When Bultaco Should Have Won The Mexican 1000
I have taken to collecting old motorcycle magazines. It has really awakened a sense of history for me. I have always had an interest in motorcycling history and what I find in the magazines continues to fascinate me. If you haven’t noticed, I have a fairly broad knowledge of motorcycles. So often what I find in the magazines helps me expand on topics that I already have some knowledge of. But just as often I stumble on to something completely new.
So imagine my surprise to open the March 1970 issue of Popular Cycling and realize I was looking at a slice of the past that I was unfamiliar with. More so, it was about Baja and Bultacos! Two subjects close to my heart.
This era of history was filled with amazing adventures and mechanical advances. Nearly every aspect of motorcycling was in the midst of a revolution. Today It seems hard for us to grasp the idea that there was a time when purpose built race bikes didn’t exist.
But it was not until the mid 60’s that real dirt bikes appeared. Prior to that, a scrambles bike was what you rode. A dirt bike was a stripped down, high pipe version of a street bike. By the middle of the decade manufacturers like Husky, Bultaco, Greeves and Montessa started to bring us true dirt bikes.
What we are here to talk about today is the 1969 Mexican 1000 and the Bultaco that should have won. So let’s start by talking about some of the players.
1969 was the 3rd edition of the NORRA Mexican 1000. Later it would become known as the Baja 1000. I grew up far away from Baja. Like many, my only knowledge of early Baja racing came from Bruce Brown’s “On Any Sunday”. I am a huge fan of Bruce’s work. But as I have talked about before, he was more story teller than a journalist.
Watching the movie one would conclude that motorcycle racing in Baja revolved solely around Malcolm Smith. As the winner of the very first event, Malcolm, JN Roberts and Husky’s place in history are cemented. But the story line overlooks the true depth of talent in those first years of Baja racing. There were many talented desert racers, of which Malcolm was one.
The team of Larry Bergquist and Gary Preston could arguably be considered the top team from the period. With a sizable lead in the inaugural 1967 race, Larry’s Honda lost battery power crossing Laguna Chapala. He passed word to Malcolm when he came by and was to give the team orders to fly a replacement back from El Arco. But the replacement never arrived and Larry spent a long night in the desert having to fend off a group of drunken locals.
But the following year Bergquist and Preston would not be denied. They brought their Bill Bell prepared Long Beach Honda across the line in La Paz 8 hours faster than the 1967 winning time. For 1969 Bergquist and Preston moved to a Fergus & Griffin sponsored Bultaco 360 El Bandido.
Bultaco, along with the other manufacturers mentioned, are synonymous with the birth of the true dirt bike. The development of two stroke technology brought a powerful and more reliable bike to challenge the desert sleds, the heavier four stroke scramblers.
One of the big advances was in expansion chamber technology. Learning to design exhausts with backpressure led to bikes with better power characteristics and fuel economy. Suzuki took the forefront in advancing the development of technology leaked from East Germany. Bultaco brought it to production models.
Did you ever wonder why low pipes were so common on old motocrossers? At the time it was the only practical way to route the bulging expansion chambers. The fins of big air cooled motors didn’t leave room for high pipes as we know them today. For bikes like Husky who utilized high pipes, testers from the time regularly complained about having to ride bow legged or risk burns from the pipe.
The 360 El Bandido was Bultaco’s first open class bike. It was completely unique. The motor was borrowed from the TSS road racer. The frame was a one off design to accommodate the center port exhaust. The short stroke (85×64) engine made plenty of power, but only in a narrow rpm range.
The Bandido was notoriously bad handing. It was overweight compared to a similar 250 Pursang. The frame geometry didn’t work well. Later models would see some of these issues addressed, but the reputation never improved. Interestingly, the El Bandido is probably the most sought after and valuable Bultaco in the vintage world today. I guess time really does erase all wounds.
But as Bultaco’s new open class model, it was the choice for the team to take to Baja in 1969. Recently, 89 year old Team owner Neil Fergus was kind enough to send us some commentary via his son Doug. “The El Bandido engine was plenty fast and powerful & it was left completely stock for reliability. The El Bandido did not handle well in rough terrain. It definitely was not just a bigger Pursang. It had many flawed characteristics and we never were able to make it handle as well as a Pursang. (that would have required building a whole new frame) but one fairly simple modification that improved handling a lot was moving the foot pegs forward. They were too far back from the factory. The stock Betor forks and shocks were great units that were completely adjustable and rebuildable. The internal valving was adjusted to suit the riding abilities of Bergquist and Preston.”
Desert racer and shop owner Neil Fergus’ story is interesting on its own. Neil opened one of the first Honda dealerships in the country in Pasadena. A former military and City of Pasadena motor officer, he was already a serious desert racer and turned his attention to developing the Honda CL72.
Much like the European two strokes, the Honda 250 twin was leading a revolution of its own. The lightweight Japanese Hondas would prove to be competitive against the long established British twins in many arenas, especially the deserts of Southern California.
It is staggering to comprehend how big AMA District 37 racing was at the time. Weekly races would bring out 500 riders. Big races could push upwards of a 1000 entries. In 1964 Fegus would take the CL72 to the District 250cc championship and overall high point title (the first to do so on a 250). This was likely the very first Honda championship in recognized off road competition.
In 1965 Neil became a Bultaco dealer and bolts his number one plate on a 250 Bultaco Mettise. 1968 starts the relationship with Larry Bergquist as a sponsored rider with Neil preparing the bikes. The two go on to win numerous races and the AMA District 37 250cc title.
All the while Neil is developing his R&D skills. Bultaco incorporates his changes to the El Bandido for second generation MKII model. He goes on to work on some other famous projects. He works with Yamaha as test rider for the DT-1. Ducati sends him to Italy to help design the RT450. While there he also gets a chance to ride the soon to be released Ducati GT750. During the 70’s he works on developing many of the Yamaha GYTR accessories.
Coming Next – Bergquist and the 1969 Mexican 1000 race