This time I am going to take you back to a place that began the journey on two wheels for many of us. A time when some small but mighty motorcycles turned the industry upside down.
It was the mid 70’s, small capacity 2 strokes had taken the Motocross world by storm. They made the small four stroke machines of the time redundant. So much so that a new classification system was born, and in 1976 we got the first 125cc MXGP championship.
I will discuss some bikes from this early era at the end, but many bikes were in production for long periods, span a whole era, and their influence still lives on today.
Some of the bikes are well known and as usual I will deal with these first. Then I will gradually work through to the rarer bikes and more unusual choices.
Because it is a long list it may be that I come back to certain bikes on the list in future to do a deeper dive, but this will give you an idea of the many fantastic motorcycles built during this era.
Its a big list today, so I’m going to dive straight in, but please try to remember to like the video and subscribe to the channel if you enjoy it.
Of the big four Japanese manufacturers, first to market was the Honda CR125 Elsinore, released at the end of 1973.. Then in 1974 we got the Yamaha YZ125, and Kawasaki KX125. It was Suzuki who were last to market. But the new Suzuki RM125 would be the motorcycle that went on to dominate the World MXGP 125 Championship for the next ten years.
To be clear, the full factory works bikes were often given different model numbers. These are the production versions available to everyone. Some of the Factory race bikes were very different.
All of the bikes had many updates and changes including the change from twin shock to monoshock and from air to water cooling. Each had advantages at different times, but they were all brilliant, specialised bikes that were fantastic in the dirt.
In the States, Honda and Yamaha dominated the first years of the 125cc AMA Championship. Honda took the title in 1974 and 1975 with the CR 125, then Yamaha took over, taking the top spot from 1976 to 1979 before Suzuki rose to the top step of the podium.
Honda CR 125
The Honda CR 125 Elsinore was a revolution when it first arrived and produced over 20HP but weighed just 90Kg or around 200 lbs. Power spread was fairly consistent rising from 8HP at 6,000rpm to the maximum at 11,000rpm. The torque curve reached and held an 11Nm maximum from 6,000rpm right up to 11,000rpm and it is this consistent high midrange that was the reason so many people loved the Elsinore. It made it easy to ride fast and helped it win many races.
Later models kept the CR model name, but the Elsinore addition was dropped. It underwent many changes but was never far from the top spot.
Yamaha YZ 125
The Yamaha YZ 125 didn’t have all the trick parts of its bigger brothers and was chasing hard but always seemed in the rooster tails of the Elsinore. That was until 1975 with the introduction of the new Mono-shock rear suspension system.
This marked Yamaha’s dominance in the AMA. Performance matched the Honda but the improved handling made the difference. The Yamaha was easier to ride and a great value bike, so it always sold well. Out of all of these 4 bikes it is the YZ 125 that stayed in production longest. However, in Europe it took until 1987 for Yamaha to take the Championship.
Suzuki RM 125
Next, following in the footsteps of the immortal TM range, the all new Suzuki RM 125 arrived. When first released in 1975, it became the dominating force in Europe. Suzuki won every 125cc Championship for 11 years, from the first in 1975 right up until 1985.
Initially, claimed power was just 18HP, but that quickly rose to over 23HPand eventually to almost 30HP. On dyno runs even early models consistently topped 20HP at the back wheel and they were easy to tune.
The power curve on the early bikes was unbelievable with a stronger bottom end torque than most the competition. Power would climb from 6HP at 6500rpm to the maximum just 3000rpm later at 9500rpm. It held that power up to an astonishing 11,000rpm too with no sign of the power fading.
That 2,000rpm spread of maximum power at the top end made this bike perfect for competition. It loved being held on the redline. It handled much better than the earlier TM range too. The chassis on this bike was solid. Suspension was taken care of by the best Kayaba units of the day and overall the RM 125 was just a really well balanced bike.
Kawasaki KX 125
Now Kawasaki built a fantastic motorcycle with the KX 125. It had a stronger low end pick up than the others here, but unusually for Kawasaki, it just lacked a little at the top end. As a motorcycle for the average Joe that made it perfect, it just didn’t have that little extra to make it in competition against the rest.
