Who the hell, you may ask, is Team Matjien? This is where it gets scary! Harley Davidson, back in the day, called their engineers involved with their race effort ‘The Wrecking Crew’. Similarly, Lockheed Martin called their Advanced Development Engineers responsible for designing and building special projects like the SR 71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest aircraft, ‘The Skunkworks’. Well, if you come to South Africa, we have such engineering fellows who have had some incredible achievements over the years. When it comes to motorcycles, enter Team Matjien!
The chap that heads up this motley crew is none other than my old buddy and Super Singles adversary from the early ’80s, Koos Zietsman. Koos grew up fascinated by mechanical things. This resulted in his buying a basket case bike and with a little help from his dad, getting it assembled and running. Such is the nature of the man; he didn’t end there. He went on to race this bike, which in turn resulted in him being properly bitten by the racing bug. He studied Mechanical Engineering and in the late ’70s and into the ’80s, it is fair to say, that he became by far the dominant force in short-circuit racing. This was prominently at Swartkops and Lichtenburg, where he ruled in sprint and 6-hour endurance racing. In 1982 I kept him honest by beating him on a few (very few) occasions, finishing second to Koos in the then Transvaal Championships.
Koos rode a YZ250 Yamaha engined Super Single housed in a frame which he designed and built. In truth, I think he viewed my twin shock XR500 Honda with a 750 Honda front end bolted on, with some disdain. His bike was quick and worked well. It was also very reliable, something that I, as a four-stroke fan, didn’t think possible. He campaigned this bike with his two-stroke wizard buddy Neels Van Niekerk in the six-hour endurance series as well, which he won in 1982. I too contested some races in ‘82 with an immensely talented partner, Jean D’ Assonville. In fact, we managed to beat Koos and Neels at Lichtenburg by a mere 13 seconds after 6 hours of intense racing. In truth, Jean was the hare, and I was the tortoise in our team. Jean broke the lap record in the 550 class on our Mean Machine-sponsored GPZ 550 during that race, but it was Koos who was crowned the Endurance Series Champion for ’82. Koos raced motorcycles competitively till 1990, after which he transitioned to racing and doing other crazy stuff in 4x4s.
I got a call way back in March from Koos, inviting me to pop around to his spot as he had some news that he suspected would get my attention. Flip, what an understatement! He introduced me to two other members of Team Matjien. Both with the surname Pretorius. The older of the two, Riaan, or “Riempies” to his friends and “Jock”, both do their motorcycle racing in the dirt. Riempies background is not dissimilar to Koos’. Growing up on a smallholding outside Pietersburg his dad bought him a Yamaha YB100 which was desperately in need of some TLC. The bike got fixed and raced. He too studied engineering and, as fate would have it, he and Koos ended up working together. Riempies has had a long fascination with the Roof of Africa extreme Enduro. After buying a 450 4-stroke, and campaigning it for a while, he realized that he was a 2-stroke man at heart. The strokers are so much easier in the technical stuff that he encountered in Lesotho. He has 7 Roofs and the 2011 Erzesbergrodeo under his belt. He currently rides a KTM 300 in these events.
“Jock” Pretorius is a youngster by comparison and worked as an engineer alongside Koos and Riempies. Their constant racing banter got to him and in a moment of weakness (I suspect there may have been some alcohol involved) agreed to ride the Roof. I don’t think he had even ridden a bike in anger at this point. This is where Team Matjien enters the story again. Prior to the Roof in 2010, Koos had an idea to raise some sponsorship for his buddies for their racing endeavours. Erzberg in 2011 was also just around the corner. Team Matjien was the name chosen for the team of aspiring youngsters who wanted to ride the Roof. Koos made himself Team Boss and lent on various acquaintances and friends to throw bucks at Team Matjien’s efforts. Jock was one of the beneficiaries and entered and finished his first Roof under the banner of Team Matjien. The nickname “Jock” does not refer to any kind of Scottish ancestry, but rather to the “Jock of the Bushveld” Staffie-like grit and determination that he displays in the line of duty, whether working or riding.
When I learned the reason for Koos’ call, I realised that Team Matjien was going next level. Koos is the lead engineer on their current crazy but audacious project. Get this… Koos and Riempies remember the days of 2-stroke glory when bikes like Honda CR500s, Kawasaki KX 500 and Yamaha 490s scared their riders out of their wits at every opportunity. Pumping out huge horsepower, but not of the linear kind, these bikes were only for men with gonads of steel. They constantly did their damndest to spin up the rear tyre, in any gear and dump the rider on his head. What followed was a general toning down of 2-strokes. Power valves and water cooling and mapping gradually tamed the beasts into the superbly competent and rideable bikes that they are today.
