A HUMBLE START
If the name Honda doesn't ring a bell with you, chances are you spent the last 20 years
or so working in a cave sorting mushrooms for a living.
The real Honda story, the one that's meaningful to us dirt bike freaks, started here in the
United States in 1959. That's when Soichiro Honda opened up a tiny shop in Los Angeles.
His model line consisted of a number of street bikes with fenders that looked like
While racers think of the more potent dirt bike, most of America
thinks of these units when the name Honda is mentioned. From left
to right: ST-90, CT-90, CT70 and CT70H K1.
the time his reception was anything but
wonderful. His hard-working salespeople
were discouraged as they went around the
country trying to establish dealerships.
People were riding Triumphs, BSAs, Harleys
and a wide assortment of British singles.
The bike riders of that period were considered
lunatic-fringe outcasts. Bikers were divided
into three basic groups: (1) crazed outlaws;
(2) racers; (3) a small handful of people
who actually used bikes for transportation
and touring. There was no such thing as
trail riding. Why? Because there were no
such things as trail bikes.
All bikes sold were street bikes; some lent
themselves to being stripped for racing
and others were naturals for being made
into choppers. There were a few oddball
small bikes and scooters, like Cushmans
and Mustangs, but the bulk of the bikes
sold here were big singles and four-stroke
MEET THE NICEST PEOPLE ON A WHAT?
So here's Mr. Honda, with a lineup of small-displacement
bikes to sell, and nobody wanted them. How
bad was it?
At the end of 1959, Honda had sold about
1700 units and had only 15 dealers. The
books showed a cash loss of $54,000. At
that point, no one would have dreamed that
this small company would become the dominant
force in American motorcycling. Things were
different in Japan, though. That same year
they were struggling like door-to-door sushi
salesmen in the U.S., they became the number-one
motorcycle manufacturer in the world, with
unit sales of 500,000.
How many of these are still around?
Left to right: XL175, XL250 and the
of Mr. Honda's advisors told him to write
off the American market and concentrate
on Europe, where they appreciated small,
reliable, economical and inexpensive bikes.
The combined sales of all motorcycle brands
in the U.S. were a mere 60,000 units a year,
and the image of bikers was a few steps
Honda was starting to win road races in
Europe, sales were going up everywhere,
and more and more models were being introduced,
but the American market remained stagnant.
Early on in their advertising, Honda
featured clean-cut people on pleasant
little bikes, like this kid on an
ST70. Before Honda, people though
all bikers were greasy thugs.
brought about one of the most famous advertising
campaigns of all time. The phrase You meet
the nicest people on a Honda!î became a
byword, as Honda saturated the market with
The ads showed smiling ladies on cute little
bikes with businessmen wearing suits, riding
around with insane grins on their faces.
The image of the greasy-haired thug with
unwashed Levis was effectively being erased.
People started to think in two different
directions: there were motorcycles (ugh!)
and then there were the cute little Hondas
that all the swell folks rode around.
Ah yes, the bikes. Face it, those early
Hondas were the elevator music of motorcycling.
They were slow, funny-looking and boring
to ride. But they were also dead-on reliable.
Hondas did not drip oil on your garage floor,
they didn't fling oil on your pants, the
electrical systems were marvels of reliability
and the fit and finish were worlds superior
to every other motorcycle on the market.
You didn't have to be a mechanical whiz
to ride a Honda; all you had to do was know
where to put the gas. Check the oil? Naw!
Just ride the sucker. And if you parked
it behind the Buick for a month or so, it
would still start easily and sit there idling
like a field mouse snoring.
They were cheap, got great mileage and never
broke. Even the dealer network was different.
Honda shops did not have Sacramento Mile
posters on the walls. They were not dark,
dank places with leaking cans of Castrol
on the shelves. Instead, they were bright,
cheerful places with a lineup of brightly
colored little bikes on display.
Want a test ride, sir?
Try the same thing at a Harley or a Triumph
shop and they'd fling you out the door in
front of a passing bus.
The big push clearly worked. By 1963, Honda's
U.S. sales were up to 150,000 units. Things
were on a roll, In 1961, some genuinely
nifty bikes appeared, with the racy names
of Hawk and Scrambler.
Small Hondas started appearing on the bumper
racks of campers and motor homes. Retired
folks, who would never consider themselves
bikers, were buying Trail 50s and Super
Cubs by the carloads. They used these street-legal
bumblebees to flit around campgrounds and
to wander out to their favorite fishing
Trail riding in the United States was born, and
these little bikes let it happen!
