The Humble 2x2 Machine Built for Utility, Exploration... and the Apocalypse
WORDS Ian J.D. Logan IMAGES Gregory George Moore
Be it bobbers, baggers, beamers, or what-have-you’s, there's a bike for everyone, imbuing the rider with the Steve McQueen or Peter Fonda cool that comes from sitting atop an engine with a can full of gasoline between your knees, hurtling through space as our brain whispers, “Bigger. Faster. Louder.” But there is a motorcycle that rebels against the seductive power of speed and the Botticellian curves of our two-wheeled Freudian steeds: the Rokon Trail-Breaker, the antithesis of all that we’ve decided the essence of a motorcycle should be.
Rokon is the second-oldest continually operating motorcycle company in the U.S., and the bikes they produce today look remarkably like the prototype developed in 1958. For the uninitiated, the Trail-Breaker, Rokon’s original and best-selling model, is a two-wheel-drive mule of a bike. With its squat, ATV tires inflated to just 3 psi, a 7-hp, 208cc four-stroke Kohler engine and torque converter automatic clutch, it has a top speed of 35 mph. In the history of mankind, no one has ever gotten laid for riding a Rokon. It is the bike of the married and celibate. You will not see this bike tearing up the track any time soon, but with its ability to climb a 60 percent grade, the Rokon dominates where no other vehicle can go.
How is this possible? Like its 4x4 counterparts, Rokon’s two-wheel-drive system allows it to attack terrain other motorcycles just can’t. Power is delivered from a three-speed transmission to a drive shaft that runs through the center tube of the bike to a universal joint at the handlebars, which allows the handlebars to turn while power is delivered to the front wheel. This turns a set of gears which spins an 11-tooth sprocket above the front wheel, which connects by a chain to an 84-tooth sprocket attached to the wheel. The Rokon's lightweight, hollow aluminum drum wheels can be filled with an extra 2.5 gallons of fuel or water; when left empty, they allow the bike to float on its side across otherwise impassable waterways.
Early on a warm September morning we traveled east across the width of the southern tier of New Hampshire from Keene — where Rokon was manufactured from 1966 to 1981 — to Rochester, where the company resides today. We were off to see how this peculiar bike is made, who they are making it for, and how they have persisted through the last half-century.
Pulling into the Rokon facility we are struck by how small the building is — more self-storage space than manufacturing facility. We make our way around one side of the building, a door opens and standing there is Tom Blaise, president and owner of Rokon, telling us we’ve gone to the back door. Despite its international reputation, Rokon is a classic small business. When we called to set up the interview, it was Tom who answered the phone. Only eight people make up the entirety of the manufacturing line. Like the bike they produce, Rokon seems to do the impossible with very little.
If the zombie apocalypse does happen, you might just see me heading north at 35 mph on one of these.
In the showroom, about a dozen Rokon models are on display. The room is stark, with a few promotional posters on the wall and a video playing on a small TV in the corner. One of the posters features Tim Ralston, of the National Geographic show Doomsday Preppers, alongside a Rokon. Though hunters and other sportsmen are the key demographic for Rokon, they have been making inroads into the “prepper” market — those squirreling away cans of Dinty Moore and AR-15s as they await the end of the world. It is a widely held belief on internet forums and in prepper publications (a couple of which are splayed out on a table in the middle of the showroom), that one of the best “bug out” vehicles for the coming end times is a Rokon. If the zombie apocalypse does happen, you might just see me heading north at 35 mph on one of these.
An adjoining space houses the Rokon museum, featuring a collection of earlier versions of the Trail-Breaker and a few other notable bikes including the one naturalist Jim Fowler used to make his way across Africa in his Wild Kingdom TV series as well as a flat black EMP-proof prepper bike. There are pictures on the wall of President George Bush (the elder) riding a Rokon at his Texas ranch and photos of Tom with King Abdullah of Jordan. The King purchased bikes for his Special Forces Unit, choosing these machines specifically for their ability to trek across the sand dunes of his desert country.
The museum also features an RT-340, Rokon’s foray into the enduro market in the 1970s. The RT-340, with its Sachs snowmobile engine, torque converter, and dual hydraulic disc brakes, was unlike anything else on two wheels at the time. In 1973, Popular Science questioned if this might be the bike of the future. Rokon offered several bikes based on this platform, including a street legal dual sport, a motocross, and my personal favorite, a flat tracker. It did well on the race circuit but the cost of development and production drove Rokon into the red; the RT-340 was shelved in 1978.
One of the keys to Rokon’s longevity has been to avoid overreaching. Long before the idea of sustainable business models, Rokon was organically cultivating its brand. They only produce six bikes a week, and the small production numbers allow the bikes that are sold to retain much more of their value than if the company flooded the market.
In the production area, the six Rokons that will be produced this week sit on lifts in mid-assembly. Walking into this area is like going back in time. There are no computers except for the one Stephen, the production manager giving us the tour, says is running the music. All frames are welded, descaled, and slagged by hand before being powder coated. In the middle of the floor is a manual pipe bender that sits next to the jig used to weld all the frames. Though you could call this a factory, there is no sense of an assembly line; each bike that goes out the door is proudly hand-built in America.
After the tour we head outside for what we really came here for: the chance to ride one of these bikes for ourselves. In the parking lot, we are given a quick overview of the bike and set loose to do a couple of laps. While not exactly the most harrowing of experiences, it's still fun. The next demonstration really allows the Rokon to shine as it ascends a small set of stairs before heading down a short trail behind the factory where it rides over logs and up a tree, all with the greatest of ease. This is the terrain where Rokon leaves all other vehicles wanting.
Such a unique motorcycle attracts a special breed of rider. These are people who like to push the envelope and test the limits of man and machine, where the chance of getting stuck in the mud is an open challenge. Groups of Rokon enthusiasts meet up around the country on what they call “romps” to swap stories and ride together through the toughest terrain they can find.
In the summer of 2015, Randy rode a Rokon Ranger from Portsmouth, NH to Malibu, CA
One such rider is Randy Tefft of Keene, NH. In the summer of 2015, Randy rode a Rokon Ranger — the company's street legal model complete with D.O.T. tires, turn signals and horn — from Portsmouth, NH to Malibu, CA to raise awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project. He did it solo, without any other support vehicles. The 3,800-mile journey took 20 days of riding on the back roads of America. That’s 180 to 220 miles a day at 35 miles per hour. As far as he knows, it is the only 2WD motorcycle to go from coast to coast. “It’s a pretty simple and amazing bike.” In the end, he raised over $10,000 dollars for the charity.
Randy's Rokon is parked outside the window as we talk in a booth in Lindy's Diner in Keene. Person after person stop to look at it, scratching their heads, trying to figure out what they are looking at. Randy says that this happens everywhere he goes. He leads me down the road to a steep hill beside an on-ramp that he likes to climb with his Rokon to demonstrate what makes the bike so special. “Who is the Rokon rider?” I ask him. “We’re explorers,” he responds.
When we asked Tom Blaise the same question, his mind immediately turned to the bike's practical applications: large scale farmers inspecting long rows of crops, and gas and oil companies inspecting pipe running through the Rockies. He says he also sells to first responders who need ways of getting supplies and people into and out of disaster areas where all other access may be blocked, such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Rokon riders are as varied as the tasks at hand.
The Rokon is at once a toy and a tool. It calls to that part of our brain that brought us out of the cave, that wonders what is just over the horizon, and that tells us to climb the mountain just because it’s there. The Rokon needs no roads; it transports its rider to destinations inconceivable by other means, and where you go is constrained only by your imagination.
ORIGINALLY FEATURED IN ISSUE 025