Tougher than Leather - 80's MXers

In the 1980s the hardest Grand Prix racers in the world were the works motocross riders. Their 500cc open-class bikes were savage and virtually uncontrollable by normal people, while the riders themselves were a breed apart

Certain sports are derived not only from man’s competitive spirit, but from a necessity to feel scared. Really scared. And in the early 1980s, there was no machine more terrifying than an open-class motocross bike. Trapped between a need for maximum speed on one side and brutally unsophisticated engine and suspension technology on the other, the bikes had two-stroke motors as vicious as napalm and frames unable to contain such explosive power.

The motocross tracks of the time like Manor Farm in the UK and Namur in Belgium were intimidating natural amphitheatres that sent racers hurtling past trees, rocks and each other at over 90mph, and for a full 50 minutes at a time. By the end of a race some of the riders, their hands blistered and bleeding from hanging on, were so exhausted they had to be helped off their bikes.

It was a time of change, as professional motocross emerged from the gentlemanly scrambles of the decade before. The last of the four-stroke thumpers were being phased out and a new generation of first aircooled, then watercooled 500cc two-strokes stood in their place. At any given Grand Prix, 40 enormous men lined up in the hope of winning the race. Factory riders still had an edge, but back then privateer riders had a chance of glory in a world where physical strength, bravery, an element of skill and a leaning towards madness counted for far more than a fancy piston kit.

The Japanese factories were using the sport as a test-bed for new technologies and competed fiercely to have the most power, the fastest bike or the latest development. And the crowds at an international event regularly exceeded 100,000. Suddenly motocross was turning very professional, very fast. And in doing so it had also become one of the most competitive sports on earth.

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Real men ride MX

Top riders were earning real money. In 1980, when the average fellow earned £8,750 per year, defending World Champion Graham Noyce’s annual salary was in excess of £150,000, well over half a million in today’s money. It’s a mark of how huge motocross was at that time that the only other racers earning that kind of cash back then were called Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts. Noyce, Hakan Carlqvist and Andre Malherbe were sporting superstars pursued around Europe by fanatical crowds loaded on beer and high on two-stroke fumes.

Unimpeded by the health and safety rules that dominate our lives today, full-scale track invasions were the norm and there was a thrilling, chaotic feel to a motocross GP that is all but missing today. The Belgian supporters were renowned for their wayward behaviour, pressing against the fencing and narrowing the track, therefore stealing the fast line from the ‘foreigners’ before pulling the fence back to allow their riders to pass through at full speed. And the tracks were flowing and blisteringly fast without the manmade double jumps of today. When riders crashed in a motocross GP, it was enormous and eye-watering. And the kit they wore in 1980 was little more protective than jeans and a bomber jacket.

It took a special kind of human to race these brutal machines at the velocities the tracks and crowds demanded. Mere fitness wasn’t enough, and God knows you had to be stupidly fit to ride at 10/10ths for the best part of an hour. Away from the track most of them appeared to be muscle-bound lunatics with a constant mad grin etched on their faces. On the track you’d see open-class riders go into a freaky wide-eyed trance 10 minutes before a GP was due to begin, the prospect of the violence about to unfurl on their battered bodies enough to quieten anyone. “Riding the old 500s fast all depended on how strong you were,” says Graham Noyce today. This, then, is a tribute to the riders and their bikes from what many people describe as the Golden Era of open-class motocross.

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Dave Thorpe

Dave Thorpe - 500cc World Champ ’85, ’86 & ’89

Thorpey is something of a legend in motocross circles. Dave was 20 years old when he got his first real chance on the GP scene aboard the rare semi-factory 443cc KX, a missile Dave describes as “a lovely, smooth bike, easily the best Kawasaki I’ve ever ridden and the bike I started winning races on.” Synonymous with Honda, Dave’s career sky-rocketed when he got his leg over the CR500, a turning point that he says came about thanks in no small part to Noyce.

“Graham did a lot of testing at the British Championships so there were always loads of Japanese bosses over from HRC. I was on the Kawasaki at the time and Graham and I had some really good battles – this didn’t go unnoticed by the Japanese. Honda contacted my parents, and that was that.” Now Thorpey was a fully-fledged GP rider, racing for the mighty HRC against his idols. “Andre Malherbe was so professional and so cool, I just wanted to be like him. He never let on what he did in terms of training but his dedication to testing and his application both on and off the track was second to none.

