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Bikes You Should Know: Honda’s GP Sixes, 1965-’67

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Bikes You Should Know appears weekly as part of Two Wheel Tuesdays. Since Redusernab primarily caters to automotive enthusiasts, this column focuses on historically or culturally significant motorcycles that are likely to interest a non-riding audience.


Anybody who wishes to claim any knowledge of motorcycle development in the twentieth century has to know what “The Six” is. There have been a fair number of six-cylinder motorcycles from various makers over the years, but in much the same way as the Isle of Man is “the island” and the Roman Catholic church is “the church,” THE Six refers to Honda’s FIM Grand Prix race bikes of 1965-1967. Yes, that’s correct — “bikes,” plural. The Six was actually four different models. But the cumulative bitch-slap they gave to the face of the motorcycling establishment was a singularly shocking wake-up call.

THE BACKSTORY

In 1959, Honda was certainly not an unknown manufacturer, but it had no international reputation and no racing experience on the world stage. However, several years earlier Soichiro Honda had set before his company the goal of racing — and winning — the Isle of Man TT, the most prestigious motorcycle race [cue Clarkson voice] in the world. They showed up to race on the IOM for the first time that year, with five 125cc twins and an extensive array of tools, staff, and spares that included a complete, fully-assembled backup bike for each rider. Compared to the resources of some of the smaller continental teams, Honda had nearly shipped a complete factory halfway around the world. They finished no higher than sixth place, but more importantly all the riders finished but one, and that was due to a crash, not mechanical issues. Honda won the team trophy and made it clear they had the chops to run with the best. Honda went home and built their first four-cylinder bike, a 250 that was basically the 4-valve per cylinder 125cc design, doubled.

The next year, Honda contested the entire World Championship season in both the 125 and 250 cc classes, having hired some experienced European racers to ride them. In 1961, just two years after Honda first came to Europe, they won the World Championship and the constructor’s title in both classes. But they din’t just win, they dominated, winning all but one race in the 250 cc class and taking first through third place at the end of the season.

Over the next couple of years, the rest of the world was left shaking their heads in disbelief of both Honda’s on-track domination, and the nearly inconceivable engineering wizardry behind it. Honda was building bikes so advanced that literally nobody else in the world could duplicate them, or even make the underlying technology work. Or perhaps no one else was interested in putting in the level of effort and attention to detail required to match Honda. But the formula was straightforward: a multitude of small, four-valve cylinders, a nearly maniacal obsession with reducing reciprocating weight in the engine, and hitherto-unseen metallurgical sophistication to hold the lightweight parts together at higher and higher engine speeds. By 1965, Honda increased the cylinder count: The 125 cc bike had five cylinders, the 250cc had — you guessed it — six. The 250 would turn 17,000 RPM or more, the 125 as high as 20,000. Over the next three seasons, Honda would hone their RC165 and RC166 250cc sixes, then create a 300 cc version, the RC167, to race the 350 class in 1967.

WHAT HAPPENED

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The Honda sixes dominated the competition to a degree never before seen in motorsport, and perhaps never to be seen again. They were so much better than the competition that Mike Hailwood had won the 1966 250 title halfway through the season. In 1967, Yamaha responded with a much-improved two-stroke 250cc four and brilliant riding by Phil Reed, but Hailwood still managed to narrowly take the title. In the 350 class, however, Hailwood had so many championship points by mid-season that he was able to turn the RC167 over to Ralph Bryans, who then collected enough points in the remainder of races to place third for the season.

Then, it was over. Honda had no heights left conquer, and declined to compete in the 1968 season. They had risen to the top of the race field seemingly overnight, going from outsiders to boss in just a few short years. Then, once they had proven their point, they cashed out and walked away.

WHY IT’S SIGNIFICANT

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Honda’s ’60s racing success was the stuff of Hollywood, but the bikes themselves remain simply jawdropping. There may never have been a more thoroughly considered, carefully designed, meticulously constructed race machine. For example, none of the bearings are standard sizes; they would be exactly big enough, and not one iota bigger. Furthermore, the crank bearings are three different sizes: slightly larger toward the center where stresses were greatest, and the tiniest bit smaller on the outside, where stresses were less. The Honda sixes are legendary not just for how far they raised the bar in competition, but for how they raised it. Honda raced four-strokes while everyone else was having success with two-strokes. They raced sixes while others had fours. The engine speeds were almost unbelievable for the time, and the fact that they could finish races at those speeds all season long was even more amazing. They went for radically complex technology, true bleeding-edge stuff, and made it work with impressive power and reliability. Plus they made a sound that was instantly recognizable, spine-tingling, and almost scary-beautiful.

