Days of Can-Am
By Scott Rousseau
This Archives edition is reprinted from October 2005. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
Canned-Spam, Can’t-Jam… There was no end to the scorn heaped upon Canadian motorcycle manufacturer Can-Am—a subsidiary of Canadian industrial giant Bombardier—near the end of its short run in the motorcycle business, during which time it produced odd but often surprisingly effective motocross and off-road motorcycles. Some hard-core off-road fans might even remember one of the last Can-Am tests ever conducted by a motorcycle magazine. In a 1987 issue of Dirt Bike magazine, editors mercilessly slammed Can-Am’s 250cc ASE off-road model, roasting it via such statements as “it handles like a Kenmore fridge loaded with bowling balls,” “vibrates like a blender,” and that “the front brake is weaker than an 88-year-old nun.” The end was near.
But back up only a dozen years into Can-Am’s history, and you’ll find a totally different scene. During a short but intense period of time, Can-Ams not only won, but they also dominated the AMA National Motocross and Supercross landscape, beating back the best the Japanese manufacturers had to offer in the racing arena if not in outright production machinery.
Borrowing heavily from its experience in producing Ski-Doo and Moto-Ski snowmobiles, Bombardier’s first Can-Ams were already out of the technological mainstream when the company brought the marque online in 1973. Using such weird features as oil injection and rotary-valve induction (the forefather of case-reed induction in that the intake tract was essentially mounted in the same place), Can-Ams quickly gained a reputation as enigmatic machines that were fast and reliable, if a little heavy and quirky-handling.
But Can-Am had big dreams of taking over the motocross world, and it set out to do just that. Already utilizing the services of two-time World Motocross Champion Jeff Smith, who played a major role in the development of the first Can-Ams in production, Can-Am managed to spirit away two-time AMA 250cc National Motocross Champion Gary Jones and a talented, though as yet unheralded, Connecticut rider named Jimmy Ellis to form the basis of its works effort. Later in the season, Can-Am would also add the talented Marty Tripes, who parked his Husqvarnas in favor of the white-orange-and-yellow machines.
Can-Am’s efforts bore instant fruit, as Ellis gave the brand its first AMA National MX win on August 11, 1974, at Delta Motorsport Park in Delta, Ohio. Ellis went 1-1 in the 250cc class, earning the first-moto win and getting the second moto dropped in his lap when Tripes suffered an engine meltdown while leading. Unfortunately for Ellis, he had his share of mechanical ills during the season as well. Though he would go 1-1 again two weeks later at Highland Hills in Hillsboro, Ohio, he would fall short of winning the title.
Instead, that honor fell to the more consistent Jones, who copped his third career AMA 250cc National Motocross Championship crown—and the first for Can-Am—without winning an overall round. Tripes, who switched to Can-Am late in the year, finished second, with Ellis third, making for a Can-Am sweep of the top three positions in the 250cc class, a record that stood alone in the 250cc class until Honda repeated the feat with Rick Johnson, David Bailey and Johnny O’Mara during the 1986 season. Honda had pulled off the triple in the 125cc class in 1974, the first year of the all-conquering CR125 Elsinore, but it could be argued that was to be expected. Can-Am’s success was not.
Nor was Ellis’ 1975 AMA Supercross Championship expected, though it happened just the same. By that time, Can-Am had worked more of the bugs out of the works versions of its GP250 motocrosser, and Ellis was reaching the peak of his abilities. He went undefeated in the four-race 1975 series, en route to the title—while it must be pointed out that the more rounds there are to race, the more chances there are to lose, undefeated is undefeated, and Ellis and Can-Am were undefeated. In fact, Ellis and Can-Am would go on to win in both Supercross and Motocross through the 1977 season, with Ellis finishing third in the 1976 AMA Supercross Series, and sixth in the 1977 AMA 250cc National Motocross Series, the same year that he gave the brand its final AMA National win, on April 17, 1977.
So, what happened? Much like Indian decades before it, Can-Am was too slow in changing to really keep pace with the competition. The Japanese were relentless in their pursuit of both technology and victory and Can-Am simply couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up. Honda grabbed Ellis for the 1978 season and Can-Am failed to fill that void. Despite producing a 250cc motocross bike that was capable enough to win the category in Cycle World magazine’s “10 Best Bikes” issue as late as 1980, Can-Am quickly faded into the background while the Japanese continued forward. Mexican rider Juan Benavidez was Can-Am’s last factory-sponsored motocrosser, receiving support during the 1981 season before the company suspended its motocross-racing pursuits in favor of off-road racing and enduros. When Bombardier wanted to pull the plug on Can-Am, the crafty Smith was able to keep the brand alive by getting England’s Armstrong/CCM to produce bikes under the Can-Am name for Bombardier. This bought the brand a slight reprieve from the inevitable. Still, despite great publicity from the efforts of woods riders such as Johnny Martin and Geoff Ballard, sales continued to slump, and Can-Am ceased to exist after the 1987 model year. Rumors of a comeback by Can-Am have been floating since late 2004, though they appear to be just rumors, as little in the way of details has followed.
Can-Am may have had a brief moment in the sun, but it did pull off something that no other non-Japanese brand has been able to do against the Japanese: win an AMA Supercross and Motocross title. CN