Torsten Hallman 2005
The Yamaha years
In July of 2005, Torsten Hallman was visiting the States and wanted to stop by and see his 1971 YZ 250. It is one of the most historical Yamahas of all time. The very bike that scored Yamaha's first GP points. The first prototype works Yamaha. I had purchased the bike along with five other works Yamahas from Torsten a few years ago, and he had not seen it since then. During his visit, we sat down around all the historical bikes and Torsten told me the entire story of his time with Yamaha. Many of the things he told me have never been told before, even though this has been the subject of many articles. I asked him if, at the time, he realized how historical this time might have been? Keep in mind two years after Torsten signed to develop their motocross bike, Yamaha won the 250 world championship and has been a dominant force ever since. His reply, "I knew it was special, but never to the degree that it ultimately was." The story starts at the end of the 1970 season. Torsten had been a factory Husqvarna rider for many years. He had won the 250 world championship four times, all on Husky's and was still one of the top Grand-prix motocross riders in the world. Here is Torstens's story.
At the end of 1970, after riding for Husqvarna for many years, I did not get any offer at all to renew my contract with them. I had won the world championship four times riding a Husky, and I felt I had a few more years left to race. I felt I was worth something but they didn't contact me at all. I felt really bad that I did not get any offer so I was completely on my own. There was a big race in Stockholm that winter and everybody was there with their new factory bikes. In those days we used to race motocross in the winter with studs in the tires. I was a Husky dealer at the time, so I took a brand new 400 cross off the showroom floor, entered the race and won! I beat everybody. I was once again the talk of the town. After that race, the news papers wrote, "He's not washed up yet." So here I was, still competitive and no factory support. I didn't know what to do.
Suzuki had already come into motocross and Joel Robert had just delivered them their first world championship in 1970. Prior to this Suzuki had already tried to hire me in 1966, two years before they hired Olle Petersson. At that time, I turned them down because of my loyalty to Husqvarna. I decided now, that I would go to Yamaha. I spent a lot of time preparing a booklet showing my credentials, a marketing plan and a basic description as to why they should be involved. After Suzuki's recent success, it would only be natural for Yamaha to get involved. I got in my car and drove 1,600km down to the Yamaha headquarters in Amsterdam to meet the head boss Mr. Kuratomo. Yamaha was new to Europe and there were only six people working there, it was a very small operation. I met with Mr. Kuratomo and presented my proposal outlining all my ideas. I soon realized, he didn't even know what motocross was! He told me we'll give you a DTMX and $300.00 per month to evaluate the machine. I was very surprised at his response, but I told him thanks but no thanks. After that meeting I thought they were not interested.
After I went back home, I made it known in the motocross community that I had visited Yamaha. Word traveled very fast about the Yamaha visit. Even the US Husky importer Edison Dye heard about it. When Edison heard, he immediately contacted the Husky factory and voiced his displeasure about it. Edison was relying on my name and my participation in the inter-am series to promote Husky sales in the US. About ten days after the Yamaha meeting, the Husky factory contacted me and arranged a meeting. When I met with them, they told me they had a plan where I would be getting a salary, bikes and spending about six months in the US promoting bike sales. Since I was married and had a daughter, spending six months away from home was a big commitment. I told them I would talk this over with my wife and get back to them.
Two days after the Husky meeting, I got a call from Kuratomo. "I need to see you tomorrow" he said. The next day Kuratomo flew up to Stockholm and we met at the Palace hotel. He had brought with him a prepared three year contract. It was everything I had hoped for. I was to get a good salary and develop the bikes. I didn't even talk to my wife about it. I signed immediately, even if I had to spend a lot of time in Japan and other places! I was surprised by Mr. Kuratomos change in attitude towards me at this meeting and his eagerness to get me to sign the contract. I asked him "What has changed since we last saw each other in Amsterdam?" He told me how he made two copies of my booklet on how I wanted Yamaha to enter the motocross market. He sent one to Yamaha in Japan and the other to Yamaha in the US. The Yamaha management in the US reacted very positively when they saw my proposal. They already knew of my name from the Inter and Trans-AM races and pushed Kuratomo to finalize the deal as quick as possible.
One week later the prototype bikes arrived. They were hand built machines that were completely different than than the DT series they were selling. I had received about ten bikes, 125's and 250's. I also selected a few riders to help with the testing to get other input. Tommy Jansson and Janne Lovendahl rode the 125's and Arne Lindfors and Dick Johansson helped me with the 250's. The 1971 YZ125 was an incredible bike. It weighed 139 lbs and was really advanced for the time. Tommy won the Swedish championship with it in its debut. During the initial tests on the 250, the first thing to break was the rear hub. Yamaha designed, built and shipped a new one in about two weeks. I was very surprised at how enthusiastic they were. They sent engineers Tanaka and Toshinora Suzuki over to help with the development and any problems that occurred were addressed immediately. The development progressed much faster than it ever did at Husqvarna. We got the bike working real good and on July 16th 1971, I entered the Dutch Grand-prix, and gave Yamaha their first Grand-prix points with a sixth place. Yamaha was very serious!
