This week’s Greg Primm Classic Steel machine is the pride of Canada, the 1980 Can-AM 250 MX-6.
Picked by Motocross Action as one of the ten worst bikes of all time, the Can-Am 250 had some serious issues. Once known for rocket motors and scary handling, the late seventies Can-Am’s lost their horsepower advantage while keeping their handling reputation. It was not a recipe for success.
Today Can-AM is known mostly as a producer of high end ATV’s and street bikes, but believe it or not, the Canadian manufacturer was a once a motocross powerhouse. In the mid-seventies, riding a Can-Am meant you were on the fastest bike on the track. The Rotax powered rockets took numerous wins with riders like Gary Jones, Jimmy Ellis and Marty Tripes at the controls. Unfortunately, the success was short lived. Can-Am’s brief stay at the pinnacle of motocross lasted but a few brief years, by the early eighties they had fallen badly behind their Japanese and European competitors. It was a wild ride from boom to bust for the bikes from the Great White North.
In the mid-seventies the Can-Am’s Rotax motor was the horsepower king of the 250 class. It used an interesting rotary valve for induction instead of the more traditional piston port design. The rotary valve used a spinning disc next to the crankshaft to regulate the intake charge. In the days before reed-valves, it was a more efficient intake design. Eventually the new reed-valve intakes would supplant the rotary valves in less complicated and more compact motor designs. These air-cooled Rotax motors would continue to power machines well into the nineties in bikes like ATK’s.
Can-Am Motorcycles were actually a division of Canadian industrial giant Bombardier. Bombardier was a producer everything from snowmobiles to airplanes and in the early seventies they were looking to capitalize on the exploding off-road market in America. Bombardier believed they could leverage their highly regarded Rotax motors (Bombardier had bought Austrian motor manufacturer Rotax in 1970) and extensive snowmobile dealer network to break into the motocross market. In 1973 Can-Am was born, with a new off-road machine called the MX-1. The next year Can-Am lured away the reigning 250 National Champion Gary Jones from Honda to campaign their new machines. To say the new motocross team was a success would be a massive understatement. With Jones piloting the new Can-Am they took the 1974 250 National title (although technically Dutch born Pierre Karsmakers actually should have won, but the AMA made some crazy rule that forbid foreigners from winning the title in ’74) and swept the top three spots in the championship.
The brakes on the MX-6 were notoriously bad even for the time. Tony D stated that even on his factory bike the brakes would heat up and go away completely after fifteen minutes of hard use. Brake fade was a huge problem on drum brakes of this era.
Can Am would expand their off-road line for ’75, bringing out four new machines. Unfortunately their dream team of Ellis, Jones and Tripes would not last, as Jones would end up leaving the Can-Am to start his own motorcycle company (AMMEX) and Tripes would be let go after an off the track incident. Luckily for Can-Am, Ellis would prove an excellent ambassador for the fledgling brand and take home the 1975 Supercross title. That made two major titles in two years for Can-Am. With all their success, it was hard not to think they were on their way to becoming a major motocross power.
The ’80 MX-6 models were equipped with undersized 38mm Marzocchi magnesium front forks. The forks were badly over damped and provided a jarring ride. One interesting feature on the 1980 models was the addition of an air equalizing valve. Unlike today, in the early eighties air pressure was actually used to adjust performance. In order to insure both forks received the same pressure, Can-Am ran a tube between the forks attached to Schrader valves at the top. The design proved very susceptible to damage and was dropped on the ’81 model.
By 1978 Motocross was undergoing a major shift in design. Bikes like the all new ’78 CR250R Elsinore and Mono-shock YZ’s were pushing the envelope of suspension travel and Can-Am was not keeping up. They continued to provide competitive horsepower from their rotary-valve Rotax motors, but their chassis’ became farther and farther behind. Terrible bikes like the infamous MX-3 “Black Widow” did little to help their flagging reputation. Jimmy Ellis would continue to impress on the ill-handling machines but the bikes were beginning to loose there appeal with consumers.
