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MOTORCYCLES: Penton, Father of Off-Road Motorcycles, Named Grand Marshal of VMD West

13 April 2000

Posted By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
SONOMA, Calif. - John Penton had no idea that on March 7, 1968 he would revolutionize the world of off-road motorcycle racing when the first 125cc Berkshire Penton motorcycles were wheeled down the ramp in Baltimore (MD).

Three days later, the motorcycles were shipped to Georgia for the Stone Mountain Enduro, and a legend was born.

"It was a whole new era beginning," said Ed Youngblood, author of "John Penton and the Off-Road Motorcycle Revolution." "Today, no one would even think of doing that kind of business. A company would probably test for a year or two before bringing a bike into the marketplace. Here's John Penton in September of '67 and it didn't exist, and then six months later he's entering it in a national championship."

Penton, who will serve as Grand Marshal of AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days West at Sears Point Raceway, April 28-30, simply saw a need in the marketplace and filled it.

He wanted the ultimate enduro bike, one that was lightweight and would hold up under the most adverse conditions - mud, steep terrain, water, long distances. Road-racing machines of the time just weren't adequate for enduros, so he created the 125cc Berkshire, the first of eight models he would design from 1968-77.

"I wanted to ride and I wanted to win. I figured I couldn't do either if I didn't have a good motorcycle to ride, so I started building them," Penton said. "I had to build them. No one else was building them."

In the decade of the Penton motorcycles (1968-77), American riders won 44 gold medals, 17 silver medals and 18 bronze medals at the prestigious International Six Days Trials, the equivalent of the Super Bowl for endurance riders.

"The Penton brand was so strong in the marketplace that one year early in the 1970s half of the American riders entered in the International Six Days were riding Pentons," Youngblood said. "They were the most popular enduro motorcycle in the nation for a brief period of time."

Penton designed the enduro bikes in the United States but they were produced at Kronnrief Trunkenpolz Mattighofen (KTM) in Austria. They were sold under the Penton label in this country, and under the KTM label abroad. The models included:

  • 125cc Berkshire (endurance and motocross models)
  • 100cc Penton Six Days (endurance and motocross models)
  • 175cc Jack Piner (endurance and motocross models)
  • 250cc Hare Scrambler (motocross)
  • 400cc Mint 400 (motocross)
  • Penton also designed machines for Observed Trials, including the famous Mudlark that featured a 125cc engine.

Not only was Penton a tremendous designer, he was also an accomplished enduro racer. He is a past winner of the Jack Pine in Michigan, considered the toughest American enduro, and he was also the AMA Enduro Grand National Champion in 1969. In all, he won around 20 national enduros in his career before retiring from active competition. He was named the Motorcyclist of the Decade for the 1970s, and he was also inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

"I was a pioneer for my time, but I certainly didn't think this was going to evolve like it has," Penton said. "I guess I'm pretty fortunate."

Penton also held the trans-continental record for motorcycles, traveling from New York to Los Angeles in 52 hours, 11 minutes in 1959 aboard a BMW. He averaged 58 miles per hour and stopped only for gas, water and candy bars.

"That was one of the craziest deals ever, that's for sure," Penton quipped.

Penton sold the United States distributorship rights to the Penton motorcycles to KTM in 1977. All Penton enduro bikes produced since that time carry the KTM label.

Copies of the book "John Penton and the Off -Road Motorcycle Revolution can be purchased at the Web-site

Text provided by John Cardinale

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.