Top 50 Riders of the 1980s – That Little Old Factory Called Cagiva

Their time in World Motocross was short-lived, but they made a lasting impression in getting to the very top. As part of our 1980s Top 50 series, MX Vice takes a quick look at those who won with Cagiva.

Words: Ben Rumbold | Images: Jack Burnicle

Quick Motocross pub quiz question for you: Which was the most successful non-Japanese factory in the 1980s, in terms of GP wins? No, it wasn’t KTM!  Although they did win one more world title, it was the tiny Cagiva factory that won more GPs between 1980 & 1989. Founded in Varese, within the north Italian region of Lombardia, the company was brought into motorcycling by the Castiglioni brothers, sons of the founder Giovanni, in the late 1970s.  The name comes from Castiglioni Giovanni Varese, and they were ambitious enough to take on the big boys of both on- and off-road racing.

One of the first 125cc Cagiva Motocross machines, as ridden by Mauro Miele to a podium finish at Montevarchi in 1980.

They originally made their name with smaller bikes, along with many other Italian brands who raided the 125cc class at that time. They were fast immediately – little-known Italian Renato Zocchi took 3rd overall behind World Champions Harry Everts and Akira Watanabe in only their second Grand Prix, the West German round of 1979. Mauro Miele repeated that feat on home ground of Montevarchi the following year. Ultimately, their rapid little red machines succeeded where Honda, Gilera, and even a concerted effort from Yamaha had failed, in toppling the undisputed Kings of the 125cc class – Suzuki.

The yellow bikes had won every single year since the class began in 1975, from Belgian Gaston Rahier to the first Italian World Champion ever, Michele Rinaldi.  But that last title was very nearly won by Corrado Maddii, our #50 rider, who was only denied championship glory by sheer rotten luck in 1984, despite winning the factory’s first two GPs. The first was met with rapturous applause on (virtually) home ground at San Marino’s Baldasserona circuit.

You couldn’t get more Italian than this shot – Massimo Contini flies the blood-red Cagiva through the skies of Maggiora, helping Team Italy towards 3rd place overall!

In 1985 they had fierce competition from the Honda of the incredibly fast Davy Strijbos, but after a controversial disqualification for the Dutchman it was fiery Finn Pekka Vehkonen who delivered Cagiva’s first world title, finally breaking the Suzuki stranglehold!  Pekka, who would go on to become Roger DeCoster’s brother-in-law, won three GPs, as did Maddii, who would finish 3rd in the standings.

Jeremy Whatley scores his first points for Cagiva at Villars Sous Ecot in France. He would go on to win a double moto maximum at that year’s Czechoslovakian Grand Prix.

They picked up Strijbos in a lucrative deal for 1986, and the Dutchman duly delivered with 4 GP wins and the title, assisted by Vehkonen who took a single win as defending champ, and our #49 rider Massimo Contini who took 3 for the year. Brit Jeremy Whatley won their first Motocross GP outside of the 125cc class with his success on the 250 at Sverepec in Czechoslovakia. That left Cagiva with 9 in total (when you include Whatley’s Czecho win) across all classes, level with the mighty Honda! Only Yamaha won more with a dominant 250cc title for Jacky Vimond in 1986.

In Britain, Cagiva importer Mike Carter enlisted development help from former World Champ Neil Hudson, and gave a teenage Jamie Dobb his first GP experiences in the 125 class.  Mike Healey campaigned one in the AMA Nationals with limited success.

Pekka Vehkonen, Cagiva’s first world champ, pushes for another title on the 250 in 1987, here winning the British GP at Hawkstone Park. He came up just a little shy of Honda’s Eric Geboers.

With Strijbos going on a tear and Vehkonen moving to the 250 class, it only got better in GPs – 10 in 1987 (Strijbos 5, Contini 1, Vehkonen 4 in the 250s) – and 11 in 1988 (Strijbos 7, Vehkonen 3, Van Doorn 1). This was after switching to a blue & silver liverie to avoid the colour clash with Honda – please take note, GASGAS! It was only the genius of double 125 & 250 Champions John Van Den Berk and Jean-Michel Bayle that kept the Cagiva concern from any more titles, and only Honda won more in those two seasons.

Suddenly though, after Dutch flyer Gert-Jan van Doorn took their last ever GP win in Sweden on the 28th of August 1988, the funding was cut. The little factory got more serious about road racing with their Ferrari-red 500cc machines ridden by Randy Mamola, to minimal success initially.  Having won 38 Motocross GPs, over double the amount of Kawasaki at the time, they acquired Husqvarna and ran with that brand in Motocross from 1991 onwards.

White, Blue, and Black beauty. The stunning 1988 Cagiva that Davy Strijbos took to 7 GP wins, and nearly another world title.

As a teenager, I loved them, and through the Nellie connection had a go on one at 14 years old, my first ever ride on a 125cc. Dad said I was like washing on a line!  I stayed on a KX100 a while longer, but never lost my love for these beautiful bikes that took on the might of Japan, and won!