Cat Quick and Tiger Tough: 1970 OSSA Pioneer

Jim Noel never recovered from being bitten by the “Offroad Bug,” trading in his Triumph for a 1970 OSSA Pioneer.

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by Nick Cedar

1970 OSSA Pioneer
Engine: 244cc air-cooled 2-stroke single, 72mm x 60mm bore and stroke, 12:1 compression ratio, 21hp @ 7,800rpm
Top speed: 80mph (est.)
Carburetion: IRZ “DG” 29mm double needle carburetor
Transmission: 4-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 6v, solid state ignition, magneto
Frame/wheelbase: Dual downtube steel cradle/54.5in (1,384mm)
Suspension: Telesco telescopic fork front, swingarm with Betor dual shocks rear
Brakes: 6.2in (158mm) SLS drum front and rear
Tires: 3 x 21in front, 4 x 18in rear
Weight (dry): 242lb (110kg)
Seat height: 31in (787.4mm)
Fuel capacity: 3gal (11.3ltr)
Price then/now: $1,024/$1,500-$5,000

Most motorcycle stories don’t start with racing a 1957 Chevy with a Corvette engine, but Jim Noel’s story does. While going to school and racing his Chevy in his spare time, Jim bought a Triumph 650 to ride back and forth to school in Boston. He enjoyed riding it, and his girlfriend enjoyed going along for rides, too. But in 1970, “someone coaxed me into the woods,” Jim says.

Going offroad was an eye opener. Jim was immediately bit by the Offroad Bug, and has never really recovered. “I tried to follow an offroad bike with the Triumph. I realized I was out of my element.” Jim went to a dealership and traded the Triumph for this 1970 OSSA Pioneer, which had no room for a passenger. “My girlfriend was upset — she liked going for rides.” And though Jim bought the OSSA in New Hampshire, the story of how he got it, and how the bike, which is now west of the Rockies, got there, is a little convoluted.

OSSA’s beginnings

OSSA was part of the post-World War II resurgence in the European bike market. The company started out in 1924 by building movie projectors, of all things. Manuel Giro, the proprietor, became involved in motorcycle racing in the early 1930s, and started designing and building his own racing motorcycles. He later claimed that he sold a design for a 125cc to a Spanish factory, Montesa, who used it to start their own motorcycle line — which would later be a direct competitor to OSSA.

Spain suffered through its civil war and then World War II. After both conflicts ended, the Spanish people, like folks all over Europe, were trying to rebuild out of the rubble. Cheap transportation was desperately needed, and the solution chosen by many was a small motorcycle. The aeronautical engineers who had designed World War II’s bombers and fighters were mostly out of work, and many took their expertise and knowledge of newly developed technology to the burgeoning motorcycle industry. Manuel decided to change his factory’s output from projectors to 2-strokes. He and his engineers designed another 125cc two-wheeler, which would be produced by his own factory near Barcelona. The bikes that started rolling off the assembly line in 1949 were well designed and reliable, and thousands were sold.

By the 1960s, Manuel Giro had been joined by his son, Eduardo, who wanted to expand beyond Spain’s borders. Eduardo advocated for an international race effort as being the best means to ensure export sales. The first factory race effort, at the 24 Hours of Barcelona in 1965, was a resounding success, and was quickly followed by podium finishes in other prestigious races.

About 1967, OSSA hired English offroad expert Mick Andrews to help design and ride their trials machinery. Riding for the factory, Andrews won both the 1971 and the 1972 European Trials Championship, and the grueling Scottish Six Days Trial in 1970, 1971 and 1972. OSSA started selling Mick Andrews Replicas in 1971.

The international racing wins worked as Eduardo Giro had hoped. An importer in the U.S. expressed interest in OSSA’s offroad models. The newly imported OSSAs proved as competitive in the U.S. as they had in Europe. In 1969, Dick Mann rode an OSSA to a flat track win at a Santa Fe Grand National short track event. The American International Six Days Trial team rode OSSAs in the early Seventies, earning a silver vase trophy in 1973.

From the beginning to the Pioneer

The first OSSAs were 125cc 2-stroke street machines, followed by a popular 50cc moped. The first 150 appeared in 1958, with the sporting 175 GT in production in 1960, and the 175 Sport — the first US export model — in 1964. 1967 brought the Stiletto, the Sport, the Plonker (a trials machine designed by Andrews), and the Enduro models, all 230cc. Capacity of the export models was bumped up to 250cc in 1969, when the first Pioneer models appeared.

The Pioneer, which came in 175cc and 250cc models, was intended for enduro competition, then (and still) very popular. With an impressive power-to-weight ratio and plenty of suspension travel, the Pioneer was very competitive in these events.

Despite being the product of a small company, the Pioneer was quite advanced for its time. It featured pointless solid state ignition, 6.5 inches of travel in front, five-way-adjustable rear shocks, 10 inches of ground clearance and a 12:1 compression ratio. Bore and stroke were 72mm x 60mm. “Cat quick and tiger tough” was the OSSA slogan, and while Jim Noel recalls that OSSAs were not very fast, they would keep going through the roughest terrain.