The rest is history. Honda continued to
bring out more and better models, then real
true dirt bikes. By the time the dirt bike
boom started (1968), Hondas were everywhere!
They were being raced in the desert, trail-ridden
all across the country, hammered in enduros
and hyper-tuned for TT tracks and scrambles.
During this period of rampant growth, certain
Honda models were landmarks... very important
bikes that were breakthroughs. To keep things
even, Honda also produced some real losers.
So let's take a look in the past (completely
ignoring the street bikes and ATVs, simply
because they bore me) and have some fun.
Sold by the boatload: the CA100T Trail
50, first built in 1961.
In 1961 the CA 100T Trail 50 (Trail Cub) appeared
in school parking lots, retirement villages
and on the backs of motor homes in droves.
The tiny 50cc four-stroke engine was mated
to a three-speed with an automatic clutch.
It looked like a pair of pipe bombs glued
together with the engine hanging down low
like an afterthought.
The step-through frame let ladies with skirts
ride it without getting arrested, and acceleration
and top speed just about guaranteed no tickets.
During that same time, there was also a
C110 Super Sports Cub that looked more like
a real motorcycle, even though it shared
most of the power train of the Trail 50.
It had a high pipe and a gas tank in the
normal location. The manual clutch definitely
gave it a more sporting nature, but still,
most any kid on a Schwinn could out-accelerate
hot seller in 1968 was the little Z50A
The first real minibike from Honda made exclusively
for the dirt was the Z50 Mini-Trail in 1968.
Looking much like a deformed bug, the three-speed
unit had fold-up handlebars so the bike
could be easily stuffed in the trunk of
With a total sale of 450,000
units, the Z50 still holds the record
as American Honda's all-time best-selling
bike, and is responsible for introducing
off-roading to more youngsters than any
other single model.
After a dozen years of virtually unchanged
50cc trail bikes, in 1974 Honda brought
out a stunning package, the MR 50 Elsinore.
It had real knobbies, a three-speed gearbox,
looked every inch like a miniature race
bike and, wonder of wonders, it was a two-stroke.
A whole bunch of happy kids learned how
to trail ride on this tiny beauty.
SMALL STUFF: 60cc to 90cc
The first of the minis to look like a real bike was the CT70 Scrambler in 1970.
In the late '60s, kids all over American smuggled
bike magazines into study hall and salivated
over the ads for the Honda Scramblers. The
CL90 ( from 1967 to 1969) and the CL70 (from
1969 to 1973) housed overhead cam four-stroke
singles with four-speed gearboxes. Any kid
lucky enough to have one was Big Man On
This was the bike that found its way
to the bumper rack of countless motorhomes:
the CT70 Trail, built in 1972.
Another innocuous trail bike became available in
1969. The CT70, known popularly as the trail
70, was yet another unbreakable fat-tired
machine. Powered by a 72cc four-stroke with
a three-speed auto clutch (or four-speed
manual clutch), this high-piped unit was
a favorite of hunters and fishermen, as
well as fortunate kids.
Although the CT70 remained basically unchanged
from 1969 to its last year in 1982, it ranks
as Honda's third best selling model with
over 380,000 units sold.
SL70 Motosport was considered a serious
mini in 1971.
fabulous small play bike was introduced
in 1971, called the SL70 Motosport. It was
a genuine small motorcycle, with a tube
frame and all the right stuff, including
a four-speed gearbox. Numerous versions
of this jewel were made through 1976, although
it took on the XL designation in 1974.
Hoo-hah! The XR75; every kid had
one, or wanted one.
The most popular bike of the mid-70s was the
famed XR75 mini-bike. While it has some
flaws, like the footpeg mounts, it was largely
a bullet-proof bike that would survive the
thrashing of the most ham-fisted kid. Doting
fathers spent small
fortunes turning the reliable XRs into unreliable
high-revving machines. It was not uncommon
to see and extra two grand or more sunk
into hop-up parts. By 1979, the XR75 grew
into the XR80.
Here's one for the ages: the XR80 is
still the same basic unit from 1979
to this date, except for suspension
and graphic changes. That tells you
the original package was right on target.
