FXR Racing: Honda MX Bike History: The 80's
By:
Tony Blazier

For part two of our walk down Honda history lane, we are going to take a look back at the decade that really solidified Honda’s position as the dominant player in American motocross.

 In the eighties, Honda fielded an amazing roster of riders and put them on the absolute trickest equipment in the world. On the production side, Honda moved five-time World Motocross champion Roger DeCoster in house to help develop the production machines and their showroom bikes made major strides. By the middle part of the decade, to be on anything else but red was a severe handicap.

If you missed part one of this series, you can read it here: Honda Motocross history Part 1: The 1970s

1980 Honda CR80R Elsinore: The CR125R gets a little brother

While the original XR75 had served admirably for a time as a mini racer, its intended mission was never to be a motocross superstar. Its low-stress four-stroke motor was competitive in 1972, but by the latter part of the decade, the two-stroke competition had left it in the dust. The new Suzuki RM80 and venerable Yamaha YZ80 were both lighter and much faster than the XR in stock trim. With an absurd budget and a ton of know-how, the XR could be made to fly, but for most average parents, the two-strokes were a better buy.

Realizing that they needed to stay in the mini game to keep kids riding red, Honda finally bit the bullet in 1980 and introduced their first true racing minicycle, the CR80R Elsinore. Styled like a 5/8 size CR250R, the littlest Elsie eschewed the four-stroke motor of the XR and went instead with a powerful reed-valve two-stroke single. Punching out 79.7cc and fed by a 26mm Keihin carb, the littlest CR pumped out 16.5 horsepower and offered an explosive delivery that was the exact opposite of the mellow and easy-to-manage XR. With a close-ratio six-speed gearbox, manual clutch and potent delivery, the CR80R was aimed squarely at racers only.

 In terms of performance, the new CR was very much like its bigger siblings; blazing fast, but poorly suspended. The motor had no trouble dusting off its mini competitors in a straight line, but the bike’s truly gruesome stock suspension made keeping that lead a chore. The stock shocks were incredibly harsh and faded almost instantly, in spite of their trick-looking remote reservoirs. Any major leap was greeted with a resounding thud, as both ends hammered to the stops. Repeated hits truly flummoxed the CR and the rear tended to hydraulic lock and swap if pushed. With a set of aftermarket shocks and a Terry damper kit for the forks, the CR was a potent weapon, but in stock condition, it was a mini missile, just waiting for its opportunity to launch junior into a snow fence.

1980 Honda CR125R Elsinore: Bigger number plates and a whole lotta motor

In the big bike classes, Honda dialed up some impressive updates for 1980. Both the CR125R and CR250R Elsinores received all-new chassis that beefed up rigidity (a major issue with the old frames) and added a dual down tube for additional strength. In order to accommodate the new frames, both motors adopted center-port exhausts and revised porting. In the suspension department, new forks offered air-adjustability and new Showa shocks included remote reservoirs to aid cooling for the first time. Finishing off the packages were new FIM-legal number plates that moved the plates rearward for easier reading and new plastic gas tanks that were less prone to damage, but a death sentence to stock decals.

1980 Honda CR250R Elsinore: Last of the air-cooled CR deuce-and-halves

While the both bikes looked outwardly similar to 1979, they behaved very differently on the track.  The new center-port CR125R motor turned the red machine from the class whipping boy to the horsepower alpha dog. It flat ripped like no CR125 before and roosted away from the competition. The new forks and shocks were marginally better for 1980, but still the worst units in the class. Up front, the forks were less flex-prone, but just as harsh as ’79. In the rear, there were a dizzying two adjustments available to dial in the ride, but neither really made a difference. No matter the setting, they were badly under-sprung and poorly damped.

 On the 250, it was more of the same as the bike continued to be hindered by its sub-par suspension. The new stronger frame aided handling, but with its grim forks and shocks, the bike could be a handful. The new center-port motor cured the lackluster low-end of the ’78-’79 models, but strangled the top end the bike was famous for. It was torquey, but slower than before and far more popular with novices than pros.

1981 Honda CR125R Elsinore: Buck Roger’s personal tiddler

The eighties were a decade for big changes in motocross and 1981 was a major year for change at Honda. A total revamp of their complete model line brought with it new technology, spacy styling and their first Open bike, the CR450R. All three full-size CRs featured completely new frames, motors and bodywork. They were boldly styled, cutting edge and practically sweat works trickness. On paper, they looked unbeatable; on the track, however, they turned out to be anything but.

 For 1981, both the CR125R and CR250R adopted liquid cooling and this was a pretty big deal at the time. Works bikes had been running water-pumper motors on and off for a few years, but no one in 1980 had them in production. The 1981 season saw Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha all adopt water-cooling on their 125s, but only Big Red ditched the fins on their 250 as well. At the time, it was accepted that high-strung 125s needed the extra cooling, but the conventional wisdom was it was unnecessary on a 250 or 500. Unnecessary or not, Honda decided to bring this technology to the 250 class for ’81.

