This week’s selection from Greg Primm’s Classic Steel is Honda’s first water-pumper, the 1981 CR250R.
The ’81 CR250R Elsinore (this was the last CR to bear the Elsinore name) was an huge technological leap forward over the ’80 CR250R. With liquid cooling, Buck Rodgers bodywork and a Pro-Link rear end Honda sold a lot of CR’s in ‘81.
It is hard to overstate the anticipation that accompanied this machine at the time of its introduction. Compared to the machine that preceded it, the new CR looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. The ’81 CR’s screamed performance from every angle with the very latest in motocross technology. It was the most radical bike from Honda since the very first CR250 was introduced in 1973. The new CR250R promised works bike performance for the average man.
Honda riders suffered numerous reliability issues on the new CR. The motor required a lot of clutch slipping and constant shifting to keep it in its narrow powerband. Unfortunately, the weak clutch and transmission were not up to the abuse. Broken gears were common and clutch life was best measured in minutes on the Red Rooster.
The all-new ’81 CR250R was a groundbreaking machine in many ways. The new chassis featured Honda’s first single shock rear suspension system which they called “Pro-Link”. It consisted of a single Kayaba shock mounted to a set of rising rate linkage arms. Another first on the ’81 CR was its new liquid cooled motor. Honda was the first manufacturer to try liquid cooling on its 250cc machine and it generated quite a stir at the time. Many pundits considered water-cooling a bit of overkill on a 250. Even if the was no real performance advantage at the time, it definitely gave Honda an edge in the showroom. Capping off all this whiz-bang technology was racy new bodywork and a screaming coat of red paint. With so much going for it, the new CR looked to be an unbeatable package in ’81.
The Pro-Link rear suspension was big news for ’81. Performance was decent, but no better than some of the dual shock set-ups still on the market. When the Pro-Link got compared to Suzuki’s revolutionary new Full-Floater it was no contest. In addition to the mediocre performance, the CR’s aluminum swingarm became notorious for cracking at the welds. Honda quality still had a little ways to go in ’81.
The performance of the ’81 CR did not quite live up to the promise of its radical looks. The fire engine red motor produced a very difficult to ride spread of power. For starters,there was no low-end torque whatsoever. After the bike climbed past its lethargic low-end, you would be met with a sudden blast of midrange power before it tapered off to a mediocre top-end pull. If you let the motor fall below the potent midrange it would just go “wwhhaaaa” and bog down. The trick was to keep the engine in its narrow sweet spot. If you could do that it was competitively fast, but if you let it fall off the pipe it would take an eternity to climb back on. The anemic low-end meant the rider was forced to use a lot of clutch out of corners, unfortunately the stock clutch was not up to the abuse. It would chatter and grab badly when hot, then finally give up the ghost completely if hammered. The five speed transmission worked well when in one piece, but broken gears were a common occurrence. Third gear in particular had a bad habit of grenading at the most inopportune moments. The one thing that worked as promised was the liquid cooling. Honda used a much simpler approach to their cooling system than Yamaha had done with their new liquid cooled YZ125. Unlike the YZ, which mounted the radiator on the steering head and piped coolant through the frame, the CR mounted its dual radiators at the front of the gas tank and piped the hoses directly to the engine. The radiators were still mounted fairly high on the bike but the Honda design was far less complicated and less prone to leaks. As long as you checked the coolant level regularly, it was pretty trouble free.
In terms of raw performance, the 246cc two-stroke was fast but hard to ride. The CR was boggy off the line before pulling into its hard-hitting midrange blast. The explosive power made the bike fun to ride but hard to race. With such a narrow spread of power, it took a skilled rider and a fast left foot to use the CR effectively.
The other big news on the ’81 CR was the Pro-Link rear suspension. Honda’s works bikes had been using prototype versions of the single shock design for a few years,but this was the first production application of the design. This original Pro-Link design is actually very close to the systems we still use today. The shock was bolted to a set of small linkage arms at its bottom that in turn attached to a large aluminum swing arm. Unlike the Full-Floater and Uni-Track designs of the competition, the Pro-Link kept the bulk of its weight down low. This is probably the biggest single reason that the basic Pro-Link design has endured while the others have faded away.
This is surely the most infamous front numberplate in history. The goofy looking monstrosity was designed to direct more air to the high mounted twin radiators. There were a lot of aftermarket numberplates sold to CR owners in ’81.