From 1964 through 1986, Honda produced an almost
endless line of Trail 90s, all with the
prefix, CT. All of them had frames that
wiggled like fishing worms and the limpest
chrome shocks ever seen this side of a cheap
screen door. For over 20 years, very little
changed on the CT, except for a displacement
increase to 110cc in 1980.
Following through on a theme of natural
progression. Honda built larger versions
of all the small bikes. A staggering variety
of 100cc dirt bikes (yes, and street bikes)
started in 1970 and continue today. Honda
figured out early in the game how to capture
customers at the introductory levels and
it paid off.
Of the bewildering number of models, a few
stand out and a few more are confusing as
to why they existed at all. Example: in
1970 they made a CL100 Scrambler and an
SL100 Motosport. The Scrambler had a high
pipe and low fenders, while the Motosport
had high fenders and a low pipe. You figure
The delightful XR100 debuted in 1981. More
of these great units were bought for girlfriends
and wives than any other bike we know of.
The 100 was large enough to allow a full-sized
person to ride it comfortably, yet mellow
enough for a beginner to learn on.
In 1980 a real racing minibike was brought
out to head-to-head with the YZ80: the CR80R
Elsinore. Blood-red, the mini-Elsinore had
a six-speed box and a punchy two-stroke
The 1983 and 1984 model years saw a genuine
60cc mini racer that looked just like the
big bikes. Named the CR60R, this astonishing
bike featured a six-speed gearbox and had
plenty of beans. It was not for the beginner
and a number of learning riders got some
wide eyes and unexpected wheelies on the
125s TO GO!
Probably no single article in the history
of Dirt Bike Magazine generated as
much hate mail as did my test report on
the 1973 SL125. The title to the story said
it all: The SL125 Turtle Chaser Honda's
Inoffensive Little FooFoo Bike?
Popular stuff: SL-70K, SL100 K3 and
The first paragraph of the test no doubt
had readers scrambling for a pen and paper
to tell us off. It read: Yup, the 125 Honda
is the pokiest bike we have tested to date.
It's probably the slowest full-sized dirt
bike in existence. Word has it that even
the SL100 will blow its doors off.
The test report was even more caustic: If
you put a wrench on the engine twice a year,
it will last forever and ever. One reason
for this is because it's gutless. As a rule,
the more horsepower the engine develops,
the higher the wear factor. Since the SL125
develops no power, there is no wear. Clever,
those Honda fellers.
It got worse as we ragged on the bike: We
asked American Honda what the factory claims
in the way of horsepower. 'Honda doesn't
claim any horsepower,' was the reply. We
found that alarmingly accurate.
THE TRIALS FIASCO
Someone told all of the Japanese manufacturers
that trials was the hot ticket in 1973,
so Honda brought out a TL125 Trials bike.
It sold like stale bread. But then, so did
all of the other trials bikes from Japan.
There are still some of them in warehouses
and dealerships from the mid-'70s, unsold.
After a mind-numbing series of hopelessly
dull street and Scrambler (?) 125s, Honda
made up for it all with a staggeringly good
bike, the 1973 CR125M Elsinore. Everybody
raved about it: Testing Honda's 20-Horsepower
Feather! screamed the cover lines
The CR125M Elsinore was an astonishing
breakthrough and made everyone else
re-think their racing machines.
The baby Elsinore sold for $749 and I had
this to say about the bike: We suspect
it'll be around 1000 bucks . . . even if
it were 1200 bucks, it would be the bike
to buy. And the reason is simple: it is
the best . . . 125 you can buy, regardless
of price. This was back when only the most
exotic 125s were in the one thousand dollar
For its day, the specs were awesome: 7.1
inches of fork travel and 4.1 at the rear,
19.7 hp@8000 rpm, 188 pounds with a half-tank
of gas, a six-speed close-ratio gearbox
and brakes that actually worked.
Only a few flaws were evident: the swing-arm
pivots were junk plastic and had to be replaced
with bronze bushings, the shocks faded in
20 minutes and the gearbox lost second gear
every now and then. But other than those,
it did everything in a brilliant fashion.
My quote in the last paragraph of that test
was strong enough to get us in big trouble
with other manufacturers: Honda is left
with only one problem: How are they going
to make enough of them? The rest of the
manufacturers are left with another problem:
What can they do to justify the existence
of their offerings?
In 1974, Honda built a semi-sort of an enduro
bike, the MT125 Elsinore. It looked right,
the specs read right and, on paper, would
make a great enduro bike. Unfortunately,
it was not much faster than a melting iceberg
and was discontinued after two more years.
