6 Dirt Bikes That Changed the Sport

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With the announcement of the Unit Skycraft and it’s incredibly light carbon fiber frame, we see a product that may spurn the next giant shift in motocross bikes. Let’s take a look back at six dirt bikes that changed the sport forever and helped give way to the bikes we’re riding today.

1970 Husqvarna 400 Cross

The 1970 Husqvarna 400 Cross is the star of the 1971 classic “On Any Sunday.” It’s credited, alongside that Steve McQueen fella, with helping to bring the sport into the mainstream. The bike is timeless and forever tied to Mr. McQueen, one of the few truly iconic bikes in all of motorcycling and is included in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Pickerington, Ohio.


1975 Yamaha YZ250

The YZ was released as Yamaha’s response to the Honda Elsinore. For $1890, it was nearly twice the price but included the best technology available on the planet including the first Monoshock ever featured on a motocross bike. It was lighter than everything else and had almost twice the suspension travel of any other bike and set the bar until 1980 when the rest of the industry finally mimicked the technology.


1982 Yamaha YZ250

Yamaha’s next pioneer was actually kind of a stinker. It was too heavy and had too little power. It also, however, had the first modern day two-stroke engine. This iteration of the YZ250 was also the first use of liquid cooling on a motocross bike. Yamaha created so much of what we have today, it just took them a little longer to get the package right.


1988 Honda CR250R

The 1988 CR250R was a completely new motorcycle over the 1987 model and was the first of what we consider the second (and current) generation of body styles. That being, it was the first to lower the tank and bodywork to better centralize the mass, thus making the bike easier to control. All of that said, it was still not a very popular bike, as people didn’t like the re-tune of the 1987 engine.


1998 Yamaha YZ400F

Yamaha took the 4-stroke dirt bike from a play toy to motocross race bike with the YZ400F. It was far more reliable than anything else in it’s class and was the only thing on the market producing that amount of torque across what must have felt like an endless 12,000rmp powerband. While the 400F still had its faults, it’s widely credited as the most important dirt bike of the entire decade.


2002 Honda CRF450R

It was four years before anyone could touch what Yamaha had in the YZ400F. The CRF450R had all the benefits of the 400F’s 4-stroke engine, but was far lighter, smaller, and easier to operate. It didn’t have the engine, braking, fueling hesitation, or starting issues the Yamaha YZ400F had and was far easier to transfer to and own. This, or the CRF450X (the plated version), are still what Boosti (one of our resident adventure guys) and rest of our off-road adventure buddies choose as their favorite.

Which dirt bike was the first to came out with a new feature that you really lusted after?

Related Links:
Adventure: Riverside to Vegas…Almost
Tips: 11 Tips for Riding Off-Road
Review: Honda CRF250L
New Technology: Unit Skycraft Concept Drops FMX Weight To Just 165 lbs — AIMExpo 2013

  • uberbox

    I think the 1997 Honda CR250R needs to be included in this list. First mass production (to my knowledge) of an aluminium frame.

    • http://setthemfree.tumblr.com/ Sasha Pave

      I was just about to suggest the same thing. It was a difficult riding bike, but a game changer for all Japanese MXers.

  • owen

    I think the hope is the carbon bike will SPUR the next generation. I doubt it’s going to renounce it as stated above. Haha I’m just having fun.

    • Mykola

      The YZ400F’s “12,000rmp” powerband is another typo.

  • Reid

    Obviously the dirt bike that changed the world the most was that one Honda that John Connor rides when he’s trying to get away from the semi truck being driven by T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. John’s dirtbike had like 16 gears.

    • Matt C

      And a four stroke motor that sounded like a two stroke.

    • Chris

      Yeah they dubbed in a 2 stroke engine over his XR’s real thumper sounds.
      Hey Wes and crew- this is good. More dirtbike lore less Harley nonesense.

      • contender

        Yeah, this was fun.

        More anything less Harley.

  • Theodore P Smart

    No Can-Am MX250? You youngsters need to read some history…

    • http://setthemfree.tumblr.com/ Sasha Pave


  • uberbox

    Or how about Cannondale’s ill-fated but way-advanced for the time bike? The newer YZF450R is very similar to that bike in concept.

