Today, Honda is one of the highest profile brands in the sport of motocross. Even though it has been several years since they have won a major title in the premier classes (at least in the US), Big Red continues to enjoy a cachet in the paddock due to its illustrious history in the sport. For a time starting in the early eighties and running through the mid-nineties, Honda riders virtually owned the AMA Supercross title. Donnie Hansen, David Bailey, Johnny O’Mara, Rick Johnson, Jeff Stanton, Jean-Michel Bayle and Jeremy McGrath all rode the red machines to Supercross glory. During this era, the Honda wing became synonymous with excellence on the motocross track.
While Honda dominated much of racing in the eighties and early nineties, they were actually quite late to the motocross party. Honda’s first official motocross machine did not appear until nearly a decade after its Nipponese rivals had dipped their toes into the MX waters. By the time Honda introduced the first Elsinore in 1973, Suzuki was already a six-time World Motocross Champion. Honda’s reluctance to embrace the trend toward two-strokes had left them behind their racing rivals, but once they finally entered the fray, they did so with a 100% commitment toward winning.
That dedication has fueled Honda’s motocross efforts for more than forty-three years and helped them develop some of the most iconic machines in the sport’s history. They have often been at the forefront of motocross style and design, making lasting contributions in both areas that still influence the machines we see today. While not all of their bikes have proven to be world beaters, each one has played an important role in knitting together the tapestry of Honda’s motocross legacy.
Because of the sheer scope of information to cover, I am dividing this into four parts, each one covering a decade of Honda MX machines. My plan is to cover up through 2009, and then go year-by-year. I will give a run-down of each model and talk a little bit about its performance or overall significance. For the most part, I am going to stick to the full-size machines, but I will mention the minis when significantly changed or important to the Honda motocross story. Up first, the seventies.
1973 Honda XR75: Better living through four cycles
While many of you are probably scratching your heads at me putting a four-stroke play bike on a list dominated by fire-breathing racers,but this is not just any little play bike. When this bike was released in the fall of 1972, it was by far the most serious and capable off-road machine Honda had ever introduced. Predating the original Elsinore by a month, the XR was a whole new type of machine for Honda. Compared to the Mini-Trail 50’s, CT70’s and SL125’s in Honda’s stable, the all-new XR75 was a full-blown thoroughbred. There were no lights to take off, no cheesy enduro tires to replace and no excuses to be made. The all-new 72cc OHV four-stroke mill shared its size, but little else with the CT and SL mills of its predecessors. Bigger valves, a higher compression head and a bored out carb helped the new motor pump out power that dusted off many of the two-stroke competitors of its day. Excellent suspension and a great handling chassis finished off a package that literally blew people’s minds in 1972.
While the 1973 XR75 was technically not a motocross bike, its success in that arena cannot be understated. It became the first MX bike for thousands of aspiring racers and gave rise to a pit bike racing craze that overtook the nation in the late seventies. It also helped launch the career of a certain seven-time AMA Supercross and Motocross champion you may have heard of by the name of Jeff Ward.
A month after the XR75 made its debut, its thunder was stolen by the second bike on our list and by the end of the decade, it had been relegated to play bike status. Newer and lighter two-strokes pushed it off the tracks of America, but it continued in Honda’s lineup in one form or another for four decades. Long after the smokers stopped burning premix, the “little thumper that could” just kept on thumping.
1973 Honda CR250M Elsinore: The bike Honda said they would never build
In the fall of 1972, Honda unleashed a one-two punch that overnight changed their corporate identity in the off-road arena. The first shot was the XR75, followed up closely by this beauty, the 1973 CR250M Elsinore. Named for the historic Elsinore Grand Prix in California, the CR250M was the first Honda to feature a two-stroke motor. Lighter and more powerful than the four-strokes of the time, the two-stroke had taken over motocross a decade before. In Europe, the lightweight Husqvarna and CZ motocrossers supplanted the booming British four-strokes on the Grand Prix circuit and helped usher in a whole new era of motocross racing.