No one missed it.
For 1981 the 125 Elsinore got water cooling.
It also got slower, heavier and single-shocked.
For half of the season the 1980 bikes outran
The 125 Elsinore evolved slowly until 1982,
when the legendary Elsinore name was dropped
and the bikes simply became known as CRs.
In 1984, another highlight in the CR line
was introduced. This 125 had KYB forks and
shocks, unlike the Showa units normally
used by Honda.
It's no secret that the reason Honda uses
Showa forks and shocks is because they own
controlling interest in that company. It's
also no secret that Showa never made a truly
great shock, up to this very day. We have
no idea why they used the KYB suspenders
for this one year only, but they worked
. . . and the bike worked!
A few of the early 125s came through with
a faulty ATAC system, but most of them were
delivered with the right setup and nothing
could stay with them in 1984. In 1985, it
was back to Showa and shock woes.
The 1987 CR125 wow! Disc brakes at both
ends, case induction, cartridge forks, a
blistering motor, scalpel-sharp turning
and styling that was a decade ahead of everything
else. Sure it shook and shuddered at high
speeds over bumps, but remember, this powerhouse
was built for MX.
The '88 and '89 CR125 undoubtedly had the
best 125cc mill ever offered to the public
up to that time, and became a standard.
THE SMALL STUFF
After the almost bewildering offering of
small bore machines, let's take a look the
larger offerings, from 160 to 600cc, starting
with the 160-200cc machines.
In 1966, Honda built a tight, decent bike
called the CL160 Scrambler. A number of
them received light modifications and were
competitive in the 200 Class in enduro and
scrambles work. This high-piped unit was
as close to unbreakable as any bike ever
High pipes and higher revs were the
trademark CL175 Scrambler in 1973.
By 1969 Honda sensed the demand for a larger,
more refined machine and released the CLI75.
Honda responded to the surge in off-road
riding with a high-fendered CL175 in the
Dirt bikers wanted an even more off-roadworthy
mount in this size class and Honda gave
them the SL175 in 1970. It used the strong,
high-revving CL175 twin and had contemporary
dirt bike styling for the period.
The Honda stepped on their corporate pecker
with the XL175 in 1973. It was a real pile,
leading me to run a photo of a large white
pig right next to the bike in a pigpen.
The subtitle of the test, in rather large
type, said, AT $2.98 A POUND, THIS IS EXPENSIVE
Still, a lot of folks loved the XL175.
I hated it. Not only was it hopelessly slow,
it was also the only four-stroke we ever
tested that fouled plugs regularly. The
regular testers were unable to climb even
moderate hills. Some say that we got the
legendary lemon, but we rode others and
remained in the full yawn mode.
In 1975, the MRI75 was released. A promising
looking machine, the MR was based on the
immensely successful CR125. It tacked the
thrust of the CR and its six-speed gearbox.
As a result, it made a better play bike
than an enduro racer
The 1979 XL185S proved to be a surprisingly
good trail bike, in spite of
being laden with a dash like a jukebox.
Many a rider stripped it down, put on knobby
tires and ended up with a great street-legal
The XR200 was a solid beginners bike in 1980, and remains so to this day.
Another highlight appeared in 1980. The XR200 turned
out to work well in the woods and for all-around
trail riding. It was a six-speed four-stroke
single with no bad manners and a
deceptively good powerband. By slapping
on a set of decent shocks and good tires,
a number of B riders won enduros. For
decades, the XR200 remained a solid trail
THE MIDDLEWEIGHT CLASS 250cc
From 1959 through the mid '60s, most people
thought of Hondas as models with butt-ugly
fenders and styling with names like Dream?
The styling was, indeed, a nightmare, a
variation of a dream.
The first real 250 offered by Honda was
the 1961 CL72 Scrambler, or its more street-oriented
brother, the CB72 Hawk. The Scrambler became
the recipient of knobbies, wider bars, Snuff-Or-Not
exhaust tips (little flappers placed in
the end of straight pipes that could be
opened for racing and closed for quiet street
use), and getting a stripdown for racing
This 247cc, four-speed, OHC, dual-carbed
engine cranked out lots of good power and,
even better, emitted a throaty rasp when
you revved it high. I raced one in an enduro
in Ohio, and did pretty well until I hit
a log and stuffed my head into the mud.
