GRR

Honda: 60 years of two-wheeled success, everywhere

26th December 2019
Laura Thomson

In 2019 Honda celebrated celebrating two exciting milestones – 70 years since the debut of its first motorcycle and 60 years of racing prowess.And it was the latter anniversary that the Japanese manufacturer focussed on at the 2019 Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard, bringing a host of accomplished machines to the iconic hillclimb.

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The two-dozen Hondas made up their own class, taking to the Hill in a resplendent display of the finest Japanese manufacturing. From the 1959 RC142 – the machine that marked Honda’s arrival at the Isle of Man TT six decades ago – to Marc Marquez’s 2018 MotoGP World Championship winning bike, the hillclimb cohort represented every era of the manufacturer’s illustrious history.

Soichiro Honda built his empire from humble beginnings – born in 1906 to a bicycle-repairing blacksmith in Hamamatsu, he began his career a garage apprentice in Tokyo, before returning to his hometown to open a repair shop and build racing cars.

After being injured in a racing accident, Honda-san dabbled in piston-ring manufacturing, followed by his first foray into powered-two wheelers in 1948, attaching war-surplus two-stroke generator motors to bicycles in an effort to meet the need for affordable transport. His first real motorcycle debuted a year later, powered by a 98cc two-stroke motor. Within just 15 years, Honda grew to become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. But in that time, it had also made important progress in racing, and established itself as a leading contender in the by now FIM-sanctioned world championship… 

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It all began with a mid-‘50s recce trip to the TT, after which Honda-san went on a grand tour of Europe, sourcing state-of-the-art motorcycle components to fly home and analyse for use in his own machines.

1959 went down in Isle of Man TT history as the year that the Japanese arrived, armed with a handful of four-stroke, DOHC, twin-cylinder 125cc motorcycles. Named the RC142, it featured open spine frames, with the engine as a stressed member and leading-link front and swing arm rear suspension. Contesting the Lightweight class, four of these machines came sixth, seventh, eighth and 11th, while Honda was awarded the manufacturers’ team award – an unprecedented level of success in a team’s debut year. Taking sixth place, Naomi Taniguchi scored Honda’s first ever world championship point. 

After the relative success of the RC142, Honda-san realised that more revs were the way forward, and so developed a DOHC inline-four-cylinder, 16-valve 250 – the granddaddy of modern sportsbike configuration. 

From 1960, Honda entered four-stroke 125cc and 250cc machines into the championship, with Australian Tom Phillis achieving a debut win aboard a 125cc machine in the 1961 season opening Spanish Grand Prix. In the following round in Germany Kunimitsu Takahashi took the first 250cc win and became the first Japanese rider to win a race.

Later that year, Mike Hailwood took Honda’s debut TT wins, in both the 125cc and 250cc classes, while second, third and fourth positions in both races were occupied by Hondas. Phillis won the 1961 world championship on a 125cc machine, while Hailwood took the 250cc title. Within just two years of Honda’s racing induction, it had become a double world champion. 

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By the mid ‘60s, Honda had established itself as Japan’s only dedicated four-stroke manufacturer and developed a six-cylinder 250cc racing motorcycle, a five-cylinder 125cc and a twin-cylinder 50cc, all revving beyond 20,000rpm and with impressive specific power outputs. So, it was hardly surprising when in 1966, the team placed on the world championship podium in all classes – 125cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500cc – and won the 125cc, 250cc and 350cc championships. 

But the two-stroke takeover that had been burgeoning since the early ‘60s eventually succeeded and the following year, Honda left the Motorcycle World Championship, redirecting its racing efforts to four wheels. But after regrouping, the manufacturer announced its return to motorcycle racing in 1977, the same year that the Isle of Man TT was removed from the World Championship calendar.

After convincing the FIM to give four-strokes a chance, at the 1979 British GP Honda’s oval-pistoned NR500 made its debut, with the two-strokes firmly in its sights. Revving to 22,000rpm and with eight valves and two conrods per cylinder, the NR was certainly innovative, however in that first race both Honda riders retired and the NR500 failed to score a single world championship point before it was withdrawn in 1981.

In order to remain relevant on the world stage, Honda was forced to join the masses and build a two stroke. Opting for a lightweight V3 engine and aerodynamic bodywork, the NS500 was born in 1983. It was piloted most notably by Freddie Spencer, who shared all of that season’s race victories with Yamaha’s Kenny Roberts, and ultimately won the title by two points, winning Honda’s debut World GP 500cc rider’s championship and the manufacturer’s championship.