In many ways Graham inadvertently helped me and while he was an exceptional rider, determined and extremely talented, he liked to party a bit too much. My parents always guided me away from his type of lifestyle and suggested that I look to Andre as a role model. The sport had become more professional and the physical side of the riding was important. Image was too – Honda wanted riders that were good ambassadors for both them and the sport."

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Graham Noyce

Graham Noyce - 500cc World Champion 1979

If ever Barry Sheene had a likeminded counterpart in the motocross paddock, then it was Graham Noyce. A handsome fella, Noyce’s physical attributes didn’t go unnoticed by the female paddock population. A man who played hard, there are a hundred stories about Noyce. From being serviced by a young fräulein in the back of a car en route to the airport to nearly breaking his neck jumping off a nightclub balcony onto the dance floor in what’s best described as a ‘heightened state’ the night before a Grand Prix, Graham lived his life to the full.

“I don’t want to talk about all that silly nonsense, it was the racing that really mattered,” laughs Graham today. “They were some good days though, we earned a bomb and had great fun. I’ve no regrets. Maybe I could have won another Championship, perhaps my career could have been different, but I had a magnificent time and I’m glad I was riding back then and not now. It’s all too serious now, no-one seems to be having any fun any more.”

Noyce raced in an era of legends but one man really sticks in his mind - Hakan Carlqvist. “He was a great rider, really strong and rode bloody hard. We had some great battles, proper elbow-to-elbow scraps. I loved racing Carla, he was a proper bloke that would always shake your hand and look you in the eye after a race, whatever happened. It has changed today, though. There are some great riders in this country but the opportunities for them to make a living are scarce unless they go to the States. The modern tracks are shit too, not like the old natural ones. Once you’ve learned how to jump, that’s it. These days the riders spend so long in the air it ruins the racing. You can’t do fuck all in the air other than clean your goggles and fiddle with your knob.”

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Jack Burnicle

Jack Burnicle - Photographer

Eurosport commentator Jack Burnicle was a youthful motocross photographer in the 1980s who travelled to all the GPs

“If ever there were two riders that couldn’t have been more different, then it was Dave Thorpe and Graham Noyce. Graham was a strapping, good-looking lad with blonde hair and blue eyes. He was pretty successful with the ladies and boy, did he make the best of it! They said he would shag anything that moved, but actually Graham was quite picky and they were always absolute beauties. He was the last of the old guard, living it up, partying hard and riding even harder. He was a determined character, as was Thorpe, but Graham’s personality and love of mischief made him a great rogue.

Dave was very different. Just as determined and tough on the track, but he didn’t have any distractions and was the consummate professional. He trained hard and never let anything get to him. He had fantastic determination and his ability to ride through injuries and still produce the goods was bloody incredible. And I remember Andre Malherbe was a real cool character and a great rider.

Hakan Carlqvist came onto the scene having won the 250cc Championship in 1979, the same year that Noyce won on the 500. At first you got the impression that the two of them would hate each other, but they were really alike and became good friends. Carla was a phenomenon. He was like Noyce in that he was a drinker, but he had terrific strength, determination and astonishing panache on a bike. He’d literally force the Yamaha to do what he wanted but was liable to injury because he was always riding so close to the limit. He won the Championship in 1983 for Yamaha on the YZ465, a bike so vicious that it was nicknamed ‘the motor of death’. Carla used to bandage-up his hands before he rode that bloody thing, it was so vicious.”

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Last of the Thumpers

Last of the Thumpers - John Banks’ 1980 JBR600

Former GP racer and engineer John Banks approached Colin Clews at CCM with a plan for a new British bike in 1979. Clews manufactured frame kits to John’s design that would accommodate his engine of choice: the 500cc, four-valve twin-port Honda motor from the XR. In January 1980, 20 machines left the Bolton factory. Banks’ choice of engine for the JBR project was reliable, easily modified, light and readily available. The JBR was  offered in either standard or race-spec, the race-spec motors hogged out to 600cc and had high-lift cams, high-compression pistons and 50bhp. Jersey racer Wayne Lemarquand set about the British four-stoke championship, winning the title in 1982. Sadly the JBR project was short-lived and only 26 produced.