In Europe it would take Kawasaki until 1996 to win the championship, although they did get a win in the states in 1984. How much this was down to the bikes and how much to the riders is a question that may never be answered.
I can’t go into all the model changes on these four bikes here as it would make it a feature length video, but there were many. Over the years they all became the bike to beat at different points. Each year would take the battle another step forward, and they were the bikes to beat in both America and Europe.
Outside of the competition bikes the big four made some other fantastic 125cc dirt bikes.
Suzuki TS 125
Suzuki first made the TS125 as the Hustler in 1971. then it put out 14HP and weighed just 90Kg dry. By the mid 80’s it had been pushed up to 22HP and still only weighed 100Kg. It was a simpler, cheaper version of the RM and even came in an R model variant from 1989. It was made in one form or another from 1971 to 1997. That is an incredible 26 years of production,which gives you an idea how popular this bike was.
Yamaha DT 125
I couldn’t do a list like this without mentioning the Yamaha DT125. First released in 1972 it produced over 17HP giving it considerably more poke than the early TS125. It weighed a little more at around 115Kg dry, but that gave it a more solid feel than the Suzuki. The DT125 gained a reputation as one of the more unbreakable dirt bikes of the day and are now a collectible classic.
Yamaha TDR 125
Later, the TDR125 took over, with an engine derived from the the TZR and styling that made it look like a slimmed down TDM850. The TDR was another truly great motorcycle. It arrived from the factory restricted for Learner use in many countries, but it was still a fantastic, fun bike to ride.
Honda MTX 125
One of Honda’s small bore heroes was the MTX 125. This was one of the first bikes built in the new European production facilities in Spain, Belgium and Sweden. announced at the end of 1982 and officially released in 1983, It had the power of the DT 125 but was as light as the Suzuki Hustler.
It suffered, as did the others, because changes in the new learner licence laws meant that many had a power cap. The standard models were sold in a restricted form, but with the MTX there was a full power 18HP version.
Now, the full power version and its bigger brother are starting to become quite serious collectors items in the UK. They were more sophisticated than the DT and TS 125’s and the build quality was pretty much unmatched in the small capacity bike sector.
Next I am going to look at the KTM’s. In the early years all the dates have got very mixed up, and if you look online you will find a lot of contradictions. I have seen 1981 listed as the first year of manufacture for the KTM GS 125, but you will find many earlier examples. I remember it was in the early 70s that they started to build a reputation that it might not have wanted.
KTM GS 125
Although the performance of the KTM GS 125 was great, reliability wasn’t. They led many races, but wins at the highest level were rare. Early models used the popular Sachs 125cc engine but by 1979 KTM had developed their own engine. However, they still had the same reliability problems.
They had made more of an impression with their larger capacity machines, but the GS 125 had barely any wins to its name.
Even in the early 70’s, the Sachs engine was producing about 24HP, which was about 20% more than the competition of its day. By 1984, with the introduction of KTM’s own new water cooled engine, the power was pushed up to around 30HP. It just couldn’t convert that power into titles.
That changed in 1989. The KTM works team had been announced for the 1989 season, but after a freak result at the end of 1988, and despite previously poor performances, Trampas Parker was given the 1988 bike to compete on in 1989.
At the first MXGP of the year he took a double win. Then went on to finish on the podium in 11 out of 12 GP’s staged that year with 6 wins. He didn’t just take the title, he ran away with it.
For the next ten years KTM struggled on, but reliability was their constant downfall. They would often win by a country mile, only to see all the points lead get eaten up as they sat watching from the sidelines after more breakdowns.
KTM EXC 125
Dates and details are even vaguer here, but I believe it was 1997 that saw the release of the first KTM EXC 125. This was an Enduro bike that had a softer tune to make it more reliable with an additional learner legal restriction as standard. It was great off road, and easy to tune.
It made the best of the restricted output that became necessary for European learners, but KTM made it easy to open those restrictions up when you had passed your test. The EXC 125 finally began to shake off the reputation for unreliability that KTM had been tarred by.
KTM SX 125
Then, in 1998 the KTM SX 125 Motocross bike was launched. The twin reed valve engine was a more tuned version of the motor used on the EXC 125. It finally became the bike to beat. In MXGP it won and often locked out the podium for the next 7 years, and in a much updated and revised form still lives on today where out of the factory it produces almost 40HP dependent on market.