In one episode of M*A*S*H, the officers are trying to teach Radar enough classical music knowledge for him to impress a nurse he is enamored with. “Bach is easy,” Hawkeye famously says. “If she brings him up, you just smile and you say, ‘Ah…Bach.'” Well, if somebody brings up Hailwood, Honda, or Grand Prix motorcycle racing in the late sixties, just smile and “Ah…The Six.”

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  • nanoop

    Cool, I only knew about the CBX, which I considered as a nice engine in a 70ies frame (correct me if I am wrong).
    My knowledge of motorcycle racing is fuzzy at best.. I somehow think that Suzuki dominated for a short period by similar means: uncompromised engineering and more everything (4-cyl. two strokers? Maybe this was late 50ies?)

    Is "The Island" still relevant for manufacturers today? Sure they will cash in the pedigree, but contemporary casualties are no longer ad-able… …
    Edit: auto"correct"

    • The Isle of Man was removed from the World Championship calendar shortly after the 1976 TT, in which few of the top racers participated. There is still some minor marketing value for the manufacturers, but its mostly within the UK, and they now provide factory support to teams that race there indirectly, under the auspices of their domestic UK importer. The FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme, the global motorcycle racing sanctioning body) has stayed involved to a lesser extent since then, but it's pretty much its own separate, unique thing, a wildcat event. It is rare to have a highly-placed World Championship contender on the starting line. TT racers have become own breed of "real roadrace" specialists.

      • nanoop

        Thanks!
        Along these lines, to me, "real roadrace specialist" is somebody so insane that a manufacturer wouldn't provide him a bike, as they'd need it for the museum afterwards, which will be difficult when you need to fish it from the sea…

        • <img src=" Shot 2014-03-21 at 10.54.24 AM.jpg" width="480">
          “It is impossible to make that course even reasonably safe. It is 37 miles of stone walls and telegraph poles. If you come off you hit a solid obstacle.” – Barry Sheen, 1971

          So, fishing anything from the sea is not likely.

          • nanoop

            Oh, I had footage on my mind showing riders and their bikes flying tens of metres over cliffs… Wrong.

            • Nope, the course never really runs close to the coast.

              <img src=";

  • Newport Pagnell

    Cool article about George Beale's RC174 replicas. I remember when he was building these and Honda used copper nuts and washers on some pieces and he could never figure out why. Honda at its best! : …

    • Here's the original article on motorcyclist.com. It's laid out a little more attractively.

    • nanoop

      I'll be in my bunk: a metallurgist as chief engineer, convoluted with a classical Japanese version of all-in work ethics…

  • Mike the Bike!!!!!

  • Sjalabais

    Excellent write-up! I am no motorbike man, but this was very interesting.

    Then, it was over. Honda had no heights left conquer, and declined to compete in the 1968 season.

    That's about the definition of cool.

    • I am no motorbike man, but this was very interesting.

      Sjalabais, I've been thinking about your comment all day, and I have to say that's about the best compliment I could've received. That's exactly this column's intent. Thanks for the encouragement.

      • Sjalabais

        Just as intended! Keep them coming. 🙂

  • That video is jaw-dropping. If you close your eyes, the sections where he's coming towards the camera sounds like several cars, not one bike. Amazing.

  • scroggzilla

    Good stuff!

  • Rover1

    Brilliant article, and a nice riposte to the eurosnobs who say the Japanese only copy and can't innovate. When is the article on the NR750 coming? .Made by blacksmiths indeed!

  • RC149: 124.4cc, 5 cylinders, 9 speed transmission, 34 [email protected],500 RPM, 187 pounds, top speed 130 MPH

    RC166: 249.4cc, 6 cylinders, 7 speed transmission, 61 [email protected],000 RPM, 260 pounds, top speed over 150 MPH

    Oh, yeah, and drum brakes front and back on both.

    • I Think Not

      But, but… brakes are for 2nd through last place finishers, right?

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