“Honda will never build a two-stroke motorcycle.” Soichiro Honda made that statement in the late ’60s and meant it. He had built his company on the four-stroke design and was doing quite well with it. Yet, a few years later, Honda released a two-stroke that changed the world. The 1974 CR125M was produced in greater numbers than any motocross bike ever built. It introduced a generation of riders to racing and, more than any other single motorcycle, was responsible for the dirt bike boom that followed. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of that one motorcycle on the sport we know today.
Mr. Honda’s turnaround on the subject of two-strokes was the result of two factors. First, he was pathologically competitive. He loved racing and couldn’t stomach the idea of losing—on the track or in sales. Second, there was a group of young engineers at the company that believed in the two-stroke design and had a secret development program that was hidden from management. When they summoned the courage to present the project to the president, he begrudgingly approved. But he warned them, “If you insist on building a two-stroke, it better be the best in the world.”
That launched a 34-year run of Honda 125 and 250 two-strokes. The CR250M was launched first, but it was the CR125 that had the biggest impact on rank-and-file riders in America. It was the bike that changed everything, in sheer weight of numbers.
THE SECRET PROJECT
Honda was late to the motocross party. In 1967, Suzuki already had a production motocross bike, and Yamaha would soon follow. Honda’s only official motocross attempt was a 125cc four-stroke that was raced and beaten badly in the 1969 All-Japan Motocross Championship. That project would eventually morph into the 1971 XL250 dual-sport bike, but its racing career ended early. The unofficial 250cc two-stroke project was first raced in disguise on August 22, 1971. The result was a DNF, but the bike caught the attention of the Japanese press, and that forced the project out of the shadows. When Mr. Honda gave his reluctant blessing, the full might of Honda’s engineering staff was put on the project. Prototypes were built in an amazingly short time. The 250 made its public racing debut in March of 1972, and the 125 was first raced in July. Both bikes won within a few races. The green light was given for production, and Honda started making Elsinores by the thousands. They were given the Elsinore name because of the race that was immortalized in the 1971 film On Any Sunday. The 250 was released first and was called a 1973 model. Only a few 125s reached dealerships in ’73, and those were given 1974 designations.
When the floodgates opened in 1974, they really opened. The Honda 125 came ashore in huge numbers. It was very bad news for companies like Penton, Bultaco and Hodaka, which had made their names producing small-displacement two-strokes. The Honda CR125M was the beginning of the end for all three of those makes. Yamaha came out with the YZ125 that same year but didn’t pull the trigger on production in the same quantity as Honda. The same was true for Suzuki and Kawasaki. In 1974, motocross exploded as America’s biggest boom sport. Tracks were appearing everywhere, and half of the participants were riding Honda 125s. It was the best example in motorcycle history of guessing right. Honda anticipated the demand perfectly.
Unfortunately, Honda overproduced the 125 in the years that followed. It wasn’t that the demand for motocross bikes had been quelled; it was that Honda had underestimated the need for continued development. Between 1975 and 1978, Yamaha and Suzuki developed its bikes very quickly; Honda didn’t. Thus, Honda lost its head start in the 125 class.
What followed was the famous period of hyper-evolution in motocross. Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and then Kawasaki would leapfrog each other in technology year after year. Through most of those years, the Honda sold very well. Sometimes it would top the 125 class in both performance and sales; sometimes it wouldn’t. It was a dogfight that would last 30 years.
The first dedicated U.S. National Motocross series started in 1972 but didn’t include a 125cc class. That didn’t happen until 1974, which was the season that launched Marty Smith as America’s biggest motocross star. In 1975, Marty won all the rounds except for the first one. In 1976, however, Marty spread himself too thin. He tried to race the Honda RC125 works bike in the World Championship as well as the U.S. National Championship. He didn’t win either. That was the year that Bob Hannah made his spectacular national racing debut for Yamaha. At the time, Hondas were a popular choice of privateers in the nationals, despite the fact that the production CR125 wasn’t especially competitive compared to the Suzuki and Yamaha. The CR125M was considered great raw material for spectacular custom bikes. Donny Emler at FMF and Gary Harlow at DG launched successful aftermarket companies devoted to the Honda 125. The ultimate expression of that probably came in 1980 with the Mugen ME125, which was raced by Johnny O’Mara. It was a liquid-cooled bike built with Honda parts and technical assistance from the Honda Racing Corporation in Japan. There were a handful of them sold worldwide at the then-unheard-of price of $4000.
Honda won six 125 National Championships in the ’80s with Johnny O’Mara, Ron Lechien, Micky Dymond, George Holland and Mike Kiedrowski. That wasn’t so unusual; in that period, Honda won almost everything. Doug Henry and Steve Lamson squeaked out three more titles for Honda in the ’90s, but soon the winds were blowing motocross towards the four-stroke, and that eventually doomed two-stroke 125s.
