The saga of the Rokon motorcycle began in deepest Africa when J. B. Nethercutt, owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics, went hunting with his sons Jack and Robert both accomplished motorcyclists. Instead of buying a Mercedes-Benz Unimog for their expedition, they bought a Land Rover, which tended to get stuck on Africa's autobahns. So, the ingenious trio came up with a 2-wheel drive bike with fat low-pressure tires that could venture to places off-limits to Britain's 4-wheeler.
The Nethercutts called their little invention a Trail-Breaker and that's what Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler, stars of the old TV show Wild Kingdom, saw while camera-hunting animals in Kenya. They liked what they saw and asked for a few Trail-Breaker units of their own, The Nethercutts, seeing a bit of a market for their invention, started Nethercutt Industries in 1959 and began building their 2- wheeled creation out of Sylmar, Calif.
The original Trail-Breaker bike was similar to today's version, with a lightweight triangular frame, hollow wheels capable of holding 4.5 gallons of gas or water, and specially made Goodyear tires, a brand still used on the bike. While today's Rokon can go 40 mph - if you're feeling lucky - the original model could make only 25 mph due to gearing. It used a kick start and did not feature the automatic transmission found on today's bikes.
As things turned out, the Wildkingdomers were about the only people interested in buying off-trail bikes with a 500-mile range. Perhaps the Nethercutts were shy on advertising. Whatever the reason, less than 1000 were sold by 1963, and the firm was purchased by Orla Larsen and Nick Harris who set up shop in Wilmington, Vt., not far from the Massachusetts border.
At low speeds familiar to the Trail-Breaker, a driver had to turn the front wheel which, had it not been powered, would rotate faster than the rear wheel since it had to cover more distance than the rear wheel in the same amount of time. Since the front-wheel speed was limied by the drive system, the bike's rear wheel tended to spin the bike around. The attendant solved the problem by installing on the drive shaft a sprag clutch, a set of dry plates that press together when turned in one direction and which loosen when turned in the other direction.
After the anonymous gas pumper fixed up the Trail-Breaker with his version of the limited slip differential, investors Larsen and Harris gathered together $30,000,000 in venture capital and in 1965, started the Rokon company, naming it after a Larsen motel called "On the Rocks."
Rokon stayed in Wilmington only 2 years, from 1965 to 1967, during which time just one basic model was produced, the Mark lIl Explorer. Some were exported to distant shores where roads are in bad condition, to Australia, India, Canada, Africa, South America, Chile, and Brazil, and to the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
While the pull cord was not user-friendly, it was much lighter than an electric start system and the torque converter did free riders from the dangerous motion of taking one hand from the handle grips to reach for the gear knob. By 1972, the Ranger featured the new automatic transmission, while that year's Trail-Breaker stayed manual.
After winning a Gold Medal at the 1972 Berkshire Two-Day International Trial, Rokon began producing a conventional cross-country bike, the RT-340, four prototypes of which won medals at the 1973 Berkshire International Six-Day Trial (ISDT), the first such event to be held in the United States. The wins encouraged Rokon to build various RT-340 models, most powered by a pull cord 335 cc Sachs engine. Starting with the 1973 RT-340 TCR (Tom Clark Replica), which was a racing prototype developed by Tom Clark, Rokon produced a plethora of conventional motorcycles including the RT-340-I (1975); RT-340-II (with laid-down shocks); RX/C-340 (1977); RT-340 Enduro; MX 340, MX- lIGP, and MX Cobra motorcross bikes; 30 or 40 flat trackers; the ST 340 and street legal RT-340S.
The '70s also brought the Trail 140. Similar to the Trail-Breaker, the 140 was rear-wheel drive only, and didn't really work; it lacked Rokon's main feature - the 2-wheel drive - and could not compete with bikes like the Honda 70.
While producing a confusing assortment of Trail-Breaker units, Trail-Breaker Mark IV Standards, Trail-Breaker Mark IV Automatics, Rangers, and Scouts, Rokon's rear-wheel drive division brought the company to its knees by 1976 when inexpensive Japanese bikes produced by well-financed firms proved a formidable problem. In 1979, Rokon went into receivership and there followed 2 years of reorganizing.
The 1980s brought improvements to the front fork, drive-line bosses, and engine. In 1987, Rokon modified the front-wheel drive system, devised a stronger frame, and began using a single size and type of bearing everywhere on the bike. It had been using four or five types. Such part interchangeability made Rokon cycles easier and less expensive to repair - an asset during the 1990 Gulf War when Rokon machines, handpainted in camouflage, were supplied to the U.S. Marines.
Blais's operation average about ten bikes a week, all sold before they're built. While busy periods may require ten employees, on most days there are only three - Blais along with brothers Mark and Mike Johnson - carefully building bikes. Each motorcycle takes about 5 hours to assemble, and they're all painted, tested and shipped from Portsmouth. "It's a very efficient operation," Blais says. "We have to be."