By the late sixties, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki were all fielding race teams and quickly developing their two-stroke technology. As a company steadfastly dedicated to the four-stroke motor, Honda had been reluctant to follow its Japanese rivals into the motocross game. During this time, Mr. Honda had famously stated “Honda will never build a two-stroke motorcycle.” With emphatic statements like that, it seemed clear Mr. Honda was content to allow his rivals to play in the dirt while he turned out hundreds of thousands of CBs and Super Cubs. In the end, it would take a small band of Honda engineers to drag Big Red kicking and screaming into the motocross arena.
In 1969, a group of engineers at Honda decided it was time for their company to join its rivals in the dirt and set about turning one of their SL125 four-stroke play bikes into a racer. Dubbing themselves “The Association to Study the Motorcycle”, the group worked after hours in secret. After a few months of tinkering, the bike was ready to be raced, and would do so at the Fukuoka round of the Japanese Motocross Nationals in 1969. Once on the track, it was quickly apparent that the SL would be no match for its two-stroke rivals. The bike was slow, heavy and just not up to snuff with the bikes from Yamaha and Suzuki. The project garnered plenty of publicity for Honda, but it was not of the positive kind.
The result of this public drubbing would be project 335, where The Association and its engineers would be tasked with developing an all-new two-stroke power plant to go head-to-head with the competition. Using a Husqvarna as a baseline, the engineers set about building a whole new kind of Honda. By 1971, the team had a running two-stroke prototype and by August of that year, the new bike (codenamed 335B) was ready to make its racing debut. After a few early teething problems, yet another new bike was developed (codenamed 335C and later renamed RC250M) that would finally claim the top step of the podium in June of 1972 at the Kannabe round of the All-Japan Motocross Nationals.
A few months later, Honda unveiled the production version of the RC250M, the very first CR250M Elsinore. Powered by a 248cc two-stroke mill pumping out a claimed 30 horsepower (big numbers in 1973) and weighing in at a svelte 214 pounds, the all-new Elsinore was a game changer. It was smaller, sleeker, lighter and more refined than anything else available at the time. In an era where fragile fiberglass bodywork, finicky carburation and hit-or-miss electricals were expected, the Elsinore dazzled with quality parts and start-every-time dependability. It was ready to race out of the crate and at $1145, an absolute bargain.
While the CR was amazing, it was not without its faults. The chassis was long and the turning was a bit slow for some. The nylon swingarm bushing lasted around 20 minutes and needed immediate attention. The stock rear shocks were mediocre at best and aggressive riders found that the transmission could be problematic if abused. Still, the new Elsinore was better built and more reliable than any other motocross machine of the time. With the ’73 CR250M Elsinore, Honda served notice that they were far more than a purveyor of friendly four-strokes; they were, in fact, a legitimate motocross power.
1974 Honda CR125M Elsinore: Lightning in a bottle
As influential as the ’73 CR250M had been, nothing could compare to the impact the arrival of its little brother had a few months later. Introduced in the fall of 1973 as a ’74 model, the all-new CR125M Elsinore proved even more of a runaway hit than its 250 sibling had been. Priced at a rock bottom $749, the CR125M walked into a class nearly devoid of solid competitors. Put frankly, the Penton, Bultaco, Hodaka and Suzuki 125s of the day were no match for the little Honda. Boasting a powerful 123cc piston-port two-stroke motor and blessed with all the quality and refinement found on the CR250M, the little CR was without equal in the 125 class. Pumping out a claimed 21.7 horsepower to its six-speed transmission and weighing in at a feathery 179 pounds, the new CR was a 125 racer’s dream. It stopped with authority, started every time and failed to shed parts at regular intervals (something that could not be said by 90% of its competitors). Some of its competitors were faster, but most of them cost 30-40% more and held together half as well. It was the perfect bike for someone looking to break into racing and people snapped them up in droves.
The bike proved so popular that Honda could barely keep up with demand and it was not uncommon to see more than half of the 125 competitors at a local race on the little silver-tanked wonders. By some estimates, the 1974 Honda CR125M is still the most popular motocross machine ever built. Motocross was big in 1974 and nothing was as big as the CR125M. The competitiveness, low cost and overall quality of the 125 Elsinore made it the right bike, at the right time. It was so popular that it nearly single- handedly ignited a huge influx of interest in the 125 class in America. Once thought of as an afterthought, the 125 division quickly became the most popular in the sport, in large part due to the success of Honda’s first CR125.