The KTM never dominated so much in the States, with Grant Langston the only man who took it to the title in 2003. Maybe that is one of the reasons sales in the USA were never as high as in Europe.
Despite its lack of success in the States, it is one of the motorcycles that undoubtedly helped make KTM as a company.
Taking a step back in time to 1977, we have the Husqvarna CR125.
The Husqvarna name is a hallowed one in the Motocross world. Long before Cagiva and the move to Italy, before the sale to BMW or the KTM buyout, they had made brutally strong dirt bikes that were at the cutting edge of the industry. That is why they were rescued by Cagiva.
The Earliest Husqvarna CR 125 I have seen is 1972, but some dates aren’t easy to pin down in the MX world. It came as an addition to the already established 250cc and bigger bikes. It benefited from many of the lessons Husqvarna had learned, and used exactly the same chassis as its big brother. This did make it a little heavier, but the extra weight was less than 10Kg when compared to the Suzuki RM125 of the day. The reasoning was simple, In the words of the then CEO, “A 125cc motorcycle hits the bumps just as hard as any other motorcycle, so why would we use a poorer quality chassis?
Maximum power of the Husky was similar to the RM 125 at 20HP but torque was improved at above 12Nm. However, neither power or torque came in as low as it did on the Suzuki. The power took until 6,500rpm to hit 7HP, but by 8,500rpm it had almost reached its maximum. This ultra narrow power band meant that it took a special kind of rider to get the most out of the Husky. There was even an 8 speed gearbox made at one point, but this was ditched quite quickly.
The Husqvarna wasn’t a bike for beginners and would always have limited appeal outside of racing, but to the people who new how to ride them, they could compete at the highest level with a bike straight from the factory.
The Husqvarna leads us nicely onto the next bikes on today’s list.
The Cagiva name was a new one, but with the once mighty Aermacchi brand as the first acquisition of the new company and a designer like Massimo Tamburini involved, there were always going to be fireworks. The Cagiva brand was born in 1978, and the Castiglioni brothers always had an eye on the racing world.
Using the 2 stroke technology of the early Aermacchi racers they began to gain a reputation for producing excellent quality high performance motorcycles. By 1984 they were standing in second spot at the end of the Year in the MXGP 125 Championship, but it was in 1985 and 86 that they just seemed to brush the opposition aside.
Over the years their bikes underwent constant developments and they built at least five 125cc dirt bikes that need mentioning as well as one other uniquely different motorcycle you may never have heard of.
Cagiva 125 MX
The early works 125cc Motocross bike wasn’t even given a designation by the factory, but was called the Cagiva 125 MX by the press, Which got even more confusing when a bike called the 125MX was released later.
Cagiva 125 WMX, Cagiva RX 125 and Cagiva WRX 125
Then came the WMX 125 and that was followed by the RX 125 and WRX 125. These were red blooded Italian Motocross and Enduro bikes built to take on the world, and they did just that.
By 1987, the now established Cagiva 125 MX was set to challenge the Japanese in the road legal sector. It was marginally more expensive than the Japanese bikes, but that was just $100 difference at most, and it was the only one of the bikes that came fitted with WP front forks and Ohlins rear shock straight from the factory. By then, it had 2 World Championship titles to boast about so the marketing should have been easy.
The worst any of the journalists of the day had to say about it was that the seat was a little hard, and it was consistently described as the best handling of all the 125cc MX bikes of it’s day. Lack of dealerships and distrust of such a new brand were its biggest hurdles, and it just didn’t sell as well as it should have.
In 1990 they built a cheaper lower spec version called the K7, but again it just failed to make any great impression in the market.
Now there is one more Cagiva dirt bike you may not have heard about that I would like to mention.
This was a 125cc adventure or Rally bike built theoretically for 3 years, from 1988 to 91. It was called the Cagiva Tamanaco, and if anyone has a translation of that please let me know. The best I could find was that it meant versatility, enthusiasm, agility and unconventional methods, so I guess that fits Cagiva quite well.
