FOLLOWING A FEW LOW-PROFILE YEARS, ICONIC SUSPENSION MANUFACTURER ÖHLINS IS NOW MUSCLING ITS WAY BACK INTO THE MAINSTREAM MOTOCROSS MARKET...
Words by Jon Urry Photos by Jon Urry and Öhlins
After a few years in the wilderness, Ohlins is now throwing its full weight behind production motocross suspension. We caught up with Ohlins founder Kenth Ohlin to discover the history behind the company and how his passion for off-road has seen Ohlins invest more time and effort into MX suspension. He also let slip that electronic suspension could find its way onto motocross tracks in the very near future...
"I am both really happy and very disappointed about Ohlins in motocross lately. Four years ago we started to discuss whether or not we were going to continue in motocross. We were selling products but not to the level of performance that we should have been and we thought it may be time to stop. We took a decision that we should do a certain amount of investment and see if we could reach the level we should be at. In 2010 I feel we have reached the top level again."
Kenth Ohlin's fairly stark assessment of his company's performance in the off-road market is tinged with a hint of sadness. You may not know it but the company whose famous yellow springs and gold forks can be seen dominating most forms of racing on Tarmac has its roots firmly based in the off-road world.
Despite being somewhat coy about his own abilities, Kenth was a very accomplished motocross rider. Born in Sweden, he started riding off-road when he was 12 years old and soon progressed to international level in an era when Swedish riders dominated the off-road scene.
"In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were six or seven riders from Sweden in the top 10 in both 250 and 500cc world championships, we were the leading country in motocross. It was tough to win a national race and even harder to qualify for an international but by the end of my career I was travelling around Europe competing in international events. I was a good international rider, if not a grand prix rider."
But for Kenth riding the bikes was only part of the story. Having grown up around his father's engineering shop, by the time he was racing Kenth already had a strong understanding of how a motorcycle worked and, more importantly, how to improve it
"We all built and worked on our motorcycles ourselves. We would reshape and modify them a lot and I started learning about suspension in this way, altering my own bike and helping out other riders. In those days it was only Girling suspension and those shocks didn't perform very well at all."
Although a man whose name will always be linked with suspension, Kenth initially made a reputation for himself as an engine tuner.
"I started a small company that specialised in modifying two-stroke engines. I was one of the first in Europe to work with reed valves after learning about the technology from Eyvind Boyesen in America, then I made a couple of engines for the Swedish factory Husqvarna riders. This was 1970 or 1971 and we had a prototype engine that was only powering the bottom end - really, really low rpm. I changed it by adding different exhaust pipes and by the end of the year we were winning races with it, beating the dominant Yamahas."
Before long his client list included Husqvarna - who commissioned him to design all of their exhausts - as well as many Swedish racers. But the competition bug was still in his system and this passion led to the formation of Ohlins as we know it today.
"I was still riding in the Swedish motocross championship at weekends and I borrowed a bike from the Swedish factory Kawasaki rider Thorleif Hansen and modified it a little. He used the bike in a grand prix and won, after that Kawasaki asked me to modify all of their factory bikes. I was lucky, at that time we had plenty of good Swedish riders and the second guy to use my products was Hakan Andersson, a 250 world champion. Word soon spread and at the Swedish GP I had a lot of requests for my shock absorbers."
But Kenth offered more than just a product, along with the Ohlins shock you also gained access to the Ohlins racing service. And driven by a passion for the sport as well as the desire to improve his suspension, Kenth went to extraordinary lengths to support his riders.
"I travelled all over Europe at the weekends in a truck providing a racing service for riders. I would work Monday to Friday at the factory and then drive myself - or if I was lucky a workmate would come with me - to the race meetings. It was hard work but a wonderful time."
It was hard work that paid off. Ohlins has always had the philosophy that the best place to test and develop a product is on the racetrack and it wasn't long before Ohlins suspension caught the eye of a major manufacturer.
"After the second year of supporting racers, Husqvarna asked if it was possible to have suspension from us as OE equipment on their bikes. At first I said I was only a small firm and we didn't have the production facilities but then I took a decision to focus the business on suspension and make my own units. I was lucky, my father's machine shop was able to produce the parts and in 1976 Ohlins was born. I guess I owe a lot to Husqvarna, without them I may not have concentrated on suspension and would still be making exhausts and tuning engines."
So what was it that set the newly-formed Ohlins suspension aside from the competition?
"In those days it wasn't really a tough job to beat the standard units. We looked at the problems that we had with the products that were already on the market and the first point was to realise that the materials and oil they were using was wrong. We used a different type of oil and improved the quality of the components inside the shocks. The shims in Ohlins suspension were of a far better quality than the competition which made a huge difference. We used a stainless heat-treated material on our shims where the competition would use cheaper materials and we also did a lot of testing and even built a hydraulic suspension dyno which was a key factor in our success. But at the heart of it all was racing. It was - and still is - crucial to everything we do."
Within two years Ohlins shocks had won their first >>
"We have been putting a lot of focus back into the motocross world - it is a very important sector to Ohlins," admits Johnny Braster, Vice President of marketing and sales
"We will see more bikes with Ohlins as OE equipment but probably not motocross bikes. The whole trend for motocross bikes is price, price, price so it is not easy for a manufacturer to put Ohlins on and add possibly £200 to the end user. The market is so sensitive the customer may decide not to buy the bike because of this. However, I think that markets such as enduro riders who are older, they will be happy to add a few hundred pounds for something different.
"And electronic suspension could definitely work on a motocross bike. Why not? From a theoretical point of view it is no problem but it depends what you are wanting to achieve. If you can get improvements there is no technical obstacle to do it, it is definitely possible. We may have experimented with such systems..."
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