1975 Honda CR125M1 Elsinore: Minor refinements for the ’74 class champ
For 1975, it was mostly refinements for Honda’s wildly popular tiddler. New swingarm bushings (still plastic, boo!) with tighter tolerances and larger sprocket bolts looked to address two of the ’74 model’s biggest weaknesses, while revised porting and new exhaust pipe aimed to beef up the powerband. Out back, both the shock shafts and swingarm were beefed up for improved durability and paired with new bars (painted black instead of silver) for improved ergonomics. Finishing off the package was a new coat of red paint for the tank and side panels.
While the 125 was largely a carryover, it still proved competitive (if just barely) against its 125 rivals. Suzuki’s all-new RM125 offered much better suspension, but its motor was still a year away from dominating the charts. The reed-valve equipped Yamaha and rotary-valve Kawasaki both offered wider powerbands and better response, but not necessarily more outright power. With careful setup and some aftermarket help, the CR remained a viable option, but the competition was quickly eclipsing its performance.
1975 Honda CR250M1 Elsinore: New, but not enough
After offering a retreaded ’73 model in ’74, Honda dialed up some significant changes on the CR250 for 1975. Badged the CR250M1, the new ’75 model moved the rear shocks forward and offered an inch more travel than the ’74 Elsie. A new “up-pipe” was also spec’d and mounted in a redesigned frame that moved the motor forward and down. New red accents replaced the green of ’73-’74 and white plastic fenders supplanted the silver units found on the first-generation machine. In the motor department, the new M1 retained the 248cc piston-port design and close ratio five-speed transmission of the first generation Elsinore.
While these changes were significant, they were already falling behind the competition. The piston-port motor that was so lauded in ’73 was not nearly as responsive as the reed-valve unit found on the Yamahas. Likewise, the CR’s rear dampers, while an improvement, were no match for the long-travel monoshocks found on the Yamaha MX and YZ models. The new up-pipe did aid ground clearance, but the pipe’s bend and head changes for ’75 actually yielded less power. It was fast when on the pipe, but difficult to keep there. Overall, it was an improved machine, but no longer the class darling it had been the two years before.
1976 Honda CR125M2: Marty’s red ripper
For 1976, the big news on both the CR125 and CR250 was the bike’s bold new look. New red bodywork and red frames closely mimicked the appearance of Marty Smith’s and Pierre Karsmakers’ factory bikes and made the machines look far newer than they really were. Both bikes carried over with minor motor changes and in the case of the 250, no real suspension upgrades. On the 125, a new frame added strength and new forward mounted (but not laid down like the Suzuki) shocks boosted travel. While increased, the travel continued to lag well behind the competition and both the 250 and 125 Hondas offered a full two inches less movement than the new RM125 and RM250.
1976 Honda CR250M2: Hero to zero in three short years
On the track, both the 125 and 250 suffered from outdated technology. Their lack of suspension travel and poorly-damped shocks pounded riders from the get-go and only got worse as they heated up and the damping went away. The new frames proved fairly stout, but the underbuilt swingarms continued to flex terribly under a load. The old-fashioned piston-port motors provided decent peak output, but lacked the response and broad power of the reed-valve competition. They were pretty, but far less effective on the track than their high-tech competitors. In 1976, motocross technology was moving at quasar speed, but Honda was still stuck in neutral.
1977 Honda CR125M Elsinore: Bold new fork boots
While the huge early success of the Elsinore was certainly good for Honda, there can be little doubt that it led to the complacency that quickly saw the CRs fall behind their competition. As Honda stood pat, the competition doubled down on innovation, and by the 1977 model year, Big Red was woefully behind. The once omnipotent CR125M looked and felt a generation behind the competition with its down pipe and puny suspension components. For 1977, a set of red grips and fork boots were the extent of its improvements. As a result, it languished in dealer’s showrooms. Even worse was the CR250M, which was in such oversupply that Honda did not even bother to make one in 1977. Once innovative, the CRs had become stale, staid and stuck in a rut.
