Gunnar Lindstrom: A Man of Many Tools
Words by Mark Blackwell | Portraits by Sebas Romero
If there were an entry in the dictionary for a Swedish version of the famous red knife, a photo of Gunnar Lindstrom would perhaps be more suitable than one of the tool itself: Both are of the highest quality, multifaceted, at home in any setting, resilient and iconic. His achievements are truly remarkable and should be an inspiration to young motorcycle enthusiasts all over the world.
The Early Years
When Gunnar Lindstrom reflects on his early days growing up on his family’s dairy farm in Southern Sweden, he realizes how fortunate he was. Life seemed simple in those days, yet in retrospect, he can see how rich those early experiences were and how they presented many pathways to the chapters of his life.
Gunnar Lindstrom was born in July, 1943, in Eksjö, a small town of around 10,000 people, with farms sprinkled across the mostly flat land between dense forests and myriad small lakes. Gunnar’s father, also named Gunnar, was a rather special individual, even though it wasn’t apparent to the young boy at the time. The Lindstrom patriarch was a leader in the local farm co-op and often hosted other farmers and faculty from nearby agriculture schools during field trips to showcase the Lindstrom Farm. The farm was considered cutting edge in its methods and productivity. In his spare time, the elder Gunnar learned to throw the javelin and went on to represent the Swedish team in two Olympics, holding the world record for a period. He was also an accomplished equestrian competitor, but was tragically killed as a result of a jumping accident when young Gunnar was just 7 years old.
“This was the start of a confusing time for me and the entire family, since I was so young,” Gunnar says. “But as I think back, it probably made me a stronger person.”
As the eldest of three boys, Gunnar naturally was expected to help out with farm chores before and after school. In the summer, work days were long, but also filled with chances to drive the tractor and operate other farm equipment. Even at a very early age, Gunnar found himself fascinated by the farm’s machinery, and yet he will never forget the day he first spotted his neighbor powering up their shared dirt road on a motorcycle.
“This shiny new 350cc Royal Enfield came flying by, and had a sound I had never heard before,” he says. “Then it had this small rooster tail shooting off the back wheel as my neighbor powered by. I knew right then and there, this was something I had to experience.”
A Time to Race
Fortunately for Gunnar, after buying his first motorcycle – a literal basket case – he looked up the owner of a local motorcycle repair shop, Bengt Kling. In time, Kling took Gunnar under his wing, acting as a personal mentor and teaching him about mechanics, problem-solving and making economical repairs. At 15, Gunnar, with the help of Kling, started building a modest race bike; he was already focused on his 16th birthday, the age required to participate in local races.
Of course, his mother, Inga Lindstrom, was concerned about her young son’s safety and his determination to begin racing, so she visited with the chairman of the local motorcycle club, SMK Eksjö, who also happened to be Bengt Kling. He provided reassuring advice about the benefit of closed-course, well-supervised racing. Shortly after, with his mother’s reluctant blessing, Gunnar entered his first event, an observed trials. While trials was not his aspiration, it was a start, and Gunnar was finally able to boldly paint a number on his first number plate and tell his schoolmates that he was now “racing motorcycles.”
Military service was mandatory in Sweden at the time, and Gunnar served his required period of roughly one year. Fortunately, he was assigned to the nearest army base, which was actually in the town of Eksjö, so Gunnar remained close to home and also had the comfort and support of being known by many of the officers, some of whom looked out for the teenager. It was a good experience for Gunnar, who spent much of his time riding, maintaining and repairing the Swedish military motorcycles, at the time Czechoslovakian-made Jawas.
But it also made Gunnar realize he didn’t like being put into a “small box.” Gunnar was an individual, and he had his own aspirations that didn’t fit the mold the military might have wished. This is a moment that probably forged his determination to go his own way. The death of his mother and younger brother in a tragic car accident around the same time may have further tempered his Swedish determination.
“This was a difficult time for me,” Gunnar explains. “I was alone with my brother and without any real direction in life. The expectation from family and neighbors was for me to continue as a farmer, so I duly entered an agricultural college and spent an entire year there.”
Motorcycle culture was already rich in Sweden, with a long history of legendary riders – including Bill Nilsson and Rolf Tibblin, who dominated races on their large, powerful four-stroke motorcycles across Sweden and also down in Continental Europe. But with World War II ending and economic growth returning to Northern Europe, small motorcycles were becoming increasingly popular – even in rural Sweden – and the motorcycle culture was changing. Not far away from Eksjö, also in Jönköping County, the Husqvarna Factory, founded in 1689 by the King of Sweden, was producing a small, lightweight motorcycle. The Silverpilen was being used for transportation and, increasingly, for sport riding and competition. These small motorcycles were much more affordable than their large, four-stroke predecessors and could be ridden by a significantly wider range of enthusiasts, helping to expand the sales and sport of motorcycling.
