This is a story that involves idealistic engineers, corporate takeovers, industrial giants and betrayal, and the eventual death of a brand that was a shining light, so nothing new in the world of big industry I guess.
Husaberg is a name that means more to some than others. But I want to talk about their amazing achievements and the engineers who had a much bigger impact on the industry than they were ever given credit for.
To understand the story we have to go back to 1988, but even now a lot is still shrouded in mystery, partly down to a lack of knowledge and simple geography, but also, to a certain extent, it is a history hidden by corporate giants who would like you to stay in the dark.
The story starts in Sweden. Husqvarna had gained a reputation for their off road motorcycles, but they were in trouble financially. The solution came in the form of Cagiva and the Castiglioni brothers who do seem to pop up somewhere in many of my videos. Cagiva were focussed on racing, They were building a bike for the Paris Dakar, and saw the acquisition of Husqvarna as a part of the puzzle.
Cagiva had won the 125cc World Motocross Championship in ’85 and ’86 and come 2nd in the 250cc class in 1987, but they wanted to take on the premier class and the Husqvarna engines were an obvious choice.
What they didn’t take into account, was that not everyone wanted to move to Italy. Despite this, all the manufacturing was moved to Varese, but many of the engineers decided they did not want to leave Sweden.
This moment would lead to the birth of two companies eventually, but for now the complete engineering team led by Thomas Gustafson, left Husqvarna to set out on their own.
Focussed On Winning
Now, these weren’t business men. They were the core engineering staff. People with a passion for Motocross who wanted to win the World Championship. They set to work on creating the greatest off road motorcycle the world had ever seen.
They built a prototype and took it to the local races, where they were asked the brand of the bike. Looking at each other confused, they explained there was no company name, that the bike was a prototype. The organisers explained they needed a name for the entry form. Husaberg was the name of the village where they had built the motorcycle and so the Husaberg company was born. Not focussed on making money, focussed on winning races.
The motorcycles were physically big, but lightweight and were so good that they managed to win two Constructors titles with their FE350 and FE501 models just a few years after the birth of the company. For any company that would have been good, but for a tiny company with no financial backing it was unbelievable.
Funding for the new company didn’t actually exist and the first factory was really a wooden shed. They couldn’t afford to go out and spend money on established big-name Riders to race their bikes so they put their efforts into helping young, up and coming Riders and relied on the bikes performance to do the selling.
Doing this gave some Young Riders who later became icons, a way into the sport they would not have had otherwise.
Getting back to the bikes, the main objective of the Husaberg design was minimizing and centralising weight, and this was what they became known for. They built the lightest Big Bore four-strokes available at the time.
The first engines were derived from the Husqvarna TE 510 engine but it was improved a lot by Husaberg. A shorter stroke changed the the engines characteristics, making it rev out much better and reach higher revs. They were also pioneers in the use of Nikasil liners in the barrels to minimise frictional losses.
The frame had some unusual features too. Many years before anyone else tried to do it they incorporated the air box into the chassis.
The air box was built into an enlarged spine in the frame which lowered weight and increased rigidity, while allowing cold air to be ducted from the steering head area directly to the carbs very quickly, instead of the bike trying to scavenge air from the central area of the bike which was always hotter.
Large intake ducts formed a ram air system of sorts and this forced air into the air box, increasing the internal pressure. So the cold high pressure air feed gave the fuel the chance to make more power, especially at higher speeds.
All of the work was geared towards decreasing weight and increasing power.
You see whatever you might think of them, no one could ever say that the engineers at Husaberg weren’t fantastic. They were masters of their art and brought some real innovations to the world of Motocross with the bikes they built.
However, as with any new company there were many things that would hinder their success. As I said they weren’t business men or sales people and they had no idea about marketing. They needed to set up a dealer network too, because they knew the Motocross industry was a very parts heavy sector of the market. Without spares they knew that sales would always be limited.
Cash flow became an issue and internal arguments even caused a split, with some of the engineers going on to form the fabled Highland Motorcycles company which you can hear more about in the Maverick Motorcycles video linked above.
The core team struggled on, but with poor sales and a lack of dealerships the writing was on the wall. The bikes were renowned for being built to an amazing standard with unrivalled performance, but without a focussed marketing team taking their products to the world, success on the race track could not be converted into sales.
A Recognised Slogan
The only marketing idea they ever had was to come up with a company slogan. You might just recognise it. That slogan was “Ready to Race”. It was never a KTM slogan, it was Husaberg’s. It was the whole principle behind which the company had been born.
You see, KTM were not doing well, but they had been bought out by a big corporation called Pierer Mobility in 1992. You can read more about that story in the video linked above. Pierer Mobility were determined to revive the KTM brand and they knew they needed a big 4 stroke engine. The easy solution was just to buy Husaberg who were struggling financially but winning on the track. Then, KTM simply stole the slogan and slowly began to rip the heart out of the Husaberg brand.
