Bill Nilsson, the rider from Sweden who became the first official FIM World Motocross Champion in 1957, won the title for a second time in 1960, and was a part of three winning Motocross des Nations teams, died on Aug. 25. He was 80.
Nilsson was one of the stars of the predecessor to the World Championships, the European Motocross Championship in the 1950s. He scored his first victory in the European Championship at his home race at Saxtorp. In 1955 Nilsson, riding a BSA, lost, by a single point, the European Championships to Britain’s John Draper.
Nilsson was known as a hard-nosed competitor.
“I got sacked by BSA because I was too dirty,” Nilsson said in 2008 interview with MXLarge. “I wasn’t the cleanest rider. They sacked me, and they thought they could cut my wings, but then I went to AJS and won the World championship.”
After losing his ride with BSA after the 1956 season, in spite of winning two rounds of the European Championships, Nilsson bought an AJS road racing machine and converted it himself to a motocross bike. It was with that homebuilt AJS that Nilsson won the inaugural FIM 500 World Championship in 1957.
Nilsson continued to be one of the leading motocross racers in the world in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After finishing second in both the 1958 and ’59 world championships, Nilsson came back to reclaim the title for a second time in 1960.
In addition to his individual achievements, Nilsson was a part of the powerhouse Swedish Motocross des Nations team that won the international competition in 1955(with Sten Lundin and Lars Gustavsson), 1958 (with Lars Gustavsson and Ove Lundell) and 1961 (with Rolf Tibblin and Ove Lundell).
His son Jeff Nilsson was a two-time World Enduro Champion in the early 1990s. He lost another son in a motocross accident.
Perhaps the most infamous Nilsson story was the time he was battling rival Belgium motocross star René Baeten at Namur. That led to a confrontation with rabid Belgium fans.
“My big problem was that I also crashed and the people broke onto the track and grabbed my bike. They helped Baeten get going, but would not let me have my bike. Anyway one of the crowd lost his front teeth, I wanted my bike back, and they wouldn’t give it back. In the heat of battle I lost it a little.”
After his racing career Nilsson for a time helped establish Husqvarna in America. He later worked with young Swedish racers, including Bengt Aberg and Torsten Hallman. He later built Speedway motors for World Grand Prix competitor Greg Hancock.