I used to think that automatic gearboxes in motorcycles were restricted to a few odd Moto Guzzis and Hondas. Until a few days ago, when Ken Smith sent me the latest issue of VMX Magazine—with a Husqvarna automatic on the cover and an article inside:
Where’s the damn clutch lever?’ I’ve heard that from a few riders, not far into their first ride of a Husky Auto, even though they knew there wasn’t one on the bars before they took off. It’s just a given, that perched there on the left hand side of the handlebars is a clutch lever, and it’s something you use all the time!
Automatics have a strong following in the four-wheeled offroad world, so it’s not surprising that they’ve been tried in dirtbikes. And Husqvarna got it mostly right from the start: according to VMX’s writer Rob Shoemark, “The first commercial release of the Automatic was in 1976 and the last was 1988. Throughout that whole time the transmission was basically the same with only minor design enhancements.”
Since 1980, Husqvarna has been supplying the Swedish Army with auto all-terrain bikes that can be ridden proficiently by new recruits after just one week of training. And how does it work? “It is mechanically simple,” VMX reports. “Based around a centrifugal clutch, drive is firstly taken up by that clutch, then a series of a dog clutches engaged sequentially, locating higher gears. It was not only simple but very effective and reliable. What about changing back down? Once the throttle is closed, the engine goes into free-wheel mode. Once you apply the throttle again the gearbox was ‘told’ what gear it should be in by the speed of the back wheel.”
Initial reports from the motorcycle media varied. But the good outweighed the bad, and sales were strong enough to merit twelve years of non-military production. “The 1988 430 water-cooled automatic was the last automatic model released,” says Shoemark, “and it was the automatic at its best. Finally without any doubt, and with proper maintenance, the Automatic was a truly great competitor in any enduro field—and was campaigned accordingly by the factory. It was a gem. Interestingly, that last model was also a three-speeder—all the auto versions up to that point, from 1976 onward, had utilized four speed gearboxes.”
For the full story on these very unusual bikes, get yourself a copy of the very excellent VMX #42 here. [Thanks to Ken Smith. Photos by Bill Forsyth.]