John Penton and his brothers ran a motorcycle shop in Amherst, OH while they competed in off-road motorcycle races called enduros. John was a championship rider as well as fabricator and mechanic. He soon realized the heavy machines like the Harley’s, BSA’s and Triumph’s they all were riding could be beaten by smaller, lightweight bikes, a revolutionary idea at the time. He utilized the German built NSU and BMW motorcycles as the basis for his competitive bikes. In the 60s, he served as the eastern distributor of the Swedish brand Husqvarna, a motorcycle that revolutionized the sports of motocross, enduro and desert racing in the U.S. When his attempts to convince Husky to produce a smaller, lighter motorcycle fell on deaf ears, Penton created his own design and commissioned KTM, a small moped and bicycle maker in Austria, to build it. The motorcycle was an instant success in off-road competition and led KTM to expand its efforts in the motorcycle realm, initially in conjunction with Penton and ultimately on its own. Today, KTM is the largest manufacturer of motorcycles outside of Japan and winning championships around the world.
John Penton’s personal life was filled with triumph and tragedy. He had three sons with his first wife, Katherine, who contracted multiple sclerosis and died at the age of 29. His siblings helped the emotionally shattered Penton with his three young sons while he tried to work and chase for the national enduro championship in 1958, riding his competition bike to events all across the eastern U.S. and Canada and winning numerous ones. Afterwards, he toured Mexico alone on his motorcycle. Upon his return to Ohio, he was challenged by his brother Ted to break the record for transcontinental travel held by the legendary Cannonball Baker. In the spring of 1959, Penton successfully took up that challenge and became a motorcycling legend himself.
In the 60s, Penton forayed into the international arena, competing for the U.S. in the International Six Days Trial, the Olympics of off-road motorcycling, numerous times. It was his trips to Europe to compete that planted the seeds of his desire to build a better motorcycle, one that would help young Americans develop their skills to compete on the international stage. Ultimately, his own sons and nephews became some of the finest off-road riders America has ever seen, on motorcycles designed by their father and uncle.
There is so much to talk about with John Penton himself that we suggest everyone clicks on the American Motorcycle Association’s Hall of Fame website to learn about this incredible man and his family’s story.