Blais is also proud of his bike's reliance on American-made parts, Rokon is one of only three U.S. bike manufacturers, the other two being Harley-Davidson and ATK. Utah-based ATK produces a dirt bike with as many American parts as possible but uses an Austrian Rotax engine, Nissan calipers, and some other foreign components. Rokon motorcycles remain 90 percent U.S. built. Transmission castings are made by General Machine in Wilton, N.H.; machining of the ring areas is handled by Stacy Machine in Claremont another New Hampshire town; and the torque converter still comes from Salsbury. Until the dollar regains some value in Europe, the Italian seat is gone, leaving riders with an American, sofa-like, 1-piece unit for driver and passenger. However, they're more comfortable than they look, thanks to the soft tires and shock absorbers installed under the seats of new models.
Parts for the hollow tank wheels are made by O. W. Landergren in Pittsfield, Mass., but the wheels are welded together in Portsmouth. While the wheels can be filled with gasoline - gasoline is easily transferred from the wheels by removing the plastic gas tank and attaching a hose from the wheel to the tank - the bike becomes more difficult to turn when the wheels are fully loaded. For more practical work, the real advantage of the hollow wheels is their maneuverability in mud and water.
The Rokon may not be fast but there are other assets. With more than 30 accessories, from a sidecar to power takeoff kits for pumps and generators the Rokon can handle anything from a forest fire to garden plowing. Quiet and leaving a track lighter than a footprint, Rokon cycles are friendly with the environment. Even complaints about smoky 2- stroke gas/oil mixtures have been reduced with new smokeless 2-stroke oil. Rokon's engine, also American, puts out about 10 hp at 8000 rpm. With low stress, and the engine's fine design - it used chrome-lined cylinders 30 years ago - there is little maintenance.
Rokon's attraction, its niche m the market, is its ability to carry a large payload over long and difficult distances. While Trail-Breaker machines can't do jumps and wheelies, their hollow wheels and 2-wheel drive can handle bogs and swamps that would stop dirt bikes and bulky, expensive ATVs. Still, the Rokon is not an Enduro bike, and doesn't pretend to compete with such machines. Instead, it is aimed at people who need the bike for hunting, fishing, farming, exploring, drug interdiction, forestry, missionary work, and security efforts, such as in Washington, D.C, where the capital building is presently patrolled by Honda 90s.
Rokons market includes 30,000 devotees in the United States one of whom called while Blais was talking with Compressed Air magazine. "It'll cost him $1000 to fix his 1968 bike," said Blais after putting down the phone. "It makes you wonder why he doesn't just buy a new one." The truth is, Rokon owners become very attached to their bikes. "I have customers who have the same bike they used when they went hunting with their fathers, and there's no way they're going to get rid of those bikes."
With 30 U.S. distributors, Rokon owners have little trouble maintaing their bikes. They are not only easy to repair, but parts are mailed out quickly in response to letters or phone calls to Portsmouth. A detailed and illustrated parts list comes with each bike. "Owners have our old Keene and Jaffrey numbers, so we have those numbers forwarded to our Portsmouth office," Blais says "When I see either of those Iines flashing, I know it's a customer who has had a Rokon for a long time - the average owner has had his bike for 25 years. Usually they're surprised we're still in business, and doubly surprised they can still buy parts."
An exception is the RT-340. Parts for that model are hard to find. Owners really have to search. The reason, says Blais, is that the bike is no longer being made and it wasn't manuractured for too long. And that is a reason the 340s are fetching high prices now.
Foreign markets have not been ignored, although that area could dry up fast should the U.S. dollar strengthen. Blais sells 30 percent of his bikes to customers in Japan, Africa, Iran, Europe, a Chilean mining company, and Taiwan where road bikes must be under 150 cc. When asked if it was difficult to get into the Taiwanese market Blais said that it was not "We just had to make some modifications, such as adding turn signals and a speedometer, to meet their needs. And they wanted bright colors of red, green, and yellow. The Taiwanese want American products, and the Rokon is all-American."
While 1994 brought some improvements to the Trail-Breaker - an optional seat shock absorber, quieter exhaust system, heated gun case, and a step bumper to slide the bike onto a receive hitch for easy towing - 1995 promises even more, especially to arthritic owners fustrated over the pull start motor. As yet unnamed, a new Rokon with an electric start/pull start backup Honda motor will take its place beside the standby Trail-Breaker and Scout.
While J. B. Nethercutt lost interest in his go-any-where bike, his creation is holding a devoted audience, especially if ski lift prices keep soaring. In fact, the Rokon would be just the thing to take up New Hampshire's Tuckerman Ravine on Mt Washington in the spring when the mountain's steep slopes hold snow until late June. Load the front wheel with beer, the rear with gas; strap on your skies and boots, and avoid that long 2 1/2 -mile hike to the headwall. The only other thing a skier needs is $4000 for the bike.
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