The Demise of Can-Am

As admitted directly by Bombardier (see History), Can-Am’s glory only lasted three years. Commencing in 1973, the focus of Bombardier had already waned by 1976. In that short time-period, Can-Am achieved incredible success.

The mid-70’s were also the glory time for dirt bikes in themselves. Motocross had taken off in the USA, and with the Japanese manufacturers finally developing off road specific bikes, technical improvements and model changes happened on a continuous basis. Combined with emergences of some of the biggest names, such as Bob “Hurricane” Hannah, Roger Decosta and “Bad” Brad Lackey, as a sideline product, Can-Am’s were never going to receive the focus they needed to keep abreast of the developments.

Unfortunately by 1980, Bombardier realised they could never compete against the wide model selection and brand power of the Japanese manufacturers, they made the decision to exit the motorcycle market. The company had been successful, and still is, by combining conservative investment with focusing on niche markets, normally using licensed technology. In the competitive world of motorcycle racing, technical development and risk taking are often required for success

The decision was mainly based on the small number of bikes being made (a few hundred a year against over 200,000 snowmobiles) and the potential to expand their railway car business (a single contract awarded in 1980 by New York City provided over a billion dollars). The company decided to put its efforts also into another innovative idea, the Sea Doo (a jet ski).

On Bombardiers announcement of cessation of the Can-Am brand Jeff Smith was given the opportunity to salvage something. Jeff approached various manufacturers, most notably Husquavana. But there were no takers. The motorcycle industry was still in turmoil from the demise of some many brands in the 1970’s and the unstoppable momentum that the big 4 Japanese. marquees had developed.

Geoff Burgess recalls “For its death in 1982 Smitty held a Can-Am wake at Duluth MN Bombardier HQ. About 10-12 of us attended. Low and behold it rose out of the ashes again, can’t keep a good bike down I suppose”.

But like the preverbal phoenix, Jeff’s previous British racing success provided a lifeline.

Enter Armstrong/CCM of Vale Street, Blackburne Lancashire.

The turbulent history of CCM and its relationship with Armstrong Corp, is beyond the scope and purpose of this website. For full history check out Peter Henshaw’s book Rolling Thunder CCM Motorcycles: The Odyssey. However suffice to say that CCM was started by Alan Clewes from the remnants of the BSA competition department and for the past 40 years have made small numbers of off road competition focused bikes. Armstrong Engineering Ltd were at one time an automotive component manufacturer supplying parts to Ford and British Leyland, who sought to enter the mass market motorcycle industry.

The arrangement between Jeff Smith and Alan Clewes came about from their previous acquaintance at BSA. (Jeff had won his two world titles on BSA’s). Armstrong took over the CCM concern and with Alan’s background the off road market appeared to be their best bet.

According to Peter Henshaw, the initial contact between the two men was made by Karl Poetzbelger (the managing director of Armstrong). The agreement was rapidly made in that Armstrong would build the bikes for Bombardier. This provided work , turnover and an ability of Armstrong to gear up for mass production, while Bombardier maintained their product line, while off loading the actual production.

The relationship commenced with Amrstrong producing an initial batch of 145 bikes in October 1982. This grew to an order in August 1983 for 1075 bikes, split 50/50 between motocross and enduro models. With a workforce of 50 people, until the final demise in 1987, the Armstrong/Bombardier agreement produced 4,000 bikes in its 4 years.

Failing investment and poor management at Armstrong and CCM, Can-Am ceased production in 1987. This stemmed from the breakup of the Armstrong and CCM relationship, with Armstrong Corporation falling on difficult financial times. It put the motorcycle business on the market, with Alan Clewes retaking ownership. The second sting was Bombardier’s final decision to finally exit the motorcycle market and concentrate on its transportation business lines.

The brand remained dormant until 2007, when Bombardier decided to enter the recreational market again with a quad bike. By then Bombardier was one of the world’s largest transportation companies, turning over $20 billion annually and employing over 75,000 people.

Can-Am’s during their day were criticised by the press for offering so much, but often failing to deliver. The technology – rotary valves and chassis layouts – were often criticised for being old hat when launched. The simple fact is that these bikes were design and built by a company that had no track record in motorcycle manufacturing, based in a country with no expertise or record of ever making motorcycles. Today Can-Am remains Canada’s single motorcycle marquee. Designed and brought to market in just over a year, the marquee was generally finished with 7 years (1973-1980) before the typical bugs of early designs could be worked out. Compare that to the main Japanese marquees that commenced in the 1940’s, and it wasn’t until 1970’s before the main stream considered them worthy bikes

Today, their approach to motorcycle manufacturing has come full circle, with a number of European makers setting themselves up as ‘boutique’ manufacturers. Just look at the success of KTM. Was Can-Am wrong or just too early?

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