HUSQVARNA'S BOLD RETURN TO STREET
Word by Ben Giese
The turn of the 20th century marked the beginning of an exciting new era.
The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s had kicked humanity’s flair for innovation into overdrive, and the world around us was transforming quicker than ever. The formative years of the early 1900s were packed with groundbreaking discoveries like Einstein’s theory of relativity, the world’s first motion pictures, and the Wright Brothers’ first flight. In the factories, Henry Ford’s Model T would make way for the first production assembly line, revolutionizing industry across the globe and finally making the automobile an affordable commodity. It was a transformative time in history, as new and accessible transportation had given fresh life to the idea of Manifest Destiny. With railway systems connecting cities across the globe, electric trams, and bicycles, people were moving faster than ever. By 1903, with the pioneering spirit the brand has become synonymous with¬, Swedish bicycle company Husqvarna would join the movement, unveiling their first “motorized bicycle” and marking the beginning of a legendary journey as a motorcycle manufacturer.
Throughout the following decades, the motorized bicycle would evolve into a range of motorcycles that were sold for transportation and for military use. Husqvarna’s major breakthrough finally came in 1929, when civil engineer and motorcycle racer Folke Mannerstedt joined the team. Mannerstedt was a pioneer, a visionary with one goal in mind: to develop a four-stroke motorcycle engine suitable for racing. Up until this point, Husqvarna had been using a dated English-style single-cylinder engine. Mannerstedt’s vision was to create a V-twin engine with displacements ranging between 350cc and 1000cc to race in all categories, from the International Six Days Enduro to the infamous Isle of Man TT and everything in between. Mannerstedt’s plan was to further develop the Husqvarna motorcycles through racing and ultimately sell more consumer road bikes. By 1930, he would lead a newly formed race team to the famous TT races in Saxtorp, Sweden, where the Swedish riders would walk away with a respectable third-place finish and Husqvarna’s racing heritage was born.
By 1931, Mannerstedt had been further improving and developing the factory machines, and the team went on to collect more than 180 victories that year. The factory road-race team was led by veteran Gunnar Kalén, a superstar personality with a successful past in motorcycle racing. Kalén’s teammate was a young gun by the name of Ragnar Sunnqvist. Sunnqvist’s career in racing began at the age of 16, when he stole his parents’ checkbook and bought his first motorcycle. His wild riding style gave him a daredevil persona, and his “win or bust” approach often left him either standing at the top of the podium or getting carried off the track. From 1932 to 1934, the Husqvarna riders established themselves as the world’s greatest race team, and the brand’s international clout followed suit as the Swedish riders continued to dominate over the legendary British teams on the European circuit. The superstar duo of Kalén and Sunnqvist seemed to be unstoppable.
But the trouble with reaching the tip-top is that there is nowhere to go but down. Murphy’s law came into play on a disastrous day at the 1934 German Grand Prix, a day that will live in infamy forever for Husqvarna. The unfortunate events began in practice, when Sunnqvist hit a patch of oil on the tarmac, slamming him to the ground and earning him a trip to the hospital. The doctor insisted that he withdraw from the race, but of course that simply wasn’t an option for the die-hard Sunnqvist. The race started as Sunnqvist took the early lead with teammate Kalén close in tow. Veteran Kalén would soon work his way around Sunnqvist, but shortly after taking the lead, he made an uncharacteristic mistake that caused him to go down in a devastating crash. Kalén’s injuries were catastrophic, and he passed away in the wreck. The incident made conditions extremely difficult for Sunnqvist to carry on, but he charged onward, racing in honor of his fallen teammate—only to have his motorcycle die 150 meters before the finish line. In a race where only four out of 30 riders finished, Sunnqvist pushed his broken motorcycle down the final stretch. Overcome with exhaustion, he passed out just moments after crossing the finish line. Following the tragic events in Germany, the board of directors at Husqvarna decided to pull the plug on the factory road-race program. Mannerstedt eventually left the factory, marking the end of an era.
The dominance of Mannerstedt’s road-race team was reminiscent of the fighting spirit the Husqvarna brand was founded on more than 200 years prior as a weapons manufacturer. Following the events of 1934, motorcycle sales plummeted in the midst of the Great Depression, and the subsequent outbreak of World War II saw consumer sales of motorcycles drop even further. But it’s that fighting spirit that pushed Husqvarna through the trying decade, and the brand was once again revived by a spark of pioneering innovation. Following the war, Husqvarna hit another turning point with the release of the iconic “Silverpilen”: a small, lightweight machine that would help trigger the sport of off-road racing. “Scrambles” became popular across Europe and England, a cultural revolution that eventually arrived in America with the sport of motocross.
The 1960s and 1970s were the golden era of motocross, an exciting time for Husqvarna that was highlighted by Mannerstedt’s triumphant return. The racing heritage that was founded in 1929 with the road-race team would see the next chapter unfold as Mannerstedt developed an all-new 500cc four-stroke engine. This new design was the beginning of the brand’s most successful motocross era and led to many prosperous decades as a leader and pioneer in off-road racing.
Throughout the following years, the brand’s street heritage would be overshadowed by enormous success in the off-road market, but after 113 years of development, the future vision is clear. That pioneering spirit instilled by Mannerstedt and his elite road-race team is coming back with a vengeance as new boundaries are broken and the next chapter unfolds with a bold return to street. The next generation of Husqvarna motorcycles is a resounding success, with minimal and progressive engineering designed for a more honest and thrilling riding experience. After witnessing prototypes of the 401 Vitpilen and Svartpilen models, and watching the award-winning Vitpilen 701 come to life in front of us, it’s clear: Perfection is not about more or less, but about precisely enough.