1978- Honda CR125M Elsinore: Little Red Retread
While bikes on the production side had been allowed to languish, the Factory team’s machines had been pushing forward with some of the trickest designs of the era. The amazing Type II RC works bikes featured advanced power plants, long travel shocks and even an early version of what would become Showa’s revolutionary cartridge fork system. They were light, powerful and beyond badass with their fire engine red motors and skyscraper-tall suspension systems.
1978 Honda CR250R Elsinore: The Red Rooster makes its debut
In 1978, Honda once again stood pat in the 125 division, but finally unleashed its impressive engineering might on the 250 class. All-new from the ground up, the totally redesigned ’78 CR250 was a radical departure from the outgoing machine. Even the name was new; as the machine dropped the “M” of earlier CRs and replaced it with a new “R” designation to denote its status as a true works replica. Featuring nearly a foot of travel front and aft, the ’78 towered over its short-legged predecessors. The new motor was incredibly compact, featuring lightweight magnesium cases shrink-wrapped around the internals. It was painted the bright red of the works bikes and even featured the Euro-style left-hand kickstarter off of Brad Lackey’s RC500. Inside the motor was a works-style six-pedal reed valve (a first for Honda), a chrome bore (to save weight) and a trick externally adjustable ignition.
On the track, the new CR250R was an absolute rocket and proved Honda could once again build a competitive 250 machine. It pumped out a hard-hitting and expert-oriented style of power that came on strong and just kept on pulling. There was very little torque off idle and the bike was a handful for novices, but nothing in 1978 was as fast as the red rocket. The new 37mm Showa forks and twin shocks pumped out the most travel in the class, but the action was less than impressive. The stock steel swingarm proved flex-prone and most serious racers opted to replace the grim stock shocks with aftermarket alternatives.
After several years of neglect in the 250 class, the ’78 CR250R it was an important model for Honda. It revitalized interest in the brand and showed that Big Red was going to do more than sit back and rest on its laurels while its competitors innovated. It was blazing fast, cutting edge and positively dripping in works-bike swagger. After half a decade of stale retreads, that was just what the doctor ordered.
1979 Honda CR125R Elsinore: Sometimes, bigger is not better
In 1979, the CR125 would finally get the “R” treatment with a total redesign of its own. After the previous four years, where red grips and a new coat of paint counted as a refresh, this was a welcome change. The new bike shared not a single part with the outgoing CR and changed everything from the size of the front wheel to the side of the bike the output shaft was on. It was a total clean sheet design that hoped to finally bring the Honda 125 up to speed with its tiddler rivals.
At nearly 11 inches of travel fore and aft, the new CR125 offered a whopping 50% more movement than the 1978 model. The new motor looked to be a replica of the works 125s Honda ran in ’78 and featured a reed-valve for the first time. The “up” pipe was also a new feature and made the bike less likely to catch on track obstacles. At a seat height of 35.8 inches, the new CR towered over its predecessors and required a substantial inseam to straddle flat footed.
While the new bike looked mighty impressive on paper, its performance left a lot to be desired. The odd new 23” front wheel gave the bike a floppy feel in turns and the Honda designed “Claw Action” tires failed to do much clawing. The new 124cc “works replica” motor proved anemic and prone to bogging between gears. It was smooth and pleasant, but too slow for anyone above the novice class. The new daddy-long-leg forks were harsh and flexed like a Slinky® in the rough. The shocks were even worse and the flimsy steel swingarm would twist badly enough under a load to throw the chain. It was the classic case of too much innovation and not enough development. The bike was trick and pretty to look at, but not a very good race bike.
1979 Honda CR250R Elsinore: Works power and medieval suspension
In the 250 class, Honda made very few changes for 1979. New porting was spec’d and a new “GP Reed-Valve” was added to the intake to beef up the quasar-fast Elsie’s lackluster low-end torque. The 250 inherited the same terrible Claw-less Action meats as the 125, but thankfully got spared the Bizarro 23” front wheel. Chassis and suspension changes were minimal and the bike ended up being just as bad in that department as the year before. With a swap in tires, upgraded suspension and an alloy swingarm it was magic; in stock condition, however, it was way too fast for the rest of the bike to keep up.
Next up, Honda Motocross History Part 2: The 1980s
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