Who remembers the zzzing of an old two-stroke Czech CZ trail bike? For the holidays we are launching a series of articles about our readers’ first bike. Just click here to send photos and details. We start with this article about an old Czech CZ trail bike from London reader Martin Welsh, 55, who says he hasn’t owned a bike since 1986:
In 1977, when I was a 14-year-old kid in the Adelaide hills, and my next brother down was 11, all our mates had motorbikes, and we wanted one. We didn’t even want one each; we were willing to share. We had no money, and Mum and Dad were spending all their money on our schooling, so we never expected to get one. Then one day in 1977, Dad suddenly showed us this ugly thing; a 1973 CZ 175 Trail bike that he had brought home as a surprise.
He’d bought it for $100. It was a 1973 model, but looked like a 1953 model. We had no idea what it was. It was built in Communist Czechoslovakia, and apparently, was the only vehicle exported from behind the Iron Curtain for 30 years, until the Lada cars appeared from Russia in the 1980s. We didn’t know at the time, why they were exported. We were kids. There was no internet then.
The one in the photo (top of page courtesy of classic.motorbikes.net)is a 125cc. Ours was a 175cc. The 250cc and the 380cc all looked the same, and they also came out in red, but most were like ours — baby shit yellow. In fact, their nickname around the world was “the yellow tanks”.
This is not my bike. I have no photos from the 1970s. They came out in a Sport version pictured, and a Trail version. The only real difference was the exhausts and the mudguard heights. As you can see, it was ugly. Look at that friggin headlight! All our friends had Yammies and Hondas, and they were cooler, smaller, lighter, and had nice colours. Most Yammie trail bikes at the time were yellow too, but they were proper yellow; not baby shit yellow.
This is the Trail version, showing exhaust and kickstart gear lever.
So Dad rode it home, pulled into the garage, showed it to us, and then it wouldn’t start again. He had wanted to take us for a ride. We spent the first night pulling the carburettor apart, and the magneto. Dad was a reluctant mechanic, but willing to have a go. However, he got angry with it and went indoors to watch telly. I started reading the extensive workshop manual that came with it, and there started my own willingness to work on machines. As a 14 year old, with the machine in pieces in my hands, I first realised a thing that has dawned on me over and over again in the 40 years since is that we shouldn’t be surprised that they break down. It’s a wonderful miracle that they actually work in the first place!
I didn’t find the solution at that time, and neither did Dad. It’s a two stroke, and they will never make sense. We cleaned everything and reassembled it and on the following weekend, we found it would start with a push, and we went for the ride with Dad, we were supposed to have a few days before. Dad said it wasn’t ours (me and my brother) but we were to share it with him. He had registered it, and intended to use it on the road. We could borrow it, but we had to look after it, as it always had to be roadworthy. We fell in love with the ugly monster.
It was a monster. At 14, I was just nudging 60kg. The CZ weighed 112kg with no fuel in it. We fell over together, a lot! It was also very fast. When we first went riding with our mates, and their much prettier looking Yammies and Hondas, we were a bit embarrassed about showing up on such an ugly duckling, but we soon found that our feelings were unwarranted. Riders of Japanese bikes knew what it was we were riding (we didn’t) and it was respected everywhere we went. People always wanted to swap rides with us. We thought this was cool, because we got to ride the motorbikes we wished we had, but only for a while.
Finally, someone showed me a Motocross magazine, and pointed out that our bike’s bigger sibling — the CZ 250 — had dominated Motocross all over the world for years. These things were famous! Ugly, heavy, communist, powerful, and famous! That’s why they were exported all over the world; they had Respect!
It taught us respect. The power was really unpredictable. At low revs, it was very much like a 4 stroke, with loads of torque, and very easy to ride and manoeuvre. With two hundred revs more, the front wheel was in the air and your were clinging to the handlebars like the streamers they used to put on the handlegrips of brand new kids bicycles, and you were thrown back so hard, you couldn’t stop the throttle! Many times, I crashed, and kind people stopped and peeled my fingers from the right hand grip, to stop the incessant “ZZZZZInger ZZZinger ZZZInger” noise screaming from the exhaust, as I clung on in fear. CZ motorbikes don’t have a pleasant exhaust note.
