The Definitive Guide to “Vintage Motocross”
Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends…
Much about what is defined as Vintage Motocross is about drawing a line in the sand. No, not a line for a rubber band starting gate, but a line to determine what IS and what ISN’T Vintage Motocross. This can be a cause of controversy and division, as some people hold to an immovable definition which excludes certain technological advances. Makes sense. At a certain point it’s not Vintage motocross anymore, it’s just motocross. On the other hand, club sizes and race attendance tends to drop over time as there are fewer of these 40+ year old motorcycles available to race, not to mention fewer old-timers who remember racing these bikes. Nostalgia often limits itself to ones youthful personal experiences. As the baby boom generation ages there will be fewer and fewer people who remember racing these old bikes. This causes some to want to continue moving the line to attract more racers. But more on that later. Let’s first review the different eras of motocross technology as they relate to generally established vintage motocross classes.
PREMIER CLASS – When Dinosaurs Roamed The Earth [Pre-1968]
Different organizations may call this different things. The America Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) calls it Premier and limits it to pre-1965 bikes. Cal Vet MX calls it Premier and it is pre-1968. Pacific Northwest Vintage MX (PNWVMX), as well as other clubs, does not have a designated class here. So for some clubs most of these racers will just race in the Vintage Class. However clubs will often have some special class, such as four-stroke 150cc, to attract a broader range of motorcycles.
During this era the Open Class was completely dominated by four-stroke bikes made by BSA, Monarch, Husqvarna, Crescent, and Lito. The 250cc Class was where the two-stroke revolution started with lightweight and powerful bikes from European manufacturers Maico, Jawa, CZ, Husqvarna, and Greeves. This two-stroke fever would spread to the Open Class over the course of the late 60’s. The Premier Class is distinguished from the others by a dearth of Japanese machinery. This is before the Japanese Big Four started building dedicated MX bikes, so any Japanese bikes here will be converted trail bikes like the Yamaha DT series.
INTER-AM CLASS – Two-Stroke Comets = Four-Stroke Extinction [Pre-1972]
Not all vintage racing organizations have this class, and some call it something else. PNWVMX calls it Inter-Am. Cal Vet MX calls it Classic, which is somewhat confusing as that term is in some places being adopted for the larger overall sport, since “Vintage” is a specific class. It is for bikes that were manufactured before 1972, or sometime just before the traditional cut-off for the “Vintage” class of 1974. The bikes here are primarily European brands like Husqvarna, Monarch, CZ, and Maico, but this is the time when the Japanese MX motorcycles first emerged. In 1968 the Suzuki TM250 was the first Japanese purpose-built MX bike for sale to the public, although only 50 were shipped to the USA. That same year Penton bikes started production. By 1970 a new TM250 would make Suzuki the first of the Big Four to the mass market with a MX bike. Yamaha came out with an MX250 and MX360 in 1972, predecessors to the YZ series. It wasn’t until 1973 that Honda introduced the Elsinore 250.
This time also marks the transition from large displacement four-strokes weighing in excess of 320 pounds to nimble and light two-strokes a hundred pounds lighter. From 1957 to 1964 the 500cc FIM World Championship was dominated exclusively by four-stroke bikes from BSA, Monark, Crescent, Matchless, Husqvarna, and Lito. In 1965 CZ cracked the top 3 in the 500cc class with a 360cc two-stroke machine. Paul Friedrichs would go on to win three consecutive championships in 1966-1968 on that bike. By 1970 two-strokes would take the top three spots in the 500cc class for the first time. The 250cc class was dominated by two-strokes from the beginning in 1962. The players were CZ, Husqvarna, Jawa, and Greeves. BSA 250cc four-strokes were still competitive that first year, with Jeff Smith and Arthur Lampkin taking 2nd and 3rd place. But after that it is all two-stroke.
VINTAGE CLASS – From Europe to the USA [Pre-1974]
This class is where it all began. This is the time when the top European motocross racers came to the USA to compete against the Americans and the sport exploded in popularity. The AHRMA calls this “Classic” and the years are a little different. Most other clubs have this class, although the years may vary slightly. Some use pre-1975 as the cutoff. Also, many modern motocross series will schedule a Vintage exhibition race to attract more riders and spectators. This class is the meat of the Vintage/Classic/Historic Motocross scene.
If you look at motocross bikes through 1973/1974 you see the peak of European brands such as CZ, Maico, Bultaco, Montessa, and others. By the time the mid-80’s come around most of these brands are all but dead, or alive in name only. You also see the full involvement of the Japanese brands with iconic bikes that were very well-received. Kawasaki was the last of the Japanese brands to release a dedicated motocross bike, but they had a lot of success prior to that with the Green Streak and Centurion. With the Kawasaki KX, first released in 1974, all four of the Big Four now had purpose-built MX bikes. So in the Vintage Class you generally see Maico, CZ, Husqvarna, Bultaco, Ossa, Penton, Hodaka, and more going against the first generation of the Suzuki TM, Yamaha MX/YZ, Honda Elsinore, and Kawasaki KX. If you started racing in the early 70’s, like I did, these are the bikes you remember seeing at the track when you were young.
