Back to the Future: by Paul Andratis

It was a typical Saturday afternoon getting the bike ready for another race just like I’ve done a couple hundred times before. This time it was a Cross Country race at Codrington, the last race of the 2014 season. I was running behind schedule and still had the tranny parts out on the bench and it was already 9pm.

It seems lately I park the bike after a race until the next one then scramble like a mad man washing it and doing maintenance the day before the next race. This was no exception, however this time I was prepping my recently restored 1986 Husqvarna 430AE Automatic.

First a little background on the bike. For those who aren’t familiar the 1986 Auto, it is a water cooled 430cc non power-valved 2-stroke single, with a fully automatic 3-speed transmission. Front had a disc brake, rear was a drum brake. It was Husqvarna’s first attempt at single shock rear suspension.

When I was rebuilding this bike, I wasn’t interested in racing it in a vintage class. I wanted to prove that it was competitive with anything new out there now. I know the chassis is dated, but that Auto motor was its secret weapon.

This is the bike that I won two Provincial and two National Enduro Championships on in 1986-87 and won the Corduroy Enduro overall in 1987. I have my best racing memories aboard this bike and never sold it thinking I would race it again someday. Every few years I would dream of racing it again like in the good old days. The only problem was it needed a lot of work and where do you find Husky Auto parts 10 years after they quit making them, then 20 years went by, then 25.

Then in 2012 something happened, well two things happened. First my mother’s sewer backed up into her basement and I helped with the cleanup. It’s amazing what gets saved living in the same house for 45 years. Two dumpsters later, we got on a bit of a roll and cleaned out the garage and most importantly my old dirt bike shed. It is only 10’ x 12’. Funny but it seemed bigger 25 years ago, when I must have been smaller I guess. In the corner was a bin containing my old 430 Auto motor, all be it in pieces. Further searching found the frame and wheels in the attic of the garage. The only thing missing was the seat and tank which I had given away years ago. This rekindled my dream.

The second thing that happed was the Internet. Throughout the years I made several attempts to restore it but didn’t think any parts existed any more. It never ceases to amaze me what a google search brings up in the internet nowadays, motorcycle wise that is. I was able to find all the Auto transmission parts necessary to get the motor put back together. I even tracked down an OEM that still produces the specialized one-way sprag clutch bearings. Let me tell you, if I had a time machine, I’d go back and stock pile dirtbike parts. The return on investment seems to be about 500% if I remember what I paid for parts back in the day.

With the motor side of things looked after, I still needed a seat and tank and various chassis parts that had been lost. A search on Kijiji found me a donner bike and a name from the past: Jamie Stevens. Jamie was a Husqvarna dealer in the eighties in the Niagara Peninsula, Winona to be exact. One of his employees had a 1986 WR400 up for sale, chassis parts were the same. This was everything I needed to complete the restoration.

Without much work I was able to track down all of the 1986 Automatics that were sold in Ontario back then. You see when you bought an Auto you were kind of stuck with it for one of two reasons. First, it was the coolest thing you ever rode even though it was expensive and time consuming to maintain, you may have ran out of parts and money but you just can’t let go of the dream. Second, you couldn’t sell it even if you wanted to, because of the above reasons no one in their right mind wanted it.

There were four Autos sold in Ontario back in ’86 that I know of, three of the four were still owned by the original purchasers: myself, Steve Tustin and Dave Cockayne. All that remained of the fourth was the motor, and it had changed hands about four times and was that of Craig Kennedy’s. It was a real basket case by now and picked it up for next to nothing. Steve or rather his son Zack still had dreams of restoring his, which he later did. And I was able to buy Dave’s motor for spare parts as it was in excellent condition.

So, I had everything I needed to complete the project. And then some. You see I was not really interested in restoring it to original ‘vintage’ status. My idea was to build ‘my’ ultimate race bike. I also enlisted an old 1998 Husqvarna WR250 that I rode until the motor just plain wore out. I would use the front end off of it with its “newer” disc brake. Also from the ’98 I fitted the rear wheel and disc brake with a few modifications. This allowed for a left hand actuated rear brake which I unsuccessfully tried to do back in 1986 but being cable operated it wasn’t practical.

