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The Suzuki Motocross Story 1968-71

The Olle Pettersson Chapter

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In Sweden, the first contact with Japanese interests was the visit of a rider in Hedemora 1965 with a Suzuki twin pipe. A 250cc machine in blue and silver livery. The machine and rider were hopelessly outclassed but the ever-helpful Swedes arranged to have an Akront rim and a set of Ceriani forks supplied at a local supplier's to improve the performance of the bike.
At that time, the Suzuki was a long way behind the all-conquering machinery currently available in Europe, and the factory needed to seek a European rider who could develop and test their machinery. The Swedish rider Olle Pettersson received a telex from Japan in January 1968 to gauge his interest in developing their bikes in the coming season. Olle was the perfect choice for them as he was the Swedish champion and had a reliable race record finishing in well over 90% of his starts. He was fast and reliable and knew how to set up a bike and get it working correctly.
But it almost never happened this way, and it was a strange quirk of fate that led to him being on the plane to Japan at all. Before receiving communication from the Suzuki bosses, Olle got a phone call from Bror Jauren of Husqvarna explaining he would visit him en route to a weekend with his parents, who lived in the next town from Olle. So, knowing that Husqvarna were placing all their riders under contracts for the following season, Olle was expecting to have his pen ready and to sign up for the Swedish brand. However, Bror had forgotten to bring the contract with him, so there was only a conversation of how Olle envisaged the agreement, given his past record as a rider and the type of bikes and equipment he could have. It was therefore dicussed but no pen was set to paper.

Within days, the call from Suzuki arrived! There were interesting decisions for Olle to make now; he could remain with the Swedish brand and have a good crack at the world title, which he knew was within his grasp; or he could accept the Suzuki proposal, which was a little different in that they clearly stated they were looking for a development rider to perform tests and research. At the time, there was a lot of speculation in the press that Suzuki were attempting to sign current world champions such as Robert etc., but the factory informed Olle that, although they thought they had a race-ready bike, they were not prepared to risk the pressure on themselves to jump in at the deep end with such a strategy. Suzuki needed a person to make sure the product was totally ready before committing the project in a bigger way, and would need his services for as long as it would take.

So, four days later after his telex, he was winging to Hammamatsu in Japan to start the process of developing these bikes and to become a key figure in the meteoric rise of Suzuki RH motocross machines. Just imagine that within two seasons, he would have developed the RH into a bike ready to take a world motocross championship.

On arriving in Japan, Olle was very disappointed with the machine he went to test. The ergonomics were totally wrong for his riding style, and the engine had no low-end power at all. Remember that at that time, Suzuki road race bikes had power curves that required seven-speed (or more) gearboxes to keep them on the pipe, and this MX bike was in the same mould. In fact, there were two bikes to test, both with plenty of top-end power and not much elsewhere. The handling was also bad, the bike being too short among other things.
A meeting with the 20 or so technicians and staff members ensued, where Olle was asked what he thought. He told them that the bike had two good features - the gearbox and the clutch - everything else was a disaster! A long list of improvements was drawn up, and he was promised a new bike to be delivered to Sweden within one month.
Olle sent back measurements from his own European bike to give guidance on settings and angles.
As promised, the new bike arrived in Strängnäs, Sweden, along with mechanics and spares. This bike was better but still not ready for the coming season as a competitive mount. Time was running short and it became necessary to make the final improvements in Sweden. However, all changes had to have approval from Japan and created a lot of misunderstandings and time delays. Items such as the air cleaning system, seat position and footrest position needed urgent attention. The mechanics were ex-road-race people, and their loss of motocross experience proved another burden for him. So; as many changes were made as was practical at the time, and the bike became as good as he could get it before the beginning of the first race.
The Japanese wanted to make a list of changes and incorporate them in the next bike they would build, while Olle was more concerned to have the current one tested properly and alter the existing parts.

(A small diversion here: the difference in those early days was in philosophy perhaps-the Japanese were happy to list all the things wrong with a bike, then go away and make another bike, while the Western philosophy was to keep on developing what they had and to modify, alter and thoroughly test in the field. Both methods have their merits, of course, but I think that Olle wished to go along a familiar path. Also, the bike he originally tested in Japan and asked for improvements only had say 80% of them done so I got the feeling he was not sure if he waited for another bike that it would be what he asked for.)
So the 1968 season got under way with Suzuki's first ever foreign works rider, albeit not in the familiar yellow livery but the blue colours of the twin pipe he had originally seen in Sweden. Olle remembers his first race in which he, in the first heat, broke a footrest and a chain in the second. However, in Belgium, the bike was competitive and was running on the pace. In fact, his lap times revealed the chance of a top result. The Japanese pit crew however signalled him a slower time so he eased off a little - they wanted him to have the bike finish respectably and not crash out of the event. The 1968 season continued with a lot of knowledge and valuable track time being gained on the ultimate proving ground for MX bikes, the Grand Prix circuits. In Holland, Olle had a chance to win, but an incorrect pit signal cost him the race; he interpreted a first place signal as meaning one lap to go, the reality was two laps to go and he made his dash too early! The machine and Olle were really promising. However, soon disaster struck the RH project...

