The True History of Rokon Motorcycles



by Bob Gallagher
BobCoŠ 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008


The history of the Trail-Breaker two-wheel-drive motorcycle can be traced back to around 1958 when Charles Fehn of San Bernardino, California began work on his invention, a "Motorcycle for slow cross-country travel over obstructions and in mountainous regions, and over snow and soft ground". Long-winded, yes, but it was the birth of the Trail-Breaker. Charlie Fehn applied for his first patent for this beast on April 13, 1959. His second application, abandoned like the first, came on August 31, 1962. It wasn't until his third patent attempt, now titled "Motorcycle having two driven wheels", filed August 20, 1963, that Charlie would finally get his patent. By the date of the third filing, the bike was in full-fledged production and it would be August 23, 1966 before the patent would be granted. By that time the bike would be in production by an entirely different company in Vermont, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. Mythical stories have been told of a Vermont gas station attendant who solved the steering problem inherent in a two-wheel-drive motorcycle by developing a driveline over-ride mechanism. In fact, there was no such incident and complete credit goes to Charlie Fehn who developed the over-ride clutch and incorporated it into the original patent. The early mechanism used a complex ball-bearing-on-ramp system, which was simplified in 1962 to a one-way spring-on-collar device, which is basically the same over-ride spring assembly still in production today. This one-way clutch allows the front wheel to travel faster than the back wheel, but not vice-versa. This is what allows you to turn corners without having bike and body driven to the ground, the result of having both wheels turning the same speed when the front wheel needs to travel farther in a corner. Another of the original ideas patented by Mr. Fehn was the hollow aluminum wheel, each of which holds 4.5 gallons of liquid ballast or fuel. Conversely, with the wheels empty, the bike can be pitched into a body of water and will float just fine. Two ingenious ideas, one great motorcycle, the Trail-Breaker.

For more information on Trail-Breaker inventor Charlie Fehn, take a look at this enjoyable and informative profile written by Robert Galbraith. The Charlie Fehn Story.

Early on J. B. Nethercutt, owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics, became interested in producing these unusual motorcycles. Another half-baked story, similar in myth to the gas station attendant story, is that the Nethercutts aquired the machines for hunting in Africa. This story goes so far as to claim the group met up with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler of the TV show "Wild Kingdom" while on a trip to Kenya. In fact, there were no hunters in the Nethercutt family and the Nethercutts had never been to Africa. The Nethercutts became involved with the Trail-Breaker as an entriprenual venture. If there is a story to be told, it may be that the Nethercutt boys, Jack and Robert, were approaching draft age and the Trail-Breaker could be their ticket to staying civilian. The Trail-Breaker underwent testing by the Army, which kept the dutyful Army contractors at Nethercutt out of uniform. The Marlin Perkins, Jim Fowler story is not a complete fabrication however. They did catch wind of these "go-anywhere" machines and used them in at least one episode of "Wild Kingdom". Jim Fowler still owns a Trail-Breaker to this day.

 

So with the Nethercutts seeing a capitalist opportunity, they incorporated Trail-Breaker production into Nethercutt Industrial Corporation and began producing the Trail-Breaker in Sylmar, California. The early machines were fitted with a variety of engines including models by Maico, JLO and a West Bend 82001 go-cart engine. Nethercutt's first commercial Trail-Breaker was the series 1, fitted with the Maico-Engray engine, followed closely by the MK1 which used the JLO. The traditional Trail-Breaker with the West Bend engine was soon to follow. Who cares if it is nothing more than a chainsaw engine, it works! This standardized production machine, the MK2, was fitted with a 134cc West Bend 82007 engine, which was a detuned cart engine with lower compression, slightly different carburation and different ignition timing. These bikes, first released to the public in June, 1963, also had a hydrostatic drive and a British built three speed Albion transmission. This Albion transmission, the model EJ, was a 1920's design which had seen use on 1930s Francis-Barnetts and other British light motorcycles. The Albion EJ was fitted with a pivot mount case and a solid main-shaft to support clutchless operation in the Trail-Breaker. The basic design work was complete and the Trail-Breaker was ready to roll. Many companies had built trail bikes, but the Trail-Breaker was an off-trail bike capable of actually living up to its ambitious motto "Goes anywhere".

