Two wheels and the open road are enough to get any avid biker to long for the freedom of the highway! Yet, many people don’t know the history behind some of their favourite bikes. Fortunately, the early days of a brand can be just as exciting as the thrill of the pavement. Husqvarna, commonly known as Husky, might have made a name for itself in the world of motocross. But there’s a lot to tell about this Swedish company that’s been manufacturing bikes for more than a century. If you’re picking up some new bash plates or pipe guards to head out on a motocross trip, you might want to learn more about one of the sport’s most storied brands.
From the days of the iconic 175cc Silverpilen to the Husqvarna 400 that Steve McQueen famously rode in On Any Sunday, the Husky brand has been making a name for itself since it started making bikes back in the 19th century. It may have once been a musket factory as decreed by the Swedish King, but the brand has morphed into something with a lasting legacy that every avid biker is familiar with. As the brand continues to make its presence known on the world market, it’s worth taking a look back at what it used to be, what it’s become and what the future hold for the brand that made the world of motocross an international passion.
The Early Days of Husqvarna
It may be a surprise to many bikers, but Husqvarna wasn’t always a company that was dedicated to fulfilling the dream of dirt bikers everywhere. In fact, the company was founded in 1689 as a manufacturer of weapons like muskets. It even went on to produce items like kitchen appliances and sewing machines in its early days. While the logo of the company alludes back to its humble beginnings, it wasn’t until the 19th century that they got into the biking business. In 1903, as motorcycles began to become a popular thing, the company made the leap to the two-wheeler. Starting out, the company may have used engines from other countries, but it was soon after the war that they began to manufacturer solely in their country of origin. In keeping with the tradition of brands like Harley-Davidson and Indian, Husqvarna soon produced their very own engines. It was their connection with providing products for the Swedish Army and participating in racing events around Europe that really began to sow the seeds of their legacy. As the company began to garner fame with its participation in many motorcycle races, it soon became the largest company of its kind in Sweden.
The Birth of a New Bike
In the 1950s, the obsession with the motorcycle began to change form and a new kind of ride began to appear on the motorcycling circuit. Beginning in Europe, the trend known as motocross started to take on newfound popularity, inflaming the imaginations of bikers everywhere who were looking for a new challenge. As a combination of the French word ‘moto’ and ‘cross-country’, this dirt-bound sport took the motorcycle off the highway and into lesser-travelled areas. With races and rides that took place on dirt, mud and hilly off-road tracks, the sport of motocross soon became an international phenomenon. It was the “Motocross des Nations” event that was started in 1947 that truly put the sport on the map and contributed to the legacy of what it’s become today. Fortunately, given their lightweight style, the Husqvarna road bikes became one of the more popular fixtures of the motocross scene. As a result of the popularity of motocross, it was around this time in 1955 that the brand came up with one of the two-wheelers that would forever define its brand.
The Iconic 175cc Silverpilen (1955)
The Silverpilen, meaning ‘silver arrow’, was a bike built specifically for use in the popular motocross scene. While it was the perfect bike for the challenges associated with motocross, it was the hydraulic dampers and frame-mounted engine that made it one of Husky’s most famous models. As a sleek-looking machine painted in black and red, the 9.5 horsepower machine became a boon for a lot of great motorcycles accessories. Beyond the basics of hose guards and rear heat shields, Gore Lindstrom developed a 250cc cylinder, a high-compression head, modified crank and a 32mm Bing carburettor for the bike. Gustav Flink built a 250cc engine along with manifolds and cylinders, making it into something that could be adapted for the thrill of motocross. With cantilever shock design and alloy fenders, the bike was well crafted and ahead of its time in many regards. Fortunately, biking champions like Torsten Hallman and Rolf Tibblin built their careers on the backs of the famous Silverpilen model. While the bike was never imported to America, its legacy is set in stone in the world of motorcycles.
Riding Into the 1960s with Style
It was the early days of motocross that truly enabled the Husqvarna brand to hit its stride in the sixties. Bill Nilsson’s 1960 win of the Husqvarna World Title for the 500cc class really set the brand up as one to be reckoned with. With a lot of motocross wins under their belt, the Husqvarna bike became what riders wanted in a lightweight bike that could take them through the mud and the dirt with easy handling ability. In the 1960 and 1970s, the brand was paired with many of the riders who won some of the biggest races around! In addition to 14 Motocross World Championship wins, Husqvarna was also the brand behind 24 Enduro European Championship and 11 Baja 1000 wins. It was their two-stroked engine that really began to overpower the legacy of the British four-stroke engine that had once been a fixture of the cycling world.
