By Kenneth Olausson
Apple-cheeked Bill Nilsson was nicknamed ‘Buffalo Bill’ because he showed no mercy to his competitors. The fiery Swede was a tough Viking – never afraid of a challenge. Bill rode with the precision of a surgeon, but his main assets were his short temper and his stubbornness to never give up. That's why Bill Nilsson was so efficient, so successful and ever since he straddled a factory Husqvarna was a stellar Grand Prix performer on the track...
It was in the beginning of the 50s that Bill Nilsson started riding motocross. He was already a good stuntman – great at wheelies, which require a good sense of balance. Ten years later, ‘Buffalo Bill’ was hired by Husqvarna to ride for them during the 1960 world championship season. Everyone in the town of Huskvarna was convinced that their new factory rider would be the one to count on. True, there was no guarantee, but everything pointed in the right direction.
Reigning European champ Rolf Tibblin was riding the second big-bore factory machine, backing up the passionate Bill for the title. The Nilsson family lived on Rörvägen ‘Tube Road’, in Hallstavik and there were few tubes that couldn't be bent by super mechanic Bill. Up until now, he had built and tuned his own machines, which lead to his first world championship title in 1957.
“But now, I devote more time to riding and practicing around my home grounds in Roslagen, north of Stockholm,” Bill told me in the 60s. “The fact that I received my Husqvarna from the factory a full month ahead of the start of the season, made things a lot easier. I got used to its performance and could adjust minor details to suit my riding style. After 10 years in the saddle I had never been so well prepared.”
Being just 1.70 metres tall, Bill possessed a stocky and robust body.He looked even smaller when he wore his large leather pants, and the helmet hanging on one side made him look even funnier. But once straddling his machine, there was little to joke about. Where the lack of experience penalised him, his determination and desire to win made up for it. His riding style was based on stamina and talent that allowed him to face obstacles with determination. His extremely tough character led him never to accept defeat. He wascomfortable in all terrains, be it in the mud, in the water pools or over jumps and hills. Bill was armed with great self-esteem and had a mind to go far in his career.
The 1960 championship lasted for four months and a couple of weeks. The season opener came at the end of April in Sittendorf, where a decisive event would reveal what everybody had been up to during the winter months. In mixed weather between a burning sun and freezing hailstorms, 30,000 spectators watched 37 riders from seven countries compete. The course was 1.7 kilometres long and had to be covered 15 times in each moto - a hard task even for the well trained and almost impossible for those who weren't in shape.
Husqvarna soon proved to be in top condition – Rolf Tibblin won the first heat while Bill Nilsson came third. In the decisive moments of the second race, Tibblin took another win while Nilsson was second this time around. A double victory for Swedes and the domestic brand, what an eye opener!
By mid-May, Vésoul in France hosted the next Grand Prix. This was definitely not Nilsson's weekend as he broke down in both legs. First, he had an eroding spark plug, while a broken magneto stopped his second outing. But Husqvarna went on to win anyway - with Tibblin.
Two weeks later, the Swedes competed on their home turf, battling for positions in Hyllinge. Eight nations appeared in front of 15,000 spectators. Bill fell in the first heat but managed to come back and filled third spot. In the final, nobody could touch him and he took the overall victory - his first of the year. “I was so pissed off after my crash,” hot-tempered Bill said. "Consequently, I wanted revenge in the second leg."
Italian Imola is a classic motorcycle venue, both for motocross, road racing and formula one. Bill Nilsson came third overall and now shared the lead in the world championship standings with 18 points, tied with Sten Lundin. In Bielstein, Germany, Bill Nilsson injured his foot and had to abandon the race, but a week later he made up for the loss by winning the British GP at Hawkstone Park. He was back in the world championship running again - with 26 points.
"It was a Hitchcock thriller in England,” Bill said with a grin. 50,000 fans were present to watch the Dutch Grand Prix at the sandy track in Bergharen. Husqvarna shared a double victory, with Nilsson first and Tibblin second. A great day for Sweden!
The Swedish dominance in the 500cc class was overwhelming that year. Out of the six best riders, five of them were from the Scandinavian countries. In Namur, Belgium, this proved to be a representative fact – the four top riders came from Sweden. It was like a playground next door.
Bill Nilsson had his chance to secure his second title and Husqvarna's first world championship ever, should things go his way - and it did. Monsieur Nilsson took his fourth win and beat his opponent Lundin by 30 seconds. This result forced the factory to print a fan-card with a picture of Bill winning in Namur. It is today very valuable and sought-after, especially if you happen to find a signed copy. A famous quote came from Bill when he was to sign his autograph, “I never sign my name below that of Sten Lundin’s,” Bill said in earnest. And that was it.
The ninth and last round was organized in Ettelbruck, Luxemburg. In a water-filled ditch, both Nilsson and Tibblin had problems when a clogged ventilation hose for the petrol tank caused their retirement. Both riders had to abandon the race while Sten Lundin took the last laurel of the 1960 world championship, but he was still two points down on the leader.
Bill Nilsson also won his national championship in great style, taking three wins out of a possible four. Advertising was easy for Husqvarna at the end of this thrilling season; Nilsson first, Tibblin fourth. Life was smiling at the world champions and there were gorgeous headlines in these Good Old Times!