Despite having their identity stolen, after the acquisition, the core team of engineers were allowed to continue to innovate and develop their products in Sweden. They had a clear focus on making the bigger engines they had even better and winning the blue ribbon 500cc title.
The World Titles
There were still no funds for big name pro riders so they continued to rely on rookies, but one of those inexperienced young riders would go on to become one of the most successful riders of all times, riding a Husaberg.
In 1995 Joel Smets won his first 500cc title and over the next few years he won 3 out of 5 titles, coming in 2nd and 3rd in the others. No small achievement for a young rider and a tiny company based in rural Sweden.
You can see some footage ive included and I will leave more at the end of the video.
Changes were happening though, the Austrians had bought Husaberg for a reason. The engines were used to power several KTM models and all the technology and innovations were made available to KTM as part of the deal. So little by little the Austrian company chipped away at the identity of the Swedish company, taking their best ideas and painting KTM as the innovators with little mention of the small Swedish company that were actually behind most of those innovations. Not KTM or Husqvarna, It was Husaberg who were the ones actually at the cutting edge of the sport and the industry.
By 2003 KTM decide that both production and Research and Development were to be moved to its Austrian Factory. The Motor sport division was kept in Sweden, but separating the core engineers and Race Team from the production process was never going to work for Husaberg.
A pattern was emerging. The Austrians had used the tech Husaberg provided to develop the RFS engines but gave the Swedish company no credit for all the work they had done. In many ways the Bergs were presented as rebadged KTM’s when in fact the exact opposite was more true.
Husaberg were the innovators, and if you wanted the highest level of technology you would buy a Berg. Not a KTM.
The Bergs were renowned for their handling and the balance of the machine was all based on the innovative 70 degree engine design. It helped to create a motorcycle with a more central mass, a bike that didn’t handle like anything else on the market. They had a whole new philosophy and developed a new way of building motorcycles in many ways.
Built With Passion
The bikes were built with passion and the engine was powerful, but the lightness made the 450 handle more like the 350cc bikes of other companies. The only reason we don’t see more of that 70 degree engine used today is that it was simply more expensive to build. In the end Husaberg was simply being used as a test-bed for what would later become KTM motorcycles.
This period ended with the production of the FE390. This was the very last of the 70 degree engine platforms that brought mass centralisation to the world of Motocross This engine would go on to provide many of the improvements needed to make the 390 KTM engine what it is today.
The Final Nail In The Coffin
Then came the final nail in the coffin. Husqvarna had been passed from Cagiva to BMW and eventually in 2013 were bought out by Pierer Mobility.
Resurrecting the Husqvarna brand meant the disgruntled engineers from when Husaberg first split from Husqvarna were sidelined again.
As the more recognised brand Husqvarna became the focus of Pierer Mobility. In reality, however both Husqvarna and Husaberg suffered, just in different ways. In 2014, on their 25th anniversary, the Husaberg brand was dissolved.
The already successful red top Husky engine was deconstructed and any tech that was seen as beneficial was again incorporated into the new KTM designs.
The benefits of the Husqvarna tech and the dissolving of the Husaberg name meant the Big Orange Machine had little in the form of competition except for the big four Japanese companies and they benefited from the years of top level research and development put into creating the best motocross bikes possible, done by both Husqvarna and Husaberg.
It’s rare that an engineering team like the men who began Husaberg can win at this game just by having a good product. And it’s sad how the team got sidelined time and time again. First when they were given the choice of leaving Husqvarna or moving to Italy. Then when they were forced to make the decision of moving to Austria or leaving the Husaberg company they had built from the ground up.
Their revolutionary 70 degree engine got shut down, and many of their ground breaking ideas stolen. They were smart and innovative, but they seemed to pick the short stick every time when it came to the business world.
So Husaberg join the long list of other companies like Bultaco, Maico, Ossa and Montessa who were lost to the industry despite the fantastic products that they made. Some might have been reborn but would never be the companies they once were.
Thoughts From The Shed
Now, Yamaha often get the credit for the birth of the use of four-strokes in motocross, but I am going to say that first Husqvarna and then Husaberg, built four strokes that were more than capable of beating the two strokes,e long before Yamaha ever did. For that, they should be both commended, and remembered.
Not for building four strokes to save the planet, they built four strokes that were simply better than any of the other bikes.
All we can do now is try to remember and celebrate the advances that Husaberg brought to the industry we all love, and possibly try to help and support anyone who has the chance to keep any of these fantastic bikes going for as long as possible.
Do you have any personal experiences about riding Husaberg motorcycles?
Are you lucky enough to have owned or still own one?
Let me know in the comments section.