1981 Honda CR250R Elsinore: So trick, yet so flawed

The other big technological development for 1981 was Honda’s first implementation of a single-shock rear suspension system. Dubbed Pro-Link (for Progressive Linkage), the new design featured a single shock mounted amid ship in front of the airbox and connected to a bell-crank linkage and large alloy swingarm.  The Pro-Link was similar in theory to Suzuki’s Full-Floater and Kawasaki’s Uni-Trak, but completely different in design and execution.

While the new technology made quite a big splash in ’81, by far the biggest news that year was the introduction of Honda’s first 500 class entry, the CR450R Elsinore. At that point, Honda had been racing Open bikes for half a decade in the Grand Prix and US Nationals, but had neglected to offer a 500 for sale to the public. The new CR450R shared the Pro-link rear suspension of the 125 and 250, but eschewed the water-cooling of the smaller bikes.

 Powering the CR450R was a 431cc air-cooled power plant based loosely on the one found on the older CR250R. While plenty powerful, this new motor was saddled with a gappy four-speed transmission and weak clutch. The powerband itself was hard-hitting, but short on breadth and riding the bike fast proved a challenge. There was not a lot of torque off idle and virtually no pull on top. All of its substantial thrust was found dead center in the midrange and shifting either too soon, or too late, caused the big Honda to haul out the anchor. 

1981 Honda CR450R Elsinore: Honda’s first Open class entry

 As it turned out, none of the Honda motors of 1981 would prove to be standout performers. Both the 250 and 450 were fast, but pipey and hard to ride, while the 125 ran like it had a family of chipmunks living in the airbox. All three machines suffered from weak clutches, fragile gearboxes and an overabundance of tonnage. The new frames, swingarms and shocks proved fragile and failures were common. The new Pro-Link suspension was innovative, but its leverage ratio was off and the single shock proved no better at absorbing bumps than the dual shocks it replaced.

While certainly trick, all three bikes proved to be massive disappointments. Unreliable, overweight and underperforming, the ’81 CRs were technical marvels in need of further refinement. Thankfully, that refinement would be fast coming.

1982 Honda CR125R: Much improved, but still a year away

After the disappointments of 1981, Honda was quick to try and make amends in 1982. The entire model line was revamped with revised power curves, lighter weights and improved performance. This was the first year that Roger DeCoster got to play a major role in development on the production side and his skill and knowhow made huge strides in the performance of the CRs.

Both the 125 and 250 received major redesigns with improved ergonomics, broader powerbands and upgraded handling. Of the two, the CR250 was the closest to the front of the class, with solid power and good suspension. On the 125, its relative lack of top-end power held it back against the quasar-fast YPVS-equipped YZ125. With a few mods, it was a contender, but bone stock, it lagged behind the best bikes in the class.

1982 Honda CR250R: DeCoster’s influence yields a much-improved machine

While the 125 and 250’s upgraded performance was welcome, it was nothing compared to the complete turnaround made in the 500 class. Of all the bikes of 1982, none was more improved than Honda’s rebranded CR480R.  In 1981, the big CRs smallish motor had put out a revvy and very un-five-hundred-like style of power. It was both slower and harder to ride than the brawny YZ465 and tractor-like Maico 490. Much more like an overly powerful 250 than a trench-digging 500, the CR450R was completely out of step with the Open class taste of the times.

For 1982, Honda got with the program and finally gave the buying public what they thought they were getting the year before; a truly great Open class racer. The all-new CR480R ditched the spooky handling and peaky power of ’81 in favor of expert manners and a thundering blast of torque. The new motor kept the four-speed trans of ’81 (boo), but grew a full 41cc in displacement (yeah!). This newfound displacement beefed up the torque and filled in the gaps in the old motor’s powerband. It was incredibly snappy out of the hole and quicker to rev than a typical Swedish or German Open class machine.

In addition to improving the motor, Honda trimmed the weight a full ten pounds and revised the frame geometry to cure the old bike’s wayward manners. Steering was much improved, but the 480 still liked to shake its head like a wet dog at speed. The massive new 43mm forks and revised Pro-Link rear were also a big improvement, even if they were not up to the standards of Suzuki’s excellent RM465.

1982 Honda CR480R: A big bore done right

As bad as the CR450R had been in 1981, the new CR480R was that good in 1982. It captured holeshots and shootout victories with equal ease and erased the bitter memories of the year before. It was easy to stall, prone to headshake and sorely in need of one more gear, but in 1982, there was no better 500 money could buy. After the drubbing Honda took in ‘81 that damn near counted as a miracle.