1974, 1975: Although the actual number is unclear, most experts say that the 1974 Honda 125 Elsinore was produced in greater numbers than any other motocross bike before or since. In ’75, the top of the tank was painted red rather than green, but it was essentially the same bike. The first Suzuki RM125 came out in 1975 with long-travel suspension. Yamaha came out with the Monoshock, and just like that the Elsinore became yesterday’s news.
1976–1978: Honda tried to catch up by redesigning the CR125’s rear suspension and giving it a red paint job, but it wasn’t enough. Suzuki came out with another all-new 125 in 1976, and Yamaha changed the YZ every year. Oddly enough, the Honda was still common at local tracks but in heavily modified form. There were so many ’74 models still running that they became fodder for a new industry of builders and parts-makers.
1979: Honda came back in a big way. The 1979 CR125R was so new that no parts would interchange with the original ones. The motor output shaft moved to the right, and the bike was given a 23-inch front wheel. The bike was a radical remake, but its performance wasn’t as good as Honda fans had hoped for.
1980: Honda normalized some of the outlandish features of the previous year, and the bike took its place side by side with the Suzuki and Yamaha for dominance in the 125 class. The 1980 CR125R got a plastic tank and a 21-inch front wheel. Kawasaki came out with single-shock suspension that year, but the motor wasn’t competitive at first. That would change.
1981: When Honda came out with the ’81 CR125, it stunned everyone. It looked just like a works bike. It had single-shock suspension and a liquid-cooled motor. The Suzuki and Yamaha had the same features that year, making it a revolutionary season for the 125 class as a whole. In the end, it was the Suzuki RM125 that was judged the best 125 of the year.
1982: Honda fixed most of the problems of the radical ’81 model, and once again the bike was a contender for “best in class.” The engine was painted black, and most of the bodywork was new. This period saw rapid and complete revisions for almost all motocross bikes.
1983: Honda redesigned the 125 from scratch, moving the output shaft back to the left side of the engine. Everything about the Honda was new, and, this time around, it worked well right out of the gate. It was the fastest 125 of the year and handled well.
1984–1989: Honda came up with its version of Yamaha’s power valve and called it the ATAC (Automatic Torque Amplification Chamber). It didn’t make much difference. The bike was still fast, but in ’84 the Kawasaki was finally the horsepower king. The ’84 Honda’s suspension was changed from Showa to Kayaba, and the bike was given a hydraulic front disc brake. There were changes every year through this period, but there were no complete redesigns. The rear disc brake didn’t come until 1987.
1990–1994: There was a major redesign in 1990. The ATAC power valve was abandoned, and the 125 got an HPP power valve similar to the one on the 250. The Showa upside-down fork also trickled down from the 250, which got it a year earlier. No one liked the fork at first, but they got used to it, and suspension shops had a field day. In 1994 it would be back to Kayaba. The Honda was the fastest 125 and would stay that way for a number of years.
1995–1997: A new, stiffer frame came in 1995. The motor changed from black to silver but was still basically the same, aside from gear ratios. The suspension changed in big ways each year. Honda started to lose its horsepower advantage during this period but was still strong on top.
1998, 1999: The Honda 125 got the aluminum frame that the 250 received a year earlier. It worked better on the 125, but the bike was still harsh. The Honda motor had finally fallen from its throne. The Yamaha 125 was much more powerful by the end of the ’90s, and it would stay on top for the rest of the game.
2000, 2001: Honda gave the CR125R a second-generation aluminum frame that was more flexible and compliant than the original. There were more motor changes, but this was still the same basic engine that was introduced in 1990, and it was showing its age.
2002–2007: A new frame came in ’02. It was excellent and still stands the test of time. Same goes for the suspension; a 2002 Honda 125 can be made to handle as well as any modern motorcycle. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the motor. Honda let the 125 motor die on the shelf. The Kawasaki, Suzuki and especially the Yamaha were all faster. Later, the KTM put them all to shame. By the time the Honda CR125 finished its run in 2007, it was a great-handling motorcycle in desperate need of power.
THE USED MARKET
Even though the Honda wasn’t especially competitive in its last seven years of production, those bikes are still in demand on the used-bike market. The chassis was excellent, and the bike was perfectly reliable. If you need motor parts, there are still a ton of them. A Honda CR125R from 2002 and later can still fetch $2000. The ones from the ’90s are good bikes and still have parts available too. In fact, Honda still has cylinders on the shelf. This motor has been adopted by the shifter-kart crowd, so you can also find parts at places like MusgraveRacing.com. The truth is, the CR125 will be around for a long time to come.
The first 125 Elsinore. This RC125 was raced in 1972 by Taichi Yoshimura in the All-Japan Motocross Championship. You can read more about it on www.mxworksbike.com.