Rotax Type 486: The Greatest Motorcycle Engine You've Never Heard Of

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.

Can-Am Couldn’t

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.

Identical 2-stroke 500s were branded as a Can-Am in North America, and an Armstrong in Europe.

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.

A variety of European makers spec’d the Type 486, including Puch.

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.

While the 500cc 2-stroke faded quickly, the Rotax 4-stroke (in both 500cc and later 560cc versions) was much more successful. Perhaps that’s because it could make giant hands punch through mountainsides and grab lighting-bolts. Awesome!

A Confused Legacy

The Type 486 even showed up in the first 500cc ATV, but only seven were built (clip from 3wheeler Magazine).
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.

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  1. dukeisduke Avatar

    Look at all the fiber-lock nuts on that thing. Somebody was on the ball.

    1. pj134 Avatar

      Dammit, I google image searched for fiber lock nuts and…well…
      Damn you truck nutzzz.

      1. dukeisduke Avatar

        Some people refer to them as Nylocks:

  2. GTXEliminator Avatar

    Rotax makes some crazy engines. 260 HP out of a 1.5L I-3 that can run on 87.

  3. paul Avatar

    Had a 1980 Can-am. Scary, powerful beast. too much motor for the frame.

  4. facelvega Avatar

    When Bombardier finally bought Lohner-Rotax in 1970, it gained not only an engine maker, but its first light rail capability. Now in light rail and regional aircraft it's the biggest company in the world, and the snowmobile and watersports branch though now separate from the main company is huge in its own right. It's funny to think that this corporate behemoth resulted in a way from a snowmobile company buying out its engine manufacturer and getting into motocross.

  5. MrB0t Avatar

    I have a new goal in life.
    I must find a Sonic 500 and build it up like the picture above.
    Does anyone know if a kit, or parts exist? Or is it all custom work?

    1. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
      Peter Tanshanomi

      That's a Ron Woods flattracker (a production race bike, but rare) that was modified into a street-legal version by Dale Lineaweaver. He runs a race fabrication shop in El Sobrante, CA. I am sure he'd be willing to talk to you about what it would take to made a replica.

      1. MrB0t Avatar

        The fact that only 1 exists right now saddens me,
        I must build another

  6. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
    Peter Tanshanomi

    Send a picture to the tips line and I'll try to ID it for you. A frame number would also help.

  7. Tim Avatar

    I remember Dirt Rider testing the 486 and saying they never had a bike that made so much power so low in the RPM range. All the Can Ams were fast with great powerbands when properly tuned, and the bikes could be set up to be competitive at the top levels of mx and offroad competition. They won many pro championships, and Cycle World chose the MX250 as the best in 1980.

  8. brian Avatar

    i have an 1985 can-am 125 and cant seem to find parts! were to go to find them or should i give up?

  9. Car Avatar

    Still have the 83? I can help a little. Plus I'd love to see pics. Thanks!

  10. Jim Avatar

    Look up the Can-Am Yahoo Group.

  11. job applicant Avatar
    job applicant

    There was an ATK street legal flat track bike that the perfect motorcycle in my book –
    Rotax engines can be very difficult to deal with, they are not for non-gear-heads AT ALL. If you have ever paid for service at a Motorcycle shop, a Rotax is NOT for you.