Racing the Pioneer

New England enduros were (and are) true tests of endurance for machine and rider. Noel rode in contests sponsored by NETRA, the New England Trail Rider Association. “I would drop 10-15 pounds every event,” Noel remembers. “They would beat the daylights out of you.” The course would run through the woods, up hills, across streams, over logs and through mud. “We would get trapped a lot by the course judges, who enforced a 24mph average rule. I would lose time trying to get over an obstacle and then get onto a dirt road and fly, trying to make it up and come around a corner and there would be a timekeeper, docking you points for making up too much time. You would be penalized more for being early to a time check than late.”

Enduros were always easier if, like Noel, you had friends who would help with pit stops. “It was always great to pull in and have friends gas you up. You would feel so lifted — a pause, laughter with friends — you would feel elated for a few minutes. It made it special. I felt sorry for people who were doing it alone.”

Except for the top competitors, the aim was just to finish the course. “The woods were much tougher than the desert. If you could finish that event, it was so special — the elation of beating the odds. You had to get through, you hoped you didn’t break down, and it was you and the bike finishing together.”

In the 1970s there was very little special equipment for enduros, and riders had to make do with what was available. “I used leather boots, basketball knee pads and arm guards. We strapped anything on and went. We carried gas, oil and tools and a canteen — there were no Camelbaks at the time. But there was lots of camaraderie. I started as a C rider and made it to B. I went all over New England. It was all my friends’ fault — I have them to blame.”

Finishing was not really the end of an enduro. The weary competitor had to load up the bike and truck it home, then clean off all the mud. When Noel got home with the OSSA, he had a list of things to do. “I’d soak the chain in oil, clean the air filter with gas, clean the spark plug, check the crank case oil, tighten up the bolts, check the spokes, clean and oil my Full Bore leather boots and wash my dirty clothes.” He would also collapse for a while.

Noel didn’t just do enduros on the OSSA. NETRA had maps of all of the back roads in the Northeast, and Noel would go on offroad adventures. “One time I rode offroad all the way to Woodstock, New York, where the big music festival was.” There get studs put in our tires and follow snowmobiles. You should have seen the surprised look on people’s faces! It was lots of fun.”

Troubles at home

Back in Spain, Spanish politics were causing problems for the OSSA company. Generalissimo Franco had been the Spanish dictator since 1939. After World War II, his policies caused severe economic problems for Spain, and in order to stay in power, he had to turn over economic development to technocrats, who engineered the “Spanish Miracle” between 1959 and 1974. However, relaxation of import restrictions in the mid-1970s allowed an influx of cheaper, and often more technologically developed, Japanese motorcycles, which severely cut into sales of OSSA’s road bikes.

Strikes and most labor unions had been outlawed under Franco. After he died in 1975, leaving Spain in the hands of a constitutional monarchy, simmering labor tensions exploded. In 1977, the entire work force walked out of OSSA’s Barcelona factory, citing “inhospitable” working conditions. Major concessions had to be made to get the factory rolling again. OSSA, crushed between increasing competition and rising costs, ceased building bikes in 1982. In 2010, a consortium of Spanish businessmen bought the rights to the OSSA name and patents and are now producing offroad bikes. The new OSSA trials machines are now imported to the U.S.

Back in the west

About the same time that OSSA started going downhill, Noel was transferred by his company to Salt Lake City, Utah. The OSSA, by this time something of a member of the family, was packed up and hauled out in the moving van. Noel did some desert racing and trail riding, but the needs of his growing family limited race time. Again transferred, this time to Pennsylvania, Noel packed up the OSSA and, once he got settled, started trail riding in the eastern part of the state.

Finally, Noel was sent out to the West Coast, and once again, the OSSA came along. Jim and the OSSA did some local trail riding, but both rider and motorcycle were starting to age. The OSSA spent more and more time in the garage. Finally, in 2005, Noel cleaned the bike up and started taking it to shows, thinking he might sell it. “I got a lot of attention! People liked it — seeing it got people excited. I became a socialite — I had so much fun riding down memory lane that I wound up not selling the bike. At one of the shows, I met Keith Lynas from OSSAPlanet in San Diego, California. Keith said, “I can bring it back for you.” I realized I could have fun going to shows with my OSSA and decided to restore it.”

Restoration resources

OSSAs are one of the more popular bikes for vintage offroad competition. As a result, there is now a cottage industry supplying parts for OSSAs and rebuilding OSSA engines, including OSSAPlanet, the best-known source for Ossa parts on the West Coast. Keith Lynas rebuilt the engine and the polish and chrome work was done by Bill West of Vintage Works in Clovis, California. Ron “OSSAman” Bors in Ithaca, New York, provided needed replacement parts.

Once the restoration work was done, Noel ent back on the show circuit. “It was a big thrill to go to the 2018 Steve McQueen show.” The Friends of Steve McQueen put on a car and motorcycle show every year in Southern California as a fundraiser for Boys Republic, a home for troubled teens where McQueen spent several years during his youth. The OSSA won first place in the Enduro/Dual Sport class, and got a lot of attention from the retired motocrossers in the crowd. “The crowning touch was Peter Fonda (of Easy Rider and Wild Hogs movie fame) who showed up and joined us for the awards.”

When Noel traveled to Barcelona, Spain, he made a point of visiting the former OSSA factory, now a museum. “It was OSSA heaven.”

While the OSSA runs, and runs well, Noel now spends a lot more time taking it to shows than he does riding it. “People remember the bike. They love it. Another OSSA slogan was, ‘It’s a bear of a bike,’ and it was. No matter how rough the conditions were on the course, that bike got me back every time. And speaking of slogans, it was like a Timex: ‘It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.'” MC

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