It was later that year that I saw Warren Thaxter at a race and mentioned what I wanted to do. I have known Warren for longer than I’ve owned the Auto, he always tells it like he sees it, and doesn’t hold back on his opinion. So I told him my story and how I wanted to rebuild the Auto and he listened intently and when I finished, without any hesitation at all he said in that authoritative tone of his “well that sounds great, but you’re going to spend a pile of money rebuilding it and when you finally get to ride it, you’re going to hate it after riding modern bikes for so long.” Well I thanked him for his opinion, and left thinking: I’ll show him, I’ll prove him wrong. I was even more determined now to finish this project.

It was getting late in the year and I wanted to finish it off and get a few rides in before winter, so with many a late night and my friend Jack Daniel to guide me, I was able to piece it all together.  Now the moment of truth: would it run. From a bit of a basket case, to six months of sourcing parts and doing the rebuild, I was nervous. It was late at night so I wheeled it out behind the shop to shield to neighbours from the noise if it fired up. It has probable been close to 25 years since I had left kicked a bike to life, so here goes. I folded out the kick start lever with my left hand, raised my left booted foot and slowly stroked the big 430 piston to the top, then brought the lever back to the top and kicked it through. Nothing happened on the first kick, but it felt natural kicking left, just like meeting up with an old friend. I repeated the same procedure and on the second kick it roared to life. Not bad at all, after 25 years. I let her warm up for a minute or so then shut her down. After parking her back in my shop and locking up I crawled into bed all tingling with excitement to take the next afternoon off work and go for a test ride.

The next day was a bright sunny day with a high of about 8 degrees C. It was the end of November so it was a good day. I unloaded at one of my favourite spots five minutes from work. She fired right up again, and I hit the trails. Suspension seemed pretty good for a start, as it was all tight woods and black loamy soil conditions. The power deliver and the way that the Auto finds traction everywhere all came flooding back from a distant memory. The raw power of the old school big bore and hero dirt were a perfect combination. I rode the whole trail once through and took a farmers lane back to the start. I want to stretch its legs a little to see how the three speed Automatic tranny was working. I got going a good clip and had to brake for a sharp right hander. There was only one problem, it had been in the shade all day being on the north side of the woodlot. There was a lot of moisture in the ground that time of year and it was consistently below freezing every night, so the corner had frost in the ground with a thin slippery layer on top. I may have been a bit too hard on the brakes and the front washed out while I was still travelling at a high rate of speed. I was down in a flash sliding along with the bike miraculously still hanging on to the grips. As everything came to a stop I somehow found my footing on the ground and in one fluid motion righted the bike back up and twisted the throttle without missing a beat. As I continued on, I couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear and laughing out loud. From going down in what was essentially top gear to getting going again in a split second with the only input being throttle. That is what the Auto does flawlessly. I knew right then and there exactly why this bike was worth all the effort.

I could go on and on explaining the virtues of the Auto, but in a nut shell the beauty of my set up is that there are only three inputs to bike control, throttle, front brake and rear brake. All of these are hand controlled. Clutch and gear selection is removed from the picture. This leaves more focus on reading the terrain, line choices and body positioning. Feet are free to use equally in cornering left or right, or grip the bike for better bike control. Working through traffic at the start of a Cross Country race is easier, just follow close and you are always ready to pounce when the rider in front bobbles or misses a shift, the Auto is always in the right gear to rocket past. And best of all, when conditions get really slick the Auto is like cheating against a standard bike. Oh, and hills are a piece of cake, the Auto handles gear selection seamlessly powering all the way to the top.

The next spring and summer were spent fine tuning the suspension and working on the transmission for reliability. When I first race the Auto I want it all sorted out.

Back to the 2014 Codrington race, because of working on bike late Saturday night, I forgot to fill up the gas can for Sunday’s race. I like to only use Shell V-Power premium gas and I left at 6:00am and the local Shell station wasn’t open yet so I would just have to stop on the way. I was on the lookout for a Shell station all the way from Simcoe through T.O. with no luck. I knew where there was a Shell station in Ajax, so I pulled off the highway. As I pulled into the Shell station I noticed a DeLorean filling up next to me. I stuck up a conversation with its owner. Something like: “there’s something you don’t see every day” and his reply was “I do, see it every day that is”. We had a short conversation on the history of his DeLorean and how I was racing a restored dirt bike from the same era. Then I was on my way.