The thing was, this ugly beast was so strong and unbreakable, that Dad never knew how many times I crashed it. Only torn clothing and missing skin would give the game away; the CZ never got bent. Occasionally, I bent a mirror, and that was easily fixed. It was also so old fashioned that the footpegs didn’t fold up. They were these enormous old 5 inch heavy duty rigid steel things more akin to a Harley, so although we hit the ground horizontally many times, this 112kg beast never broke my ankle; not once. In fact, I found time and time again, the handlebar and footpeg would take all the force, and the side of the tank never touched the ground, so I didn’t even get my knee squashed, and Dad would never know!
There is a big industrial estate in North East Adelaide in Holden Hill, now known as Jacobson Crescent. In 1977, it was empty land. That’s where we used to go riding. Everyone did it; it was great. Even the cops were good to us, as long as we didn’t go into actual roads with the engines running. To us kids, Holden Hill was paradise in those days. One day, I was there on my own, with the baby shit yellow monster. As I said, it had taught me respect. I knew how to ride it by now, and even knew how to fix it when it stopped, which it did — a lot. I was hooning about, minding my own business, and a bloke caught up with me on a Yamaha XT 500, and waved me down. He was about 20. I was about 15. He was riding the Holy Grail of trail bikes in those days. The Yamaha XT 500 was the first big powerful (ridiculously powerful) trail bike. They were starting to win the Paris Dakar Rally at that point. His was about two years old.
He said “I used to own one of these! Mind if I have a ride?” People did that back then. Maybe they still do, but I was a skinny kid, on my own, and nervous. He saw my discomfort and laughed, and said “No, I mean, you can ride mine too!”
I did! Although still a skinny, lanky kid, I knew this was like giving me the keys to a Ferrari. This motorbike was the most powerful thing in its class, and was about two years old. It had three times the engine capacity of my CZ175, and probably twice the horsepower. He jumped on mine, and went ZZING ZZING ZZINGIN into the distance, like he’d stolen it, and I went gently VROOM VROOM VROOMING behind on this massive four stroke that weighed about the same as the CZ, but with all that extra power. (the seat was lower, and actually easier to handle) I was terrified of the front wheel coming up, so I treated it with even more respect, and found that each time we came around to the same point, my new friend wanted to disappear into the distance at speed in another cloud of Czechoslovakian communist smoke, and he seemed happy that his own XT500 was in safe hands. I loved that afternoon!
My younger brother was far more courageous than me on the CZ. When I look back now, he was a tiny 11 and 12 year old, and used to wind the hell out of that thing. Even now, he is much smaller than me, but even then, he spent more time in the air than on the ground. He didn’t seem to have learned the Respect Lesson I got from the Czech monster. It had a left side kick start, that also doubled as as the gear lever. If you didn’t gauge the compression right while kick starting, it threw you over the handlebars, or broke your ankle. The gear shift (one up three down) required you to take your foot off the peg because the travel was too great, so unless you had enormous clown shoes, you were in danger in a turn. As I suggested earlier, the power was schizophrenic, and unforgiving. These were MAD motorbikes. When you were totally in control, the feeling was unforgettable. When you locked the front on wet ground, your helmet got filled with snails and you wondered why the “ZZING ZZING” sound wouldn’t stop.
I sold the CZ in about 1985. I never rode it on the road. Even Dad lost the urge. I bought a Suzuki DR 250 4 stroke; a wonderful modern powerful 4 stroke, but only registered it for three months. A couple of near misses sent me back to the safety of my Valiant Charger and Bedford van. Mates by then had discovered the Yamaha RD 250. Yamaha RD 250s and RD 350s were built for mental cases. They made my CZ 175 monster seem tame by the 1980s.
Of course, if I owned it now, it would be worth shedloads. What I take from this is; just like my Valiant Chargers (2), they were MAD machines from their time, that I am proud to have owned, and they taught me respect, and also how to fix the bloody things when they stop being MAD.
Yes, I realised tonight I miss that old communist monster.