 

Machines were sold either in kit form (MKD), or through Trail-Breaker distributors. The most successful of these distributors was an enthusiastic salesman in Vermont named Orla Larsen. His company, Rokon, was established in 1963 and named for his Vermont ski lodge, On The Rocks. It could be argued that the correct pronunciation is "rock-on" instead of the more common "row-con", but I for one will continue to pronounce it "row-con" just because I'm stupid that way. Before long Nethercutt lost interest in the bikes (boys now exceeding draft age) and the entire works were sold to his top distributor, Orla Larsen, in January, 1964. Nethercutt Trail-Breakers continued to be sold from their California headquarters for the remainder of 1964 prior to Rokon relocating production equipment to Vermont in 1965.

It is worth noting that the Rokon is in no way related to the Tote Gote. They were two completely different companies building two completely different motorcycles and had no connection to each other.

Rokon used 1965 as a year of relocation, reorganization, refining, and establishing a sound dealer network. Changes to the Trail-Breaker came quickly. The first significant change was to replace the leaky and unreliable fluid drive coupling with a centrifugal clutch. With the new clutch, the Trail-Breaker became the MK3. To ensure every part of the Rokon was up to the hardest use, Orla hired a crack team of skilled motorcycle testers--high school kids. These kids were paid $2 an hour to ride loaded Trail-Breakers up and down Vermont's Mount Snow until something broke. Refinements were made to the bike and the kids had a blast.

Rokon began limited quantity production of Trail-Breakers in 1966. The very first Trail-Breaker built by Rokon was produced in Feburary 1966, serial number MK302001. Rokon was on it's way !

A significant update came later in 1966 when the drum brake which was built into the front wheel would be replaced with a small mechanical disc brake mounted on the front miterbox. As with the drum brake, the disc brake had the effect of stopping both wheels due to the series of shafts and chains which connected the front wheel to the rear wheel. The Rokon Trail-Breaker was the first production motorcycle equipped with a disc brake.

In 1967, H. F. "Nick" Harris invested in the company and E. R. Hampson joined on a consulting basis. Production of 1967 Trail-Breakers reached approximately 150 bikes. They were on their way.

In 1968, Bob Grip joined the company as the operating executive and efforts were directed towards establishing a national dealer network and developing a larger production capability. With increasing sales, Rokon was in need of a larger production facility. Rokon began a move to bigger facilities in 1968 and in January 1969, Rokon officially relocated to 160 Emerald Street, Keene, New Hampshire. The next month, Rokon mailed out their first newsletter, TRACKS. The newsletter would be printed sporadically with a total of 18 issues, the last dated October 1975. The newsletters featured Trail-Breakers, their owners and experiences, maintenance tips by Shop Foreman Reggie Bishop, and introduced Rokon's new models and accessories. Also in 1969, prices were cut from $875 to $695 and dealer margins were increased even though this would drastically reduce Rokon's gross margin.

 

In 1970, Rokon introduced two new models, the MK4 and the RT-140. The MK4 was essentially a MK3 (now called the MK3 Explorer, the first of many confusing name changes) fitted with smaller 8.5-12 tires, steel five-spoke wheels, a front fender, muffler mounted under the rear fender, and larger seat. The RT-140, RT being Rokon Trail, was Rokon's attempt to battle the influx of trail bikes to the US and to get a piece of Honda's pie. The RT-140 was fitted with a plain rigid fork and an undriven front wheel. The RT-140 was not fitted with the typical Albion transmissions of the MK3 and MK4, but instead had a torque converter. This was Rokon's first rear wheel drive only trail bike and the first Rokon without a traditional transmission. Omens of bad things to come. Another first for Rokon in 1970 was a color option, the MK4 and RT-140 could be ordered in one of five colors, while the MK3 would continue to be available in only one. Yellow.

