Honda’s racing success was more than one man’s dream. It was his sacred commitment. Famously, on Soichiro Honda’s first recce visit to the Isle of Man TT in 1954, the world’s premier motorcycle race, the innovative self-taught engineer and nascent industrialist had felt slighted by the dismissive fat cats of the dominant British industry… personified by the sleek Edward Turner, general manager and revered designer of Triumph (also later of the V8 Daimler engine that powered the glass-fibre Daimler Dart).
Honda's two‑wheeled glory years
Honda was also taken aback by the performance of the racing bikes, from Britain, Italy and Germany. His current 125cc model, descendant of his first efforts, grafting US Army surplus 50cc engines onto bicycles, could manage 3,000 rpm and perhaps five horsepower. He realised he would have to more than triple those figures to become competitive. Within a decade, he had done far more than that, with engines revving well over 22,000 rpm and producing better than 300 horsepower per litre.
Back in Japan in a famous 1954 address to factory staff, he announced that Honda would return to the TT to compete. “I hereby avow… that I will participate in the TT races, and I will pour all my energy and creative power into winning.”
The target of a 1955 return was over-ambitious. Honda’s first World Championship race was four years later, and while only one of the five 125s scored points – a landmark at the first attempt, albeit more than seven minutes behind the winner – three other of the DOHC twin-cylinder 125s took seventh, eighth and 11th, demonstrating the strength and reliability of the engine, and winning the team prize.
There was still a gulf – in horsepower and handling. The latter would take longer to solve. Engine-wise, however, Honda had no equals.
For 1960, the year of their first GP win, Honda’s engineers had taken a bold step beyond European convention, with the first-ever four-cylinder 250. The in-line four-valve DOHC RC160 set the template for the Japanese industry, putting what had once been the most exotic of racing designs on every street corner. It also set in motion an ambitious line of engines, seeking ever higher rev limits and greater miniaturisation, and adding cylinders year by year.
Before much longer, Honda was not fighting against European machines, but against his own compatriots, in a battle to stem the tide of the new high-performance two-strokes from Honda’s skirt-tail rivals, Suzuki and Yamaha.
This was another personal mission. Soichiro had an abiding dislike of two-strokes. They were noisy and dirty and fuel-inefficient, but – firing twice as often as a four-stroke – for a given cylinder capacity they were potentially more powerful. Beating them required ever-more complication, and increasing miniaturisation in search of more revs. Famous long-serving Honda technician the late Nobby Clark was there throughout. “You had to use tweezers on a lot of parts, like valve collets – because the parts kept getting smaller, but your fingers stayed the same size.”
The flowering of engineering adventure was eventually kerbed by regulations in the late 1960s, but not before Honda and rivals had produced some of the most exciting racing machines of all time.
Honda withdrew at the end of 1967. By then they had won 18 Constructors championships in all classes and 16 Riders titles, in every class except the biggest, 500cc. And Mike Hailwood, one of their most successful riders, only missed that by a whisker.
Honda RC116 50cc – Tiny Tiger
The smallest Honda was a late-comer, in 1962. But it was anything but a junior member of the panoply. It was here, in a class that was new in 1962, that the two-strokes posed the greatest challenge.
Honda’s twin-cylinder 50 had cylinders the size of egg-cups, eight tiny valves, and revved to a giddy 22,500 rpm. By the time the original RC112 of 1962 had become the RC116 in 1966, its final year, it was producing 16 horsepower.
It was an astonishing achievement – well over 300 horsepower per litre, more than 50 years ago.
The bike underwent constant development, seeking to reduce engine friction and lighten components, and the lessons learned informed the larger machines. Not so one quirk: the bike used weight-saving bicycle-style caliper rim brakes at the front.
In 1966 it took Ralph Bryans to the only championship in the class ever won by a four-stroke.
Honda RC148 125cc – Howling Wolf-Cub
Honda had started out in the 125 class, and an upgraded development of the twin-cylinder engine took Tom Phillis to the company’s first race win and first title in 1961, but it was only a stepping stone.
So too, it turned out, 1963’s RC146, a miniaturised version of the 250: four cylinders in-line, and four valves per cylinder. The two-strokes were pressing hard: multi-geared Suzukis and on the way a V4 Yamaha.
Honda’s solution was typical: add complication without sacrificing reliability. If a two-stroke fires twice as often, a four-stroke must rev twice as high.
Appearing late in 1965, the RC148 was essentially a doubled-up 50cc twin, with another cylinder added. That made five in a line, and the noise was extraordinary.
The bike took Luigi Taveri to the 1966 championship, his third in the class for Honda, and then Honda abandoned the class to the two-strokes.
The howling five has never been forgotten, and remains an orchestral addition to the best classic meetings.
Honda RC166 250cc – Six of the Best
Honda’s 250 four rocked the establishment and won three successive championships (Mike Hailwood and Jim Redman) from 1951 to 1953. But it faced the same problem as the smaller bikes: Yamaha’s two-strokes were very fast, and gaining reliability.
The answer was to break more new ground, the result a bike whose legend looms larger than any other. The Honda 250 Six.
It was built in secret, and flown to the Italian GP late in 1965 – as hand luggage with rider Redman. Nobby Clark remembers the sensation. “When it arrived at Monza they’d taken two exhaust pipes off, and people thought it was only a four. We got it into this garage, closed the doors, put the pipes on, oiled it, fuelled it, and pushed it right to the back.
“Then they said: ‘When we open the door, push like crazy.’ As it fired up – it was like somebody dropping a bomb. They were screaming! Nobody had heard it before, and didn’t know what it was. Everybody came, and they were just crawling all over you. One Japanese guy had an oil can, and he was squirting it at them, trying to keep them away.”
With 60 horsepower from 18,000 rpm, the bike took Hailwood to two championships over Phil Read’s Yamaha in 1966 and 1967, and an enlarged 297cc version to the 1967 350 title too. All accompanied by a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack.
Honda RC181 500cc – Stopped Short
Honda had conquered every category it had entered. But the big prize remained – the 500cc premier class, where the mighty four-cylinder MV Agustas reigned supreme.
The challenge was different. There were as yet no sprightly two-strokes to overcome, and Honda’s machine was relatively staid compared with the excesses of the smaller classes… a by-now classic in-line four, with DOHC driven by a gear train between cylinders two and three, four valves per cylinder, and (compared with the older MV four) plenty of horsepower.
This was to prove the bike’s downfall, at least in its first incarnation. Japanese engine technology was supreme, chassis and suspension technology still catching up. When Hailwood first rode the RC181, he famously said “it handles like a camel”.
He took over from Jim Redman and campaigned the bike for two years, taking eight race wins in the battle against Giacomo Agostini on the fire-engine MVs. It was a classic era, two of the greatest riders of all time going head to head.
In 1967, Mike the Bike secured the Constructors crown for Honda, but though he and Ago were equal on points and had five wins apiece, Ago was crowned champion because he had three second places to Hailwood’s two.
And in 1968, with another year of development?
The question was never answered. Honda, financially stretched with F1 racing and commercial investment, unexpectedly pulled out of bike grand prix racing. They wouldn’t return for more than a decade.
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