Now here is the thing with engineers. Get them talking on mechanical things that float their boat, like the 500cc 2-strokes of the days of yore, bemoaning the fact that you can no longer get bikes of this ilk in the current politically correct, sanitised world, then toss a little alcohol into the mix (again I suspect this is what happened) and creative juices really start to flow. It was Riempies’ idea. “Let’s build our own 500 then,” he said. Some primaeval light shone in Koos’ eyes, “design it and let’s talk”, he retorted. Most times nothing comes of these chats, but not this time. Riempies got busy and came back to Koos with some solid design plans. In essence, what Riempies planned was using a set of crankcases modelled on a KTM 300, incorporating the gearbox and electric start, as well as the mounting points, to shoehorn the 498cc motor into a 300 KTM frame.
My mind was in a flat spin as they unfolded this fiendish plan back in March, with more questions than answers. “Who else is involved, guys? This is crazy!”. Enter Koos’ old race partner, Neels Van Niekerk. This guy is a legend to anyone who has ever toyed with a performance 2-stroke. His ‘Vannik Racing’ tuning work is world-renowned. I bought a NSR250 Honda for my son to race in Powersport, years ago. Neels had done development work on the NSR which turned it into an absolute weapon. His motors were not only powerful but eminently rideable. Neels is the Simulation Engineer on the ‘TM498’ project. (The project name changed to PZ490 after learning that a European bunch marketed TM motorcycles at some point).
He has written a programme to map the power and way that is produced by the 498cc 2-stroke engine that they are building. In his typical quiet and laconic way, Neels has indicated that his biggest challenge is to ‘de-tune’ the bike to make it vaguely rideable. Without even trying, indications are that it will pump out over 30% more power than a fit KTM300! Piet Van Zyl, an old engineering mate of theirs who has done work for McLaren and currently plies his trade in the UK, will design bespoke internal engine gears like the crank to clutch and so forth.
The Team Matjien crew have been, and some currently are, still engaged in building specialist armoured vehicles, during which they have access to some of the most competent engineering concerns in the country. They have called in all their favours and then some, to make this project a success. The one unanswered question remained… “Why guys, do you want to market these motors?” “Hell no!” was the instant mass retort, “it’s just something that we want to do”. Let’s face it, that takes ‘Boer maak ‘n plan’ (farmer makes a plan) to the next level! Fast forward 7 months and 21 days. Unbelievable as it may seem, the idea shared back in March is a rip-snorting, tyre-shredding, rock-chucking reality! We got invited to the unveiling of the Team Matjien PZ490 on a plot just outside Pretoria. It is only a week since the beast got fired up for the first time (watch here). Apart from minor issues around the power valve software which need some fettling, the PZ490 is all it promised to be.
One could write a book about the engine build alone. Crankcases as well as all the major components were 3D printed then assembled and mounted in the frame. From this plastic motor, an exhaust was fabricated and checked to see that it would fit. Engine building in the digital age that we live in is an amazing process to get your head around, especially if you don’t have an in-depth knowledge of engineering. The software driving the processes is mind-blowing. Even engine component stress can be assessed before the build to ensure that engine bits are robust enough.
Talking software, the engine management software makes this monster rideable. With power and torque to burn, it needs huge toning down to work in a real-world application. Riempies concedes that his 300cc KTM is as perfect a Roof bike as you could wish for and anything more potent is total overkill. But that is not why this bike exists. The other motorcycle that was built primarily to prove that it was possible, and could be done, was Honda’s incredible oval piston’ed NR750. The difference here is the resources available. This motor was designed, fabricated, and built in after-hours spare time by a tiny group of passionate engineers, funded by businesses that have come a long way with Team Matjien. He shudders at what the fat exhaust pipe will look like after dealing with Lesotho’s rocks. Koos is more pragmatic. “If you’re lucky it will lose a few ponies” he says, laughing.
For those interested in what’s under the bonnet, here is the power comparison between PZ490 and the donor KTM XCW300.
The motor is bolted into a KTM 300 frame. Parts were manufactured all over the world, wherever it could be done cost-effectively and timeously. To hear the bike fire up with that deep-throated big-bore 2-stroke blatt is spine-tingling. It revs up crisply and watching Riempies accelerate, spins up the front wheel and lofts the front wheel just off idle. The guys had the bike displayed on a platform covered with a bespoke PZ490 cover emblazoned with some of the major sponsors’ names. Parked to each side were two bikes to which this monster pays homage, in the form of a Honda CR480 and a Maico 490, both sporting huge finned barrels and heads, in stark contrast to the PZ490’s liquid-cooled motor. The bike looks sweet with a bespoke PZ490 sticker kit also showing dominant sponsors who participate in this amazing project.
Riempies has spent so much time on the PZ490 project that his preparation time for the Roof has been rather limited. But then again, he is there to experience riding a bike with a motor that literally was only a dream less than 8 months ago. A bike that embodies the incredible spirit of a handful of supremely talented and driven South African engineers, who dared to do what most would consider impossible. Team Matjien, take a bow! A second motor will be built for another audacious Team Matjien project that may just end up in a particularly prestigious record book, but for now, that will be a story for another day. Riempies, enjoy your Roof, brother! May the force be with you!
See the original plan as it was hatched back in March, in this casual and candid video shot on Koos’ lawn.