 

In 1970, Nick Harris obtained majority control of the company and in May of 1971 embarked on a project to develop a motorcycle for that portion of the of the motorcycle market not dominated by the Japanese, a competitive "enduro" bike. The RT-340 was quickly developed and successfully racing by September, 1971 when it won the AMA sanctioned enduro event at Talladega, Alabama. The RT-340 was first in class, second overall and the trophy was said to be bigger than the rider.

 

In an internal Rokon document titled "RT-340 Preliminary Market Analysis" from September, 1971, Rokon saw a "one billion dollar market" they intended to tap and noted "The Rokon motorcycle (i. e. the RT-340) must sell at a high enough price to assure a 40 percent gross margin; it must be price competitive, it must perform equal to or better than its own particular competition, and it must be capable of inspiring end users to request dealers to stock it." Pretty lofty goals for a company that had no experience with traditional motorcycle production or sales.

 

By late 1971, and no-doubt spurred by a $260K net loss for the year mainly attributable to RT-340 development costs, Nick Harris had lost interest in the company and controlling interest in Rokon was obtained by E. R. Hampson. Bob Grip was company president, rider Tom Clark was on as vice president and Orla Larsen was Rokon Director. The short term business objective became for Rokon to live within its own cash flow and return to a profitable operation. By the end of the first quarter of 1972, and with the help of 416 Trail-Breaker sales during the period, the Trail-Breaker was showing a profit, but a loss was incurred by the continuing RT-340 development and racing program. Targeted at the very top end of the enduro price range, the RT-340 program would bring Rokon to its knees.

 

And in Trail-Breaker news, the transmissionless "torque converter only" concept used on the RT-140 would quickly find it's way to the MK3 and MK4 bikes. By 1973, the ever growing lineup at Rokon included the RT-140, MK3, MK4,and RT-340 as described below:

RT-140. Rear wheel drive only, front and rear disc brakes.

MK3 Explorer. Traditional Trail-Breaker with 3 speed Albion transmission and a front disc brake. Also offered was the MK3 Automatic with a torque converter, no transmission, and front and rear disc brakes.

MK4 Standard. A MK3 Explorer with smaller wheels and a bigger seat. Also offered was the MK4 Automatic with a torque converter, no transmission, and still just the single front disc brake.

RT-340. Enduro model with a Sachs snowmobile engine, torque converter, magnesium wheels, dual disc brakes. Rokon would build a series of bikes based on the RT-340 which included the RT-340 TCR (Tom Clark Replica, the height of vanity), RT-340-I, RT-340-II, RX/C-340, street legal ST-340, motocross MX 340, MX-II GP, MX Cobra, and the FT 340 flat tracker. Owners would further modifiy these bikes for use as road-racers and hill-climbers, but by far the strangest modification to an RT340 was Ralph Nadar's goofy attempt to build a safer motorcycle which led to the backwards-bike.

 

1974 brought all new models to the two-wheel-drive line for the first time in the history of the Trail-Breaker. The new models, now known as Mototractors, were the Ranger, Scout and Pioneer, which replaced the MK3, MK4 and RT-140 respectively. Changes were numerous, highlighted by a new transmission for all three models. This transmission was a large three-range gearbox, which combined the rear miterbox and transmission into one unit. The transmission was no longer capable of shifting on the fly, instead the range was selected while the bike was at a standstill. Gear selection was made via a "Plunger" type shifter on the right side of the bike. Each of the three new models had the large style seat, a new style exhaust system with the muffler on the left side of the bike, dual disc brakes, and plastic engine covers for both sides of the bike that completely hid the engine from view. The Pioneer, known also as the Woodsman for a short time in 1975, was fitted with a leading link front suspension. The Pioneer would die a quick death, but the Ranger and Scout of 1974 would remain basically unchanged for the next 25 years. In the early 1980's Rokon produced a limited number of Brush Busters using a Plunger transmission fitted with only 2nd gear. The Brush Buster too would be short lived.

 

Rokon didn't miss the bicentennial boat by any means. In 1976 they offered patriotic paint jobs for all models and a special edition Ranger Limited in red, white, and blue with a blue seat. The bicentennial Ranger Limited had special serial numbers e.g. bike number 1776.1976.8 was the 8th of the special edition bikes.

 

With the overwhelming financial burden of developing the Mototractors and RT-340 series, Rokon went broke and into receivership in 1978.