Back then, we didn't realize that skinny
chromed shocks and wimpy forks affected
There were a handful of truly remarkable
bikes in the last 40 years, and one of the
landmark machines has to be the 1972 XL250
Motorport. This four-valve single used a
single overhead cam to operate its valves.
It made respectable power, but overall performance
was marred by serious heft. Nonetheless,
the machine's dependability and quietness
gave it a mass cult following among woodsmen
and trail riders. The XL250, in it's many
forms, continued so be sold for many years.
IT CHANGED MOTOCROSS FOREVER!
Breakthrough! The CR250M Elsinore set
new standards for all other bikes
of that period.
Side note: the rider in the advertising
photo was none other than legendary
desert ace, J.N. Roberts.
A milestone happened in 1973, when the Honda
CR250M Elsinore was released to the public.
And the public went wacko! This bike was
pure, unadulterated dynamite!
How good was it? Well, in mid-1973, I sold
my 501 Maico and went out and bought a brand-new
250 Elsinore. Almost immediately, I started
actually winning motocross races in the
250 Junior class. Amazing!
This sleek, lightweight beauty had a polished
aluminum tank, a raspy motor with bags of
midrange punch, a slim midsection and styling
that had the riders of that era gasping
and reeling in circles. Not only that, the
forks worked better than anything Japan
had ever offered and the shocks were good
for about 20 minutes, until they got hot.
The CR250M Elsinores not only worked in
motocross, but started to win in the
desert, as well. Here, Mitch Mayes
puts one through the paces at the Ponderosa
desert course in 1973.
It weighed in at a wafting light 214 pounds
and had 7.1 inches of travel up front, which
was state-of-the-art at that time in ancient
dirt biking history. The dyno showed that
the Elsinore pulled a staggering rear wheel
28 horsepower, about three more than anything
else short of a flat-out TT bike.
The CR250M Elsinore
How good was the 250 Elsinore? It was best
answered when a Honda rep, George Ethridge,
was asked: George, are you guys trying
to put everyone else out of business?
Nope, he replied, we're just trying to make them
get a whole lot better.
THE TRIALS FLOP, 250 STYLE
Everybody babbled about how hot the sport
of trials was in 1975, and all of the major
manufacturers brought out 250 trials bikes.
The purists in the sport continued buying
their Spanish bikes and made fun of anyone
who showed up on a Japanese trials bike,
even though major teams were fielded. The
TL250 Trials by Honda, a trim four-stroke,
languished on the showroom floors like all
the rest. The boom turned out to be a
bust, in spite of all of the Japanese trials
bikes being solid, reliable units.
A DECENT ENDURO BIKE
In 1976, an enduro version of the Elsinore,
the MR250, appeared on the scene. It had
a big 3.4-gallon tank, lights, quiet muffler,
real knobby tires, wide-ratio gearbox and
shared many of the same parts as the pure
racing Elsinore. Many enduro and desert
riders modified the MRs with CR parts and
loved their mounts. Strangely, the MR was
in production only one year.
Time passed (as it has a way of doing) and
1978 was suddenly upon us. And with that
year came the 1978 CR250R Elsinore with
the laydown shocks and long travel at both
ends. They called it the Red Rocket and,
indeed, it was fast. It looked sleek and
very works-like and riders beat each other
with clubs to get the first ones on the
showroom floors. Honda also cranked up their
national racing team efforts at a crazed
pace during this time frame, making instant
legends out of numerous riders.
A BETTER THAN DECENT ENDURO BIKE
A very solid bike appeared unexpectedly
in 1979 and put a dent in the XL sales.
The XR250 was an enduro-ready bike with
less weight and clutter than the street-legal
XL. The only strange thing about it was
the 23-inch front wheel, a fad that lasted
two short years. Still, the bike was good
and had plenty of potential for responding
to minor hop-ups. With a good pair of shocks
and some weekend tuning, they started winning
enduros and hare scrambles.
In 1981, a single-shocked version of this
model was an instant hit. Again, oddly,
they went with an off-size wheel, this time
a 17-inch rear for some unexplained reason.
It's still a good bike that keeps getting
better each year.
After three years of no-change, Honda went
berserko in 1981 and made one of the all-time
flopperoos of the '80s. The '81 Elsinore
was water-cooled, single-shocked and had
more trick features on it than a space shuttle.