Value now: £10,000
Engine: Four-stroke,
single-cylinder, air-cooled
Bore x stroke: 89 x 80mm
Power: 50bhp @ 6,250rpm
Top Speed: 93mph
Dry weight: 115kg

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Weapon of Choice

Weapon of Choice - 1981 Maico 490 Alpha

German manufacturer Maico never quite won a World Championship, but Roger Harvey gave Graham Noyce a run for his money on a standard 490 in 1979. “The Maico was just phenomenal,” says Harvey today. “you were 10bhp down on the works boys but it was one of them bikes that you just jumped on and went fast. I was riding a Suzuki RM400 at the time and all these guys were beating me that shouldn’t have been on Maicos. So I got a 490 and immediately started running with the top boys. It was the whole package, nothing was brilliant, but the power was good, the suspension was sweet, and the whole rideability put you on the pace.” When the Japanese went monoshock, Maico had to follow suit. Maico chose to fit untried Italian shocks, but Corte & Cosso’s experience in dirt bikes was negligible. The shocks were the wrong length, the top and bottom frame shock mounts didn’t line up with the linkages and, when the shock was fully compressed, it would cock to one side and either bend or break.

Value now: £3,500
Engine: 488cc two-stroke aircooled single
Bore x stroke: 86.5 x 83mm
Power: 53bhp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 89mph
Dry weight: 101kg

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The Animal

The Animal - 1985 Honda CR500

In 1985, Honda filled the top three World Championship positions with the unbeatable CR500. The advent of water-cooling on the 500s meant the engines were faster, smoother and with far more torque. For mere mortals, the production ’85 CR was an absolute animal and open-class racers regularly detuned the bike to soften the delivery. Honda eventually did the same in 1986, making this ’85 machine the scariest CR ever. But for riding gods like Dave Thorpe and Andre Malherbe, the big Honda was perfect. “The ’85 bike just had power everywhere, huge great lumps of it right from the bottom end and it was a mental bike to ride,” says Thorpey. “Throughout the eighties the Honda was definitely the best bike to be on, it just did everything so well.” To this day the production CR500 remains the most savage motocross bike ever made.

Value now:  £18,000
Engine: Two-stroke, single-cylinder, liquid-cooled
Displacement: 499cc
Bore x stroke: 86 x 86mm
Power: 66bhp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 124mph
Dry weight: 97kg

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The Motor of Death

The Motor of Death - Hakan Carlqvist’s 1981 Yamaha YZ465

Hakan ‘Carla’ Carlqvist won the 500cc World Championship in 1983. The air-cooled Yamaha YZ465 that he rode for seven years was known as the ‘motor of death’ due to its brutal power delivery. Of course, having jumped on the Yamaha after winning the 1979 250cc title with Husqvarna, Carla didn’t know any better, so he just got on with the job in hand. Yamaha pioneered their Monoshock system with Carla’s bike, using a cantilever shock that came directly from the TZ racebikes. Known amongst his peers as an angry young man, Carla’s riding style was a combination of finesse and aggression. “He was a big strong fucker that didn’t give a shit”, is Graham Noyce’s eloquent description of the giant Swede today, and during his years with Yamaha Carla had to tape his hands up to stop the flow of blood from his burst blisters.

Value now: £18,000
Engine: 465cc two-stroke air-cooled single
Bore x stroke: 85 x 82mm
Power: 60bhp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 112mph
Weight: 102kg

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The Big Red One

The Big Red One - Graham Noyce’s 1980 Honda CR480

Noyce’s CR480 was the envy of the paddock. Following Suzuki’s lead, Honda adopted their own monoshock design, called Prolink, which caused a few problems according to Noyce.

“I was really happy with the twin shocker, but Suzuki went monoshock with their Full Floater design so everyone else had to. It took Honda a while to get it right, initially it was dreadful. Honda were an amazing firm to ride for though. I went testing in the States at the end of ’79 and thought the bike was a pile of shit. I asked them to fly in the old works bikes from Japan so we could do a back-to-back test. They did as I asked and as it turned out they were right. The 1980 bike was faster but it was so smooth it felt a lot slower. I learned a lot about Honda that day!”

Value today: £27,000
Engine: 479cc, two-stroke air-cooled single
Bore x stroke: 89 x 76mm
Power: 62bhp @ 6,800rpm
Top speed: 109mph
Dry weight: 100kg

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