Simon de Burton
Mention ‘Swedish exports’ and Ikea, Abba, au pair girls and saunas might spring to mind – unless you’re a long-standing motorcycle fan, in which case Sweden is likely to be more synonymous with the legendary name of Husqvarna.
Yes, you’ve probably seen it on the side of lawnmowers, chainsaws, leaf blowers and even sewing machines, but these are all off-shoots of a company that can trace its lineage right back to 1689 when it started life as a musket maker.
As with other celebrated gun manufacturers such as Royal Enfield and BSA, Husqvarna eventually capitalised on its good engineering background to expand into motorcycle production, making its first powered two-wheeler in 1903 and rapidly growing to the point that it had become a fully integrated bike builder by 1918, complete with a lucrative contract to supply the Swedish army.
And although Husqvarna enjoyed a golden era of road racing success during the 1930s, the military’s big demand for tough, versatile, go-anywhere motorcycles laid the foundations that helped the marque to become the dominant force in the lucrative off-road sector during the boom decades of the 1960s and 70s.
It was during that golden era that Husqvarna won no fewer than 14 world motocross titles, 24 World Enduro Championships and 11 podiums in the gruelling Baja 1000 desert race to establish itself as the maker of the ultimate machines for off-road racing.
And, as if it hadn’t become famous enough through its dominance of the dirt, Husqvarna was given a turbocharged publicity boost in 1970 when Hollywood legend and off-road motorcyling enthusiast Steve McQueen fell in love with the marque and began to ride ‘Huskys’ in enduros, scrambles and desert competitions.
Even more importantly for Husqvarna, McQueen and his riding pal Malcolm Smith were filmed on the firm’s bikes for the making of the 1971 cult classic motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday – and, in recent years, examples of Husqvarna 400 ‘Cross’ motorcycles owned by McQueen have sold at auction for up to £100,000.
By the 1980s, however, Husqvarna’s once unique products had come to be well and truly matched by Japanese manufacturers such as Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki, leading to the firm being sold first in 1987 to the Italian Cagiva company and later, in 2007, to BMW.
But around five years ago the marque was promised a new lease of life when it was purchased by its one-time arch rival, the Austrian firm KTM, which quickly announced that the Husqvarna name would once more appear on a range of pure road bikes after a hiatus of more than 50 years.
And the first of those have just hit Britain’s shores in the form of the ‘Vitpilen’ and ‘Svartpilen’ models that are the flagships of an entirely new range known as ‘Real Street’.
Respectively translatable as ‘white arrow’ and ‘black arrow’, the former can be had in 401 and 701 guises (with 375cc or 693cc engines) and the latter as a 401 only. Both bikes are based on existing KTM platforms, but have been given their own, highly individual style with a short, aggressive look in keeping with their intended purpose as nimble and nippy commuter machines that should make light work of city traffic. ‘Husqvarna is still world renowned as a maker of motocross and enduro motorcycles,’ says UK brand manager David Edwards. ‘But the Vitpilen and Svartpilen represent a radical departure because they’re aimed at attracting the professional, urban commuter rather than the type of hardened, off-road riders that the marque is more usually associated with.’
‘These bikes are not about heading off on a three-week adventure into the wild – they are simply about getting around your local area and riding across towns and cities to get to work, but looking cool while you do it.’
Husqvarna’s aim is to capitalise on the increasingly important ‘lifestyle’ aspect of motorcycling, which is leading more buyers to seek out machines with unusual or unique styling – a requirement that often results in them commissioning one-off, custom bikes from professional builders who often base such projects on existing ‘classic’ donor machines that they then modify to each client’s specification.
The downsides of taking that route to individuality, however, are that it can be expensive to commission such a build and that the bikes can often prove unreliable for daily use.
Where the Vitpilen and Svartpilen aim to score, therefore, is by offering a combination of great aesthetics, practicality, performance and reliability in a package that starts at £5,599 for the 401 Vitpilen and Svartpilen models, rising to £8,599 for the 701 Vitpilen.
At that money, they’ll be undercutting similarly targeted machines such as the Triumph Bonneville, Harley-Davidson Sportster and Ducati Scrambler but will still be more expensive than the long-standing Royal Enfield Bullet and its new, twin-cylinder Continental GT and Interceptor stablemates.
Both the Vitpilen and Svartpilen appear very nicely made and are replete with top-quality components such as Brembo brakes and WP suspension, together with beautiful laser-cut, robot-welded frames.
The key to the new bikes’ success, however, will lie in Husqvarna’s ability to supply reliable machines and back them up with a strong aftersales service – because, unlike all those motocross hardmen of the 1960s and 70s who helped put the marque on the map, today’s new generation of street-riding, hipster bikers generally object to the idea of getting their hands dirty.