1983:  The start of the Honda decade

Throughout the seventies, Honda’s complete motocross lineup consisted of only two models, the CR125 and CR250 (and technically only one in 1977). The addition of the CR80R in 1980 and the CR450R in 1981 filled out Honda’s lineup nicely and gave them a presence in four of the major racing classes.  For 1983, Honda added a fifth machine to the stable: the all-new CR60R (they dropped the Elsinore moniker in 1982).

1983 Honda CR60R: Jimmy Button’s mini missile

 The ’83 season was a big one for the 60 class, with Honda and Kawasaki finally entering to do battle with Yamaha and Suzuki’s mini racers. Up to this point, the division had been dominated by Yamaha’s YZ50 and YZ60, but the arrival of new blood signaled an escalation in 60 class performance.  The new CR60R featured a powerful 58cc two-stroke motor and a scaled-down version of Honda’s Pro-Link rear suspension. With 7.1 inches front and 7.9 inches rear, the CR offered more travel than the RM and YZ, but significantly less than the new KX.

1983 Honda CR125R: The best Honda 125 in a decade

This second tier status translated to the motor as well, where the CR played second fiddle to the blazing-fast KX. It was torquey down low and snappy for a 60, but lackluster on top. It was more powerful than the older Yamaha and Suzuki, but no match for the Kawasaki’s mighty top-end hook. Overall, it was a solid first effort, but unable to make any dent in the armor of the bike that would come to dominate 60 class racing for the next two decades.

1983 Honda CR250R: A safety seat and works-bike styling highlight the best all-around 250 of 1983

While the CR60R was big news for mini dads in ’83, by far the biggest headline was the addition of a fifth gear for the CR480R. This instantly transformed the excellent ’82 480 into one of the all-time best Open class bikes ever made. New works-style bodywork and a serious diet paid major dividends on all the full-size bikes and the entire CR line was one of the best ever offered for sale. The 125 and 250 were no rockets, but their solid handling, good suspension and overall competence gave them victories in all the major shootouts. Overall, 1983 turned out to be a great year to be riding red.

1983 Honda CR480R: All hail the King

 

1984 Honda CR125R: The new ATAC system was not enough to hold off Kawasaki’s blazing fast KX125 in 1984

After the massive success of 1983, Honda was keen to deliver a knockout blow to the competition in 1984. All-new bikes in every class showed their commitment to winning and new technology on the 80, 125 and 250 proved they were serious about staying on top. More power, better handling and slicker looks were the buzzwords of ’84 and Honda appeared to yet again have the competition covered.

 In 1982, Yamaha had been the first manufacturer to offer a variable exhaust port device on their production machines. Seen on the YZ125 and YZ250, the new YPVS (Yamaha Power Valve System) promised a wider powerband and improved performance. In 1984, Honda decided it was time to offer a variable exhaust device of their own. Dubbed the ATAC (Automatic Torque Amplification Chamber), this design differed from the YPVS in that it did nothing to alter the port timing of the cylinder. Instead, the ATAC added a small sub-chamber to the exhaust port (external on the CR80R and CR125; internal on the CR250) that opened and closed based on engine speed. This chamber was designed to increase the head-pipe volume of the expansion chamber at low speeds and in doing so, increase low-end torque. 

1984 Honda CR250R: Works bike power for the masses

On the CR125, the new ATAC definitely seemed to bump up the low-end power, but top end thrust was sorely lacking. It ran well in the lower portion of the power curve, but revving the motor only made it go slower. In the end, the new bike ran differently, but not necessarily better than 1983. After some experimentation, many tuners found that the 125 actually ran better without the ATAC and designed expansion chambers to eliminate it altogether.

 On the CR250, the ATAC seemed to register much better results and the new motor turned out to be the master blaster of the ’84 250 class. While the ATAC was designed to boost torque, the new motor actually produced less low-end grunt than the year before. Where it pulled ahead was in the midrange. Once on the pipe, the new 246cc mill jumped forward like an F-14 Tomcat leaving the carrier deck. The midrange was absolutely explosive and it pulled like a banshee into an eye-watering top-end-hook. It was not as easy to ride as the torquey ’83, but much faster.

1984 Honda CR500R: Eighties excess incarnate

While the ATAC enjoyed mixed results on the 125 and 250, it was deemed completely unnecessary on the all-new CR500R. New from the ground up, the 500 shared not a single major component with the much-loved ’83 480R. It swapped the kickstart and output shaft locations and tacked on an additional 21cc over ’83. Even though the motor was an all-new design, it retained the air-cooling of ’83 and relied on a sano set of ram scoops for additional cooling. In addition to the new motor, the 500 featured a redesigned frame, slick works-style bodywork and a much-needed disc brake.