With increasing confidence gained from some early racing successes and the encouragement of his mentor Bengt Kling, Gunnar came into contact with some of the leadership team of the nearby Husqvarna Factory. While there were dozens, if not hundreds, of young riders vying for the attention of the factory bosses, Gunnar’s riding and mechanical skills, his determination, and his tenacity seemed to combine to get Gunnar in front of key leaders on a regular basis.
“But I soon realized that, while there were plenty of riders in Sweden that aspired for a ‘factory ride,’ chief engineer Ruben Helmin let it be known that they were actively looking for engineers who also understood motorcycles,” Gunnar says. “I quickly abandoned ag school and applied at a technical college in a nearby town. It was already late summer, but I was lucky and got in thanks to a last-minute cancellation.”
When he did, it seemed to further raise those leaders’ interest in the young Lindstrom.
This was a special period in the development of the Husqvarna Motorcycle brand and the sport of motocross in Europe. Fellow Swedes like Tibblin and Torsten Hallman were regularly returning from their conquests on the continent with Grand Prix trophies, wreaths and prize money, and vivid stories about their plunders. The stature of these modern-day Vikings soared as their legendsspread, as did the desirability of their factory Husqvarna mounts. But in reality, these bikes were hand-built one-offs, and the most a rider – even one with Gunnar’s connections and growing credibility – could hope to obtain was the occasional hand-me-down cylinder or some other remnant part.
Gunnar continued his studies while spending many weekends traveling down to the heart of Europe to race, often driving all night after school to get to events and returning home again on Sunday evening. “Once I graduated with my engineering degree, I rushed over to the factory expecting to be welcomed with open arms,” Gunnar recalls. “But contrary to my expectations, the welcome was rather cool in typical Swedish tradition, and after some discussion and introductions I was offered a job on a contract basis as a test rider of the Husqvarna military motorcycle [MC 256 A] that was just being prepared to go into production.” He adds,
“In the winter/spring of 1966, I would put on all the cold-weather riding gear, including sealskin gloves and with outrigger skis attached, ride the 100km to Rolf Tibblin’s house, have lunch, maybe a short stretch or workout and then ride back to the factory in the afternoon.”
This was a very expansive time at Husqvarna, so it did not take long until Gunnar was hired full-time and became involved in development of another project, the new Husqvarna front fork.
Around this time, the larger export markets for Husqvarna Motorcycles were beginning to heat up. While Torsten Hallman was first to race and introduce motocross to North America, Gunnar had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand, and later followed Hallman as one of the first Swedes to race in the U.S. Gunnar was asked by the factory to stay, race, set up dealers, provide technical training and act as an ambassador for the Husqvarna Motorcycle brand.
It was clear to some of us Americans at the time that, like Hallman, Gunnar Lindstrom was a highly intelligent and talented person with many skill sets – far more than just a motorcycle racer. In his second language, he could easily command the attention of the aspiring young riders, fans, dealer prospects and the press.
He could not only prepare his Husqvarna to race and make repairs as needed, he could weld, make prototype parts – even in a small machine shop – and provide valuable product development feedback to the engineers back in Sweden. He could then hop in the Husqvarna van, drive hundreds or even thousands of miles to a new market area, lay out a track, put on a motocross school, set up a new Husqvarna dealer and train the dealer and his staff.
Between these activities, Gunnar often found time to provide market-development advice to the Husqvarna management team back in Sweden, and also council the local Husqvarna leaders in the U.S. and Canada, highly valuable contributions for a rapidly developing motorcycle brand in the largest and fastest-growing market on the planet.
Gunnar also met and developed important relationships with Husqvarna dealers and industry icons like Malcolm Smith. “I had met Gunnar at the factory and was impressed with his thinking on many things we discussed – he was clearly a very special and clever individual,” Smith recalls.
“I had won a gold medal at the [International Six Days Enduro] in Poland, and the factory rewarded me by gifting that bike and shipping it to my shop in Riverside,” he adds. “Gunnar needed a bike for an upcoming race at Saddleback, and he rode my Six Days bike, lights, license plate and all, and finished on the podium. Gunnar stayed at our home during that time, and I continued to be impressed with his thinking.” That relationship would prove valuable years later.
During the following years, Gunnar spent the majority of his time in the U.S., traveling while living in a motorhome much of the time. But he also went back to Sweden several times per year to maintain relationships at the factory and stay in contact with his family in Eksjö.
Gunnar later served as Husqvarna Race Team Manager in the U.S. During this period, he began finding it difficult to convince the Husqvarna Motorcycles leaders back in Sweden what was really needed to compete with the increasingly dominant Japanese manufacturers. This frustration ultimately served as one of the catalysts to his decision to leave the employment of Husqvarna Motorcycles – somewhat of a shock to the company and the many young riders who looked up to Gunnar, as well as the Husqvarna dealers and the motorcycle press. But while Gunnar was leaving employment with Husqvarna, his heart and soul would remain connected, and his passion for the marque would resurface years later...