Unfortunately, it was also ill-handling
and stalled easier than a first-date proposal.
Next year, they got better, but ran head-on
into the 1982 Suzuki RM250 and got plowed
under the back 40 without the benefit of
a military funeral.
THE HANNAH YEARS
Bob Hannah moved from Yamaha to Honda in
1983, and Honda moved from a bland bike
to a great one. The CR250R for '83 not only
did it right, they did it when all the other
250s (with the sole exception of KTM's 250)
stepped in a nuclear cow-pie. Even Suzuki
showed suicidal tendencies with their '83
versions, turning last year's missile into
Bad news for 1985. In an attempt to come
up with a bike to compete against the punchy
YZ250 powerband, they brought out a CR250
that put out a nasty little burst right
off idle, then signed off and turned into
a snail. It also shook the steering head
like a snake on a hotplate, stalled easier
than a window fan with a shoe stuck in it,
had a shock that faded riding to the starting
line, confused jetting, no horsepower, limp
forks and a gearbox that shredded gears
Aftermarket folks were able to turn it into a competitive
bike, but the cost was staggering; 1985
will not be remembered fondly for a memorable
In 1987, Honda put it all together for a
truly brilliant 250 racer. The '87 CR had
the best set of cartridge forks ever, including
current models. Disc brakes appeared at
both ends, the rear suspension was decent
(and approached perfection with an aftermarket
shock) and the motor did it all, pulling
strong and smooth everywhere.
Whoops! The very next year, they screwed up the
1987 winner with a weak and confused Delta
Link rear suspension, harsh forks and a
wretched shock. Back to the drawing board.
Since the Hannah years, the CR 250s have
been refined steadily and have always had
a seriously good motor, and cursed with
less than stellar suspension. A few years
ago, they rocked the world with the first
production aluminum frame for MXers with
the CR line. They retain the rocket red
looks and incredible attention to detail.
ALMOST A BIG BIKE: 251cc THROUGH 450cc
From 1965 through 1968, a bike called the
CL77 305 Scrambler caught the fancy, and
the not-so-fancy, of the public. Lots of
them got stripped down, Snuff-Or-Nots were
jammed in the exhaust tips and real knobby
tires got wrapped around the rims. With
open pipes, it emitted a bloodcurdling sound
as the revs rose. The engine, a four-stroke
twin, was as reliable as a claw hammer and
the performance was exhilarating. Back then
we never realized how truly bad they handled,
because we were having too much fun.
The 305 was replaced in 1968 with a much
more serious version, the CL350 Scrambler.
Trimmer, slimmer and much more dirt-oriented,
this rig got stripped, hopped-up and tuned
for racing just about everywhere from the
desert to the TT tracks of the nation. And
guess what? It did great. Many a Baja event
was won from the saddle of a 350 Scrambler.
Dismissed by many as nothing more than
a heavy playbike, the SL350 was a decent
bike that you couldn't break with a
Even though the 350 Scrambler hung around for
another five years, it was put on the back
burner by the 1969 SL350 Motosport, a 325cc
four-stroke twin that came with dirt tires
and styling. Many magazines wrote it off
as yet another overweight, useless Honda
pseudo-dirt bike. However, I went back to
a national enduro in Ohio and saw several
of these units being used quite well in
the water and mud. Strip some of the junk
off them, slip on some good tires and shocks
and they would go anywhere and keep on running
with little or no maintenance. They provided
many a rider with affordable fun and we
gained a new respect for the SL350.
the XL350 came out in 1974, the engine
builders went nuts and had the boring
bars working overtime.
The XL350 four-stroke single appeared in 1974.
In stock trim, it was ponderous. ill-handling
and boring. But with some clever work, many
of them were turned into fine dirt bikes.
Some riders spent buckets of money on trick
frames and hyper engines, but as nice as
these machines were to ride, they were very
unreliable when heavily tweaked.
A highly underrated bike, the XR350
(1983) was easy to ride and would last
forever if you changed the oil often
and did not overheat it.
A single-shocked pair of 350s were offered
to the public in 1984, the XL and XR 350.
They were immediate hits and also filled
out Honda's four-stroke line completely.
In the real world of performance, though,
the 250 was a superior bike in most conditions.
Big and fast, the 1967 CB450 Super Sport
Scrambler gave the British bikes fits
at the races.