By the time Can-Am introduced their MX-6 line they were already fighting an uphill battle for respectability. They lacked the Old World reputation of the Euro brands and technological sophistication of the Japanese. The MX-6 was not up to turning the tide for the struggling brand.
In an attempt to keep up with the competition, Can-Am introduced their all-new orange MX-4 series for ’78. The MX-4 featured new plastic, a new frame, 38mm magnesium forks and dual Gas Girlings shocks. The new Rotax motor still featured their unique rotary valve intake and provided a strong smooth powerband. Unfortunately, by this time the competition was catching Can-Am in the motor department and they were no longer considered the class of the field. The Rotax mill was competitive but badly handicapped by a notchy transmission that made power shifts nearly impossible. Some contemporary tests reported the Can-Am’s five speed transmission housed upwards of fifteen neutrals.
By 1980, the Can-Am motor was no longer the fastest in the class, but it produced a good usable spread of power. The real problem with the mill was its recalcitrant transmission. It was incredibly notchy and virtually impossible to shift under power. Although Rotax motors in general are known for reliability, many MX-6 riders suffered seizures and problems with broken kickstart gears.
The new bikes were too little too late. With Japan innovating so quickly, Can- Am just could not keep up. They did field an impressive team in 1979 headlined by three time National champion Tony DiStefano and future two time champ Donnie “Holeshot” Hansen. Even with such great riders at the controls, the inferior bikes were too much to overcome and Can-Am would fold its factory effort at the end of the year.
This ad touts Can-Am’s incredible 1-2-3 finish in the 1974 National Championship. It would be the high water mark for the brand.
After Can-Am pulled out of professional racing here in the US (they would continue to support riders in Canada, even helping Canadian motocross legend Ross “Rollerball” Pederson at the start of his long career) it was left to California Can-Am dealer Kolbe Honda/Can-Am to keep their racing presence going. Kolbe actually fielded a pretty interesting team on the orange Can-Am’s. The leader of the team was long time Kawasaki ace Jimmy Wienert. He was joined by Hansen, Jim “Hollywood” Holley, Jim O’Neal (founder of O’Neal Racing), Eddie Cole and Tom Webb (of Dirt Bike Magazine fame). The team would get some exposure due to the presence of Wienert, but again the sub-par bikes would hold them back from any real success. At the end of the year the “Jammer” would retire and Hansen would move onto the powerful Honda team.
The air intake on the MX-6 was actually right behind the front numberplate. There were two small scoops mounted to the steering head that feed air down through the frame backbone to the airbox. Can-Am claimed the new ram-air intake was good for two horsepower over the ’79 model.
“Gentleman” Jim Holley would be the last big name rider to campaign the Can-Am’s here in the States. Jim joked that his Can-Am lacked so much ground clearance that the other riders would ask him to go out first in practice and knock down the whoops. It was unfortunately not far from the truth.
Jim Holley would end up being the last major American star to campaign the Canadian brand. He would continue to solider on with the bikes in Supercross and Motocross well past the point where they were remotely competitive. The motors continued to make decent power but the chassis and suspension were just not up to the rigors of the new jump filled tracks. At the end of the season Holley would end up leaving Can-Am for Yamaha, effectively ending the Can-Am motocross racing efforts in America.
There were two options for the rear suspension on the MX-6. The standard shocks were mediocre S&W units while expensive Ohlins shocks were an optional upgrade. The “enduro” style rear silencer was very quiet but did nothing for the appearance or performance of the bike.
Can-Am as a Canadian built motorcycle ended two years later with the MX-7 model. After years of trying to make due with inferior designs, Bombardier would partner with Armstrong/CCM and move production and design from Quebec to England. The new partnership would last all of four years as the new white Can-Am’s would fail to enjoy any more success than their Canadian counterparts had. In 1987 Bombardier would shut down the motorcycle division for good and put an end to the Can-Am era.
The MX-6 would be one of the last of the Canadian built Can-Am’s. By 1983 Bombardier would move production to England with partner Armstrong/CCM and launch an all-new line of more modern liquid-cooled machines. The brand would never again catch the lightning in a bottle it had in ’74 and fade out of existence by 1987.