Malcolm Smith was a pioneer in off-road motorcycling. He gained fame for his accomplishments in the Baja 1000 and for his gold-medal winning rides in the International Six Day Enduro competitions, but by far his biggest claim to fame was being a star of the influential 1970s motorcycle movie, "On Any Sunday." The scenes of Smith play-riding with his buddies, which included popular actor Steve McQueen, showed people across the country just how fun motorcycling could be. The movie helped launch an explosion in the popularity of off-road motorcycling in America.
Smith was born on March 4, 1941, on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada. His father was a gold miner in northern British Columbia who took his earnings and purchased a sheep ranch on Salt Spring Island in the early 1940s. Malcolm spent his early years on the sheep farm. By the time he was 5 years old his parents (both U.S. citizens) were tired of the constant cloudy and rainy weather of the Pacific Northwest, so they moved the family to sunny Southern California.
When Smith was 13, he noticed a neighbor had an old scooter in his garage. Malcolm asked about buying the scooter and the neighbor agreed to sell it to him for $50. Smith worked hard and earned money by mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs, but when he went to buy the scooter, the neighbor had changed his mind. "I was heartbroken," recalls Smith.
His parents took pity on him and took him to a motorcycle shop where he found a great deal on a new Lambretta motor scooter. Smith took his first ride in an alley behind the shop in downtown San Bernardino. The Smiths lived next to the San Bernardino National Forest, so the young Smith and a neighborhood friend, who also owned a scooter, turned their scooters into off-road bikes.
"We had a deal with the school’s football coach that he would give us all the team’s worn out football cleats. We would pick up used scooter tires and screw in the old football cleats and those were our knobbies."
At 15, Smith sold his scooter and bought a real dirt bike, a Matchless. One minor problem for Smith, who was small for his age, was that he couldn’t kick-start the big thumper. He would have to start at the top of an incline and coast downhill to start the bike.
"If I got out in the woods and killed the motor I couldn’t restart it," Smith recalled. "I either had to push it on top of a hill, which was really tough for me to do, or I would have to hike back down to the neighborhood to get some of my buddies to help me push it to the top of a hill. Needless to say, I learned to be pretty good with the clutch."
Smith would raid the dumpster of a local dealer for parts and tires that were good enough to use on the old Matchless. Finally the owner of the shop, Rush "Pappy" Mott, got tired of seeing him around the trash, so he hired him to work after school and during the summer. Smith credits Mott with giving him good business sense.
"In those days, you couldn’t finance motorcycles, so he had his own financing system. He got the person’s address would verify it, then drive to the house and look to see how well the place was kept up. If it was well kept, he would give them credit. If not, he wouldn’t. He did real well with that."
Smith enjoyed the mechanical aspects of the sport so much that he enrolled in college to become an aviation mechanic. He met Norm McDonald and Kenny Johnson (who founded K&N). Norm convinced Smith to come to work for them building racing engines. Smith broke the "bad news" to his parents that he was going to drop out of college after three years to work on motorcycles.
Smith’s first taste of competition was at a local hare scrambles race in Riverside, California. He rode his 1953 Matchless to the race and figured that in order to race he would need to hold the throttle wide open.
"We entered the first turn and I just stayed on the throttle and ended up knocking a bunch of people down. I can vividly recall seeing a chain right next to my face with the rear wheel going around. I got up from that crash and crashed about 13 more times and ended up second place. Going home I started thinking, ‘If I wasn’t laying on the ground so much I could have won that race.’ The next month I went back determined to ride my ability and I did win the race that time."
While Smith continued to race, he never got too serious about the competition aspect. Motorcycling was his business and racing was a fun hobby. Smith began racing a Greeves for Nick Nicholson. Smith recalls the big sponsorship deal he had with Nicholson. "If I won the race I could send him the receipt for the entry fee and he would pay my entry fee."
One afternoon in the mid-1960s, a gentleman came into the shop and asked to talk to Smith. That man was Edison Dye. He was importing a spindly-looking, Swedish-made motorcycle called Husqvarna and he wanted Smith to race the bike. Smith, reluctant to give up on his "sponsored" ride with Greeves, was at first reluctant to accept Dye’s proposal. Two things changed Smith’s mind: The Husky turned out to be a great dirt bike, and Dye promised to pay Smith’s way to participate in the International Six Day Trials (now called the International Six Day Enduro), something Smith had dreamed about for years.
Smith was successful on the Husqvarna from the very start and his name would become synonymous with the Swedish manufacturer.
In 1966, Smith participated in his first Six Days in Sweden. Being strictly a Southern California rider up to that time, Smith had never ridden in the conditions that greeted him in Sweden, complete with mud, rocks and roots. He crashed numerous times and nearly managed to damage his bike beyond repair. Yet he pressed on and earned a silver medal.
The next year in Poland, Smith returned and earned his first gold medal, something he would do seven more times during his racing career, making him the most successful American rider in the history of the Six Days competition to that point.
Next to his Six Days success, Smith is also well known for his exploits in the famous Baja 1000 in Mexico. For a month before the first Baja race in 1967, Smith spent his spare time preparing his Husky and closely studying a guidebook to Baja. Legendary desert racer J.N. Roberts was his teammate. The two finished first motorcycle and second vehicle overall. At the halfway point, they were nearly five hours ahead of the next vehicle, but several missed turns cost them the overall victory.
After winning the race, Smith was driving back with a friend when their van broke down. After sitting on the desolate road for about eight hours, a truck finally came along. It was hauling live sea turtles to Ensenada. The driver picked them up, but had no room in the cab, so Smith rode on top of the sea turtles, which were turned over on their backs, for three days.
"Every time we came to a creek crossing he had to stop and water down the turtles to keep the turtles alive," Smith said with a smile. "I hadn’t bathed since the start of the race and there were no phones so no one at home had heard from me in five days. It was quite an adventure."
Smith said that taking part in Bruce Brown’s 1972 classic movie "On Any Sunday" nearly didn’t happen. Brown was already well known for his surfing movie, "Endless Summer," and was a customer of Smith’s. Smith had just purchased the K&N dealership from Kenny and Norm and was really having a difficult time trying to manage the business. Brown called and told Smith he was about ready to start shooting the movie and Smith reluctantly told him that he wouldn't be able to be in the movie because of the time involved in running the dealership. Brown said that he would begin shooting in about a month and he would call Smith back then. Fortunately when he called back, Smith had gotten things at the dealership under control and felt that he could take some time to do the movie.
"Bruce came and shot footage at the Six Day and some other races. Then later we shot the closing footage of the movie down in Mexico and at Camp Pendleton on the coast and that only took three or four days. I really didn’t think that I was going to be in the movie that much and then when it came out I was really amazed. The recognition I got from that movie was really unbelievable. People still come up to me today and tell me they really didn’t have anything to do with motorcycling until they saw the movie. Husqvarna sales doubled in the year following the movie."
About the time the movie came out Smith began importing nylon-lined throttle and brake cables from Europe. They sold like hotcakes in America and his accessory business, Malcolm Smith Racing Products, was born. Soon afterwards, he began selling jerseys, then boots and finally just about every accessory available for off-road bikes. Smith’s business flourished and he sold the company in 1987. Smith still serves as a consultant to the aftermarket business that bears his name.
When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998, Smith was still involved in overseeing his motorcycle dealership in Riverside, California. He also conducts special invitation-only off-road rides in Mexico and South America. The television program "National Geographic Explorer" did a feature with Smith and singer Lyle Lovett on a ride in Chile. He frequently gives talks on preserving riding areas and interviews on the early days of off-road riding, and he still enjoys strapping on his helmet and taking a good ride in the mountains.