The 1971 Bultaco Mk5 Lobito
If you follow along with my exploits on social media, you know that I have dived headlong into the world of vintage motorcycles. More specifically I seem to have gone Bultaco crazy. The vintage world is a labyrinth of nostalgia, histories and legends that draws most of us to it eventually . The colorful story of Bultaco is too long to get into here. But if you have even a passing knowledge of the Spanish marque, you know of the huge impact Sr Bulto had on the motorcycle industry. We have had lots of interesting travels with the Buls the last two years. I have logged well over 2,000 miles.
For me, it is the family lineage. In the late ‘60’s when my dad Gordon turned to racing, he went with Bultaco. He grew up in a Harley world. But as a natural dirt bike enthusiast, he was never drawn to the large street bikes. Rather he rode the now forgotten 125 and 175 dirt models Harley produced from the 40’s to the 60’s. These were prior to the Aermacchi / Harley association of the 1970’s that brought another round of dirt bikes bearing the famous American name.
Gordon’s first Bultaco was a 175 Campera. For the era it was a nice play bike, but not really anything of a racer. After finishing dead last in his first nine races at the local flat track, he found the tenth time a charm and garnered a 3rd place trophy. To celebrate he promptly went out and bought a proper race bike, the 1970 Bultaco 125 Sherpa S. This brought him two years of racing success on one of the most elegant race bikes ever constructed.
The motorcycle world was rapidly evolving in those days. Money and innovation led to a boom and things were improving on all fronts. It wasn’t long before Gordon decided that he really wanted to pursue more enduro and ISDT qualifier events. And that would require a slightly different motorcycle, something with lights, wide ratio transmission, better air filter set up etc. He also wanted to move up to the 175cc class, but no larger.
The problem was, the true enduro race bike as we think of it, was really just beginning to emerge at the time. In 1972 the choices were limited, particularly in the 175 class. Looking back, Husky and Penton would have been the two obvious brands to go with. But each had drawbacks. The Pentons, as east coast machines, didn’t really have great suspension. The Husky was almost the opposite, best at going fast in a straight line, but with geometry that wasn’t much for turning. Hardly a draw for someone already accustomed to the Bultaco’s agile handling characteristics.
I know what you are thinking. So what about the Japanese? Well they were still a good three years from arriving at the enduro party in any big way. It is hard to remember how important reliability was back then. Things we completely take for granted today. I was just looking at the results from the 1974 Bad Rock ISDT qualifier this morning. Just thirty five percent of the riders finished the event! In the Northwest it was common to make fun of the super-fast California riders who would show up at qualifiers. Desert racers didn’t give much thought to waterproofing and consequently few ever finished a PNW mudder.
The most successful enduro machines on the world scene at the time were the Jawas. Big, heavy and ungainly, they were an eyesore to look at. But they were incredibly reliable. The heavy hitter ISDT teams had years of development and knew the exact way to build and ride them to arrive at the finish.
As for Bultaco’s much the same could be said about the venerable Matador model. It was the company’s true enduro race machine, but had never really been on the cutting edge of technology, instead finding a home with the cow trailing crowd. In 1972 the Mk4 version was certainly looking a bit dated for competition use.
But we were talking Lobito
You are wondering just what the hell is a Lobito anyway? Good question and kind of a tricky one to answer. For anyone who grew up around So Cal, you surely saw or knew someone who had one of the late 60’s 100cc models. They were the terror of the Trail Bike class in the desert for a very short period. Technically called the “AK”, or kit America, the ¾ size Lobito was a great transition from mini to full size motorcycle.
Later versions, the Mk3 and Mk4, were more like full size trail bikes, similar to the Campera models. In fact, so similar that I still can’t puzzle what the difference was supposed to be. I have studied on this to some degree too.
But none of this is anything but background to get us to the later Mk5 Lobito (1971-1973). Here was a bike that was nearly all new. Or at least it was a collection of Bultaco parts that had not been assembled in the exact fashion before. On paper it looks pretty impressive for the time.
