How many motorcycle enthusiasts started riding after they saw Steve McQueen pilot a Husqvarna 400 across the sand in Bruce Brown’s seminal moto-movie “On Any Sunday”? McQueen rode the same bike — while shirtless and flying off a jump — on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The great Malcolm Smith and co-rider Gunnar Nilsson won the Baja 1000 on another Husqvarna 400 in 1971, one of 11 Baja 1000 victories for the marque. In fact, James Coburn, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson all owned and rode Husqvarnas. They were cool.
But where has the big H been lately? It still makes its great dirt bikes. You can get a wide selection of off-road and motocross bikes from any of the 158 Husqvarna dealers across the U.S., all still done up in the blue and gold colors of the Swedish flag. But Husqvarna is no longer Swedish and hasn’t been for a long time. It’s been bought and sold more than an a high-mileage 912E over the years. Electrolux bought it in 1977, then it went to Italy when Cagiva bought it in 1988, then BMW owned it in 2007, then Pierer in 2013 and now it’s owned by KTM, another maker of cool dirt bikes and high-fashion, high-performance street bikes.
The new thing from Husky, the big growth area it’s looking at now, isn’t in the dirt. Husqvarna is riding up off the motocross track and onto the street.
At the 2014 EICMA motorcycle show in Milan, Husqvarna debuted two radical-looking concept bikes: the 401 Vitpilen and the 401 Svartpilen. Vitpilen means “White Arrow” in Swedish and Svartpilen means “Black Arrow.” The Vitpilen was set up for street and canyon carving. The Svartpilen had a more upright riding posture, higher handlebars and knobbier tires for an off-road adventure look. The two concepts were well-received, especially by anyone who remembered the sexy Husqvarna Silverpilen of 1955, the poster bike for Swedish moto-boys throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.
The production bikes you see here look almost exactly like those two EICMA concepts, down to the chromoly steel trellis frames and the unique way the side of the tank sort of flows down into the frame and rear fender. That rear fender sits way up above the rear tire, though, making the tire look a little too small, but it’s all part of what makes these bikes stand out from the crowd. No one is going to mistake these for anything else. Like the old Husqvarna dirt bikes beloved by movie stars, these bikes are cool.
Of course, both share frames, engines and some other parts with KTM bikes. The motorcycle industry is no different from the car industry in that regard. In this case the engine and frame on the Husqvarna 401 Vitpilen comes from the KTM RC 390 street bike and the Svartpilen 401 shares those components with the KTM 390 Duke.
“Husqvarna Motorcycles uses KTM’s full umbrella of assets in the development of its bikes, but everything is tuned and developed exclusively in its own way for Husqvarna Motorcycles,” the company said.
Is that a problem? You got a problem wit’ ‘dat? I don’t. I loved the RC 390 when I rode it a couple years ago, and I sat on but did not ride the 390 Duke and felt comfortable doing so. Having that same technology in a cool and unique new pair of bikes is great news.
The Husqvarna Vitpilen 401 is the more cafe racer, street bike of the two.
Both Svart and Vit share the same single-cylinder four-stroke 375cc liquid-cooled engine making 43 hp at 9,000 rpm and 27 lb-ft of torque at 7,000 revs. The fuel-injected engine is controlled by Bosch EFI via a fly-by-wire throttle. Transmission is six speeds: one down and five up.
Both Husqvarna bikes ride on the same WP suspension, with 43-mm front forks and a rear monoshock. Brembo’s ByBre discs are front and rear, with single discs at both wheels controlled by Bosch 9.1MB two-channel ABS.
Husqvarna was nice enough to let me ride both bikes. I picked them up at Jay Leno’s Garage, because Jay had just ridden them that morning for his show, which you can see here. I got on the white Vitpilen, and another moto-writer dude got on the Svartpilen. We swapped later.
The immediate impression is that the Vitpilen is incredibly light, almost like one of the Husqvarna’s dirt bikes. They both are what’s called naked bikes, meaning they are unadorned with fairings or other unnecessary accoutrement, which helps lighten them up and keeps the cost down. Husqvarna lists their weight at 326 pounds with all the fluids except gas. Fill up the tank’s 2.5 gallons of gas and the weight would be 341 pounds, which is still pretty light.
Seat height is 32.9 inches, which is just a little on the taller side, but I managed OK looping my 32-inch inseam over it.
The Vitpilen in a corner
Push the button and the electric starter whirs it to life. At idle, there’s a little bit of vibration, but that goes away as soon as you start riding. The fuel cutoff up north of 9,000 rpm is quite sudden and a little raspy, but the bike revs freely up to that point. The riding position is a forward lean to grasp the clip-on hand grips. It feels and looks a little like a café racer.
Wading through traffic, the Vitpilen felt right at home and easy to use. The multidisc slipper clutch made shifting easy and smooth, and the thumper motor had plenty of torque to squirt the bike through the traffic-clogged city streets.
In no time, we were leaning into curves up on Big Tujunga Canyon, with its high-speed, wide-open bends. The bike felt good here, almost as confidence-inspiring as the KTM RC 390 I rode a few years before. It took just a nanosecond longer than I’d have liked to recover from mildly jarring bumps, but nothing that would really constitute a surprise. It otherwise remained stable and planted throughout my ride. Tires on the Vitpilen are Metzeler M5s, 110/70R-17 front and 150/60R-17 rear. It was a blast to ride and I would have liked to have stayed on it all day up on these mountain roads.
Autoweek staff during a break in riding. From left: Jake Lingeman, Wes Raynal, some intern dude, Vaughn. Not pictured: Neff.
But soon it was time to switch bikes and try out the Svartpilen. This one is set up with a more upright riding position with higher handlebars. This was the more comfortable of the two. The suspensions are the same, but the Svartpilen gets Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tires, same size as the street Svetpilen above. The difference is the tires have a more pronounced tread for the occasional off-road use. I didn’t take it off-road, but the Svartpilen was fun to ride on pavement and could be considered the more natural and comfortable riding position of the two. I should have been happier with this bike but found myself preferring the Vitpilen’s more café-racer design.
The two bikes go on sale in May. Husqvarna won’t divulge a price, except to say it’ll be “between $6,000 and $7,000.” Published reports say $6,299. That’s $800 more than the KTM equivalent. If you can do with a slightly smaller engine, you can get a fine entry-level bike from any number of makers. Consider the sporty and full-fairinged Honda CBR300R for $4,499, Kawasaki Ninja 300 ABS for $5,599, or the Yamaha YZF-R3 for $5,299 with ABS or $4,999 without. Those all look like cool sport bikes with fairings and bodywork. The Husqvarnas stand out in terms of styling, though, and come with an extra 100 or so ccs.
If these two aren’t enough for you, the bigger Husqvarna 701 will be out in summer, with a 693cc single cylinder making 75 hp for $11,999. I’m looking forward to riding one of those.
On Sale: May
Base Price: $6299
Powertrain: 375-cc, four-stroke, single-cylinder, six-speed manual, rwd
Output: 43 hp at 9000 rpm, 27 lb ft at 7000 rpm
Curb Weight: 341 pounds (AW est.)
Pros: A highly stylish, functional and fun street machine
Cons: Priced higher than some competitors