By John Basher
Offroad motorcycle sales hit record highs in the 1970’s.
Millions of motorcycles were sold that decade, an obvious
assessment that people were indulging in their desire for
freedom. The motorcycle ethos pumped strongly through the
heart of a society stressed by the aftermath of the Vietnam
War, civil unrest and fear of communist attacks. Dirt bikes
were the answer. There was no cause more noble than
exercising the freedoms afforded by their ancestors. Be it on
pavement, dirt, track or trail, two-wheeled advocates were
unionized by their steadfast belief that motorcycles were the
answer to all their troubles.
“HISTORIANS WILL POINT TO THE
1970s AS THE GOLDEN ERA OF
MOTOCROSS. IT WAS A TIME WHEN
AMERICANS WERE PLYING THEIR
CRAFT AGAINST A SEEMINGLY
IMPENETRABLE FORCE OF
In hindsight, the motocross industry had a population spike
to credit for its exponential growth. From the end of World
War II through 1964, nearly 77 million babies were born. It
was a time of comfort and economic prosperity. White picket
fences among posh suburban settings created a mystique of
a wholesome life in what came to be known as the “American
way.” Older generations, embattled by the Great Depression
and WWII, strenuously fought to provide their children with
the luxuries that they were deprived of. They demanded a
better life for their children.
In terms of historical significance, few match the 1960s.
It was a time of elevated fear, with the Cuban missile crisis,
Vietnam War, and assassinations of John F. Kennedy and
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, there was also hope.
Man landed on the moon, the civil rights bill was passed,
and the “supercomputer” was invented—not by Al Gore, mind
you. The 1960s were not lost on the sport of motocross, as
Edison Dye introduced impressionable youth to a new type
of scrambles racing. It was a byproduct of Dye’s devotion in
selling Husqvarna motorcycles. He was responsible for bringing European stars such as Lars Larsson, Roger DeCoster,
Torsten Hallman, Joel Robert, Dave Bickers, Arne King and
Ake Johnson over to America. Edison Dye’s
traveling troupe toured the country in an
effort to spread the good word of motocross
and push the Husqvarna name. Little did
they know the monumental impact they were
In those days, the general public viewed
motorcyclists as law-breaking degenerates.
Biker gangs had risen to prominence via
the Boozefighters and The Wild One movie.
Conversely, offroad motorcycling centered
around individualism and celebrated strength
of body. However, many worrisome parents
had reservations about involving their children
in a sport they figured would be a gateway to
organized crime. Fortunately, the motorcycle
manufacturers fought to clean up the image
of the sport. Perhaps you remember the
brilliant Honda ads in 1964 with the slogan,
“You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”
The ads depicted respectable members of
society riding a Honda 50. It painted a far
different picture than how motorcyclists were conveyed in the
The line between street and offroad bikes was cemented
once Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday, opened in movie theaters across America in 1971. For 96 minutes, would-be
thrill seekers were captivated by the heart-pounding action of
riding a motorcycle on a beach, in the woods, around tracks
and anywhere else Brown could capture the essence of riding offroad. It was catnip for a nation of giddy teenagers.
On Any Sunday could not have come at a better time, as
consumers had access to over 50 motorcycle brands. The
ensuing upswing in sales sparked fierce competition among
the European stalwarts and the fledgling Japanese brands.
By the mid-1970s the death knell for BSA, Matchless and
Triumph had rung, as the showroom floors were inundated
by inexpensive Japanese two-strokes. Thus began a 30-year
stretch of dominance for the two-stroke. My, how the times
Historians will point to the 1970s as the golden era of
motocross. It was a time when Americans were plying their
craft against a seemingly impenetrable force of European racers. SoCal sensation Marty Smith helped put American motocross on the map. Bob Hannah, Tony DiStefano, Gary Jones
and Jimmy Weinert were outspoken men with the braggadocio to back up their riding. The sport was still new, and the
U.S. fought for their place at the table.
Few riders transcend time, while most rely on nostalgia
and races won long ago to remain relevant. What happens
when that first generation no longer exists? The gold standard has always been Roger DeCoster. His reputation precedes him—winning racer, winning team manager, motocross
ambassador and decorated champion. As On Any Sunday star
Malcolm Smith put it, “Roger was a great racer, and he transitioned into a career as a successful team manager. He has
gone to several different teams, and that team always won
after he began working there. He’s still winning.” Malcolm
Smith (see inset photo) is no slouch, either. He stole the
show in On Any Sunday and demonstrated what was possible
on a motorcycle. These days he owns a successful dealership
bearing his likeness and just released an autobiography at the
tender age of 74.
Can history repeat itself? Is it possible for the industry to
return to the glory days of the 1970s, when practically every
family had a motorcycle parked in their garage? Malcolm
Smith doesn’t think so. I tend to agree. However, just as
America has survived wars, tragedies and economic hardships, motocross will survive. It will also remain relevant.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at Roger DeCoster and