This week’s Greg Primm’s Classic Steel selection is the 1992 Honda CR500R.
By: Tony Blazier
The ’92 CR500R was a mildly refreshed ’89 model wrapped in garish pink bodywork. This same basic bike would be produced for over a decade with only minor modification.
The motorcycle industry as a whole seemed to lose it collective mind for a few years in the early nineties. Starting with the ’91 model year, good taste went on hiatus and all bets were off. First Yamaha changed from its tasteful white and red, to white and pink (or Magenta if you listened to the Yamaha PR folks). Then Suzuki puked all over their beautiful ’90 RM’s, the result was their hideous ’91 and clown-colored ’92 RM’s. Even conservative Honda was not immune to this pervasive disease. When Honda came out with the ’91 CR’s they seemed pretty outlandish, with their tiger striped seats and giant cartoon CR graphics. In retrospect, however, they were nothing compared to what Honda had in store for ’92. The ‘92 CR’s went from its tasteful Honda red (orange really) to the ugliest shade of neon pink this side of a Barbie Corvette. Adding to the appeal of this new color scheme was maybe the most amateurish set of graphics ever slapped on a racing motorcycle. Thankfully for everyone, under that ugly duckling exterior beat the heart of a darn good motorcycle.
The CR500R power plant traced its roots all the way back to the mid-eighties. It was a proven, bulletproof design that cranked out competitive power. Greatly mellowed out over the years, it was a pussycat compared to earlier CR500’s.
When I first saw this bike I honestly thought someone at Honda had hit their head. After the beautifully clean looks of the ’83-’90 CR’s the ’92 model looked like some grotesque joke. The ugly pinkish red plastic, white tank and ridiculously amateurish tank decals made the bike look like a child’s toy instead of $5000 racing motorcycle.
By 1992 it was already becoming pretty apparent that the 500 class was becoming a bit of an afterthought. With the ’92 model, the CR500R was already two redesigns behind its 250cc stable mate. Whereas the ’92 CR250R was a completely new machine from stem to stern, the CR500R was a mildly refreshed ’89 model. The CR’s basic motor went back even further, to the arm stretching ’85 model. Mild tweaks aside, it was basically the same motor that had taken David Bailey to the 1986 500 National title. Thankfully, in the slow moving world of 500cc motocross, the four-year-old Honda was still plenty competitive.
Ever since Kawasaki installed its “Kawasaki Integrated Power Valve System” on the KX500, the Honda was playing second fiddle in the 500 class. The KIPS technology gave the KX an incredibly smooth and powerful powerband. Without the benefit of a variable exhaust port, the old school CR was never quite able to match the Kawasaki’s combination of raw power and ease of use.
When the 491cc liquid cooled mill first made its debut on the ’85 CR, it was a virtually unridable brute. Blessed with the kind of explosive power that few riders could handle, it was a machine that scared many a buyer out of the 500 class. Honda, realizing the bike was too violent for most consumers, went about the systematic process of taming the beast. Every year Honda would tweak the motor in an attempt to make it easier to ride. This domestication program reached its zenith with the ’92 CR500R.
The Showa forks were set up with too light of a spring and too much damping. They hung down in the stroke and pounded the rider’s hands like a set of jack hammers. With proper set up they could be made usable, but they were never plush.
For ’92 Honda made a couple of final changes aimed at taming the mighty CR. The first one was probably the most simple. Honda changed the final drive on the CR from 14/51 to 14/49. By gearing up the bike, Honda effectively mellowed out the power delivery. The CR would take longer to pull onto the powerband and react less suddenly to throttle input. It was an old trick, but it did a good job of smoothing the power. The second and most obvious step was to bolt the muffler off a ’76 Cadillac onto the back of the CR. The ridiculously long new muffler reached all the way to the back of the rear fender. It was so long that it was actually two mufflers welded together. With this monstrosity in place, the CR sounded like someone had left a rag in the airbox, but it did a fabulous job of neutering the big CR.
The stock ’92 CR plastic started out a funky pinkish red that had no business on a serious racing motorcycle. Even worse, it was extremely susceptible to fading. Once it spent any time at all in the sun, it would turn an opaque light pink. Honda thankfully changed the color to a less pink shade of red the next year.
In stock condition the ’92 CR500R put out a smooth, electric style of power. It pulled cleanly off the bottom into a strong mid-range surge and decent top end pull. The taller gearing and choked-off exhaust took virtually all the drama out of the big CR. It was not as powerful as the KIPS equipped KX500 mill, but it was easy to ride and plenty fast. The best part was that if you wanted back the old brute, all you had to do was drop kick the stock exhaust and spring for a rear sprocket. With a Pro Circuit pipe and silencer, the CR would be completely transformed back into its hard hitting self. With the CR you could pick your poison. Mild or wild was only a silencer away.
JMB made riding a 500 look like a walk in the park. His incredibly fluid riding style was perfect for taming the 60HP brutes. After waxing the field in ’91, Bayle was only mildly interested by the time the 500 nationals rolled around in ‘92. With his mind thoroughly on his coming road race career, the enigmatic Frenchman toyed with the competition. He would just cruise around and then kick in the afterburners, showing the field his taillights when the mood struck him. It seemed his main motivation was to mess with his Honda teammate Jeff Stanton.