In 1983, one of the few complaints about the 480 had been its lack of top-end pull. It was brutally fast down low, but wheezed if you tried to wring it out like a 125 or 250. Short shifting was the name of the game and many fast guys lamented its relative lack of revs. For ’84, Honda went searching for more top-end power and found it in spades. The new 500 thundered out of the hole with an arm-jerking mountain of torque that shredded knobs and sent legs flailing. It was incredibly abrupt and needed a careful hand to prevent wheeling over backwards when traction was present. Once into the midrange, it really started pulling and the big beast shot forward like a bullet train late for Tokyo.

 While the insane amount of power looked great on dyno charts, it was nearly useless in the real world. The bike was violent, unpredictable and terrifying to ride. The bike’s erratic jetting made its massive hit even more difficult to manage and the big red brute could be a handful for even experts to control. The explosive power also exacerbated the CR’s mediocre suspension and once on the gas, it was anyone’s guess where the front or rear was going. Headshake was of biblical proportions and once it got oscillating, your best bet was to pucker up and pray. The funky jetting also made starting the bike nearly impossible and even if you got it started, the vibration and constant pinging were liable to make you wish you hadn’t.

In the end, the 1984 Honda lineup turned out to be a big disappointment. The CR60R, CR80R and CR125R were beautiful, but no match for their Kawasaki rivals and the 250, while blazing fast, proved terribly unreliable (buy your pistons in six-packs). Worst of all, the beloved CR480R was retired in favor of the over-muscled, vibrating and pinging mess that was the CR500R. Thankfully for Honda fans, a much better bike was on the horizon for 1985.

1985 Honda CR125R: A great all-around bike in need of more motor

The 1985 season would once again see Honda revamp their entire motocross lineup. In a puzzling move, the CR60R was retired after only two seasons, but the CR80R, CR125R, CR250R and CR500R all continued with a slew of improvements. Highlighting the changes were new motors, revised chassis and a fresh look. Incredibly, this would be the fifth redesign in as many years for the red machines. Can you imagine if a manufacturer did that today? Ah the eighties, things were just different then.

With the CR125R, a new motor maintained the ATAC of ’84, but rejiggered the bore and stroke to offer a more snappy feel and better top end pull. The new bodywork was sano and the bike offered the best set of handles in the class. The suspension continued to offer decent performance and most ranked it as second-best behind the RM125. While the CR offered better power for ’85, the new motor still paled compared to the brawny Kawasaki.

In the 250 class, the reliability woes of 1984 left Honda with a bit of a black eye and they went all-out to improve durability in 1985. On that score, the bike was a success, but somewhere along the line, the eye-popping horsepower of ’84 went AWOL. The new motor turned out to be a torquer, with a tractor-like delivery that no one much enjoyed. After the white-knuckle ’84 motor, this was certainly a bit of a disappointment. 

1985 Honda CR250R: The 250 tractor

With the new 500, Honda decided it was best to start fresh in 1985. The new bike shared virtually nothing with the unloved ‘84 and offered a new frame, revised suspension, a redesigned motor and all-new bodywork. The new motor kept the bore and stroke of the outgoing 500 mill, but added water cooling and a new 38mm  “flat-slide” Keihin carburetor to the mix. Unlike the 250 and 125, the new 500 made do without the ATAC and soldiered on with a simple reed-valve intake and unencumbered exhaust.

Honda’s goal with the new motor was to exorcise the demons of 1984 (recalcitrant starting, erratic jetting and incessant pinging) and at the same time, boost midrange power. To their credit, they succeeded on all counts. The additions of liquid cooling, a new carburetor and revised porting made the bike much easier to live with. It was still a bear to start, but at least once it was lit it no longer tried to sputter, pop and ping itself to death.

 In terms of outright performance, the new motor was actually more powerful than the already insanely fast ’84. The low end and midrange were absurdly potent and the bike literally rocketed out of turns. In the midrange, the new CR pumped out almost seven more horsepower than 1984 and only gave up that lead at the very top end of the power curve. If your throttle stuck open and you actually revved it out, you would find that the new motor tapered off more than ’84, but only the incredibly unlucky or criminally insane were likely to ever find out.

1985 Honda CR500R: Torque by the megaton

The bike was so fast that even pro riders found it too much to handle and many tuners started looking for ways to de-tune the monster motor. Its explosive delivery and massive torque made life hard on the rest of the bike and the Pro-Link shock in particular had a difficult time keeping up. Under power, it slammed through its travel and hammered your spine in the bumps. As you rode, this got progressively worse and by the ten-minute mark, the big five honey would turn itself into a 60+ horsepower pogo stick.