The Husqvarna 400 (1970)
Given the motorcycle’s presence in popular films like The Wild One and Easy Rider, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the two-wheeler has drummed up a little bit of fame on the silver screen. Fortunately, few bikes are more iconic than the red motorcycle that actor Steve McQueen rode in the film On Any Sunday. While McQueen started out with affection for the brand of Triumph, he became a convert to Husqvarna and the world of motorbiking hasn’t been the same since! Yet, like any truly iconic bike, this precise machine has more than one well-known fan. The famous motocross champion Bengt Aberg won the 500cc World Championships in 1969 and 1970, putting the stylish bike on the map once again. Fortunately, Gunnar Nilsson, Malcolm Smith and Whitey Martino also amped up the fame of this bike with their races on the lightweight bikes in California and Mexico. The bike featured an 8-speed conversion that meant speeds above 100 miles per hour could be reached. As the Husqvarna became the most popular choice for motocross riders of the period, the original Husqvarna 400’s appeal is timeless. Alongside the famed 400, the company also built the 250 Cross, the 360 Cross and the 360 Sportsman.
Ownership Changes in the 1970s and 1980s
The 1950s and 1960s might have been a glowing period for the Husqvarna brand. And, as a direct result of so much success for the brand, the company experienced a number of changes in ownership over the period. In 1977, the bike brand was sold to one of Sweden’s largest companies, Electrolux. However, the shift didn’t last long as the motorcycle division of the company was sold to the Italian motorcycle company Cagiva in 1987. Husqvarna then became part of MV Agusta Motor S.p.A. where the bikes were to be produced in Italy. However, the Husqvarna group chose to keep the bike where it was born in Sweden and they launched Husaberg in 1988. Still, as much as many companies change when someone new takes the reins, the ethos stayed the same with a motocross bike and motorcycle accessories like rear luggage plates and radiator guards still consistent. While the bike brand known as Husqvarna made its marks on the motocross scene, it was around this time that they began to be known popularly as Husky or Huskies.
The 500cc 4-Stroke (1983)
By the 1980s, after gaining accolades as motocross champions and changes to the company, Husqvarna went out on a limb and tackled an entirely new concept to their business. While the 4-stroke model bike had been a big thing in Europe at the time that Husqvarna was developing their 2-stroke model, it was time for a new kind of bike. As a means of reinventing themselves in the world of motocross, the 500cc 4-stroke motocross bike was born – and by the company that had made sport requiring an adaptable machine such an international phenomenon! While the bike maintained the lightweight quality that made Husqvarna so famous, it also kept the easy handling ability of earlier models. With an air-cooled off-roader and the same old bash plates and hose guards, it was the motocross bike of old reinvented in an entirely new way!
Bring on the BMW
While the 1990s through to the 2000s brought continued success for the brand, Husky began to shift again when it was purchased by BMW in 2007. As BMW had ambitions in the motocross arena, it decided that Husky was the perfect brand to pair with to move in a new direction. Fortunately, the Husqvarna name would remain the same and the motorcycle division would be maintained as a separate company. While the factory location in Italy would stay where it was, the Husky motocross bikes were to be BMW’s version of what a bike produced by a luxury-brand company looked like. But, more changes were around the corner and in 2013 Pierer Industries AG bought Husqvarna. As the company was affiliated with KTM Sportmotorcycle, it soon became a part of the KTM group. Yet, there were more changes afoot and shortly after Husqvarna was reunited with the split Husaberg brand, making the historic company one once again! Fortunately, nothing was lost in the mix as the brand returned to its beginnings with updated technology and the traditional blue, yellow and white colour scheme symbolic of Sweden. They still remain at the top of the heap when it comes to a motocross machine worth having, complete with the same old Husky accessories including skids guards, rear heat shields and luggage plates.
The Present & Future of the Husky Brand
As a result of a return to the roots of the famed Husqvarna brand, the company experienced record sales in 2014 and pushed the brand back into the forefront of motocross consciousness all over the world. In the time since the company has released a variety of models that go back to the beginning to tell their unique story in a different way. In 2016, Husqvarna began production on the 701 Supermoto which is their version of the single-cylinder street motorcycle. Soon after, the Vitpilen 401, Vitpilen 701 and Svartpilen 401 began to redefine the brand as an all-around motorbiking company that could appeal to the needs of any two-wheeler enthusiast. As a brand that has withstood the test of time, Husqvarna has stayed at the top of their game and continues to adjust to the desires of the market. Fortunately, as motocross and the company that made it world famous move into the future, there are sure to be more changes for this brand and what it can do for the motorbike.
It’s hard to believe that the future of one of the biggest motocross bike companies in the world started out as a musket manufacturer. Fortunately, given its two-stroke model and iconic rides like the 175cc Silverpilen and 400 Husqvarna, the company has made it one of the go-to brands for motocross champions everywhere! Whether you’re looking for a classic motocross model or want an updated street-style bike, there’s a Husqvarna bike that’s built for almost every purpose. Next time you’re getting prepared to purchase some motorcycle accessories, whether bash plates or radiator guards, you’ll know more to the story of the Husky motocross legend.