The last vestiges of the bloated 1968 CL450
Scrambler hung around until 1974 and the
K6 model. It was a 444cc twin four-stroke
DOHC with huge chromed high pipes loaded
with excess weight and more chrome than
a toaster plant.
FIRST BIG TWO STROKE
Bummer! The CR450R Elsinore offered
in 1981, did nothing right.
For years. the dirt biking public had been demanding
a real big-bore racer from Honda. Jeez,
every other builder had one why not Big
Red? So, in 1981, they brought out, with
great fanfare, the CR450R Elsinore. A few
magazines wrote wonderful things about it:
"cat-quick and grizzly-tough" and "the
best Open class MXer ever built", that
kind of stuff.
When I tested a CR450R (actually a 431cc
bike), I was shocked and disappointed. The
R came with a four-speed gearbox that was
always in the wrong place at the awkward
time. No combination of gearing let it work
comfortably. It stalled easily, moved around
like rubber ice skates, shook the steering
head like someone had left out the bearings
and the rear end hopped around madly after
the shock faded, which took about eight
minutes of hard riding. It also had a front
number plate that looked like a giant hangnail.
THE BIG FOUR STROKES
Here's the beast that started a revolution
in Baja and on the fire-roads of the
world: the 1981 Baja XR500R.
Two important models were made available in
1979, the XR500 and the XL500S. Both were
powered by a 498cc four-valve single and
both had another strange front wheel: a
23-incher. They were heavy, but powerful,
and both received all sorts of modifications.
Many XL owners stripped their bikes down
and kept the license plate on it, using
it for day-to-day, transportation, as well
as trail riding. It was one of the few street-legal
bikes that could cruise comfortably with
high speed traffic.
Like many people, I bought and built
an XR500 into something fast and unreliable.
In 1981, the XR500 got the single shock treatment
and I bought one to use as a Project Bike.
It got a C&J frame, every engine mod
available and the best suspension components
available. We built it so hyper that all
it did was blow up.
I'd fix it, then blow it up and fix it and blow
it up again, until I got sick of looking
Honda gave people the XR600 in 1985,
so we didn't have to spend a fortune
hopping-up the engine. But we all did
Honda got the boring bar out and made the XL500
into the XL600R in 1983. Some riders loved
'em and others hated 'em, but they sure
made an impact. By 1985 you could buy a
Al Baker and a few others learned how to
modify the 600s for relatively low bucks
and turned more than a few into Baja winners.
With good suspension parts and thoughtful
engine tuning, the XR remained heavy, but
had enough pure horsepower to work well
at GPs and cross-country racing. A steady
evolvement of the big XR continues to this
very day and they are still tall, fast,
heavy and reliable bikes.
FINALLY, A GOOD BIG BORE TWO-STROKE
A proper big-bore racer finally appeared
in 1982. The ill-fated 450 was happily gone
and a decent CR480R replaced it. In spite
of still being handicapped with a four-speed
box, it was an excellent bike and got even
better in 1983, when they refined it greatly
and slipped in a five-speeder.
Big difference! The CR500 (1984) was
a very fast, powerful bike.
After a few solid years, the big Honda CR turned
weird in 1984. The Ping King appeared, designated
the CR500R. No one could get rid of the
detonation, it stalled constantly, restarted
when it felt like it and shook like a Slinky
toy at high speeds over rough ground.
Once the CR500 got water-cooled, the very
next year, it became a much better bike
and has been getting small improvements
right up to 2001.
THE DOMINATING FOUR STROKES
The 90s saw the continuing evolution of
the XR600 (and its street legal brother
the XL 650), but the wildly successful XR400
became the bike of choice for untold thousands
We saw the last of the XR600 last year,
and of course, Honda brought out the mighty
XR650 two years ago.
Yes, finally we got the long-awaited four-stroke
motocross bike this year: the CR450R. It's
a magnificent beast, sporting plenty of
smooth power, and aluminum frame and the
legendary Honda attention to detailing.
Based on what Honda has done in the past,
we continue to see the giant of the industry
continue to take chances and break ground
with their CR racers. No doubt there will
be mistakes, as well as some brilliant models.
Clearly, four-strokes are the future with
Honda dirt bikes, but we should see a limited
number of two-strokes for closed course
specialty events, like Supercross.
Whatever happens, Honda intends to remain
in the Number One slot. As George Ethridge
said back in 1973: We don't want to put
everyone out of business. We just want to
make them get better!