From humble beginnings, sketchy scramble races across muddy fields, to the modern-day pinnacle of global motocross racing, this brief history looks at the defining moments of British motocross across the ages.
The Beginning: Early 1900s
Although the modern-day mecca of motocross is widely considered to be Southern California, the USA is not the birthplace of the world’s toughest motorsport.
Before the sport of motocross came about, people had been racing motorcycles in the mud for many years. Off-road racing in the form of Time Trials was being held by Auto-Cycle clubs across England in the early 1900s, possibly even as early as 1906. In 1914, the first official Scott Trial took place on the Yorkshire Moors.
The first ever officially recorded race, known then as ‘scrambles’ or ‘hare scrambles’, took place in Camberley, Surrey, England in 1924 on a marked-out route that wound its way across hilly farmland, and open fields.
This early era saw riders take to the course with little-to-no protective gear, riding motorcycles that were more designed for road rather than dirt use, racing across the rough, all-natural terrain of the English countryside at full speed.
These were the brave pioneers that paved the way for motocross as we know it today.
Post WWII: 1940s and 1950s
Following the second World War there was a surplus of off-road, ex-army bikes available for civilians to purchase in England. With access to bikes, steam to let off, and time on their hands, many ex-soldiers thought the best thing to do with the bikes would be to race them.
And how right they were. The war had seen a lot of development in off-road military motorcycle technology, and the bikes had started to improve considerably from the machines of the 1930s.
Combined with a boost in commercial manufacturing and increased consumer demand, this post-war era led to another big leap in British motocross’s evolution, with local races soon being held all over the country again.
In 1947 the first Motocross Des Nations (an international competition, often described as the Olympics of motocross) was held in Holland. The inaugural event was won by the British team, which consisted of Bill Nicholson, Bob Ray and Fred Rist.
In 1951, the British Motocross Championships were born.
In 1952 the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) became motorcycling’s official governing body and that year the first FIM European Motocross Championships were held and England was down to host a round at Hawkstone Park for the opening season.
The British round was won by British MX legend and two-time FIM Motocross World Champion Jeff Smith on a BSA (Birmingham Small Arms).
John Draper became the first British rider to win the European Motocross Championship in 1955 on a 500cc BSA.
In the late 1950s, brands like Husqvarna, Jawa and Greeves developed the 250cc two-stroke engines, and changed the shape of motocross forever.
In 1957 the Motocross World Championships were born and an all-new 250cc racing division was created to accommodate the purpose-built racing machines.
A Boom in Bike Development: 1960s and 1970s
In the mid-60s motocross was dominated by one man – Jeff Smith. On board his BSA Factory race bike, the Brit won two FIM 500cc Motocross World Championships in 1964 and 1965. In his time, Smith also won two British Trials Championships along with the Scottish Six Day Trial among other events.
As an interest in motocross continued to grow, so did the development of the bikes.
The big 500cc four-strokes of the 1950s were about to be replaced with a new breed of off-road scramblers.
The early 1970s saw the first bikes built by Japanese manufactures , such as Suzuki, arriving in England. The Japanese bikes were fast, balanced, full of technological advancements and very brightly coloured!
By the mid-70s, most riders were on Japanese bikes, with KTM becoming a main player in the market as well. Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha all played a big part in the motocross explosion that was to come.
In 1979 Graham Noyce from Hampshire claimed the FIM 500cc World Motocross Championship on a Honda, narrowly beating the likes of his team-mate Andre Malherbe and the legendary Roger De Coster, riding for Team Suzuki.
The Glory Days: 1980s
In the 1980s, motocross experienced a major popularity boost. The bikes were much faster and the jumps were much bigger.
Over the ‘pond’ in America, the sport was blowing up, and with the introduction of Supercross (Stadium Motocross), major TV networks started to show the racing and big sponsors were buying in to the adrenaline-fuelled phenomenon that was motocross.
Motocross and Supercross seemed to resonate with the rebellious freedom that the 80s represented and appealed to a huge amount of people at that time.
Dirt bikes and motorcycles started to appear in many hit movies and cult classics, solidifying their place in sub-culture society and inspiring a generation of kids to ride motorcycles.
