This week’s selection from Greg Primm’s Classic Steel is the ground shaking 1986 Honda CR500R.
By: Tony Blazier
1986 was a great year for Honda. In racing they took home the National Motocross Championship in every class from 125 to 500. In Supercross they swept the podium with Rick Johnson, David Bailey and Johnny O’Mara capturing the top three spots. In motocross magazines CR’s claimed the top spots in every class. In 1986 if you were on anything else but a Honda you were at a real disadvantage.
These bikes were not for the weak of heart. Everything from starting the beast to just hanging on required a lot of muscle. Wimps need not apply.
The 1986 model yearmarked the first time in four years that Honda had not totally redesignedits 500. The ’83 CR480R had been a fantastic bike, loved by the public and press alike. The ’84 CR500R had been just the opposite, frustrating riders from coast to coast with its violent power and unfortunate habit of blowing up. The ’85 bike had introduced liquid cooling, and gone a long way toward domesticating the notoriously unruly CR500R. Gone were the days of impossible jetting and questionable reliability. The ’85 CR500R introduced a whole new era of serious Honda Open class racers. For ’86, Honda took its very good ’85 CR500R and with a little refinement, made it a world beater.
One of the all-time ground pounders, the ‘86 CR500R put out horsepower and torque in buckets full. This motor was more than most novices could handle. One ride was enough to scare many a rider back to the 250 class. This basic motor design would live on for nearly two decades, powering Honda 500’s into the new millennium.
These were the Jedi masters of the fork wars. Nothing else was even close. For 1986 Honda mounted Showa’s all-new “cartridge” forks on the full size CR’s and laid waste to the competition. The dual piston Nissin front disc was the best brake in motocross in ’86.
Starting with the ’84 model, Honda CR500R’s were all mid-range monsters. The ’84 model had been so violent in fact, that most people found the bike nearly impossible to handle. The ’85 model had brought with it better carburation and a slightly less terrifying power delivery. For ’86, Honda’s goal had been to make the rocket ship CR even easier to ride without losing its horsepower advantage. This would become a common theme every year on the big bore Hondas. By 1992 the CR500R would be a pussy cat compared to the burly, hairy chested mid-eighties models. The manufacturers were quickly learning that there was only so much power the average person could handle, and these two stroke monsters were pushing that envelope to the very limits. Ride-ability was the new buzz word in the 500 class.
It took a guy like David Bailey to handle all the mighty CR500R could dish out.
I always loved these Honda “wing” graphics. They were clean, classy, and a far cry from the hideous cartoon graphics that would be plastered on CR’s in the early 90’s.
In an effort to tame the big Honda’s mid-range explosion, Honda had changed the piston, head and ignition timing from the barnstorming ’85 model. The result was a slightly less sudden low to mid-range transition and decent over-rev. The CR was still not as easy to ride as the KIPS equipped ’86 KX500, but at least it was capable of being ridden by normal human beings. The excellent shifting five speed transmission offered a gear for every situation and the sturdy clutch was more than up to handling the Honda’s massive power. The ’86 Honda was at its best when short shifted and torqued around the track. If you made the best use of its ample torque curve, you could set blistering laps on the 500 Honda.
Another cool feature on Honda’s of this era was the color coded number plates. The bike’s plates came pre-painted to match the bikes class. 125’s were black, 250’s white and the men’s machines were yellow. It was cool little features like this that added to the mid-eighties Honda mystique.
The 1986 CR’s were the first production machines to receive Showa’s new “cartridge” fork damping system. Cartridge forks had been a staple on “works” racers for years, and in ’86 the technology finally made its way to the general public. The cartridge system allowed for more precise damping control and a wider range of tuning than traditional damper rod designs. In ’86 that put Honda miles ahead of its competition in the fork wars. Out back, the story was not as good. The Pro-Link rear shock was slightly harsh and not nearly as refined as the Showa forks.
A guided missile is a good way to describe a 500cc two-stroke. Modern 450cc four-strokes actually put out power comparable to these old beasts but they do it in a much friendlier manner. The sudden explosion of power these bikes produced made them a semi-terrifying thrill ride.
The handling of the ’86 CR500R was typical mid-eighties Honda, with excellent turning habits and an aversion to fast rough straights. Few things in the world are as terrifying as a 60hp 230 pound rocket trying to shake you off its back at 50mph. Headshake on these bikes was no joke, if it started oscillating that front end lock to lock, the only thing to do was say a prayer and hold on for dear life. Riding these bikes was a scare-a-minute affair in more ways than one.
The ’86 CR’s would be the last ones to use a drum brake. In ’87 discs would become standard front and rear. A few things here and there have been changed from stock on this ’86 CR500R. Somewhere along the way someone swapped out the cool gold rims that were standard on the ’86, replacing them with plain silver ones. The standard seat has also been replaced for an aftermarket unit. The color is correct for an ’86 but the logo is from an ’89 CR.
Fit and finish on the ’86 CR500R was excellent and light years better than on the competition. All the parts fit excellently and nothing broke or fell off unexpectedly. Some features, like a fully removable sub frame, would not make their way onto the competition for another five years. The only complaint with the fit and feel of the CR was its very bulky layout. The CR500R suffered from a giant bulging gas tank which made moving around on the bike difficult. The porky bodyworkmade the bike feel heavier than its 223lbs would suggest.
Early 500 two-strokes were plagued by detonation and inscrutable jetting. Liquid cooling and better carbs like this flat slide Keihin finally got the big bores to run as cleanly as their smaller brothers.
Another feature that ended with the ’86 CR’s was the remote mounted reservoir shock. In 1987 Honda went to its odd “piggyback” reservoir shock which mounted the reservoir on top of the shock body. This design suffered from overheating problems and only lasted the one year. The ’88 CR finally saw the debut of the familiar integrated remote reservoir shock design we still use today.
The move to liquid cooling did have one drawback. The large radiators meant that the tank had to be moved farther back into the riding compartment. The huge bulging tank made sitting forward in turns difficult and added greatly to the feeling of mass the CR500 imparted to the rider. This was no small bike, and you felt it whether on the stand, or on the track.
With its burly powerband and big bike feel, the CR500 was certainly no bike for a beginner. This was a serious motocross weapon that would punish the careless. If you were the kind of guy that absolutely refused to get pulled up that big hill though, this was the bike for you. If you were man enough, the ‘86 CR500R was ready. In 1986 thrill riders did not get any better than this.