The styling of the Tamanaco was taken straight from the Paris Dakar winning Cagiva Elefant, but there was a big difference. It was a lightweight bike fitted with a full blooded version of what had then become the iconic Mito 125cc engine.
It produced over 30HP and 20Nm of torque which meant that there really was very little else available anywhere quite like it. Fully fuelled it weighed almost 130Kg, which might sound a lot, but that weight included a full 15 litre fuel tank and it was a physically big and imposing bike.
Even with my contacts in the Cagiva community I can get no real idea of how many of these bikes were ever made, but they are far from common. The last one I saw for sale was over a year ago in the States. It wasn’t in the best condition, yet still sold for $6,800. I for one would love to get a ride on one of these bikes. They carry all the hallmarks of the Cagiva brand.
Now if you thought Cagiva’s family of 125cc dirt bikes was eclectic, you had maybe best sit down and prepare yourself.
Gilera had a long history of racing success, but four strokes and road racing were the heart of that history. In 1969, the company was bought out by the Piaggio group. Piaggio decided that a new range of smaller Gilera two-strokes would add a profitable new arm for the company.
Gilera Cross and Elmeca 125
In the 70’s the design of the dirt bikes was gradually improved and with the release of the Cross and Elmeca, they took the design of their air cooled engine as far as it could go.
By the early 80’s, although they hadn’t won the championship, they had proven themselves consistently competitive. In 1981 they took third in the 125cc Championship and in 1982 they took second and third, but Piaggio didn’t have the racing heritage of Gilera, and instead of seeing the opportunity, they saw the race teams as a money pit with no end in sight.
What Gilera did to try and balance the books, was make a whole host of road legal 125cc dirt bikes from the tech the race teams had developed.
Gilera E1 Competizione
1983 saw the release of the E1 Competizione which produced around 30HP and was effectively a full competition MX bike with lights. It didn’t have the striking looks of the earlier ER 125 Elmeca, but it was blindingly fast.
Gilera RX 125
Next in 1984 came the Gilera RX 125, The engine was retuned to make it a more reliable motor and although power was down to around 25HP, torque was way ahead of the competition at over 15Nm.
Gilera RTX 125
1985 saw the introduction of the Gilera RTX 125 which had improved handling over the earlier RX model. Then, in 1986 came the new ER 125. This bike was lighter and had more modern styling, but the changes in learner regulations meant that many were limited to just 11HP. However, there were some made that had a more creditable 20HP.
Gilera R1 S and Gilera XR 2
Then in 1990 came 2 more bikes, styled more for Rally. One was called the R1 S and the other the XR 2.. With the R1 S, Gilera went back to the original concept. The bike had the modern looks of the ER 125 but was much lighter at just 115Kg and the engine had been tuned for 30HP and over 20Nm of torque. The XR 2 was heavier, but had a full 22 litre tank for Rally use.
Max power was up at 10,000rpm, but the constant surge of torque made it usable as well as fast. Details are few and far between and my memory is hazy on this one, but it bears a remarkable resemblance to the Cagiva Tamanaco, and I wonder what the connection is. If anyone has any ideas I would love to hear them.
I know by this time the great designer Federico Martini had left Bimota and moved to Gilera, so this may well be the first project he was involved in, and he did spend a lot of time with Tamburini at Ducati and Bimota.
Now, next I have singled out what I think are 2 very special motorcycles, and I will talk about the oldest first.
Zundapp MC 125
In the late 1960’s there was an old company who created the new motorcycle to beat.
Before the advent of MXGP, Zundapp, an old German company, won the 125cc European Motocross Championship in both 1973 and 1974. The bike that took them to victory was the Zundapp MC 125. It used the same bottom end as their road bikes of the time, but the new head design was taken from the bike that had won the International Six Day trial.
It took five consecutive German Motocross titles from 1971 to 1976 and only lost the inaugural MXGP 125cc Championship because of an injury to rider Gilbert de Roover.
Producing over 20HP long before any other Motocross bikes came close, it was almost unstoppable, and it makes me wonder how far the design could have been taken given different circumstances.
As it is, along with so many other companies, Zundapp were declared insolvent in 1982. Their legacy is too often forgotten.
