Tanshanomi's Snap Judgments

Bul Stories

by Lane Campbell
Originally printed in the January, 1981 edition of Rider magazine
Copyright Rider Magazine, reprinted by permission.


Mention the name Bultaco to contemporary road riders, and you'll likely get a blank stare. Or else, if the person is literate enough to have a collection of motorcycle magazines, some comprehension will bubble to the surface "...Oh, yeah. The dirt bikes." Yes, the Bultaco marque is firmly established among dirt bikers, and with reason. They and their Spanish-built contemporaries, Ossas and Montesas, taught a lot of us the difference between just bikes and dirtbikes.

Back when Crazy Ollie and I were banging about the backroads of Virginia, I thought there were just bikes. I mean, you had a motorcycle; you rode it wherever the spirit led — on road or off. If the spirit led you up the side of the nearest mudbank and betwixt the trees, you followed it as far and as long as you could hang on and stay upright.

That things might be otherwise, I blithely ignored, until the day Ollie caught the wasp in his sweatshirt. About an hour before that happened, we'd been following these knobby-tired bike tracks along a railroad right-of-way; Ollie on his battered Honda, I on my Suzuki X-6 (and both of us on street tires, yet). We at last came to a 30-foot gully with a V-bottom and rock-studded sides.

Ollie scratched his head, "I don't think we can make that."

I was relieved to hear it. "I don't think so either, Ol. Uh, but what about this other guy?"

The tracks we'd been following went crab-wise down one side of the ditch, arrow straight up the other side, and disappeared into the woods.

"Had to have been riding a Bullaco," Ollie said.

"Oh," I said, as if I knew what he meant.

Next time I got back to Washington, D.C., on vacation from school, I dropped into a bike shop to check out this Bultaco phenomenon, recognizing the distinctive "thumbs-up" logo as I puttered past on the street. The only Bul they had in the shop must have been a Mercurio or a Campera. It had a rounded, slightly cobby-looking gas tank and a seat with a strip of suede down the center. I thought the suede was kinda' neat. The black-and-silver-finished two-stroke single-cylinder engine underneath seemed rather stark. Like, where were the cams, the valves, all the trick stuff?

"Uh, what kind of power does it put out?" I asked the clerk, who looked like he'd seen my kind all too often.

"About 20," he shrugged, and offered no further explanation.

I again said, "Oh," as if I knew what was going on. Ollie's Honda was rated at 27 hp, my X-6 claimed 29, and the new Kawasaki scramblers were supposed to make 31. I couldn't see 20. So I shrugged and sauntered back out the door.

That same vacation weekend, Ollie I and I happened to be playing in Rock Creek Park, attempting to straighten out, a few curves on the park road. About midway through the park (which runs along a heavily-wooded ravine bottom, nearly the entire length of Washington, D.C.) we came upon this other rider in a pudding-basin helmet, riding some sort of two-stroke single.

We knew that much, because he was trailing a telltale mist of blue haze, and we could only count one exhaust pipe.

As we got closer, I also noticed his seatback sported a suede center strip. Oho, one of those 20-hp Bultacos! About that time, the guy saw us in the rearview, flashed us a grin over his shoulder, and rolled the throttle on with a distinct flick of the elbow, spurting away in a smokescreen of his own making.

I looked at Ollie, Ollie looked at me, and we both gave chase. With all the finesse of the Charge of the Light Brigade, we were soon on his tail again. Hey, the guy only had 20 hp; we were bound to reel him in. Next to the stuttering bellow of Ollie's Honda (hole in muffler) and the banshee wail of my Suzuki (9,500 rpm redline) you could hardly hear the little Bultaco. There'd be a slightly metallic "Prrrrt!" each lime he'd blip the throttle and dart away from us at the exit of each corner.

It was maddening, the way he'd do that — each time we'd have him set up, and away he'd dance. Finally, he looked over his shoulder again, flashed us one last toothy grin, and held it open as he flat-boogied out of sight. It surprised us so, we simultaneously smacked our undercarriages on the pavement, did the bug-eyed slide-wobble twostep into the opposite lane (luckily no traffic), got back under control and slowed 'way down to contemplate more tranquil things.

At the next stop sign, Ollie allowed as how we'd been had by a guy on a 200 Mercurio, and we shoulda' known better. I said, "Oh" as if I'd known it all along. A 200, huh? I was beginning to suspect that maybe handling made for more than horsepower.