A modern four-stroke has nothing on the bazooka that was festooned to the back of the ’92 CR500R. This gigantic silencer gave the CR the exhaust note of trail bike and the performance to match. The rear suspension was only slightly better than the marginal forks, and not in the same league as the KX.
The chassis on the CR was the most motocross oriented of all the ’92 500’s. Where the Yamaha, KTM and Kawasaki 500’s could all be raced in the desert as well as the track, the narrowly focused CR was a motocross only machine. With its twitchy handling and nasty headshake, it was not the best bike for blasting across Baja. On a tight motocross track though, it had few peers. It was the only 500 motocrosser that could realistically be said to handle like a 250 (a big overweight 250, but a 250 none the less). It craved the inside line and could easily cut under any other 500. Whether in the air or on the ground, the CR felt the lightest and handled the best. Aiding the excellent turning was the CR’s excellent layout. The CR’s “lowboy” tank and slim (for a 500) ergonomics gave it the most 250 like feel of any Open bike. When it had debuted on the ’89 CR’s, the radical drooped tank and lowered pipe routing had been a revolution on the traditionally ponderous 500 machines. Even though the rest of the CR line had moved onto even slimmer sleeker designs by ’92, the CR500’s old school ergo’s were still worlds better than anything else in the class.
The CR’s “lowboy” layout was still the sleekest in the 500 class in ’92. Compared to the school bus sized KX, the CR felt like a 125.
For a brief time in the mid-eighties Showa actually had the best suspension in motocross. After over a decade of useless designs, Showa finally hit a home run with their 43mm cartridge forks. In ’86 and ’87 you could not find better forks that the ones on the CR’s. Starting in ’89 however, Honda began a long dark plunge to the bottom of the suspension heap. In ’89 Honda switched to Showa’s new inverted forks and went from awesome to gruesome overnight. The new USD forks were absolutely terrible, with a harsh action that pounded the rider to a pulp. For ’90 and ’91 the forks continued to be awful, with MXA likening their performance to a Roman catapult. The only saving grace for CR500R owners was the fact that the 500 actually seemed to perform a little better than the 250 and 125. Where the forks on the 250 were beyond repair, the added weight and power of the 500 seemed to somewhat lessen the harsh action. For ’92 the CR was still poorly set up, but it was not completely hopeless. Off the showroom floor, the bike was underspung and overdamped. If you left it stock, it sat low in the travel and banged through every bump. If you upgraded stock springs and lowered the oil level it could be made to be passible. No amount of work could make them as good as the excellent Kayaba’s on the KX500, but at least they could be made raceable.
When I first saw this AXO sticker pack at my local Honda shop in ’92 I had to have a set. Gone were the days of painstakingly placing all my decals only to have them get blasted off by the pressure washer. In the days before custom decals, these babies were the height of cool.
Unlike the forks, Showa shocks had never been considered world class performers. Even in their good years, they had never risen above mediocre performance; the ’92 CR was no exception. The Showa shock was undersprung much like the forks and set up too soft for anyone over 150 pounds. Considering most 500 riders are bigger by nature, this was a bit of a problem. If you stiffened it, the rear it was at least usable. Again, it was no match for the class leading KX. Passible was the best you could hope for without a complete revalve.
In ’92 these were the best brakes in motocross. MXA even compared them to the ones on a works bike. Amazingly, compared to a modern bike they feel woefully underpowered. When you ride a bike like this now, it still feels plenty fast, but the brakes are where you really feel the march of time.
Detailing on the CR was typical 90’s Honda. Everything was finished beautifully and fit perfectly. The brakes were far and away the best in the class with excellent feel and stopping power (although if you try them now they feel anemic by comparison). Little things like bolt selection always set Honda apart from its competitors. The bolts used on the CR were always more uniform in size and of better quality than those found on other brands. Little things like that add up, and greatly contribute to perception of quality Honda’s exude. With a virtually indestructible motor and class leading build quality, the CR500R would feel new long after the competition was clapped out. The only real quality concern on the ’92 CR’s was with that hideous plastic. When new, it was a funky florescent pink; if you left it in the sun at all it faded terribly and became almost translucent. It started out ugly and only got worse as the year went on. Thankfully Honda realized the color was a mistake and quickly toned down the pink on subsequent models.
If you are looking for the longest lasting, most reliable motocross machine ever built look no further than the CR500R. You could race every weekend for a year and probably never replace anything but tires and a chain. A CR500 owner measures service intervals in years, not hours. It may not have been the fastest or plushest bike in ’92, but it was probably still the best buy.
The CR500R did not win any shootouts in ’92. As it had done for the previous four years, the CR once again lost out to the superior power and suspension of the awesome KX500. The CR’s sharp handling and slick bodywork were just not enough to overcome its old school motor and sub-par ride. The CR500R was the best built and longest lasting bike, saddled with the worst suspension. It was a formula that would define Big Red for most of the decade.