While certainly worlds better than 1984, the new CR500R was not the bike to stem the flow of riders abandoning the 500 class. In fact, it was basically the very essence of what was driving these riders away. It was the culmination of a power escalation that had started in the late seventies and reached its zenith in the mid-eighties. Open bikes had morphed from manageable to masochistic and the buying public had begun to leave them behind. After 1985, Honda would continue developing their Open class program, but the days of the mega-motored 500s were coming to an end. 

1986 Honda CR125R: One terrific tiddler

In 1985, Honda almost had the best 125 in the land. It offered excellent handling, good suspension, phenomenal detailing and primo looks. If only it had made the power of the KX, it would have been king.

Knowing this was their Achilles heel, Honda did their best to coax some additional ponies out of the 124cc mill for 1986. The 1985 motor got new porting, a new single-ring piston, a six-pedal reed valve, a larger airbox and a bigger resonance chamber for the ATAC. All told, not earth-shattering changes, but they added up to a much-improved power plant.

Even though the new bike looked almost identical to the ’85 machine, it ran completely different. Instead of the ’85 CR’s mellow delivery, the ’86 version barked like no Honda tiddler ever had. It pulled with authority from way down low (for a 125) and surged into a meaty midrange hit. If you tried to scream it, then it tapered off, but its low-to-midrange power was without equal. It was both fast and easy to ride and offered the widest usable spread of power in the class.  The KX still had it on top, but its new ’86 “Works Replica” powerband was peaky and much harder to keep on the pipe. For the vast majority of 125 pilots, the CR’s powerband was head and shoulders better.

While the motor was an all-star, the rest of the ’86 CR package was no real standout. The forks (no high-tech cartridges for the 125 in ’86) and shock were livable, but not lovable. The handling was razor sharp in the turns, but sketchy at speed. The brakes worked well, but they were not as "Whoooooaaa Nellie!" strong as the dual-discs found on the KX. Overall, it was an amazingly competent bike, blessed with stellar looks and equipped with a world-beating motor. In the end, that was more than enough to make this the best CR125 to date and the top 125 of 1986.

1986 Honda CR250R: Magic forks and an all-new motor transform the CR from an also-ran into a world beater

While some minor updates were enough to turn the CR125R into a winner, it was going to take more than a little nipping and tucking to rectify Honda’s predicament in the 250 division. The CR’s slow motor and barely adequate suspension relegated it to last in the ’85 standings and with the production rule looming for 1986 that was just not going to be good enough.

When the production rule went into effect in 1986, it basically outlawed the works bike as we know it in the USA. The riders could no longer race one-off machines that bore no resemblance to the production bikes. For Yamaha, who had been racing production bikes for two years, this was no serious setback, but for powerhouse Honda, this was a major change.  For the first time, the quality of what was available for sale to the public would have a direct effect on their star riders.

With this in mind, Honda unleashed HRC’s full might on the 250 class in 1986. First up from the skunk works department was an all-new motor that ditched the questionably effective ATAC of ’84-’85 and replaced it with a completely new design.  Dubbed the HPP (Honda Power Port), this new system deleted the ATAC’s exhaust sub-chamber and added a pair of sliding guillotine valves that opened and closed based on engine rpm. By covering and uncovering the top of the exhaust port, the HPP could alter the port timing to best suit engine demand. While the HPP was similar in theory to Yamaha’s original YPVS (Yamaha Power Valve System), the Honda solution was unique in design and far more complex in execution.

Next up on the list of major changes for ‘86 was a switch to Showa’s works-like cartridge fork system. These amazing units had been used since the late seventies on Honda’s works machines and offered a much finer control and wider range of damping adjustment than the traditional damper rod designs of the era. For 1986, both the CR250R and CR500R would receive this suspension upgrade.

Much like the power valve had done for the peaky two-stroke motors of the seventies, the cartridge damper made it possible to design a fork that could do more than one thing well. With the cartridge system, you could tune a fork to be both plush at low speeds and stiff enough to take big hits well. This was something just not possible within the limitations of the traditional damper-rod design. In 1986, this was mind-blowing stuff and riders were amazed by the Honda’s high-tech silverware.

1986 Honda CR500R: Works forks for the king of the dirt movers

As great as the new forks turned out to be, the new motor might have been even better. The redesigned 249cc HPP motor was a wonder of smooth torque and seamless power. It jumped at the first crack of the throttle and just kept on pulling till the rev limiter kicked in. There was no explosion or sudden blast, just an endless pull that hooked up and pulled you to the front. The motor was both blazing fast and incredibly easy to ride. It offered the most power and the widest powerband in the class. While the power valve had been in use for four years at this point, the 1986 CR250R was the first bike to really make good on its promise of an incredibly wide and smooth power curve.

