The Rotax Type 486 is a titan of an engine. Upon its arrival on the scene in 1983, it was as good as anything made of its type. It was a dirt bike powerhouse that possessed not only industry-leading peak power, but massive midrange, a linear horsepower curve, remarkable versatility and surprising durability. And yet, it was never manufactured in large numbers and was out of production within six years. Why? Because it tragically was never fitted into a motorcycle that worked well enough in other areas to successfully showcase the Type 486’s remarkable abilities. And the story of the Type 486 is a snapshot of all that the motorcycle industry was in the last half of the 20th century.
Love Motors For Sale
Compared to automobiles, it is more common in the motorcycle industry for smaller firms to use non-proprietary engines manufactured by other firms. And even less like the car industry, some of these firms found the lion’s share of their financial success selling powerplants as components to other companies, rather than marketing their own finished vehicles directly to consumers. Over the years, companies such as Franco Morini, Minarelli, Sachs, JAP, and Villers sold motorcycle engines to a wide range of competing customers, often concurrently. The list of motorcycle manufacturers who have used engines made by the Austrian Rotax firm is as long and illustrious as any. Since the early 1970s, Rotax has provided engines to Aprilia, Armstrong, BMW, Buell, Can-Am, Harley-Davidson, Les Harris (of neo-Matchless fame), Jawa, Kramer, MZ, Puch, Rokon, and flat-track racing constructor Ron Wood.
Bombardier, the Canadian snowmobile manufacturer, had been using two-stroke Rotax engines since the early ’60s, and by 1970 held a majority stake in the company. In the early 1970s, snowmobile sales were sagging and motocross was booming, so Bombardier decided to get into the dirt bike market. Can-Am was born in the 1973 model year with MX and street-legal trail bikes in 125cc and 175cc versions. Despite an expanded model range and a reputation for genuinely fast motors, it was clear by 1980 that the vast majority of dirt riders were unlikely to embrace the Canadians’ admittedly quirky design and engineering priorities. It was equally clear that Can-Am was never going to make a profit for Bombardier. By 1982, despite finding renewed success with the introduction of the Sonic 500, their first four-stroke bike, the parent company was ready to pull the plug on Can-Am.
Rotax, on the other hand, was happily and profitably selling their disc-valve and reed-valve 2-strokes not only to Can-Am, but to a number of other small European marques. But there were economies of scale at work that would evaporate along with their biggest intra-corporate customer. Clearly, a compromise solution was needed.
Enter the British Armstrong firm. Armstrong had desirable military contracts and a four-stroke heritage that traced its way through CCM back to the last BSA MX thumpers. They were thirsty for as many of the new Rotax four-stroke thumper motors as they could get. Armstrong approached Bombardier, who was already on the verge of throwing in the towel on the motorcycle scene, with an offer acquire Can-Am’s designs and funnel British-built, Rotax-powered Armstrong dirt bikes back to Bombardier to sell as Can-Ams in the North American market. Rotax would keep production up, Armstrong would get a steady stream of advanced four-stroke motors to use as they wished, and Bombardier could appease its remaining Can-Am dealers (many of whom were also established Ski-Doo snowmobile dealers) while still halting the flood of red ink from its ailing motorcycle manufacturing facilities in Canada.
The Right Motor At The Wrong Time
By the time Armstrong took over Can-Am production for the 1983 model year, Rotax’s largest 410cc two-stroke was no longer able to compete in the open-class MX wars. Massively powerful 480cc-to-500cc competition was available from all four Japanese firms, plus equally heavy hitters from KTM and Maico. The Type 486 was Rotax’s response. While most open-class two-stroke motors were very, very powerful for their day, they had frightening and unpredictable powerbands that made them difficult to ride fast. Several of them were also very overstressed and fragile, prone to grenading without warning if not ridden just so. The Type 486 motor had as much (or in many cases more) peak horsepower, but was remarkably tractable, with a very linear powerband, and was more bulletproof than most. Various manufacturers used different carb, pipe and porting specs, so there were variations, but on the whole the Type 486 was ready to knock the industry on its heels. Well, except for one little thing: a decent motorcycle to put it in.
An Awesome Failure
Armstrong, along with the smaller European manufacturers who bought the Type 486, didn’t have the resources of the big Japanese brands. Every motorcycle the engine ended up in was much too heavy, with inferior handing and mismatched third-party suspension components. Even while motocrossers, enduro riders and moto-journalists raved about the Type 486 motor, they roundly bashed the bikes based on it. Meanwhile, the Japanese introduced better open-class dirt bikes each successive year. Sales of the Type 486 never met expectations and slipped more and more each season. By 1987, Rotax pulled the Type 486 from production and Can-Am dissolved their partnership with Armstrong.
A Confused Legacy
The T486, as good as it was, didn’t dominate the horsepower wars quite as dramatically as earlier Rotax engines had (which was the only reason anybody ever bought Can-Ams over their more well-rounded, sophisticated competitors). The Armstrong-built bikes were sloppily designed and constructed in the same manner as their military bikes — like plow-horses, not thoroughbreds. So, while the Rotax 4-stroke went on to live a long, successful life, the Type 486 came to symbolize all that went wrong with Can-Am, with European manufacturers, and with early open-class dirt racers. Today, T486s in good shape are hard to find, and many repair parts are nearly unobtainable.
It’s a shame, really. It deserved so much success, and a better legacy.