 

Robert Korpi and J. Richard Niemela bought Rokon in the spring of 1981. The company operated as Rokon Limited, and later Rokon International Incorporated, from Route 202, Jaffrey, New Hampshire. They spent a year and a half collecting Rokon tools, jigs and dies, reviving old Rokon dealers, and generally reassembling the jig-saw puzzle that was once Rokon. By October, 1982, the world once again had a two-wheel-drive motorcycle available for retail purchase. Gone were the RT series bikes, Rokon would focus on the two-wheel-drive models which now had a confusing assortment of names:

COMMON NAMEALSO KNOWN AS
RangerMK5, Trail-Breaker, Mototractor, All Terrain Tractor, MT-670, MX-110, Tote Goat
ScoutMK6, Mototractor, All Terrain Tractor, MT-850

 

1982 would bring a couple of changes to the Rokon 2x2. The transition from a metal to plastic gas tank was complete, as was the switch from the model 82007 engine to the new 82031 series. The new engine had a solid-state ignition and built-in 12 volt/90 watt alternator. For some reason, Rokon began advertising this 134cc engine as 146cc. The 82031 engine shares the same bore and stroke of the earlier 82007 model and displaces the same 134cc.

A lot of people are curious about the military's use of the Rokon. They were tested by the US Army in the early 60s, and the Brazillian Marines were lucky enough to impound a few at customs for their use. They have been quite satisified with their performance, finding them more capable in muddy terrain than even a tracked M113 Armored Personnel Carrier. The Isrealis used a few which mounted anti-tank missles. There is also evidence they were used in Vietnam and the Gulf War, and I would like to hear about personal experiences or see some photos. The CIA even ordered a few, painted flat black. In more recent years, Jordan has used Rokons and even assembled bikes in their own manufacturing plants. If anyone has photos or personal experience of Rokons in military or government use I would sure like to hear about it.

1983 brought the addition of an optional sidecar that mounted to the bike in less than a minute with just one bolt. Most sidecars have been right-side-mount, but some "leftys" have been built by special order.

 

In 1984 Rokon got a publicity boost with a lengthy article in Car and Driver magazine written by humorist P. J. O'Rourke. Unfortunatly this article contained factual errors which have since been passed on as fact. 1984 was also the year that Rokon would finally standardize its system for bike serial numbers when it went to the federal VIN type 17 digit system. Prior to 1984 it seemed that Rokon's serial number system would change with each new company president, who would then promptly throw out the key to the previous system, leaving a variety of hodge-podge serial number systems in their wake. Today's system also has its hiccups, but they appear to be kept to a minimum.

 

Sometime around 1985 an improved brake caliper was fitted and the steering head king-pin bushings were replaced with large bearings fitted to a cast steering head assembly and new fork design.

By 1987, Rokon had reduced its color selection back to just three, depending on model. Scout was red with a silver frame, Ranger came orange with a silver frame, and the top of the line Trail-Breaker was black on black. Later years would see another increase in available colors. 1987 was also the year of the Rokon Referral Program, highlighted by bogus "Rokon" $100 bills.

Sometime in the mid 1980's Niemela split from Rokon and formed Ranger International to produce a Chinese built copy of the Rokon. It was intended for sale overseas as an agriculture tractor. The Chinese built Rokons had numerous detail differences when compared to their US built counterpart. It's not known how many Chinese Rokons were built, perhaps as many as 100.  

In December 1991, Robert Korpi sold the company and in April 1992 Rokon moved to 140 West Road, Portsmouth, N.H. 1994 models included the Scout and Trail-Breaker, and three other models based on the Trail-Breaker; the Ranger, a stripped down Trail-Breaker with no lights or rear seat; the Aqua-Trac, a Trail-Breaker in John-Deere colors fitted with a solid 3-point hitch; and the Fire-Ranger, a Trail-Breaker fitted with a fire pump for use by state forestry officials.

In 1994 Rokon made another attempt at a newsletter. Titled "From the Summit", Volume 1, Number 1 was printed in the winter of that year. There was no Number 2.