  • Chris

    The mid 70′s Maico’s should get honorable mention as well for having the best forks on any dirtbike up to that point. They were so good several of the Japanese factory teams used them.

    • http://setthemfree.tumblr.com/ Sasha Pave

      Not only the best forks, but the most bad-ass 490 2-stroke ever!

  • http://setthemfree.tumblr.com/ Sasha Pave

    It’s probably not a single model, but the millennium-era KTM RFS was a game-changer for European enduro bikes. The RFS engine and PDS shock system were pretty instrumental in it’s rapid rise.

  • Larry

    I didn’t realize the 82 YZ250 mounted the radiator on the triple clamp behind the number plate. That must have been a handful.

    • Rooster

      Yeah, it was the same place as the 1981 YZ 125, but with a more nicely styled numberplate than the scoop that was used the year before. In 1981, when Yamaha brought out the first watercooled 2-stroke engine. Not 1982 on the 250 like the article states. You can see it here: http://www.yamahamotorsports.com/sport/epic_mcy/500/81_yz125_3_600.jpg

  • minnjohn.advrider

    Love the dirt bike talk. If I had to vote for one, I’d pick the 1975 Honda XL250. Yes, I know it’s an enduro that is less dirt worthy than the Elsinore, or any of the other bikes above, but it’s the bike that brought me and a whole generation of riders onto the trails. And as it happens, I’m riding one now, and they’re still a treat — 70′s era drum brakes included.

  • John

    Every place I see around here, though, has YZ400Fs or 450Fs in the shop for rebuilds. This is why it would be nice to have someone actually build motorcycles that are more about reliability and fun, than winning competitions, because, while everyone seems to want a competition bike, very few actually need one.

    • Justin McClintock

      Yamaha builds two of those actually. YZ250 and WR450F. That said, I’d take the WR400 over the 450 given the chance.

  • Von

    Nice write up! My first bike was a ’81 YZ100. Thing ripped! I’m surprised the CR500 didn’t make this list. What a beast and a huge player in the MX Des Nations over the years when two strokes reigned. I should buy an ’88 CR250!

  • Grame Kraakor

    At least you had an article about dirt bikes but you’ve got a lot of incorrect information here. The first YZ 250 was in ’74 and had twin shocks. The ’82 YZ was not the first use of water cooling on an MX bike it wasn’t even Yamaha’s first MX water pumper. That was the ’81 YZ 125 which is the same year Suzuki’s RM 125 and Honda’s CR 125 & 250 were water cooled for the first time. Any list like this should include the ’73 CR 125 & 250 Elsinore’s, 69′ Penton 125 and the 74.5 Maico MX bikes. And what does the picture of the CR500 have to do with it.

  • Jono

    Probably the first two stroke with a reliable power valve… that must have been a huge contribution.

    also, my husky’s (te511) co-axial traction: climb any hill in any conditions and its actually not an issue to live with- adds maybe 5 mins to accessing your drive sprocket, once you get the hang of it. Its actually easier to service your swing arm bearings and chains + sprocket teeth seem to last forever.

  • Andrew Elcik

    How many of us threw our leg over a 1968 Yamaha 250 DT-1 and discovered what dirt riding was all about for the first time? Before then most of us could only dream of those exotic European bikes we saw in Cycle World magazine.

  • Beale

    My point of reference is 1970′s desert racing as opposed to motocross. For us, it was the big bore monoshock Yamahas that changed everything. The ’76 YZ400 and ’77 IT400 raised the axe over the lightweight european bikes (just as they had on the desert sleds 10 years before) but it was the YZ/IT465 that swung it down and lopped their heads clean off.

    I remember the change over of bikes coming through the pits. It was only over a 2-3 years period. It was incredible how absolute it was.

  • Daniel Olin

    No mention of Hodaka? They ruled/defined the scrambles and trials segments in the 60s and early 70s, and proved to the larger companies like Yamaha and Honda that there was money to be made there. They make an appearance in “On Any Sunday” as well.