The Rokon Ranger, the bike they couldn't kill.
Reprinted from CYCLE WORLD, July 1999
By now, you've probably had it up to here with this new-millennium thing. God forbid the Y2K bug shuts down the world's computer-based infrastructure where will we be then? If we're smart, we'll be heading north at 20 per on a Rokon Ranger.
You see, sometimes the simple things are the ones that get the job done. And what better to get you where you need to be-wherever you need to be-than a two-wheel-drive motorcycle"
For 45 years now, there has been such a vehicle. Though the company has changed hands a few times, the basic model remains. Improvements have been few: the first was the adaptation of a torque converter, essentially making the Rokon Trail-Breaker the first automatic-transmission motorcycle. With its Chrysler two-stroke engine and three-speed tranny, this bike gained a stranglehold on the two-wheel-drive motorcycle market. Later, the Trail-Breaker was smartly renamed with a more environmentally friendly moniker, the Ranger. And more recently, a four-stroke engine from a Honda generator took up residence in the frame, making for an almost all-new Rokon, if there ever could be such a thing.
"What the heck is that"? is the first phrase likely to be uttered by anyone who spots the bright-red thing with the two big wheels. The Ranger looks heavy, but in fact tips the scales at a reasonable 256 pounds with 2.7 gallons of gas in its tank. Even more surprising is how easy it is to hoist the rear end; credit the forward-placed engine. The solid-looking aluminum wheels are equally deceptive; hollow inside, they double as storage tanks to transport and extra 4.5 gallons of water or gas apiece for extended wilderness excursions.
All right, so how about that two-wheel-drive, you ask? It isn't the latest technology, but it does work. The motor drives a belt (like a go-kart or snowmobile) and feeds power through an automatic torque converter into a three-speed transmission located under the seat, behind the motor. This acts as a transfer case, sending power to the rear wheel via a chain, and to then another chain. On each of the transfer cases, there is a mechanical disc brake that effectively slows the wheels. Ingeniously, a clutched coupling lets the front wheel freewheel when the handlebars are turned so as not to hinder maneuvers. Suspension? There is none to speak of, unless you count the air pressure (a low 3.5psi) inside the 15-inch Goodyear implement-tread tires. Not only does a rigid frame overcome most of the complexities associated with 2WD, at the speeds at which the Rokon is intended to travel, suspension isn't really necessary. Our test bike was equipped with an optional suspension-seat that provides about 6 inches of bump-absorbing form. Even so, smacking bumps at speed is not recommended.
The air-cooled, 163cc Honda motor starts easily, never taking more than a couple of pulls even on freezing-cold mornings. Getting going is a simple matter of sticking it in gear and going. The low, low first gear useful for tree-climbing, stump-pulling and dragging a 800-pound bear carcasses out of the woods is good for 10mph max. Second is good for just about everything else, such as climbing up the steepest hills and crossing deep mud bogs. Third can be largely ignored unless level roadwork comes into play; the 5.5-horsepower motor simply isn't strong enough to let the Ranger climb in third. We'd guesstimate that 25mph is the Rokon's top speed in the dirt.
Because the hard-to-reach gear selector is located underneath you, and the gears are unwilling to mesh at speed, it's recommended that you come to a complete stop to shift. Fortunately, the engines broad spread of power means you don't have to change gears often. Another benefit of the four-stroke engine is its quiet operation with very little noise coming out of the USFS-approved, spark arrestor equipped muffler. The gears and chain make more noise.
Riding the Ranger is a unique experience. In fact, to some extent, the less motorcycling experience you have, the better-the Rokon is that bizarre. For starters, the swiveling footpegs are set in a cruiser-like position, well forward of where a dirt guy would stab for them. This mostly rules out standing so you just sit down and go. Go slow, that is, over just about anything this side of sheer cliffs and dense vegetation. Two-wheel-drive makes going where you thought impossible possible, and takes novices where they would never consider going on a "normal" bike. In fact, we easily rode the Ranger up our toughest downhill enduro trail. Don't believe us? Then ask Rokon disciples such as Haiti's nuns, the Brazilian Navy or the diehards who rode them through the Darien Gap in Panama.
The front wheel definitely pulls, but you don't really notice this. What you do notice is that the wide tire track lets you defy the terrain's best resistance. If you start to get in trouble, just put a foot down and continue on, thanks to the low seat height. Dog-paddling is not only encouraged, its standard operating procedure; should you ever find yourself hunting a Rokon, just look for the tire tracks with footprints on either side.
The cable-actuated disc brakes do a great job of slowing the bike or, more importantly of stopping it when heading down some insanely steep hill you just idled up. You can pretty much forget about momentum; just chug along and see what the inertia of two driven wheels will do. Bump into a wall and the Rokon will climb up to the point that it flips over backward. Ground clearance is sufficient to clear most stuff. And if you do get high-centered on a big log or rock, the frame's glide plate lets it slide right over with its wheel-tanks empty, the Rokon allegedly will float on its side, but we didn't try this because the water was too cold! The only problem we had was the engine's low-oil shut-off kicking in on steep climbs. Our solution: Unplug it and keep an eye on the oil level the old-fashioned way. And don't worry about gas: We ran the bike all day long and barely used half a tank. With gas in both wheels-does this just sound wrong, or is it us?-you're looking at a 500-mile range, taking a week to do it.
So, is the Rokon Ranger a motorcycle? If you look at the accessory list, which consists of trailers, lawn mowers, log skidders, gun boots, disc harrows, spring rakes and power take-off kits with water pumps and tanks, it seems more like a tractor. Forget about saying, "Honey, I'm going out to work on the yard." With and optional sidecar that hooks on with one bolt, you can take her with you! There's even a 2-inch receiver-hitch carrier that lets you transport the Ranger on the back of you Range Rover. Or is it a Hummer you drive?
Truth is, no one really needs a Rokon. You could walk anywhere this bike will go, and almost as fast. But how much fun is that? With its time-tested, 40-year-old design and new Honda motor, the Ranger should last a lifetime, in fact, it's so durable that you could drop it off a cliff and nothing would probably happen to it-it would still be running, even if you weren't. Think of it as a two-wheeled Jeep, a hiking motorcycle and a moto-tractor, all rolled into one. It may not be the bike of the new millennium, but it could be the bike for the new millennium. You'll see...
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