 This combination of an amazing motor and miracle forks added up to an unbeatable package in 1986. The CR250R was head and shoulders better than anything else in the class and even with its mediocre shock, no other 250 could compete. In the 500 class, the new forks were just as astounding (even if a swap up in spring rate was recommended), but the added power and weight of the big bore compounded the failings of the CR’s marginal rear suspension. The motor was slightly less terrifying for ‘86, but the big CR remained too much for most mere mortals and many riders preferred Kawasaki’s easier-to-manage KX500.

1987 Honda CR125R: Case reed ripper

In 1987, Honda once again dialed up a major revision for their entire full-size lineup. The 125, 250 and 500 all received revised bodywork, new shocks, and for the first time, a rear disc brake. A new tank dropped down on one side to lower the bike’s center of gravity and a redesigned seat carried the saddle all the way up the tank. New side panels and some fresh graphics finished off the visual changes for ’87.

While the 250 and 500 motors were more or less carryovers from ’86, the 125 received an all-new power plant for ’87. The new motor ditched the piston–port configuration it had used since 1974 and moved to a case-reed intake for the first time. A longer stroke, increased compression and redesigned ATAC finished off what would turn out to be the best 125 motor package of 1987.

On the track, the ’87 CR125R mimicked most of the power characteristics of the year before, but beefed up the pony count at every point. It came on strong out of the hole, pulled into a blistering midrange and then sung the high note on top. It was not as punchy as the midrange-only YZ or as rev-happy as the scream-it-to-the-stops RM, but it offered the most overall power and widest useable spread in the class.

With its romping motor, amazing forks (the 125 got the cartridge treatment for 1987) and matinee-idol looks, the CR125R was the bike to beat in 1987. Its only real faults were its lackluster Kayaba shock and propensity to seize at inopportune moments. Air leaks at the intake and rod bearing failures were the most common culprits and much like 1984, the CR’s incredible power output was somewhat overshadowed by its spotty reliability. As to the shock, it offered a busy ride and only middling performance. Even with these faults, however, the CR proved to be the best 125 of ’87 by a wide margin.

1987 Honda CR250R: The pinnacle of Honda’s mid-eighties dominance

In the 250 division, the CR250R faced much stiffer competition in 1987.  An all-new RM and KX boasted much-improved performance and an ultra-fast YZ brought back the midrange muscle of 1985. To combat the new threats, Honda retuned the best motor of 1986 for more hit and a stronger top-end pull. The new porting specs sacrificed the excellent torque and smooth delivery of the year before, but made up for it with a quasar pull on top. The new motor was soft off the line, but untouchable from the mid on up. For pros, this was a worthwhile tradeoff, but many of lesser talent lamented the missing torque of ’86. Overall it was faster, but not necessarily better.

 On the suspension front, the Showa cartridge forks that dominated motocross in ’86 were back and just as good as the year before. With Suzuki moving to Kayaba’s version of the cartridge system in ’87, they were no longer the only game in town, but they were still some of the best units available. In the shock department, things were not as rosy. The new Showa “piggyback” shock proved even worse than the KYB unit on the 125 and pleased no one. It was harsh on compression, too quick on rebound and prone to fading. As a package, the CR was still best, but the competition was getting ever closer.

1987 Honda CR500R: A smoother motor and slimmer tank helped keep the CR500R on top in 1987

In the 500 division, the CR500R made a big move back to the front of the class with a much-improved motor for 1987. The monster motor of ’85-’86 was mellowed out and massaged to produce a smoother and more friendly dose of dynamite. A longer stroke, less compression, revised ignition and all-new exhaust toned down the previously unmanageable hit and metered it out over a wider range. Where the ’86 CR exploded, the ’87 version hooked up and put that power to the ground. The forks continued to soak up the track like nothing else available and the new Showa shock worked much better on the 500 than it did on the lighter and less powerful 250. Really, its only weakness was its big and bulky feel, which the new layout did nothing to address. Compared to the razor-thin KX500, the CR500R felt like a tank, but that was not enough to hold it out of the top spot for 1987. 

A bright coat of red paint gave the entire CR lineup a fresh look for 1988

After the major redesign in 1987, Honda decided to focus on refinements for their 125 in 1988. A switch to a new deeper red for the bodywork and a natural finish on the cylinder gave the bike a new appearance, but the core of the machine was largely unchanged. The suspension, bodywork (save color) and chassis were all carryovers with minor revisions. The reliability issues of ’87 led to larger water jackets, beefed-up bearings and milder porting specs. This improved reliability, but unfortunately, neutered the powerband. The new bike lacked hit and offered a smooth and listless style of power that looked good on the dyno, but felt slow on the track. It was still competitive, but most riders preferred the hit of the year before. 

