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The Canadian Contender : Can-Am Sonic 500

This 1982 Can-Am Sonic 500 is a rock-ribbed reminder of how Bombardier once stood atop the MX world. 

In sales training, they call it the puppy-dog close. You let your potential customer take the “puppy” home for the weekend. It rarely comes back. In this particular case, the salesman was Jon Shanks of Champion Cycle in Chilliwack, BC; the customer was motocross racer George Phillips; and the puppy was a brand new 1982 Can-Am Sonic 500. First, though, Jon invited George to take it for a test ride.

“I thought why not?” says George. “So off to the mountains we go.”

George admits the Can-Am took some getting used to: it was tall with nearly 12 inches of ground clearance and a seat height of over 36 inches: and in spite of the fact that George was over six feet, “It was like mounting a horse,” he says: and the kickstarter was on the left side; “Thank goodness for a decompressor!”

More used to the small Hodakas, Bultacos and Montesas of the day, George found the big Can-Am challenging.

“This was the first time I’d ridden a four-stroke dirt or enduro bike. The power band took a little getting used to. It became a fun bike to ride. I got comfortable riding this bike—a little too confident. We were riding on Mount Thurston. It has a very steep climb…I was so close to cresting the top… Need I say more!”

(Mount Thurston near Chilliwack is the site of a steep, ridge-topping trail famous among the international mountain bike commumity.)

George offered to repair the mostly cosmetic damage, but instead Jon invited him to keep the Sonic for the weekend.

“He knew I was the only one that could handle this baby. I felt it was very good of him to trust me. So we made a deal. If my memory serves me right the purchase price was $1,700. A good deal I thought.”

Making It Right

After riding the Sonic for a while, George discovered its deficiencies.

“It was not a good handling bike in the tight trails,” he says. “It was just too tall.”

George consulted a mechanic friend Gord Hill, now owner of Chilliwack Motorcycles. At the same time, they decided to make the off-highway-only Sonic street legal.

“Gord put a lot of thought into the modifications,” says George.

First, they cut two inches off the rear coil springs, reducing the travel to 7-1/2 inches, and the kickstand was shortened to suit. The headlight was changed to a larger unit, the odometer was replaced with a proper speedometer, while a tail light, brake light, horn and mirror were also added. 

“We changed the gearing to give it a little more top end for the highway,” he says. It handles like a dream.”

And a bonus: George has been able to get a BC Collector licence plate for the Can-Am.

Sonic Boom

Many motorcycle manufacturers have diversified into snowmobiles to make their business less seasonal. Skidoo maker Bombardier did it the other way round. With a widespread dealer network and having recently acquired Austrian engine maker Rotax, Bombardier was well positioned to become a bike maker in the early 1970s. And while the road-bike category was pretty much sewn up by the Japanese big four, the dirt bike market was wide open. The company hired motorcycle engineer Gary Robinson and double world motocross champion Jeff Smith to head up their development team.

And they pretty much got it right first time. The 125cc two-stroke MX-1 captured first three places in the 1973 ISDE and repeated the sweep in the 1974 AMA motocross championship. Suddenly it was cool to ride Canadian!

The Rotax engine pioneered many two-stroke technologies, like Nikasil-plated cylinders and triple exhaust ports. But by 1980, and with the dominance of Japanese two-strokes in off-road competition, Can-Am realized it could no longer remain competitive. Neither could the team afford the extravagant salaries of the top riders of the day.

But they had one last kick at the can. With enduro racing becoming more popular, and moves to ban or restrict two-strokes in off-road competition, Can-Am co-opted the “in-house” 500cc SOHC Rotax 504 four-valve single and dropped it into an oil-bearing frame. They added Marzocchi front forks and dual rear shocks together with other top-notch components to produce a worthy competitor. 

But Bombardier’s attention was being drawn toward its railcar business, worth many times more than motorcycles. And to satisfy their dealers’ need for summer sales, they moved into Seadoos and quad bikes. Jeff Smith was let go in 1982. But the rights to the Can-Am business were acquired by the British Armstrong company, which produced a mil-spec motorcycle, the MT500 (which clearly showed its Can-Am heritage in the frame and general layout) for British and European forces. When CCM went under in 1987, manufacture of the MT500 went to Harley-Davidson in the US, becoming as the MT350, standard equipment for the US military and Nato until replaced by diesel-engined Kawasaki KLRs. 

George doesn’t ride as much as he once did, but he’s still enthusiastic about the off-road scene. 

“I have a lot of fond memories of those early years of motorcycling,” he says. “One thing…I wish I was 20 years younger and riding the iron that’s on the market today. What a thrill it would be!”

By Robert Smith Canadian Biker Issue #324

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