The actual performance of the Pro-Link was decent, but not spectacular. Initially the action was very plush initially, but the transition the shock made as the rising rate kicked in was too sudden. It was slightly harsh at times in the mid-stroke and would kick if the power were not kept on. The shock itself was prone to fading and offered very little adjustment. There was no compression adjustment at all and only four selectable rebound settings. Overall, it was a decent first attempt in need of a little fine-tuning.
After nearly a decade of terrible forks, Honda went with the bold decision to switch to Kayaba suspension on the all-new CR. Amazingly, the 41mm Kayaba’s performed no better than the awful Showa’s had (this in spite of the fact that the same Kayaba forks performed brilliantly on ’81 RM). The set up was all wrong, with overly soft springs and harsh damping. Dirt Bike Magazine likened their performance to a set of pogo sticks.
The forks on the CR were 41mm (considered very large at the time) Kayaba units. This was another big change for Honda; up to this point CR’s had only used Showa components (Honda owned a huge portion of Showa at the time). At this time Showa had a pretty poor reputation as far as forks went, so the switch to Kayaba was met with optimism. As it turned out, the Kayaba’s performed just as bad as the Showa’s had before (Since Honda was the one setting the forks up, and they seemed to work just fine on the yellow brands, it must have actually been them that were messing things up). They were way too soft initially,then would virtually hydraulic lock in the mid-stroke. The rebound was so light that the front wheel would nearly try to bounce back off the ground when landing from jumps. Adding air or oil to the forks only magnified the harsh action. These were a hopeless set of forks.
Johnny O’Mara and Donnie Hansen trade off at the 1981 Indian Dunes Grand Prix. Their ’81 CR250R appears pretty stock with the exception of some Factory Showa suspension.
Handling wise, the CR250R was a mixed bag. The main problem was the bikes weight, which teetered near 250 pounds. That actually made the ’81 CR250R heavier than most ’81 Open bikes. The combination of the liquid cooling, beefy rear suspension and a complete lack of lightweight components drove the new CR right into the porky category. Exacerbating the heavy feel were the highly placed radiators and tall gas tank, which placed a lot of that weight up high. On the plus side the bike actually turned decently with a tight-planted feel in corners. Where the weight worked against you was off jumps and in quick transitions were the CR felt more like a big 500 than a nimble 250.
This Honda ad shows the new liquid cooling system Honda employed on the ’81 CR250R. It was much simpler than Yamaha’s steering head mounted system, but still placed the radiators up too high for optimal weight distribution.
Detailing on the CR was excellent, with superb quality castings and high quality plastic. Everything on the bodywork fit perfectly and was extremely durable (including the ridiculous front number plate most people probably wished had fallen off). Brakes were a real highlight with a super powerful (for the time) dual leading shoe setup that MXA even said was overkill (I know, crazy huh?). The rear was excellent as well with good stopping power and excellent feel.
This was the best brake in motocross in 1981. The dual leading shoe design used a set of linkages to push the shoes apart from both sides. This was a major advance over the single action drum brakes common up to this point. The reign of the dual leading shoe would be short lived, as discs would supplant them within a few years.
Much like the motor, reliability was a real issue with the chassis. Frame breakage was a huge problem on the ’81 CR’s. MXA and Dirt Bike Magazine broke the frames on both of their test bikes with MXA’s actually snapping in half. There was also a major problem with cracked swingarms , as they liked to come apart at the welds. Air filters were known to leak badly at the seal and many a CR ground itself to a halt from sucked debris. To say this bike had issues was putting it lightly.
At close to 250 pounds, the CR250R actually outweighed several Open class bikes in 1981. The porky weight certainly did the bike no favors in the acceleration and handling categories. With its lackluster performance and abysmal reliability, the ’81 CR250R is remembered as one of Honda’s worst ever production bikes.
In the end, the high-tech CR was felled by the most basic of problems. You could port the motor and re-valve the suspension, but if the bike would not stay in one piece there was little point. Motocross is an incredibly demanding sport and the ’81 CR250R was just not up to the task. Like a fighter with a glass jaw, it was always one hard hit away from going down for the count. Whether it was the fragile motor or the brittle frame, there was always a problem waiting in the wings for the unsuspecting CR owner. The ’81 CR250R was a bike of big ideas, spoiled by poor execution.