Why Malcolm Smith’s ‘On Any Sunday’ bikes are so cool

Remember the scene at the end of the 1971 movie “On Any Sunday” where AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famers Malcolm Smith, Mert Lawwill and Steve McQueen were play riding?

That’s the scene that convinced countless Americans just how much fun motorcycle riding can be. Smith, an off-road racer and desert aficionado, was aboard one of the best off-road bikes of the day: a Husqvarna 400 Cross.

Remember the scene where a bunch of racers get bogged down in a huge mudhole during the Elsinore Grand Prix, and Smith goes flying by? Smith was riding 1970 Husqvarna 250.

So what’s so special about these two machines?

For one, Smith was riding them.

Though relatively unknown outside racing circles at the time, Husqvarna was a serious force in international motocross, ultimately winning 14 World Motocross Championships and 24 World Enduro Championships through the 1960s and ’70s. So naturally, there was more to this bike than movie-star good looks.

Smith’s 400 Cross was a bigger version of the popular, world championship-winning 250 Cross. The 395cc two-stroke single weighed 231 pounds dry. It was a light, sharp-handling performer, known for excellent power and decent factory suspension.

Those capabilities, along with world-class talent at the controls, spurred the Husqvarna 400 Cross to competition success in the 1971 Baja 1000, where it was ridden to victory by Smith and Gunnar Nilsson.

In many ways, though, racing success couldn’t be as influential as the free-riding footage that capped a documentary about motorcycle racing. That scene in particular is credited with a reported sales spike for Husqvarna after “On Any Sunday” hit theaters.
While Smith’s 500 Cross was a four-speed, his 250 was an eight-speed.

In the 1970 Elsinore Grand Prix movie footage, Smith zagged right through a gap in a fence on the course, then zigged left through another opening to leave the floundering masses behind.

Smith’s finely hone racing instincts had a lot to do with that seemingly effortless move, but his 1970 Husqvarna 250 eight-speed that weighed 224 pounds dry also played a part.

Back then, about 1,500 off-road riders participated in the annual Elsinore Grand Prix, a race that led through the streets of the Southern California town, then onto dirt roads and trails nearby.

Smith says he could do more than 100 mph on the roads and having eight speeds gave him the ability to negotiate tight terrain.

The magic that turned the four-speed Husky into an eight-speed involved an extra gear on the output end of the crankshaft. A lever on the left handlebar, above the clutch lever, controlled which final-drive gear was engaged, making it easy to shift between the high and low ranges.

As chronicled by filmmaker and AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Bruce Brown in “On Any Sunday,’” Malcolm won the Elsinore race handily. Since then, both Malcolm and the movie have become motorcycling legends.