A Honda powered Rokon was developed in 1994. The first ever factory built 4-stroke Rokon, the Honda powered unit took over the Ranger name.

A cold Maine winter and a little too much idle time brought the unofficial TRACKS newsletter in 1996, started in the spirit of the original Rokon newsletter. It would quickly grow into Bob Gallagher's Rokon World and www.rokonworld.com.

In 1996 Rokon made yet another move, this time across town to the Pease International Tradeport. Also introduced this year were the small, Chinese made, 12 inch aluminum drum wheels.

In 1999 Rokon built about 20 diesel powered Rokons for use in mining operations in Mexico. Later that same year Rokon also began production of the Kohler 4-stroke powered Trail-Breaker 2.

Rokon moved once more in January, 2002, to a new facility in Rochester, NH.

In 2007 Rokon made a major upgrade to the stopping power of their machines by offering hydraulic brakes. The optional Auto-Grab front suspension was introduced in 2008, Rokon's first-ever front suspension offering for their 2x2 line. By 2012 the top of the line Trail-Breaker was being offered with Auto-Grab and a 208cc Kohler engine as standard equipment, with a $6,995 price tag.

Rokon is still building their unusual two-wheel-drive machines today, available with either Kohler or Honda 4-stroke power.

There were numerous other minor improvements made to the Trail-Breaker series over the years including upgrades to the over-ride clutch assembly, wheel bearings, sprockets, chain guards, wheels, transmission, frame, gas tank and exhaust. A summary of MK numbers used over the years to identify major upgrades:

ExperimentalSmall Maico-Engray kart engine. Test-bed for the 2-wheel-drive theory. Contrary to Rokon legend (myth), these early Trail-Breakers were fitted with an over-ride assembly for the front wheel drive. This was part of Charlie Fehn's original design, not the product of some hill-billy gas station attendant.1960-1961
MK0The first commercial offering of the Trail-Breaker. Maico engine, some may have been fitted with a manual clutch Albion transmission. 1962
MK1 Used a JLO model LK101L engine of 98cc and Albion transmission with a fluid drive. Tested by various government agencies including the U.S. Army.1962-1963
MK2 West Bend 82007, Albion drive-train. Some were assembled by Rokon from Nethercutt parts immediately following Rokon's purchase of Trail-Breaker production rights in 1964. Fluid drive. Aluminum 15 inch wheels. 1963-1964
MKD Some MK2s were sold disassembled (hence the "D" in MKD) with an instruction book so the buyer could assemble his own bike. 1964
MK3 Centrifugal clutch has replaced the fluid drive. 1966 models had drum brake, later models had disc. Some later models had torque-converter in place of Albion. Aluminum 15 inch wheels.1966-1973
MK4 Similar to MK3, but with 12 inch steel wheels.1970-1973
MK5 Ranger, and later Trail-Breaker also, with "plunger" 3 speed transmission and torque-converter, dual disc brakes, plastic side covers.1974-1985
MK6 similar to MK5, but with 12 inch steel wheels.1974-1985
MK7 Similar to MK5 and 6, but steering-head and forks redesigned to use bearings instead of bushings. MK7 included both Ranger and Scout.1986-present
MK8 4-stroke Honda power. 1994-present
MK9 4-stroke Kohler power. 1999-present



Rokon history marches on with new Rangers and old Trail-Breakers still conquering the toughest terrain around, where other vehicles wouldn't dare venture.

Keep 'em rolling !!







Note on Rokon history. In compiling this history, and in an effort to make it as accurate as possible, I contacted many people who were key figures in Rokon's history. These people included Orla Larsen, J. B. and Robert Nethercutt, Jim Cavanaugh, Jim Fowler, Dick Niemela, Robert Korpi, Bob Grip, Reggie Bishop, and Mark Johnson. Do you know of anyone else who could provide information concerning Rokon's history?

I am continuely searching for Rokon literature, sales brochures, or any other documentation. If you have something, no matter how mundane it may seem, I'm interested. Contact me via e-mail or USPS.

I am especially interested in bike serial numbers (frame and engine), any documentation listing a bike serial number or any items connected with Nethercutt. Pictures too. Thanks!

 



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