This boom inevitably had a big effect on the British motocross industry, which also started to peak around this time. The decade started off in style for British motocross with Somerset’s Neil Hudson taking the gold medal in the 1981 250cc World Motocross Championship on a Yamaha.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, British GP’s were held at legendary circuits such as Hawkstone Park, Farleigh Castle, Donnington Park and Foxhills, before moving to a new home at Matterley Basin in 2006. Britain always held a strong position throughout this era and many legendary riders put it all on the line for their country.
The mid-to-late 80s saw British motocross legend Dave Thorpe take to the stage. After becoming a regular race winner, the Factory Honda rider won his first World Motocross 500cc Championship title in 1985. He then followed it up with a second in 1986 and a third in 1989.
The Vice Years: The 1990s
Unfortunately, the 90s didn’t quite follow the medal shower of the 80s for Britain’s motocross riders.
A gallant effort was put in by 4x FIM World Motocross Vice Champion Kurt Nicoll throughout this decade, but for one reason or another the MXGP gold medal gods never smiled on him.
Throughout his career, Nicoll won an astonishing seven British MX Titles in total, six Open class and one 250cc. Nicoll was also part of the winning team at the notorious ’94 Motocross des Nations, along with Paul Malin and Rob Herring, heroically breaking the American’s 13-year winning streak.
Showing his raw bike skill and physical versatility, Nicoll went on to win 3x AMA Endurocross Vet Championships and 2x AMA Supermoto Unlimited Championships, firmly marking his place in British motorcycling history. He can still be found battling it out at the VMXON at Farleigh Castle every year.
First British 125 MX World Championship: 2001
Following a move to KTM in 2000, Derby’s Jamie Dobb managed to win Britain’s first 125cc MX World Championship aboard his Factory KTM the following year. Dobb had been runner up to Grant Langston in 2000 and finally made British moto history in 2001.
Dobb won his first major title in 1989 when he won the British 125 Championship, which was quickly followed by a win in the 250 class the following year. Dobb then moved to California where he represented the UK for many years, with some great results along the way, before returning to Europe to contest the MXGP series.
Red Bull X-Fighters Hits London: 2009
Away from the racing scene, in 2009 the Red Bull X-Fighters World Tour stopped in London for the first time. This global freestyle motocross spectacle brought with it a lot of hype, and the riders put on a world-class show in front of a 20,000 strong crowd at the iconic Battersea Power Station. The contest was won in style by Californian Nate Adams on a Yamaha YZ250 and was represented by UK FMX rider Chris Birch.
The Pinnacle of Modern Day Motocross, Matterley Basin: 2017
In 2017, England played host to the prestigious FIM Motocross of Nations (MXON). The event was held at Matterley Basin, on a newly designed circuit that was described by many as one of the best courses the MXGP tour had ever seen. The MXON is the biggest event on the global MX calendar and 2017 saw the best of the best go head-to-head in some thrilling racing out in the English countryside in front of an 80,000 strong crowd.
The UK team of Max Anstie, Tommy Searle and Dean Wilson put in a great performance and showed that the UK can still compete at the top levels of world motocross with a very respectable third place overall finish for Team GB.
British World Titles / The Champions
As with most nations, the UK has had its ups and downs when it comes to MX world champions. Britain has produced strong competitors since day one, and the UK has certainly had its fair share of successes over the years, with a host of riders claiming MXGP championship and race wins.
Overall there have been a total of five British riders that have been awarded an FIM Motocross World Championship: Dave Thorpe X3, Jeff Smith X2, and Neil Hudson, Graham Noyce and Jamie Dobb X1.
Today the UK hosts a healthy and highly competitive ACU British Motocross Championship and has a handful of super-talented riders competing on the world stage in MXGP and AMA championships.
If you ever want to get a real taste of the world of classic motocross then you are in luck. The Vets Motocross of Nations (VMXON) is held every year at Farleigh Castle in Somerset. With legendary riders racing classic bikes around a classic track in classic kit, this event is as close as you can get to time travelling back to the early days of motocross.
Words courtesy Red Bull
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