Top 10 Forgotten Dirt Bike Brands

Triumph and Ducati are now in motocross – but they’re not the only bike brands with forgotten dirt bike history…

​ 2024 MXGP of Argentina MX2 podium​

With the success of both Triumph and Ducati’s recent entry into motocross – Triumph’s all-new TF 250-X claimed a debut third place in the MX2 World Championship while Ducati’s new prototype Desmo 450MX won first time out in the Italian MX1 championship – it got us thinking: what other current manufacturers could make a move into the dirt?

It's not as far-fetched as it may sound. Far more manufacturers than you might think have a forgotten history of dirt competition – Harley and BMW among them – so might they, too, on the back of Triumph and Ducati’s success, be looking at new ventures?

To give the idea further credence, here’s our pick of the Top 10 current motorcycle manufacturers with a largely forgotten dirt bike past…

BMW – G450X (2008-2011)

We’ll start with the most obvious and recent – but also one which already seems odd, given the German marque’s more recent focus on monster cruisers and more. The G450X was an all-new 449cc liquid-cooled, single-cylinder enduro intended to compete with KTM and the Japanese and partly motivated by BMW’s then ownership of Husqvarna. The engine was made by Kymco in Taiwan. Although a decent performer it wasn’t a sales success, was dropped in 2010, with its engine and frame then forming the basis of three Husqvarna models before Husqvarna was sold to KTM in 2013. The engine also lives on in CCM’s Spitfire, which is the reason for its short service intervals.

Harley-Davidson MX250 (1978)

Yes, even historic American cruiser brand Harley-Davidson once made an MX-er – albeit for one year only. Back in the 1970s, Harley owned the Italian former Aermacchi motorcycle company in Varese which produced H-D’s then lightweight two-strokes. Chasing the youth market, H-D decided to produce an MX-er, signed ex-pro racer Rex Staten to develop it (sound familiar?) and the result was the Varese-built MX250 with a 242cc two-stroke single engine, Kayaba suspension and Harley bodywork. Peaky and heavy, it struggled at first and, available only through Harley dealerships, it didn’t sell either. With just 1000 made, it was dropped after just 12 months. 

BSA B50MX (1971-1973)

With BSA now undergoing a comeback under Indian Mahindra ownership in the form of its Gold Star 650 retro roadster, it’s timely to remember that the historic British brand also has a proud history in motocross, albeit in the ‘50s and ‘60s, or ‘scrambles’ as it was called back then. In fact, it was European 500 champion in 1955 (before the world series was established), then world champs, with Jeff Smith, in 1964 and 1965. Those bikes were Gold Star-derived 500cc four-stroke singles which were from then increasingly outpaced by a new breed of lightweight two-strokes, first from CZ, then Husqvarna and Suzuki. BSA’s last works MX-er was the B50, an air-cooled, 499cc four-stroke producing 34bhp with as much weight saving as possible. It wasn’t enough. The BSA Competition department was disbanded at the end of 1971 and the factory parts were bought by Alan Clews who formed CCM (Clews Competition Machines) and continued building BSA-based bikes.

Bimota BX450 (2023-)

Bimota dirt bikes? Yes, really – in fact most people have forgotten that you still can. The Italian exotica experts unveiled its new ‘ultimate enduro’ at the 2023 EICMA show based on Kawasaki’s four-stroke, liquid-cooled, single cylinder KX450 ‘crosser (the Japanese firm now part owns Bimota). In truth, not just the engine, but the frame, suspension and more are directly lifted from the Kawasaki, although there is bespoke bodywork, exhaust and so on. Nor is it the first Bimota dirt bike – back in 2011 it launched the short-lived BBX300 and BBX508 enduros, which used GasGas engines. 

Ariel 500 HS Hunter Scrambler (1955-1959)

Think of historic British brand Ariel and you might be minded of the iconic 1930s Square Four or Red Hunter single or even the more recent Honda V4-powered Ace, from the version of the company that was revived in ????, but in the 1950s, when scrambling and trials first took off, it also developed the HS – for ‘Hunter Scrambler’ – and HT – for ‘Hunter Trials’ – with a new version of the 497cc single with an alloy head producing 34bhp, new swing-arm frame, off-road wheels and so on.

CanAm (1973-1980)

Canadian brand CanAm, which is a subsidiary of Bombardier, may today be best known for its ATVs, snowmobiles, buggies and oddball three-wheelers such as the Spyder, but back in the 1973 when the company was first formed, partly with the assistance of ex-BSA world champion Jeff Smith, it initially produced a range of Rotax-powered motocrossers and enduros. Despite initial success, after 1976, enthusiasm from parent Bombardier waned and in 1980 CanAm exited motorcycle production, although the UK’s Armstrong for a while produced Bombardier military bikes, before CanAm/Bombardier stopped bikes completely in 1987.

Aprilia MXV450 (2006-2009)

While today’s Aprilia, now owned by Piaggio, seems dominated by high-end sports bikes and a MotoGP campaign, it’s often forgotten that the Italian brand first sprang to prominence in off-road racing with its first racing motorcycle being a 125cc motocrosser in 1974. Significant success followed before the brand diversified into small road, race then larger machines, with dirt racing falling by the wayside. A brief return followed, however, in 2006 with its novel V-twin MXV/RXV/SXV family. A compact, powerful V-twin in a world dominated by singles, the MXV was the motocrosser, RXV the enduro bike, and SXV the Supermoto, with all available in 450 and 550cc forms. Despite decent performance, unfortunately US racing authority the AMA shortly after leglislated that MXers must be single cylinder only thus condemning the project to an early death. 

Italjet T350 Piuma trials (1980-1983)

Another famous Italian brand with a less well-known dirt bike heritage. Italjet may today be best known for either in 1970s kids 50cc mini-bikes or its more recent Dragster scooters, but never one to shirk an oddball product line, back in the early 1980s it also briefly produced trials and enduro machines. An air-cooled two stroke single developed with French trials star Philippe Berlatier, the T350 had reasonable success until Italjet pulled out of the market in the mid-1980s.

AJS 250 Stormer (1970-1974)

AJS today lives on through a range of small, Chinese-built 125s, while its storied history is highlighted by its 1930s and ‘40s racers including the V4 and ‘Porcupine’. Lesser know is its lightweight, short-lived, two-stroke ‘70s motocrosser – the Stormer. Based around a Villers 250cc air-cooled single, the initial AJS Starmaker was updated in 1970 with a new top end and also available in 370 and 410cc sizes to become the Stormer. Raced to reasonable success it continues to be popular in historic ‘twin-shock’ racing today, partly due to, after factory production stopped in 1974, 'Fluff' Brown bought the project from the factory and continued to offer spares and more.

Norton P11 Ranger (1967-1970)

Norton, produce an off-road bike? Oh yes they did – sort of. Back in 1966 when the US obsession with all things ‘Desert Sled’ was at its height, SoCal Norton distributor Bob Blair built a Norton version around an Atlas 750 twin. After shipping the prototype to the factory, it was displayed at the 1966 Earls Court show then put into production. It even achieved some race success before, in 1969, the lightweight two-strokes began to dominate, so much so that, after 1970, despite an update into P11A form, and the only year it was officially called the Ranger, production was cancelled. Know this: Norton fan Clint Eastwood used a P11 while in England in 1968 to film Where Eagles Dare.