The Austrian Marque Made a Name for Itself with Some of the Best Dirt Bikes Around

Go to any off-road racing event and the popularity of orange dirt bikes is readily apparent. KTM has developed into arguably the strongest manufacturer in the business, but the Austrian company wasn’t always so prolific. Hans Trunkenpolz opened a repair shot in Mattighofen, Austria in 1934 to work on cars and motorcycles. From these humble beginnings, the company would blossom into an industry powerhouse.

KTM identifies primarily as a dirt bike maker, and a great portion for that identity and success stems from the large product line that is available now and historically. Even though knobbies are the norm, street bikes have been part of its lineup since the early years, and the company has offered scooters, mopeds, bicycles, ATVs, a sports car and on the horizon are electric dirt bikes.

It wasn’t even known as KTM originally, but by 1953, Kronreif, Trunkenpolz, Mattighofen introduced its first production series motorcycle, the R100. The company’s first title was secured shortly thereafter with the 1954 Austrian 125 national championship. KTM first made an appearance at the International Six Days Enduro in 1956 where Egon Dornauer secured a gold medal. Racing continued to be a testing ground for production technology, but next in line was its first scooter, the Mirabell. It started providing a factory team for the ISDE in ’64. As the company continued to expand, the workforce totaled 400 in 1971, and forty years after it was founded, KTM was offering 42 different models

American importer, John Penton, sourced KTM machines to revolutionize dirt bike racing and riding in the States. Bikes were first shipped to America under the Penton name and started arriving in 1968 with the GS model. KTM would eventually establish KTM America Inc. in Lorain, Ohio, in 1978. The decade saw an explosion of the 50cc market – one which KTM has come to dominate on the racing end.

The ‘80s would bring a series of large changes including the death of Company Manager, Eric Trunkenpolz, and a changing of hands. The company of 700 workers jumped on the water-cooled bandwagon and produced its first liquid-cooled 125cc motocross bike in 1981 and applied the technology to 4-stroke development immediately after. It led the industry by offering disc brakes front and rear in 1986 and the race wins continued to pile up in world motocross and ISDE competition. More resources were dumped into the 4-stroke market and production began on a 560cc Single with an overhead camshaft. Though moving forward on many fronts, KTM stopped its manufacture of scooters in 1988.

American Trampas Parker won the 1989 World MX 125cc title. It would be a highlight while the business side of things took a turn. GIT Trust Holding purchased a majority of shares. Two years later, KTM Motorfahrzeugbau AG went bankrupt and the company was divided into separate divisions for radiators, motorcycles, bicycles and tooling manufacture. For the two-wheeled world, KTM Sportmotorcycle GmbH (renamed KTM Sportmotorcycle AG) took new management and a renewed focus on racing performance. Rally was one form of speed addiction which KTM threw itself into whole-heartedly in 1993 with victories at the Atlas Rally. This was the start of what would eventually be a sport synonymous with KTM.

The mid-‘90s saw an upswing with new models and acquisitions. Introduced in 1994, the Duke series streetfighters are iconic bikes which persist into the present. Husaberg motorcycles and White Power suspension are also still alive and well, and these two companies were taken into the KTM family in 1995. World Enduro and rally raid continued to produce titles complemented by Shayne King’s 500cc World MX title. The electric-start LC4 engine was introduced and used in the Supermoto and Adventure machines. A feature that KTM is known for, the PDS linkless suspension, arrived just before the turn of the century. KTM also initiated production in the new manufacturing facility with the 4-stroke RACING 400/525 engine.

Y2K was good for the company with six world titles and the beginning of KTM’s twin-cylinder project. The 950 Adventure and 990 Duke were brought out in 2003, the same year that KTM entered the fray of 125cc road racing. The Super Duke followed as well as early versions of the RC8 Venom sportbike. Large-bore, twin-cylinder offshoots were starting to become the norm with the 950 Supermoto, 990 Adventure and 950 Super Enduro R breaking ground in ’05. The result was a best-ever year of sales and KTM’s rapid expansion into street markets and untapped dirt segments proved worthwhile. Another stroke of genius was the dual-sport EXC line for model year ‘07. For the first time, a mainstream OEM accomplished the seemingly unthinkable task of offering a real dirt bike that is street-legal. Enduro riders everywhere rejoiced.

The desire to push into foreign territory took on an extra set of wheels in 2007 when the company debuted the KTM X-Bow at the Geneva International Motor Show. This radical, open-air sports car captured the imagination of motorcycle and auto enthusiasts everywhere, and the car was selected for the 2008 Race of Champions event. As Big Orange faces down the end of another decade, it has once again embraced the changing political climate. KTM is poised to become the first major manufacturer to produce an electric-powered off-road bike.