On the 500, the changes were even less extensive and a mild increase in crank inertia was the limit of the motor revisions. This further smoothed the power, reduced stalling and made the stubborn beast slightly less frustrating to start. As on the 125, the tried-and-true 43mm conventional Showa forks were back and worked very well at absorbing the track. Out back, new settings for the shock improved performance and the 500 once again proved to have the best sorted dampers of the three full-size CRs. The porky layout remained, but in an odd move, Kawasaki abandoned its svelte bodywork for a new rubenesque figure that actually made the CR feel less objectionable. It was still big, heavy and too damn fast, but careful refinement made it the best CR500R to date.

1988 Honda CR125R: Reliability issues in 1987 led to a detuned motor in 1988

In the 250 class, the big news of 1988 was all-new bikes from every one of the Big Four manufacturers. Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda all threw their hats into the ring with major revamps that promised much better performance. In the case of three of the four, that turned out to be true, but in the case of the champ, things did not work out as planned.

In motocross, styling has absolutely nothing to do with performance, but boy if it did, nothing could have kept the ’88 CR250R in sight. Coated head to toe in blood red paint and dressed in the sexiest bodywork this side of an Italian supercar, the new Honda 250 absolutely screamed performance. The chassis, layout, and look were all-new, with a low-slung tank that harkened back to the works bikes of the early eighties. The new bodywork offered a super-slim profile and the new chassis relocated things like radiators and the exhaust pipe to be as low as possible for better weight distribution. This new “lowboy” layout was light years better than the ’87 and gave the bike a much lighter feel in the air and on the track.

In addition to the new bodywork, a major revamp of the Pro-Link rear suspension did away with the odd piggyback Showa shock of ’87. A new “milk bottle” Showa damper moved the reservoir to the side of the shock where it could be cooled better and an all new “Delta-Link” linkage shaved weight and increased rigidity. In addition to offering less flex, the new Delta-Link altered the progressiveness of the linkage curve to better deal with the sharp and sudden hits being found on the new Supercross-inspired layouts popping up all over the country. Up front, Honda stayed with their 43mm conventional Showa forks, but installed a new dual-stage valving stack they coined the “Delta Valve” (What was it with Honda and all the Deltas in ’88? I suspect too many Chuck Norris Delta Force movies).

1988 Honda CR250R:  The two-wheeled Testarossa

On the track, both suspension ends proved less than stellar. The new forks were sprung too lightly, harsh on compression and too slow on rebound. They packed on stutters, bottomed on big hits, and generally beat your wrists to death.  The new Delta-Link rear proved no better and offered a punishing ride in the rough. The new rising rate and valving worked decently if you were fast enough to hammer into obstacles and charge the track, but the second you backed off, it became busy and harsh. In addition to punishing your backside, the new Delta-Link proved fragile and took to bending linkage bolts at regular intervals. Overall, the new CR250R was voted to have the worst suspension package of ’88.

Unfortunately, the missteps on the new CR250 did not end with the suspension. While the motor was largely a carryover, new settings totally changed the way it ran. Instead of the hard hit and banzai top-end blast of ‘87, the new motor pumped out a long and mellow flow of power. Low-end was improved and the overall powerband was wider, but it lacked snap and felt slow. It was the classic “lap time” motor and no one really liked its boring delivery and languid response.

1988 Honda CR500R: In 1988, the 500 was the least changed of the CRs and was the better for it

Regardless of its problems, Honda sold thousands of CR250Rs in 1988. It's sexy looks, sano detailing and Honda pedigree fooled many into taking the plunge on a bike that was only half-baked. With a little work, it was a world beater, but out of the box, it was the worst CR in three years.

New forks and a major increase in pricing had riders talking in 1989

The 1989 season would see major changes for all the full-size bikes in Honda’s motocross lineup. A steep 20% increase in price over the 1988 models shocked buyers ($4000 for a 250, stop the insanity!), but at least there were major redesigns of the 125 and 500, as well as some high-tech new forks to soften the blow. The switch to Showa’s new works-style 45mm inverted forks on the 250 and 500 had magazine editors buzzing and the promise of improved power and a better layout on the 125 and 500 had riders itching to get their throttle hands on Honda’s latest red rippers.

1989 Honda CR125R: Faster stock than the other brand’s works bikes

 In 1989, three of the Big Four manufacturers switched to inverted forks on their 250 class machines. Only Kawasaki was a holdout (at least in North America), choosing to equip the ’89 KXs with an excellent set of conventional 46mm Kayaba units. The advantages of the inverted design were less flex, a more precise feel and less rut-catching overhang below the axle. In 1989, both the CR250R and CR500R got the new silverware, while the CR125R soldiered on one more year with the old-school 43mm conventional Showa sliders.

As it would turn out, this was a win for the 125. Even though they did not look as trick as the USDs on the 250 and 500, they actually worked better. New valving specs made them less plush than the year before, but they were nowhere near as harsh as the inverted units on the CR250R turned out to be. The new bodywork mimicked the look of the ’88 CR250R and offered a slimmer profile and roomier seating compartment. The new chassis handled very well in turns, but continued the Honda trait of vicious headshake at speed. Out back, the new 250-style Delta-Link (with beefed up linkage bolts to alleviate the bending problems of ’88) proved adept at hammering, but mediocre by anything else. It was harsh, unforgiving and mostly unloved.