Next time I saw a Bul in action was after graduation. Ollie dragged me out to Chambersburg, Maryland, to see a sportsman hillclimb. It was crazy! One guy on a 250 Ducati got hallway up the hill, fell off, and his bike continued to run, in spite of the safety/kill lanyard on his wrist. (The lanyard's supposed to pull the plug on the engine's ignition when the rider becomes — uh — unavoidably separated from his mount.)

Anyway, the Duke landed on its throttle, jamming it open. The engine barked like an automatic rifle and the bike began pirouetting on one footpeg, scattering terror and confusion for 20 feet up and down the hill. It took six strong men to subdue the beast while a small boy yanked the plug wire. Then there was the Triumph rider who was determined he'd make that hill — or else. He hit the hump at mid-hill, and the front end started to come up. Never say die, he held that almighty throttle wide, as the bellowing 650cc twin arced over in a vertical flip, just inches from the summit. Triumph and rider sailed through the timing light on separate trajectories (becoming the first so far to trip the clocks) and landed with a series of muffled crashes in the thicket beyond.

Those were the more spectacular attempts. The hill defied all — until this one lanky 17-year-old rolled up on a 175 Bultaco with a skinny seat and tiny triangular plastic gastank. I don't remember his name. He had no helmet, a shock of dirty blond hair over one eye, shirt open down to his belt buckle, and sleeves rolled up over cord like muscles. He and that little Bul, however, were sheer poetry in motion. Up on the pegs he stood, rocked his knees forward, sucked the handlebars into his gut, and came charging up that hill straight as an arrow. He hit the mid-hill hump with the front end a level six inches off the ground, and carried it that way to the top with the little two-stroke motor going "Prrrp...prrrp! Prrrp!" under short blips of controlled throttle. The crowd went screaming bonkers.

Need I say more? The Bultaco firm, headed by one firm-willed Spanish gentleman, F.X. Bulto, has excelled in every facet of motorcycle sport. Their short-trackers have dominated AMA Class C on the quarter-mile oval. Their trials bikes have been ridden to more world championships than I care to count, by riders ranging from the legendary Sammy Miller to the most recent, Bernie Schreiber — the first American ever to hold the world trials title.

In road racing, a 360cc five-speed Bultaco twice won the 24-hours of Barcelona, beating 650cc, 750cc, even 900cc competition. A 250cc version of that same simple two-stroke motor helped Jim Pomeroy become the first American ever to win a motocross world championship round (the 250cc GP of Spain) — on a Bultaco. I even remember the first time I saw AMA dirt track star Mike Kidd in action. It was at the 1970 Daytona sportsman roadraces, where on a 175cc Bultaco shorttracker he showed the roadrace "purists" the fast way around the infield circuit before a tossed chain ruined an otherwise spectacular ride.

Yup, they made one stone-axe simple design do it all. While the rest of the world was transfixed by a proliferation of multi-cylinders, cams, valves and gimmicks, these Spaniards stuck with this one dirt-simple engine, using just three basic moving parts: a crank, a rod, and a piston. It wasn't that they lacked sophistication. They were among the first to use solid-state ignition; they were among the first to pioneer modern long-travel forks and shocks. At the same time, they proved that the ultimate sophistication is simplicity.

They made simplicity work like no one else. Think of it. To cover the speed/performance spectrum from trials (0 to 15 mph) to full-on roadracing (100-plus mph) you'd expect a manufacturer to have several specialized engine designs. Senor Bulto built just one.

The firm has all but abandoned the streetbike market in the U.S. due to the difficulty of meeting federal government regulations (although you can, for a price, get one of their exquisite little 125cc "streaker" minicafe bikes as a collector's item, if you know the right dealer). The other Spanish marques have likewise seen hard times during the late '70s.

I pray these exquisitely simple, effective motorcycles never pass completely from the U.S. motorcycling scene. Having ridden a surprisingly smooth, quick Metralla for hundreds of road miles; having felt the quick, urgent response of a four-speed Ossa Wildfire under street and racing conditions; having eaten more Bultaco-dust than I care to remember, I'd surely miss them if they no longer were.

For me, and a generation of contemporaries, to understand the Bultaco and why it worked so well was to understand the essence of motorcycling; light weight and simplicity. All else is expensive window dressing.