To start with, it is a hot rod motor. The bottom end features new narrow case design and the wide ratio transmission from the Matador. But the top end is lifted from the racier Sherpa S. It has a Femsa electronic ignition with lighting coil. The expansion chamber is a high pipe style with the famous chrome pickle silencer.
The striking yellow one piece body work achieves something near high art beauty. Polished aluminum fenders completed the look for a bike that must have appeared stunning in the showroom. No warrant was made as to how long those looks would last out on the trail.
So now you are saying, this looks familiar, isn’t that just a yellow Alpina model? No, other than the fiberglass, the two share nothing in common. But again, it is easy to see how distinguishing these models from each other could lead to confusion. All the features of the Alpina; motor, suspension, exhaust and geometry were derived from the Sherpa T trials model and strictly aimed toward casual trail exploration. Ignore the fact that Mike Hannon raced a bone stock magazine bike to 5th place in the 350 expert class at the Hopetown GP one year.
So with all this in mind, in 1972 Gordon purchased a 175 Lobito as his enduro race bike. No sooner had he bought it, he broke his ankle in a local flat track race. Another rider hit him and smashed his ankle against the motor. He lost a full race season to recovery and with little else to do it was natural to spend the time fiddling with the new bike.
As he was telling it to me the other day, in some 50 years of racing to date, this was the most modified bike he ever had. To start with, the swing arm was too short; it wouldn’t keep the front wheel on the ground. So he lengthened it 2”. The suspension was ok in stock form but could easily be modified to make it even better. Fork extenders were a standard mod for the Betors. The shocks needed heavier oil and more preload, accomplished using cut water pipe as spacers. Later he would buy a set of Curnutt shocks.
The big work came in the motor. Gordon hand carved an intake manifold from a block of aluminum to adapt the Yamaha reed valve. The cylinder got extensive porting. This included transfer ports carved into the face of the cylinder walls. Doing this also required moving the piston ring pin positions. Gordon says it was fast but he suspected that the mods would ultimately affect the reliability.
Gordon was able to spend part of the 1973 season on the 175 Lobito, including at least one qualifier. But had a fairly short life span in our garage. It had lost a year while Gordon was recuperating. By 1974 the Can-Am arrived and the poor Lobito was falling behind in technology. Bultaco had put some good parts together on this bike, but it was still mostly a parts bin bike. It wouldn’t be until 1975 with the introduction of the Frontera that Bultaco would have a really competitive enduro platform.
We later had a second 175 Lobito in the garage for a short while around 1977. It was one we purchased, cleaned up and resold. A few weeks after the sale I went to the buyer’s house to pick up the balance payment for the bike. I found his kids riding it on an improvised track in the backyard. To my dismay, they had used a brush to paint the entire bike black!
So where does the Mk5 Lobito stand in the world of Bultaco aficionados and collectors? As you might imagine it is one of the more rare models. Well, it is a model sort of lost. There are not more than a handful who remember the model or know as much as I have explained here. It stands high on the scale for rarity. There were only 330 of the 125cc version produced and 960 of the 175cc. This model was designed for the USA, but was also sold in Canada and Australia. With no real race pedigree and so few produced it lacks kind of sentimental value that drives vintage bike desirability.
Nevertheless it certainly has both for me. I also consider it one of the more handsome bikes of the time. And I am not alone. In a recent conversation, one old Bultaco dealer couldn’t exactly recall the model until reminded that it was yellow, then he exclaimed “oh, why that was the most beautiful Bultaco ever”!
So I have been on the search for one for a while now. Just this week I found it. It is waiting for me up in Oregon. Just a roller project bike for now, but the seller says nearly all the parts are there. “It was running before the ignition went bad”. Well, you know how that story goes. We will see, but I am excited to get it. It is a 125 model, which makes it one of the rarest, lowest production numbers, of any Bul to come to the USA.