The History of Motocross: Part One

The birth of motocross:
1924 through 1939

by Ed Youngblood

There has not been a great deal of historical research about motocross. While periodical publications in both Europe and America have reported on the sport extensively, one can count on two hands the useful books that have been written about motocross. And many of the books on the subject have basically been art books, containing lovely photographs with captions, but very little historical text.

Consequently, until recently, most motorcycle historians have been willing to accept that the origin of motocross has been lost in the mists of time, often assuming – due to its name – that motocross originated somewhere in France.


Taking to the first-ever motocross, or "scramble", aboard a 1924 Velocette, 250cc two-stroke. (photos courtesy The Motor Cycle)

Early Motorcycle Competition
The earliest motorcycles were little more than bicycles with small internal combustion engines attached. When people began to race with motorcycles, sometimes they even used the tracks built for bicycle racing. In the earliest days of the century, manufacturers entered their motorcycles in competitive events to publicize their brand and prove their performance and durability, just as they still do today.

The most common types of events were track races, endurance trials, and hill climbs. Endurance trials were run over both roads and rough terrain (and often the early roads were barely distinguishable from rough terrain), and would sometimes cover hundreds of miles over periods as long as two to six days. Early hill climbs were not like the rough-and-tumble events on short, steep hills we see in America today, but were usually over a long road snaking up a big mountainside, sometimes for several miles.

While all types of early motorcycle competition emphasized both vehicle performance and rider ability, the English developed an event designed especially to test rider ability and style. Called an observed trial, it featured difficult sections where a rider’s ability was evaluated and scored by judges.

One of the earliest of these was the Scott Trial, sponsored by Yorkshire engineer and designer of the Scott motorcycle (founded in 1909) Alfred Angus Scott, in conjunction with an annual outing for his company’s employees. A course was laid out over the rugged northern English terrain, including bogs, rocky sections, and stream crossings. While top speed was not the objective of the event, a time limit was included, requiring participants to move briskly from one observed section to the next, where their ability to negotiate obstacles was judged and scored. The victor was the rider who completed the course with the fewest mistakes in the shortest period of time.

Regional Rivalry; the Sport Evolves

The Scott Trial became a prestigious event, and by the early 1920s it had contributed to the notion that Yorkshiremen were the best and toughest riders in all of Britain. Southern Englishmen took exception to this claim, and a club in Camberly laid down a challenge, proposing to organize an equally difficult event in the South so riders from each region could test their skills on both home and strange terrain. However, the local club decided to host a cross-country event over a 2.5 mile course where speed was the only factor. No observed sections were included.

The motorcycle press of the period acclaimed this idea, but the Auto Cycle Union, England’s governing body, had a problem. Because there would be no observed sections, the event would not be a trial, so it had to be sanctioned under another name, yet to be determined.

In the search for a name for this new type of event, one club member opined, “Whatever we call it, it will be a rare old scramble!” Hence, the event was officially entitled the Southern Scott Scramble, and on March 29, 1924, the motorcycle sport of scrambling was born (1).

There were 80 starters, and 40 finished. Unlike modern motocross, riders started at intervals, one at a time, and were timed over the course. However, due to steep hills and rough terrain, riders often bunched up in groups for close competition, providing plenty of action and excitement for the spectators. The winner was a local rider named Arthur Sparks, who finished the 50 mile race in two hours, one minute, and 51 seconds. He joked that due to wheel spin, he was sure his motorcycle had actually traveled a hundred miles. Frank Dean was declared the best Northerner, finishing third. Though the Southern riders finished higher, due to consistency the top 12 Northern riders turned in a better average time than the best 12 from the South.

So the rare old scramble at Camberly Heath failed to settle the debate over whose riders were better, and the rivalry continued.

Historian Bryan Stealey writes in Racer X Illustrated, “Scrambling was quickly recognized as the next big thing on both sides of the English Channel. The French seized the new form of motorcycling and gave it a slight makeover, shortening the tracks and adding laps and a few man-made obstacles like jumps. They also changed the name to ‘moto-cross’ – a combination of ‘motorcycle’ and ‘cross country.’”(2)

Over time, in Great Britain the long loops like that at Camberly Heath would be shortened to loops consistent with modern motocross courses, which makes more sense in terms of land use and better convenience and viewing for spectators.

England’s Golden Era

During the 1930s, motorcycle racing became enormously popular in Great Britain. British Brands, including BSA, Norton, Matchless, New Imperial, Rudge, and AJS, became known as the best racing motorcycles in the world, and factory-supported teams spawned great racing talents. Arguably, the best was BSA, whose riders dominated the sport for a decade and defined the 1930s as Great Britain’s golden era of motocross.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, competition was curtailed, but when it resumed following the war, Great Britain emerged again as the producer of the best riders in the world. This was proven without a shadow of a doubt when motocross officially went international in 1947. But this is a story we will address next month.

The American Coincidence
Ironically, within two years of the first British scramble at Camberly Heath, the Crotona Motorcycle Club of Crotona, New York, created an event similar in nature, which they called a “TT,” for tourist trophy. While it had few similarities to the Isle of Man TT road race, the Crotona club chose that name because riders aboard “touring” motorcycles (normal street machines) started the race at timed intervals, just like at the Isle of Man.

It is not known whether the Crotona club knew about the Southern Scott Scramble, and it would seem that if they had, they might have adopted that name, rather than TT. At any rate, Crotona’s first TT was much like an early motocross, only shorter. Riders chased over a winding path through an apple orchard near Armonk, New York (3). Why American TT and British Scrambles had similar beginnings, but evolved differently, is a topic we will explore in future installments.

At any rate, suffice to say that motorcycle racing evolved very differently here and across the pond, and it would not be for another 40 years that motocross would officially arrive in America.

As for now, we need no longer accept that motocross was invented in France or that its true origin is lost in the mists of time. Thanks to the scholarship of Bryan Stealey, we have a very strong argument that today’s motocross can be traced back to England’s first scramble, which took place in March, 1924.


First-ever motocross "win ad"?

Footnotes:

(1) For this explanation of the birth of British scrambles, which would later become known as motocross, we must thank Bryan Stealey, whose carefully researched article appeared in the August 2002 issue of Racer X Illustrated. Stealey provides a detailed and exciting description of the course and the race at England's first scramble, the Southern Scott Scramble at Camberly Heath.

(2) In many European languages -- French, Italian, and Spanish, for example -- there is no "y" in the term for motorcycle, and the word "moto" is known to be a reference to motorcycles, as used in the recently-created term "Moto GP" for the Grand Prix motorcycle road racing series. While "moto-cross" is used in England, the English persist in referring to this form of the sport as "scrambles." While "moto-cross" is still hyphenated in many countries, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, American journalists began to spell it "motocross," and today in American reporting the hyphenated form of the term is rarely used except in an historical reference.

(3) The invention of TT racing in America by the Crotona Motorcycle Club in 1926 is described by AMA Secretary E.C. Smith in the February 1933 issue of The Motorcyclist. Significantly, the Crotona TT was a prototype for Class C-type rules, which would become the philosophical basis for racing in America. As it applies to motocross, the Class C philosophy of racing only serial production motorcycles will become especially significant when we eventually looks a the AMA national series in the 1980s.

The history of MX

  1. The birth of motocross
  2. Motocross goes international
  3. Edison Dye's Flying Circus
  4. The changing of the guard
  5. The man who put America first
  6. Boom time
  7. The young Americans
  8. Taking MX to the people
  9. Motocross, American style