1967 OSSA 175 Sport
Claimed power: 21hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 90mph (claimed)
Engine: 175cc air-cooled 2-stroke single, 60.9mm x 60mm bore and stroke, 11.5:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 225lb (102kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.1gal (15.5ltr)/45-50mpg
Price then/now: $595/$4,500-$8,500
“A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That’s how Winston Churchill once described Russia. He might just as well have been talking about the OSSA motorcycle company.
Apart from a short list of race wins, the OSSA motorcycle story, at least the part recorded in the public domain, is vague and contradictory. Yet even if only some of the stories are true, OSSA motorcycles patriarch Manuel Giro was clearly quite the adventurer and innovator.
The birth of OSSA
Manuel’s birth year is recorded as 1907, yet he is also credited with a career in the Spanish Merchant Marine before founding the OSSA company, which if true would seem to raise doubts about the timeline of the early part of the OSSA story: How could one man have accomplished so much in such a short period of time?
Until the 1920s, it appears the Giro family was in the textile machinery business in Barcelona. But seeing opportunity in the rapid growth of the movie business, around 1928 the family founded a new company, Orpheo Sincronic Sociedad Anonima (O.S.S.A.), to manufacture movie projectors and associated equipment. In the then Golden Age of Hollywood the company thrived, establishing a reputation for quality and durability in their projectors, many of which are reportedly still in use.
The young Manuel developed a passion for power sports, racing both speedboats and motorcycles. He entered local races, first on a Norton and then a BMW, but according to period accounts he was more likely to crash than finish. About 1930, OSSA partnered with Soriano, a maker of competition outboard boat engines, at first overhead camshaft 4-stroke fours and later sixes. Manuel put one of these (a supercharged 1-liter 6-cylinder that Manuel is said to have designed himself) into his BMW chassis for more power. Though predictably fast in the straights, it seems handling may have been an issue …
In 1936, conflict overtook Spain. Nationalist forces under Francisco Franco sought to defeat the Republicans, eventually capturing their last stronghold in Madrid. Manuel is reported to have enlisted as a motorcycle dispatch rider in the Spanish Civil War — though for which side is not clear. The Nationalist forces won the war in 1939, and “Generalissimo” Franco assumed the role of dictator until his death in 1975. Franco’s oppressive regime maintained a tight control on Spain’s economy and communications industry, clouding reports from this era.
With Spain essentially sidelined from World War II, OSSA continued in the projector business into 1941. That year, Manuel attached a chair to his BMW-Soriano special — and proceeded to win the Spanish sidecar championship. His passenger? None other than Francisco Bulto, who went on to work for Montesa and later established the Bultaco company.
By this time, OSSA had secured the factory of the bankrupt Nacional Pescara automobile company to produce motorcycles. The first machines used imported engines, including a 125cc commuter bike variously reported as fitted with Motobecane or Villiers engines. With the supply of imported engines drying up because of World War II, OSSA introduced a motorcycle powered by their own engine. The OSSA engine was inspired by the ubiquitous DKW 125RT, with which it shared cylinder dimensions of 54mm x 54mm bore and stroke.
Competition from the newly formed Montesa company is said to have inspired Manuel’s next move: another 125cc machine with an OSSA-designed engine making 4.5 horsepower and finished in black, gray and chrome with gold pinstriping. Introduced in the late 1940s, the 125’s specifications apparently included a telescopic fork and 3-speed gearbox.
Although Spain enjoyed a boom in two-wheeled personal transportation similar to that seen in most European countries in the 1950s, Franco’s rigid grip on the Spanish economy meant OSSA was unable to import common components like carburetors, for example, which OSSA had to make in its own factory. The OSSA 125cc grew to 150cc, then finally to 175cc and 8 horsepower during a production run of more than a decade. During this time, OSSA also introduced a 4-stroke model reportedly designed by ex-Gilera and Bianchi engineer Alessandro Colombo, who went on to become head of the experimental department at Innocenti in 1958. This new model was aimed at the motocross market and used a 175cc Morini engine built under license.
The next generation
Manuel’s son Eduardo was born in 1934. An engineering prodigy, he had already honed his 2-stroke development skills on model aircraft engines before designing a new 160cc 2-stroke engine for OSSA, which appeared in a new street bike in 1962. The engine quickly proved to have considerable development potential, and a 175cc Sport version was announced in 1964, producing 19 horsepower at 7,200rpm and giving a claimed top speed of more than 90mph. Although superficially a conventional piston-port 2-stroke design, the engine incorporated many of the lessons Eduardo learned from tuning model aircraft engines, including aggressive porting and efficient exhaust design.
OSSA was a small firm, so the OSSA 175 Sports that lined up on the grid at Montjuïc Park in Barcelona in 1965 for the 24-hour endurance race were given little chance against the Bultacos, Montesas and Spanish Mototrans Ducatis sharing the grid. Yet OSSA riders Pedro Millet and Luis Yglesias took first place in the 250cc class, in spite of giving away 75cc to their competition.
For the 1966 race, the engine of the OSSA 175 Sports was stretched to 230cc (70mm x 60mm) for a claimed 23 horsepower at 7,000rpm, resulting in third in class and fifth overall at Montjuïc. Yglesias returned in 1967 with copilot Carlos Giro and won the race outright, setting a new record of 662 laps in 24 hours!