Bultaco Pursang 125
Next we have a motorcycle that came along a little later in 1974. The Bultaco Pursang 125 was universally hailed as the fastest and best handling 125 of its time by the motorcycle press. The success of the Metralla, which I talked about in the ton up 250’s video linked above, should have guaranteed the success of the Pursang, but this was an expensive motorcycle and it just didn’t sell like it’s bigger brother.
Claimed power was an astonishing 25HP at 12,000rpm although with the long stroke engine, this meant piston speed could reach over 79ft/second. I remember one magazine advising owners to buy pistons as a six pack so the inevitable replacement was always ready. Possibly some of the more useful advice to ever come from a magazine.
It might not have had the acclaim of the Metralla, but this was a fantastic motorcycle and it can still find its way around a track faster than many more modern bikes.
Thoughts From The Shed
Now before I go to a few honourable mentions, there are always some things that come up which surprise me when I research these videos and this one was no exception. I honestly underestimated the stranglehold Suzuki had on the 125 MXGP scene for so many years, and I never realised how good the early Zundapp was either.
The achievements of Cagiva should also never be underestimated, but you know by now I am a diehard Cagiva fanboy, so I’m sure that comment isn’t a surprise.
Gilera have to get full marks for trying year after year to break into the 125cc dirt bike market too. The European market was ridiculously competitive at the time. I wish Piaggio would have seen the potential that racing could bring to the company, but that, as they say, is a story for another day.
To finish as is often the case there are some Honourable mentions
Gilera B125 Bicilindrico
One Gilera that has to be singled out is the B125 Bicilindrico. This was a twin cylinder engined bike that had a similar tandem twin arrangement to the later KR250 Kawasaki I talked about in the Ton Up 250. Performance was utterly astonishing for a 125, but reliability was as poor as performance was great.
With constant financial pressures the project was dropped in favour of the more reliable singles, but what a motorcycle this may have become given a few more years of development.
CZ were also a major force in the early 70’s 125cc MXGP championships. They were one of few brands that could even get close to the Zundapp. However, their company focus moved more to making cheap transport. By the 1990’s the newly released type 519 water cooed 125 was universally criticized as being the worst dirt bike of its era.
So CZ went from the very top to the absolute bottom in that 20 year period and they would never recover. Instead of the lightweight bikes they had been famous for, all the lightweight alloy parts had been replaced by cheaper, heavier steel parts on the Type 519 and this made a huge difference overall. The bike was heavy with cheap poorly made suspension and an old fashioned carb that made it run like a sloth with a stutter. Hardly the bike to re-establish their reputation.
Maico too were another company making great dirt bikes in the 1970’s, although they were better known for their open class racers. The 125 was a bike described as having a superb, fine handling frame with possibly the most powerful 125cc engine of its day. It was a fantastic engine, but the gearbox was famous for giving up completely, and pricing meant that the 250 and even the 400, were only a little more expensive than the 125, so sales of the 125 were always low.
TGM and the Hiro Engine
TGM are another name you may not remember. In 1980, this small Italian company took their new hand made 125RC race bike to second place in the MXGP 125 class. They were the first to use the new Italian made Hiro engine that would go on to be used in the Aprilia 125MX, the Aspes Hopi and CRC race bikes. The TGM was a specialised and focussed bike that took advantage of one of the best engines and the best components Italy was making at the time.
Montesa Cappra VB125
I could go on forever here. The Montesa Cappra VB125 was built in anger, to challenge the Bultaco built by the people who had left the company. It was a fantastic bike.
Names to Watch Out For
The Aspes Hopi I mentioned above was a fantastic road legal version of their CRC race bikes which used the Hiro engine I talked about above. The Penton and Wassel Sachs 125 were two more astonishing motorcycles. The Wassel was a British built bike made in the early 70’s and known in the States as the Tyran Antelope. It used the German made Sachs two-stroke engine similar to the one used in the early KTM’s for power. The list is endless.
This was an era where the specialists were the kings of the industry and small companies built big reputations. I think it is sad that so many of these companies were lost over the years, and I hope in time people will once again realise the advantages of allowing creative engineers to realise their dreams and create motorcycles that will bring in a whole new chapter all of their own.
On that note, I will leave you with your memories and hopefully some surprises.