So why is the cutoff for the Vintage Class held hard at 1973-1975? As I mentioned earlier, this was the first generation of Japanese MX bikes going up against the established European brands. The primary technology distinguishing factors are air-cooled motors, drum brakes, no shock linkage, and limited suspension. Some clubs require rear shock travel to be no more than 4″ and fork travel to be no more than 7″. Although bikes would continue with air-cooling and drum brakes after 1974, suspension travel and power increased exponentially from 1975 on.
TRANS-AM CLASS – Filling the Gap [1975-1976]
Again, not all clubs have this class. However, many do have some type of class here as this allows a filler between the Vintage and Evolution classes. Vintage generally ends at 1973/1974 and Evolution doesn’t start until 1977 or so. The qualifications tend to be the same as Vintage Class, as far as brakes, air-cooling, no linkage. The difference being no suspension travel limitations. This is a time when suspension travel increased greatly, but most other technology was still evolving.
EVOLUTION CLASS – The Evolution of Modern Motocross [pre-1981]
The Vintage, Evolution, and Revolution are the big three classes in historic motocross racing. Many clubs/series will just focus on these three. The main distinguishing factor is the elimination of suspension travel limits, just as with the Trans-Am class. Some clubs call this “Post Vintage” and this is the limit of how far they will go in regards to classic motocross. The cutoff is generally 1981.
The very first water-cooled motocross bike was released at the end of this time period. This bike was the Yamaha 1981 YZ125. By separating classes into pre-1974 and pre-1981 you end up with competitive racing and a fairly level playing field. While the changes in technology from 1974 to 1981 are limited primarily to suspension travel and handling, radical changes would come post 1981. At this time we still have drum brakes and air-cooling. But it was longer and more sophisticated suspension that would make a big impact to race speed and track development.
This class is dominated by Honda CRs, Yamaha YZs, Kawasaki KXs, and Suzuki RMs. This is true of the 125cc, 250cc, and Open classes. But Husqvarna, Maico, and KTM were producing some excellent bikes into 1981 which are capable of winning Evolution Class races.
REVOLUTION 1 (REVO) CLASS – You Say You Want a Revolution… [pre-1987]
The Revolution Class is so named due to the radical changes in motocross technology that occurred in this time. Water-cooled engines, disc brakes, shock linkage, and power-valves propelled this revolution. By now the European brands, with the very notable exception of KTM, had all but disappeared from the scene. KTM started gaining momentum during this time and helped fill some of the holes in the Euro offerings, but the Japanese Big Four ruled the off-road motorcycle racing world.
During this time Supercross had grown to the point of eclipsing the outdoor Nationals. This is when the high-flying aerobatics that are a huge part of modern motocross became prevalent. With water-cooling engines could become more powerful. Radical suspension technology using complicated valving, inverted forks, shock linkage, and even air allowed motocross racers to do things that were previously impossible. This truly was a revolutionary time.
REVOLUTION 2 CLASS – Where do we go from here? [pre-1997]
So after the revolution, now what? Well things didn’t stand still in the MX world, that’s for sure. Bikes continued to develop and improve. Yet in the ten years from 1987 to 1997 the changes were much more evolutionary than revolutionary. Suspension travel can only get so long. It’s hard to ride a bike that sits four feet in the air. Engine power can only improve so much. Ever hear a KX500 owner wish he had MORE power? Of course not. A 1987 motocross bike could be raced competitively against a 1997 motocross bike. But the gap from 1997 to today is very significant.
A 1997 YZ 250 would not do well against modern 250cc bikes. So this class exists to offer bikes of that era an opportunity to compete on a level field. There are those in the Vintage MX community who are very against the idea of opening up the sport to this modern of a bike. Like I said earlier, at a certain point it isn’t Vintage anymore. But this isn’t Vintage, it Revo 2. Here we introduce the idea of coming up with new terminology to describe this subset of motocross this sport we love so well. The entire umbrella under which everything sits under should be either “Classic” or “Historic” Motocross. This would be a difficult change for most. Vintage describes it better and sounds better, but if time periods are going to continue to expand the Vintage Class, pre-1974, needs to be preserved. If you have Classic Motocross, with Vintage, Evolution, and Revolution racing classes you would have most of the bases covered and it would all be easily explainable. Classic Motocross is old mx racing with different classes. Vintage Class is the really old stuff, Evolution Class is the kind-of old stuff, and Revolution Class is the newer stuff. Very simple. We’ll see how far that goes. And we’ll have to see where we go from here…