Meanwhile, talks were going on between Yamaha international in the US and Yamaha of Japan. Motocross was getting very big in the US and Yamaha wanted to be involved. I was asked to fly to the States in July of 1971 to meet with the Yamaha officials at the Yamaha headquarters in California. I presented them with a race and marketing program adjusted to the American market. For the race program, I suggested they sign Marty Tripes and Gary Jones to be works riders. (Yamaha already had a development program going on with the Jones'). Contracts were drawn up immediately and works bikes were sent over to the US. Yamaha had their first official factory team. Things were getting big very fast.
Near the end of 1971 The bike was developed into a very good bike and Yamaha decided to enter the GP's for 1972. I recommended that they hire Hakan Andersson for the 250 class and Jaak VanVelthoven and Christer Hammargren for the 500 class. Tanaka was now in charge of the motocross GP effort in Europe. Contracts were drawn up for those riders and Yamaha now had their first Grand-prix motocross team. Arne Lindfors still helped me and rode in international events as well. The 1972 bikes arrived with all the updates that were learned from the 1971 testing and they were very good bikes. They even sent over an experimental YZ500cc bike with fifty horsepower. It was a very difficult bike to ride. During a test session on the YZ500, the throttle stuck wide open and I had a very bad crash. That was the last time I rode the 500. Arne Lindfors and Christer Hammargren got along with it much better than I did. Jaak VanVelthoven got a fourth overall with it in the British Grand-prix, but he preferred the YZ360.
In about June of 1972 we received an experimental bike with a special rear suspension converted from one of our 72 works bikes. It was made by a man from Belgium named Lucien Tilkens. It was the first single shock rear suspension motocross bike. The monoshock. This system had already been offered to Suzuki and Honda. Both manufacturers had previously tested the system and turned it down. Editors Note: (The Suzuki test sessions went well and Roger DeCoster and Sylvain Geboers actually recommended it, but Suzuki was slow on committing financially). We tested the new bike in northern Belgium near Mol for months. (the tracks near Mol are all sand and very rough) The test sessions were top secret. None of the other team riders even knew about it, I was the only one. Yamaha had flown over from Japan twenty five engineers to help with the evaluation. I could not understand why so many engineers. I later learned many years later that the engineers were from different departments. If the testing went well, they planned on using the design on many different products like street bikes, mopeds, snowmobiles etc. We tested the bike for thousands of laps over a period of several months and all kinds of data were recorded. The original test bike was very heavy but still the lap times were good and it seemed to be better than the standard bike. Yamaha was going to leave the decision up to me on whether to buy it or not. It was a tremendous amount of pressure with all the engineers and attention the project got, to be the one to make the decision. After many laps, meetings and evaluation, I decided that they should buy it. Yamaha bought the patent from Mr. Tilkens.
Now that Yamaha owned the patent on the monoshock, they built a much lighter test bike than the original test bike built by Mr. Tilkens, which was 10 kg. heavier than our standard bike. We then arranged a top secret test session with our team riders. We even had lookouts to make sure nobody was near. Hakan Andersson was the star of our team, and having just taken second place in the 1972 world championship behind Joel Robert, he was riding very good. The test session was again in northern Belgium on a very rough track. The advantage for the monoshock bike should have been very clear. It had longer wheel travel and was much more rigid than the standard bike. After Hakan's initial ride on the bike, he came in and said he didn't like it. He said he preferred the twin shock bike. I could not believe it! The lap times were good and I thought for sure the monoshock was better. Hakan was a very conservative guy and didn't like change. He decided that the twin shock bike was better!
This put me in a very bad position. Here I was, after Yamaha spent all this money to send all those engineers over for months, buy the design and go through this whole ordeal, and their number one rider won't ride it! Yamaha put all their money on Hakan and he didn't want to touch it. He didn't even test it that much at first. I think his mind was made up before he even sat on it. Now the Japanese were very confused. They just spent all this time and money on this new suspension system, and they were getting mixed reviews. I was now even asking myself "what have I done"? I went to Hakan in private and explained to him the situation that it did not look good for him not to be using it. I practically begged him to use it. He agreed to test it further.
At first the bike was too stiff to suit his riding style. We did a lot of work on the shock to correct this and after much testing, we got the shock working pretty good. This was the result of many test sessions in which Hakan was involved. In the meantime, the 1973 grand-prix season started, and Hakan rode the first two rounds on the two shock bike. The shock on the new bike was still the major issue. After countless laps of testing, the bike got better and better and the lap times were showing the result. By the third round of the 250 grand-prix's at Wuustwezel Belgium, it was decided to debut the bike in its first grand-prix.
