In 1974, the Honda CR125M put itself in America’s garage.
The bike changed the make-up of off-road riding in the U.S.
through sheer weight of numbers.
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.