchased Husqvarna he started working his way back into contact, hoping for the opportunity to guide the company back to prominence.
I knew that when BMW did it, it was going to be a serious program and there was a real opportunity there. I just felt like it was something that I was supposed to do.
Over the past year, Harden has been impressed by the soberness of BMW’s approach, noting that it does things on a level he hasn’t seen before in a lifetime of motorcycle industry experience. To him, that will ultimately be the concrete difference; citing product development, strong corporate leadership and a motivated dealer network (currently at 84 in the US) as the driving forces behind Husqvarna’s revival.
BMW doesn’t do anything without a serious plan behind it, and BMW is one of the most financially solid companies in the world. It’s definitely in it for the long haul. We’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of challenges ahead of us, but I really like our chances.
Husqvarna Motorcycles: Picking up the Pieces
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’ 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.
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 is down 41%. While motocross racing victories are difficult to achieve, successful GNCC, EnduroCross and desert racing efforts
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:
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 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.
Adapted and edited from Motorcycle-USA.com article written by JC Hilderbrand | Motorcycle-usa.com Off-Road Editor February 2010