And while the piston-port engine worked well against production-based bikes, OSSA decided a new engine would be needed for their next venture — Grand Prix racing. Without the money to develop a multi-cylinder engine, Eduardo duly designed a disc-valve 2-stroke single of 249cc (70mm x 65mm) that, fed with a massive 42mm Spanish Amal carburetor, produced 42 horsepower at 11,000rpm. However, this was still down some 20 horsepower on the racing V4 Yamahas of the day, so Eduardo focused on handling and weight reduction. To this end, he designed a monocoque chassis to be fabricated from welded aluminum sheet that was both rigid and light, giving the prototype a weight of just 215 pounds. This, together with a wide torque band, allowed a 6-speed gearbox where others required eight and more.
Introduced at the end of the 1967 season, the 250 finished sixth its first time out in the Spanish Grand Prix. Then, in 1968, new team rider Santiago Herrero finished a creditable seventh overall in the 1968 250cc world championship, with a best performance of third in the Italian GP. In 1969, Herrero placed first in three rounds, with a second and two thirds. But four DNF’s resulted in a disappointing third place in the championship.
For 1970, the 250cc single’s output was up to 45 horsepower, and the chassis improved with Ceriani forks and a four-leading-shoe drum front brake. After a DNF in Germany, Herrero placed second in France and won in Yugoslavia. In the next round at the Isle of Man, Herrero was clocked at 137.9mph in the speed trap, the third fastest practice time of the day. But in the race itself he was caught out by a patch of molten tar on the road, crashed and was fatally injured. OSSA withdrew from racing immediately and refocused its efforts toward trials machinery and rider Mick Andrews’ challenge for the World title. Whether OSSA’s racing strategy of constructing a lighter bike with superior handling to compensate for a power disadvantage (and employing a talented, committed rider like Herrero) could have won the championship will never be known, but they certainly came close.
Though the company enjoyed some later sales success with offroad versions of its 250cc street bike and the Mick Andrews Replica trials bikes (and through its involvement in the Yankee motocross and enduro bike project), OSSA never really recovered the momentum it enjoyed in the late 1960s. Motorcycle production ended in Barcelona in 1982, though the brand was reborn in 2010 and now appears on a range of trials and endurance machines.
Reviving an OSSA 175 Sport
Though Will Mann was always a 2-stroke enthusiast, his first motorcycles were Yamahas. But it was the 180cc Yamaha YCS-1 twin Mann bought new in 1967 that changed his allegiance. “It turned out to be a bit of a dud,” he says. “It had some inherent problems that forced me to get rid of it pretty quickly.” Port Moody, British Columbia’s Cariboo Motorcycles had imported a batch of OSSA 175 Sports, so Mann, looking for a replacement for his Yamaha, bought one new. “Why I chose the OSSA I really don’t know,” he says. He must have liked it, because he still owns it — though he only rode it until 1970 before parking it. “In 1971 I bought a Datsun 240Z. I guess I gravitated from motorcycles into cars. I modified it somewhat for riding trails, but that only went on for a year or two. I didn’t put very many miles on it doing that.”
The bike sat until Mann decided it was time to do something with it. “I wondered whether I should put the effort into restoring it. It was the effort of it, and not knowing where I’d be able to get spares. But the Internet is a wonderful tool,” Mann says. He points to a number of useful contacts made via the Internet, including Bob Hogan of Hogan’s Cycle Shop in Agawam, Mass., Alex Snoop in Monroe, N.Y., the Spanish Motorcycles Owners Group — SMOG — and Mats Nyberg in Sweden.
The restoration took quite a while. “I might not look at it for four or five months at a time. I probably started gathering things about six years ago,” he says. And not all the parts Mann needed were available, like the exhaust system. So he made one. “The original muffler was dented and pushed in. I tried getting exhaust parts from people, but they didn’t have any.”
He’s also made some minor changes. The U.S./Canadian market OSSA came with Western-style handlebars, for instance, which Mann replaced with Clubman bars. “I’ve still got the original handlebars,” he says, “but they’re quite pitted. And I like the look of the Clubman bars.”
Mann also made the taillight bracket. “The taillight is a reproduction of a different OSSA model. The original bracket was long gone. When I modified it for the bush, I cut off the original passenger footpeg brackets, but for some reason I just threw them in a box and held onto them, so in restoring the frame I welded all those things back on. So it’s very similar to what it was when I bought it.”
Though the crankcase has never been split, Mann has replaced the cylinder and piston. As well as doing all his own welding, Mann also repainted the OSSA 175 Sport. “The paint took about three tries to get right. It’s a base coat/clear coat. There are some flaws in it,” he admits.
How does riding the OSSA today compare with memories of riding it back in the 1960s? “I don’t think you can ever go back,” Mann says. “But it’s still a fun bike. It’s so light and nimble. People look at it now and say ‘What the devil is it?’ ‘Where was it made?’ So I start off by saying, ‘have you heard of Bultaco? Well, these people were very much the same.’ They may have heard of OSSA in offroad, but it’s a sort of an oddball name for a road bike.”
Be that as it may, he’s glad he never got rid of the OSSA and that it’s back running today. “I’m kind of pleased with the way it worked out,” Mann admits. Indeed, who wouldn’t be? MC