Back in Sweden, Olle competed in the Swedish championship and suffered a bad accident - he broke his leg and was out for the rest of the season. A week later, the '68 bike arrived with all the modifications learned from the previous riding and testing. The Japanese had a lot of faith in Olle, they did not abandon him as a developer and were happy to wait until he was OK again - such was their respect for his work. His contract was renewed for the next season.
The '68 Suzuki was not used until Olle got his leg right, and by then it was autumn in Sweden. He was able to do some testing late in the season and made a test report along with an 8mm movie depicting further improvements again. In the snow fields of his hometown area, and with a healing injury, he kept riding and working with the project so the eagerly awaited '69 bike would be a winner.
At last; with a new contract, the bike for the 1969 season was ready in Japan for Olle to fly down and test. More torque, or as the Swedes call it "vridmoment", came from the power unit. Changes also included a different engine position in the frame, new steering angle, lighter materials in the right places, choice of an alloy or steel swingarm, in all a racer! A number of cylinders were available but Olle always chose the ones that gave him the desired "vridmoment". Olle made a few more modifications while there, but nothing major, and he felt this was a worthy mount to contest the World Championship. The only problem was that because of his early exit from the previous season, he was not guaranteed a start in each round of the world championship and had to write to the organisers to get permission to compete! The 1969 season and the bike performed up to all expectations and Olle was rewarded with a third place in the championship, further refining the bike as he went along. The basic bike was now good, and improvements were to materials and weight saving and getting the fine details into place. Suzuki were very happy from Olle's work, and at the end of the season, they felt that it was time to go shopping for the big names. Mr Ishikawa, the project leader, informed Olle that he had secured the services of Geboers for 1970, and to be quite sure of a good result, he also contracted the man himself - a certain Joel Robert!
The 1970 RH Suzukis were not a lot different from the bike with which Olle had finished the 1969 season. He was confident that the job was done and it would be a formality to succeed in the new year. Of course, history has proved him to be correct, and Suzuki went on to take 1st, 2nd and 5th places in the championship that year. A fitting tribute to the work of Olle was that in two GPs that season, they had a 1-2-3 result, surely a satisfying feeling for the developer. The three bikes were identical, with only rider modifications being made to suit the style and physical size of each person. However, during the season, Olle had the start of another project to take care of, and along with Robert he did some testing on a 370cc model for the factory to make an assault on the 500cc class in 1971. The bike was to be designated the RN370, and the factory had their eye on another Belgian star to take care of the riding seat, Roger De Coster, who along with 250cc team mates ruled the tracks for Suzuki.
In this period, the bikes were made as light as possible and a machine was produced, but not raced seriously, that weighed only 70 kgs. Geboers could pick it up with one arm! It was like a leaf, commented Olle, but had no feel and was unpredictable, but at least they now knew the lower limit one could go before a bike became too light. On his own machine, depending on the circuit, Olle often used an alloy swingarm as he felt it made popping across ruts in the dry rutted tracks easier. Other times, the steel arm worked better. Olle remembers a time when the cheeky Goboers told a well-known journalist that his swingarm was alloy and he and Robert were just using steel. The writer was told that one could tell the difference because the two materials had totally different smells. The riders were rather amused to find the poor scribe in the paddock sniffing the swingarms of the works bikes!

The next year, the RH series was again improved, but again not so much, which is testament to the excellent work done to the '69 bike. With two world champions behind the bars, what happened with further refinements is well documented.
When it came to renewal of contracts for 1972, Olle felt that he needed a longer commitment than just one year at a time. Waiting in the wings, and armed with the knowledge that here was one of the world's best motocross works and development riders, and wanting to offer a long term deal, was the Kawasaki factory who were also eager to have the services of Olle and what his work would lead to. But that is another story - about a man who steered not one but two major Japanese motocross manufacturers to the front of the stage on the world's arenas.
If one name must be chosen as to who took the Japanese to world dominance in motocross, it must be Olle Pettersson who in those important years 1968 and 1969 gave us the RH bikes that rocked the boat and sent ripples around the globe; just the same as had been done in road racing pretty much at the same time!

[Author: Mikael Saksi 2000]