For me, the Rickman 125 was a turning point in motorcycling. It is, 26 years later, one of the two new bikes I’ve owned. Before and after 1974, I’ve always bought used. I paid $500 for the Rickman, right out of the box. I did the dealer assembly myself, as part of the price I’d negotiated. The bike was sold as a 1974 model, but I think it was a 1973 that was just relabeled when the ’73 inventory carried over. Modern suspensions just started to appear in 1974 and the Rickman was almost instantly obsolete.
On one hand, it was a terrific motorcycle. The Rickman 125 ISDT (International Six Day Trials model) had strong, bulletproof motor and the bike was an artistic example of European design. The chrome-moly, nickel plated frame was an example of the finest workmanship. The quality and beauty of the welding was the best I’ve ever seen, anywhere.
While the radial head Zundapp motor was a nightmare of false neutrals and monster-Q powerband, the motor had a chrome-plated cylinder and rings. I think the Zundapp 125 would outlast any other motorcycle I’ve ever heard of, off-road. However, the powerband was so limited that it drove me to disassemble and reassemble the motor dozens of times, hoping to find some miracle that would put me in the front of the pack without having to spend hard-to-come-by money getting there.
In those days, I was earning $3.60 an hour and supporting a family of four on that wage. My average work week was 80 hours and I’d saved spare change for a whole year to scrape up the $500 to buy this bike. Regardless of how unsuited it was for the purpose I intended, it was going to have to work because I had no other choice. I raced the Rickman in the last few cross-country events in the Midwest. I thrashed it through several thousand miles of motocross tracks across Nebraska and northern Kansas, including “the big show”; the Herman, NE track where the nationals and international racers visited on the AMA and and TransAM tour. (My bike actually touched the same dirt as Roger DeCoster, Bob Hannah, and a host of great riders of whom you’ve probably never heard. I ground the Rickman’s gears through a half-dozen enduros, a 24-hour winter endurance race in South Dakota, and, once, an observed trials. I even taught my wife how to ride a bike on this bike.
As you can see by the above scan of a nasty old Polaroid, motorcycling was a family sport for my family in those days. No, I didn’t ride in that “outfit” (how about those Converse riding “boots”?), but I did a lot of tuning in an enclosed garage that probably could have smoked meat. My passenger is my beautiful daughter, Holly, when she was about three years old. Remembering that exhaust setup, the bike had to have been stone cold for us to be sitting in those positions. That homemade expansion chamber could fry a steak at 2″.
Don’t ask me why I left the speedo on the bike in motocross form, but there it was. I probably had twice as much invested in the add-ons for this bike than I’d spent on the original motorcycle. I pounded out the exhaust myself, finishing it off with one of the original pie-pan SuperTrapp silencers. I’d “blueprinted the intake ports (which made the bike even peakier), tuned the crap out of the Bing carb, and attempted shimming the transmission (which reduced the number of false neutrals available between gears from 4,358 to 12), and invested a thousand hours in the suspension. All in vain. The Rickman was about 50 pounds too heavy, 10 hp too wimpy, and the wide-band ISDT transmission just didn’t cut it on the motocross track. I did OK in the half dozen cross-country races I’d managed to locate, but cross-country racing was all but dead in 1974 and enduros bored me stiff.
Toward the end of my racing “career,” all of the major damage I did to myself happened on the Rickman. More accurately, those things happened as I was being flung from the Rickman. Broken toes, fingers, ribs, collarbone, and all sorts of burns and road rashes. After 10 years of riding damage-free, I went through a six month period where I couldn’t seem to keep the rubber-side down. At age 31, I quit racing while I could still stand mostly erect.
I probably put several thousand hours on the Zundapp motor and, every winter when I tore it down, the rings and cylinder met like-new specs. I sold the bike in 1978, for $125. By then, it was absolutely useless on a race track. Long travel suspensions and watercooled motors had turned the Rickman and most of Europe’s motorcycles into ancient history. It was still a beautiful piece of workmanship, though. It was almost like selling a member of the family. I have not been sentimental about selling a motorcycle since the Rickman rolled out of my garage belonging to someone else.
The above picture is of the Rickman in cross-country or enduro dress. Working (mostly) Bosch electrics, a Carl Shipman toolbag on the tank, and, otherwise, the same bike I raced on Nebraska motocross tracks. I’d gear the bike down about 6 teeth (rear sprocket) for motocross, because the top speed was 75mph over broken ground in stock form. The bike was so stable that a good (and light, less than 150 lbs.) rider could wick it up and hang on for miles, WFO.
The last cross-country race I did on the Rickman was in far western Sidney, Nebraska, about 30 miles from the Colorado border. I was blasting the 125 class when the race was called for the mother of all dust storms after the third lap. I looked like a filthy raccoon, when I pulled off my goggles and helmet and my eyes were so sandblasted that I could hardly open them the next day. The dust was so dense that it chewed through the master cylinder on my Mazda’s hydraulic clutch on the way back home. We drove almost 400 miles, clutch-less, 100 of that through dust so thick that visibility was barely beyond the nose of our 1973 Mazda RX3 station wagon. The Rickman, however, was doing fine when the race ended.
It took a lazy Nebraskan, who thought air filters were for girly-men, to kill the Rickman. He put in a whole day of riding on the Platte River bed before the power vanished and he walked back home, leaving the Rickman to sink into the sandy river bottom. He even had the gall to call me and complain about the bike, two years after he bought it and 2,000 miles after I’d sold it to him. The bike’s frame was a work of welding art. It should have enjoyed a much more honorable demise, but dirt bikes don’t often die happily or attractively.