The day of the GP at Wuustwezel, I was very nervous because of all the pressure on me regarding the decision to purchase the monoshock. The Japanese were not shy about reminding me that it was on my recommendation that they spent all this money on a system that had mixed reviews. This would also be the first time the public and the press would see the factory Yamaha team with this new suspension. The bike received a lot of attention that day and everybody had their eyes on Hakan. The whole world would soon find out how this system stacked up against all the other factory bikes. The stakes were very high. When it was all over, Hakan had won the overall! I was so relieved. I knew it was a good system, but with all the pressure and controversy, you just never know. It felt so good to have this pressure off of me. The team was also very excited and it was decided that this bike would be used in the remaining grand-prix's. Hakan went on to win the next eleven motos in a row and was crowned World Champion with three grand-prix's remaining. This was the start of long travel suspension.
The first Japanese works Four Stroke
In 1975, I had been the Yamaha distributor for Sweden for a couple of years and I heard of a new four stroke Yamaha that was for the US market, the XT500. Sten Lundin the former 1959 and 1961 500 World Champion was our service manager at the time and he was also very keen on this bike. We tried to get Yamaha Japan to send us some bikes but they refused - these bikes were supposed to be sold in the US only! But our chance to get our hands on such a bike came at the 1975 Six Day Trials in England. Lars Larson, riding the Six Day Trials, knew about our interest and phoned me, telling me that there was an American rider entered in the event with a XT500. I told Lars - go ahead and buy the bike after the event! The rider agreed and the bike was purchased and shipped to Sweden immediately. Sten, being a big four stroke fan, was eager to examine it and decided that the stock chassis was lacking and decided to fit the motor in a Husqvarna chassis. A new project was now under way.
Sten completely stripped the bike down and altered a Husky frame to accommodate the Yamaha motor as well as making several changes to the engine to make it lighter and stronger. When it was all done, a new bike was born, the Hallman & Eneqvist HL 500! We then decided to send the frame to Pro-fab in the US and have the frame copied. Pro-fab built a total of three frames for this bike. (Pro-fab later produced several Aberg-replica-frames for Hallman Racing Inc. sold on the open market.) The project took up almost all of 1976. As all this was going on, I had an idea to enter the bike in the 1977 500 GP's. Former 1969 and 1970 500 World Champion Bengt Aberg was contacted - he was also a big fan of 4-strokes bikes - and after testing the bike he loved it and agreed. Now we needed about 200.000:- SEK extra in funding from the Yamaha factory to do the entire grand-prix season. We, as the Yamaha-importer should put in the same amount ourselves in the project. I decided to contact the marketing people at Yamaha and arrange a meeting. At the meeting, I presented them a proposal and I promised them that the bike should create so much publicity that the bike would be on the cover of at least half of all the dirt bike magazines in the world along with numerous technical articles. I also promised that Bengt should be able to score some GP-points on the bike and to be within the first 10 in a couple of Grand Prix´s. They declined, they could not understand how a bike designed for the California off-road market could be a serious contender in the motocross GP´s! But I did not give up so easy! I decided to go to Amsterdam, the next step on the ladder, to the sales department there and present them the same proposal. They also declined and gave the same reasons. My last chance was to go to the top-guy, Mr. Kuratomo, the same guy that hired me in the beginning. I showed Mr. Kuratomo the same proposal, photos of the bike and made the same promises about being on the cover of all the magazines etc. I told him that the marketing and sales people wasn't interested and declined and Yamaha shouldn't miss such an opportunity in PR for the single cylinder XT500 just being introduced on the European market. His response, only after listening for 5 minutes was "Who said no to this great idea - you can do this for 200.000:- SEK? No problem, Mr. Kuratomo ordered funding for the project!
Now that we were going to race the GP's, we decided to modify the motor. We even commissioned Hedlund to build a three valve head. The bike was very successful in its debut and Bengt scored the first points in a 500 GP since the 1960's with a four stroke engine. In the Luxembourg Grand Prix -77 he managed to win the first race as well as he got third in the second. Bengt and the HL 500 were actually a serious contender during the season and managed to get third place finishes in 4 more races during the season and finished in 9th position total in the World Championship! The bike was such a success, both scoring Grand Prix points but also a fantastic PR-project. Every motorcycle magazines had front pages and countless of articles and pictures of the incredible Yamaha 500cc single cylinder bike! The sales of XT500 rocketed and Yamaha was happy! Later in was decided that Yamaha should build about 200 replicas of the HL500. (We in Sweden were not involved in this project.) These bikes had a chassis that was made in England and they were really not exact replicas. Actually they were not very good bikes at all.
After all the success we had with the initial project, we now decided that the motor should be redesigned from the ground up. Sten had ideas on how to make a very light weight four stroke engine. I went back to Yamaha about this, but this time they declined saying it was just too big of a project. It is interesting to see over twenty years later, Yamaha picking up where we left off in 1977.
Photos courtesy of Torsten Hallman