Moto Media

A tribute to Bill Nilsson

Bill Nilsson on an AJS at the 1958 Imola GP - courtesy of 

Bill Nilsson, who died on the 25th of August 2013, was one of the giants of the 'golden age' of Motocross. A double motocross world champion, and three time winner of the Motocross des Nations (as part of the Sweden team), he would win 18 races over the course of his career. Mere figures, though, do little to breathe life into one of the sport's most memorable characters. At a time when even a modest little rain-soaked village motocross event could attract 10,000 spectators (with the most popular races drawing crowds ten times the size), Nilsson ranked as one of the most exciting, thrilling and ruthless riders in existence.

From speedway obscurity to motocross fame

He cut his teeth in the no-holds-barred arena of speedway in 1950, and would turn to motocross only after failing to land a suitably competitive speedway ride. However, he would use his experiences from those years to great effect, combining his carefully-honed sliding abilities with a reckless regard for his (and everyone else's) safety as he went deep into corner after corner. Even at a time when most of the participants fuelled their rides on sheer guts and adrenaline rather than petrol, the short and stocky Nilsson stood out as a hard driver and indefatigable foe. Often giving the impression of being on the verge of losing control of his bike, his constantly-on-the-edge style would make him seem more like a cowboy wrestling with a particularly headstrong animal. His ability to tame the untameable again and again would lead to him being given the nickname 'Buffalo Bill'. 

But it wasn't just his character but his riding skills that were garnering plenty of attention. Kitting himself out with an AJS in 1953, he finished his debut race in the 500cc European Motocross World Championships with a fighting fourth in Geneva, Switzerland. He would follow this up the following year with his first race win - fittingly, in Saxtorp, Sweden. In 1955, riding for the British company BSA, he would have his first tilt at winning the championship. Cruelly, it would be his own home leg of the Championship that would deprive him of victory in 1955, and he fell within a hundred metres of the Saxtorp finishing line. He ended up losing the title by a single point, and ultimate victory went instead to the ultra-steady British rider John Draper. Inconsistency would dog Nilsson again in the following year, as two glorious victories were tarnished by an inability to score points across the other seven races. In truth, though, cracks had long opened up between driver and team. By his own admission, Nilsson didn't always play by the rules, and he believes it was this aspect of his personality that pushed BSA to sack him at the end of 1956.

The World Championship years

It would take a much bigger setback than this to defeat the wily Nilsson, though. He returned to his AJS roots, picking up a modest 7R. These had been manufactured since 1948, but had been available to privateers since 1954. He completely rebuilt the bike by hand, boosting its modest 348cc engine to a rather throatier 490cc. He then rode this bike to his first Championship in 1957, delighting in the annoyance this caused to his former team. Even more galling for BSA, the European Championship had recently been converted to a full World series, making Nilsson effectively the first Motocross World Champion - despite the 'World' tag, it would be many years before the stranglehold of Sweden, Belgium and Britain would be broken, and it wouldn't be until the 70s that countries outside the continent started to make a mark.

Nilsson was runner-up in both 58 and 59, aboard a Cresent, before switching to Swedish manufacturer Husqvarna. It had been another Swedish company, Monark, who had seized the initiative with a set of heavily customized state-of-the-art bikes that far excelled anything else in the motocross world - only five Grand Prix Monarks were ever crafted, with parts from previous bikes used for the newer ones. However, after the company surprisingly closed itself down after the sudden death of its founder, it was Husqvarna who picked up the baton. With an Albin 500 engine built by the renowned Nisse Hedlund, the Husqvarna was more than a match for the competition, and Nilsson rode it to his second and last championship in 1960.

The Swedish masterclass

The 1960 championship would be his last motocross world title, although he would finish as runner-up once more in 1961 - meaning he had finished in the top two for five consecutive years. Even while contesting those world championships, he had participated frequently in the Motocross des Nations. This team-oriented event had pre-dated even the European Championships in motocross, and Sweden was regularly in contention for the top spot. Partnering other brilliant Swedes, such as Sten Lundin, Lars Gustavsson, Ove Lundell and Rolf Tibblin, Nilsson had helped his country seize the trophy in 1955, 58 and 61. He also scored two memorable victories in the annual Novemberk√•san. This Swedish Enduro event took place over long distances, and required its drivers to show incredible heart and endurance. Unsurprisingly, Nilsson was well-suited. The Novemberk√•san has since evolved into an extreme race that requires its competitors to build their stamina and endurance to incredible levels, optimizing the delivery of oxygen and increasing blood flow so that they can race harder, and recover more quickly. Nilsson's spirit, then, seems very much alive in the event today.

Bill Nilsson would continue to show interest in the sport after his retirement, although an attempt to mentor future Swedish drivers foundered, in part due to Nilsson's perfectionism and hard driving character. The sport would become even more bittersweet in the following decades, as the triumph of seeing one son become two-time Enduro champion was eclipsed by the earlier death of another son in 1980. For many who were lucky enough to see him, though, Bill Nilsson remains the heart and soul of motocross's golden age.

Bill with the Husky - courtesy of