I arrived at the race at about the time that the morning race was being started. Finding a parking spot was a bit of a chore, I ended parking near the OO sign up tent. I unloaded and proceeded to field a continuous barrage of questions and comments about the bike and vintage bikes in general. Everyone wished me luck, but somehow I think they actually thought I was some sick bastard for racing such an old bike alongside the new stuff.

Race time was approaching quickly, so I got in my usual routine and got to the start line with plenty of time to spare. I practiced a few successful starts. Starting the Auto for a dead engine start is a little tricky. The engine will almost always fire up on the first kick just like any other bike, which is good. Being an Automatic transmission it can only be started in neutral, then you need to reach down and select the drive setting but only when the engine RPMs come down to an idle. Well that takes way too much time for a dead engine start. So back in 1986 with the help of my Husqvarna dealer Dave Armstrong, we devised a cable operated drive engagement system. The trick was I still had to start it in neutral, but if I released the drive engagement lever on the bars at exactly the right instant while kicking it over, just as it fired but before the RPMs increased. It would rocket away and then just hold the throttle full on to the first corner. Sounds simple enough?

So all the classes line up in their respective lines for the 1:00pm start time. But we have to wait there because they hadn’t yet cleared the course from the morning race. So with everybody nervously awaiting the start, Lloyd Heacock who was doing the start, gets on the loud speaker to entertain us while we wait. He explained the situation and what the holdup was about. Then he proceeded to give us a nice family history of the Heacock’s dirt biking legacy, how he raced then his son Dustin and now his grandson Ryder who was on the Expert starting line. It was a really nice touching tribute, great to see the different generations of families involved in the sport. Then with more time to kill, he’s looking my way and sure enough he says: “There’s a 30 year old bike on the line today, Paul Andratis’ Husqvarna Automatic.” He asks me to identify myself by raising my hand, which I do. Well I generally prefer to just blend into the background, but here he was drawing attention to me. So everybody turns my way and I feel I am required to say something. I felt like a bit of a celebrity, being centered out like this, so my reply was “you can all have a free selfie with me after the race if you wish”. That got a huge laugh. And with that, it was now time to go racing.

My class, Vet A, starts in the third wave. When it was our turn I was all set with my special starting procedure. When the flag drops I flub the start. The engine started ok but I didn’t get the timing right and the RPM’s rose to the moon before I engaged the lever. So I had to wait for the revs to come back down to an idle before I could properly engage drive. Well everyone in my class was long gone and I felt like a bit of a dork leaving the line all alone in last place. But I managed to work my way past everyone in my class and came through scoring in the lead after the first lap, the Auto was working great. This venue has a lot of long hills and technical sections that the Auto works great on.

The race went great, and I won my class by over eight minutes. The Vet A class runs for 2 hours, whereas the Expert and Pro class goes 2 ½ hours. At the 2 hour mark when they stopped our class I was running 6th overall amongst the Expert and Pro’s. All in all a good day at the races.

I was hoping to see Warren that day but he was on a trip out west at the time. I just wanted to see what his thoughts were now. That would have to wait until the muddy Free Flow race in 2015, where upon finishing with the Auto, gave me the thumbs up and a pat on the back saying “you got that Auto working good”. He was partially right though, bikes suspension plushness has come a long way since then. But the whole Auto package still has me grinning ear to ear every time I ride it.

Well I was on a bit of a high after the race, and the drive home through the heavy Toronto traffic didn’t even bother me.

Upon arriving home I backed up to my shop, unloaded and cleaned out the van. I grabbed my first place plaque and headed for the house. I recalled the events of the day with seeing the DeLorean and racing my old Auto to first place and all. I pause briefly to look back at the van, you see I started to drive a diesel van a few years back, and I was tempted to pop the hood and figure out with one of those strange looking devices under there was the ‘Flux Capacitor’ that transported me back to the ‘80s for the day.

Over a period of three seasons, I have raced the Auto 7 times in the Vet-A class of the Off-Road Ontario Cross Country series and except for the second place on its’ first race back, it has won each time since. I am now quite hesitant to race it again, I don’t think I can keep the Auto’s undefeated record going much longer. But it is so much fun to ride when the conditions are right, so I am sure I’ll be out there racing it again soon. It really was worth all of the effort, and I proved something I knew all along: the Auto was built ahead of its time.