In the motor department, the news was much better. The same basic motor package of ’88 was back, but lots of small changes added up to big power gains on the ATAC-equipped mill. The mellow delivery of ’88 was shelved and replaced with the 125 motor of doom. The revised power plant was less torquey than the year before, but far more potent throughout the rest of the powerband. It came alive in the middle and carried that crescendo of power into an eye-watering top end hook. Once it was on the pipe, nothing on the track could run with the CR and it literally shrieked away from the other brands on long straights. It was far from perfect, but for most hardcore 125 pilots, the amazing motor was more than enough to make up for the CR’s other sins.

In the 250 class, the arrival of the new USD Showa forks were supposed to erase the memories of the grim action of ’88, but things did not go as planned. The new 45mm inverted units looked trick, but worked abysmally. They were under sprung, over damped and generally awful at absorbing the track. They offered an unbelievably harsh ride and bottomed with a tooth-jarring clank on anything remotely approaching a large obstacle. The action proved so horrible that Honda actually recalled them mid-year and offered to retrofit new bottoming cones at no additional cost. Unfortunately, the new cones proved to be only a minor improvement and the action remained dreadful.

As with the 125, the rest of the bike proved a winner and riders loved its excellent ergonomics, light feel, and blazing fast motor. The listless power of ’88 was gone and replaced with a hard-hitting and strong-pulling flow of ponies. The new mill came on strong in the middle and just kept on pulling till the cows came home. Fast guys loved its endless pull and slow guys loved its wide powerband.  In the rear, the suspension again favored aggression over cruising and the faster you were the better you liked it. If you pinned it, it worked, but it you backed off, it pounded you to death.

1989 Honda CR250R: Quasar motor, black hole forks

In the 500 class, Honda poured a great deal of work into what would become the last major redesign of their Open class racer. An all-new chassis was based on the RC500 that took Eric Geboers to the 1988 500 World Motocross title and featured greater rigidity and a more relaxed geometry. The new bodywork was similar to the 125 and 250, but featured a larger tank to accommodate the 500’s thirsty nature. While wider than the ones found on the smaller bikes, the new tank was still 300% less intrusive than anything seen on a Honda 500 since the move to liquid cooling. The new seat was taller in the middle and mated to a new subframe that lowered the rear by 12mm to further flatten the rider compartment. In the rear, the 500 got the same Delta-Link treatment as the 250 and 125, with a revised curve, stronger linkage and stiffer swingarm. Finishing it off was a whopping six pound weight loss over ’88 and a sweet set of Bold New Graphics.

In 1989, the only part of the bike that was really not new was the motor. Revised porting, small grooves in the cylinder to aid starting, a new pipe (lowboy) and a massive alloy silencer (technically two silencers welded together with an air chamber in between) were largely the only changes to the musclebound motor. On the track, the minor porting changes and revised exhaust softened the mega low-end hit of the 491cc arm-shredder and moved the power up higher into the power curve. Once into the midrange, the CR thundered forward on a tidal wave of torque and screamed through the powerband into an insane top-end pull.

For those capable of using its absurd power, the longer pull on top was a welcome addition, but many of lesser talent were less excited for the return of the monster mid-range hit. The softer low-end made that midrange surge seem even more pronounced and care had to be taken not to let it come on the pipe at an inopportune moment. As always, the best technique was to keep it a gear tall and try and ride the torque curve, but the new bike’s softer low end power made that trickier than the year before. Overall, it was plenty fast, but not as easy to use as Kawasaki’s broad and burly KX500.

1989 Honda CR500R: A sleeker, slimmer, Saturn rocket

While the motor changes of ’89 were not a total slam dunk, the rest of the bike was excellent. With its narrower cockpit, lighter weight and new frame, the CR500R was much nimbler feeling than the year before.  Compared to the big and bulky KX500, the CR felt like a 125 in the turns. It was sharp at turn in and could cut arcs under many 250s. At speed it remained a handful, but on a tight MX track, it had no peers. The new inverted Showa forks worked far better on the CR500R than they did on the lighter 250. The added weight and power seemed to take some of the bite out of the mid-stroke harshness, but they were still overdamped and prone to bottoming. Like the front, the weight and power of the 500 tamed a lot of the shock’s bad habits and it was at least livable in stock condition. While certainly not perfect (and not nearly as good as the units found on the KX) the CR500R turned out once again to have the best overall suspension package of all the full-size CRs.

Next up: Honda Motocross Bike History Part Three: The 1990s

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