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By 1984, Honda had developed a four-cylinder two-stroke – the NSR500 – and in 1985, Freddie Spencer won both the 500cc and 250cc Championships. The latter was achieved on an RS250RW – a bike which led to the release of the production RS250. The NSR500, into which the unconventionally-timed ‘Big Bang’ engine was introduced in 1992, went on to become the most successful world championship motorcycle ever, winning Honda10 riders’ titles and nine manufacturer’s titles. 

In 2001, thanks to the combined efforts of Masao Azuma, Daijiro Kato and Valentino Rossi in the 125cc, 250cc and 500cc classes, Honda celebrated its 500thwin in the world championship. Finally, in 2002 the demand for four-stroke technology on the road influenced the FIM to reintroduce it into the newly-formed MotoGP Championship, which replaced the 500cc class that year. Honda rose to the challenge, winning both the rider’s and constructor’s championships with Valentino Rossi aboard the four-stroke V5 990cc RC211V, a bike which went on to dominate the next five years of the championship, winning around half of the races held. 

Despite a tumultuous latter half of the 2006 season, Nicky Hayden, aboard a specially-modified RC211V, went on to claim the last 990cc MotoGP championship, before safety and speed restrictions saw the FIM restrict capacity to 800cc from 2007. The V4 RC212Vdebuted that year, with improved power delivery, tyre tech and traction-control systems. 

In 2011, Honda fielded Ducati’s 2007 World Champion Casey Stoner, Andrea Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa on the improved RC212V, who achieved first, second and fourth places respectively, winning Honda the team title and its 60thconstructor’s title.Aboard the new V4 RC213V, a difficult 2012 saw Stoner ruled out of contention by a crash in Indianapolis, and despite winning seven rounds, Dani Pedrosa lost to Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo by 18 points. Nonetheless, Honda took the constructor’s championship and the Repsol Honda Team won the team’s championship.

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Which brings us to the current, Marc Marquez era. In 2013, the Moto2 Champion stepped up to fill Stoner’s spot on the team, following his retirement. The Spaniard soon showed incredible talent, placing on the podium in his first race, and winning his second. He went on to win that year’s championship, becoming the youngest world champion and the first rookie to win the title since Kenny Roberts in 1978. And the rest, they say, is history… 

Despite breaking his leg in early 2014, he triumphed again that year, with teammate Pedrosa not far behind in fourth. Completing the ‘Triple Crown’ of wins, Honda took both the constructor and team crowns. In 2015, Marquez saw the lowest result of his MotoGP career to date, coming third in the championship after a season full of crashes. Despite suffering agonising arm pump and missing a number of races due to surgery, Pedrosa finished again in fourth, contributing to Honda’s overall second championship position. 

Honda struggled with technical rule changes towards the start of the next season, but pulled through to secure its 22ndconstructors’ world championship, while Marquez earned the accolade of being the youngest rider to win three world championships. A series of unfortunate crashes held Pedrosa back, with the Spaniard eventually placing sixth. 

Thanks to Marquez’s ever-consistent performance, 2017 and 2018 saw Honda take the ‘Triple Crown,’ twice more. 2019 saw Honda take the ‘Triple’ for the third year running. 

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While the Isle of Man TT may have been replaced in the World Championship with a British GP in 1977, Honda has remained a consistent force to be reckoned with on the tiny island in the Irish Sea. From the RC142 to the CBR1000RR SP2, no other manufacturer has won as many races at the TT as Honda, with more than 250 victories to its name. 

And the Japanese manufacturer doesn’t do badly in other disciplines either, proving a consistent forerunner in the Dakar Rally and podiuming in the motocross world championship almost 80 times since 1978, 30 of which were wins. 

Ultimately, six decades may not seem like long in the grand scheme of things, but it sure as hell is a long time in terms of motorcycle racing technology, and no manufacturer has quite taken it in its stride like Honda, from the four-stroke twin to the V3 two-stroke, the V5 RC211V and today’s V4 RC213V.

From its inaugural entry into the Isle of Man TT to the present day, there’s no denying that Honda has grown to dominate motorcycle racing, and the manufacturer shows no sign of slowing down...

Photography by Pete Summers.

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