GP's Classic Steel #66: '83 CR250
Tony Blazier

For this week’s Classic Steel we are going to take a look back at the bike that began Honda’s eighties domination, the awesome 1983 Honda CR250R.

Prior to 1983, Honda’s 250 history had been checkered at best. After ’83, the CR’s would be the bikes to beat.

When talk turns to old school motocross, it is hard to argue the point that the eighties were Honda’s decade.  They were the team everyone wanted to ride for and built the bikes the defined motocross performance at the time. For the better part of a decade, it seemed Big Red could do no wrong. This, however, was not always the case.

For ’83, Honda went on a major weight loss and redistribution campaign. Dozens of heavy steel components were replaced with lightweight alloys, resulting in a remarkable 12.5-pound loss year over year. In addition to trimming weight, Honda lowered heavy components on the bike to better centralize mass. An all-new cooling system lowered the radiators two inches, and combined with a works style lowboy tank, gave the bike a very light and maneuverable feel.

For Honda, its motocross odyssey started in 1973, with the original CR250M Elsinore. The Elsie was an absolute revelation at the time, offering performance and value never before seen in a production machine. As the decade went on, however, Honda seemed to lose its mojo and allowed upstart Suzuki to steal its thunder.  As Honda continued to recycle and retread its original Elsinore’s, the little company from Hamamatsu established itself as the bike to own.

The 246cc mill in the ’83 CR pumped out a seamless flow of torque from bottom to top that no other 250 could match. It was strong off the bottom, muscular in the middle and decent on top.  With a solid powerband, an excellent clutch and nearly flawless shifting, Honda had the best motor of ’83 by a wide margin.

As the seventies came to a close, Honda pulled a major coup’ by hiring Suzuki legend and five-time World Motocross Champion Roger DeCoster away from Team Yellow. DeCoster was coming to the end of his illustrious career and wanted to race one more year, before making the move to management. With the arrival of The Man, Honda’s struggling motocross program gained a much needed injection of credibility overnight. After campaigning the 1980 Grand Prix season for Big Red (and winning his career ending race), DeCoster put his considerable knowhow to righting Honda’s flagging motocross program.

This awesome pic from MXA’s 1983 250 MX shootout is a great example of the light hearted nature that highlighted the heyday of Motocross Action.

In ’81, Honda introduced an all-new line of motocross machines for the new decade. The bikes featured all the hot buzz words of the day: liquid cooling, monoshock suspensions and rising rate linkages. They looked incredible on paper, but floundered on the track, with bloated weights, lackluster performance and dismal reliability.

For 1982, Honda once again introduced an all-new CR250R to the buying public. This would be the first bike to benefit from the influence of DeCoster.  By the time he arrived in ’80, the die was already cast on the ‘81, but for ’82, his knowhow could be used to aid development. The new bike was leaps and bounds better than the abysmal ‘81’s but still far from perfect. It was still overweight and down on performance from the competition. For Honda and DeCoster, the true test would be ’83.

Another first for ’83 was this electric blue “safety seat”. Companies like Ceet Racing made a pretty penny in the early 80’s adding up-the-tank padding to the factory ball-busters. For ’83, Honda cut out the middle-man and produced an up-the-tank seat of their own.

Nineteen eighty-three would see the third all-new CR250R introduced to the buying public in as many years. The new bike would be a clean sheet design, sharing virtually nothing from the ’82 model. The bodywork, motor, chassis and suspension were all completely new or majorly revised.  Even the color of the bike was new, as Honda ditched the bright red it had used since 1976, for a new shade of orange previously seen on their works racers. With the might of Honda Motor Corporation behind it and a full three years of The Man developing it, the works inspired  ’83 Honda CR250R looked to be a sure fire winner.

With the new CR250R, Honda’s first priority was to get the weight down on their previously porky MX’er. Nearly every part on the machine was trimmed, tucked or replaced with light weight alloys. Gone were heavy components like the steel silencer and kickstarter, replaced with featherweight alloy pieces right off the Factory works bikes. The new motor was smaller, lighter and more compact. The steering stem, triple clamps, shifter, brake pedal, rear brake torque arm, shock body and linkage were all lightweight aluminum. Even the hubs were turned down to lower unsprung weight.

The 43mm Showa forks on the CR punched out 12 inches of travel and offered 14 selectable compression damping settings. There was no adjustment for rebound damping, but air could be added or subtracted to tune performance. On the track, the forks were plush, but prone to harsh bottoming on big hits.

The result of this intensive Jenny Craig program was a remarkable 12.5 pound weight loss for 1983.When you consider the cubic dollars necessary to accomplish this kind of weight loss on your own, this was quite an accomplishment. At 212 pounds, the CR was the lightest 250 available and a full five pounds lighter than its closest competitor, the YZ250. In addition to being lighter, the CR’s weight was far better positioned as well.

For 1983, Honda added a convenience feature well ahead of its time.  The new CR’s fully removable rear subframe made servicing its complicated linkage system far easier than on the competition. In 83, only KTM and Honda had this time saving feature.

For ’83, Honda looked to their Supercross title winning RC250 for inspiration and passed on some of that packaging knowhow to the production machine. On the new CR, Honda redesigned their cooling system to be more compact and mounted the radiators a full two inches lower on the frame for better weight distribution. They also redesigned the gas tank to allow better rider movement and carry the fuel lower on the chassis “works style”. To further aid ergonomics and rider movement, a new slimmer “safety seat” was employed and painted “electric blue” like Hansen’s RC250. While Honda’s Pro-Link rear suspension was already the most compact and lowest mounted of the Big Four designs, a new alloy shock shaft further trimmed weight and aided mass centralization.

In addition to its weight loss program, a new frame further aided handling on the new CR.  At 26.8 degrees of rake, it was one degree steeper than ‘82 and by far the most aggressive geometry in the 250 class. On the track, the new slimmer and trimmer CR was an absolute scalpel. It could turn under 125’s and made the other bikes in the 250 class feel like trucks by comparison. Its slim and low-slung design allowed riders to slide all the way up the tank in corners and made changing directions a breeze. All that effort at lowering the center of gravity paid major dividends on the track. In the air or on the ground, the CR felt at least twenty pounds lighter than its top-heavy competition. On a tight track, the CR250R had no peer in ’83.

For ’83, Honda added this handy adjuster to the remote reservoir and bumped up the available adjustments to 12 selectable compression settings.  Because of its placement and design, it was easy for a rider to actually “adjust” his settings.

All was not perfect in the land of red, however. In spec’ing such an aggressive set of angles for the front of the CR, Honda traded steering precision for any semblance of stability. The CR wandered at speed like the axle nuts had fallen off. It shook and shimmied in the rough and required a strong grip and an iron constitution to manhandle on fast tracks. Even with this Jekyll and Hyde personality, most riders considered the CR the best handling bike for motocross use. It was no bike to take playing in the desert, but on a MX track, it had no peers.

The other half of the Honda’s handling equation was its Showa suspension. In ’83, Honda was the only one of the Big Four to forgo Kayaba components, and for once, that gamble paid off. The 43mm Showa’s on the CR offered 12 inches of travel and 12 compression damping adjustments (the ’82 offered only three). There was no rebound adjustment available (In an interesting bit of trivia, Dirt Bike Magazine thought the addition of compression damping to front forks was a weird feature that would be gone by ’84), but air could be added to fine tune the ride. In terms of performance, the CR’s Showa’s were at the head of an extremely mediocre field. They may have been the best of the bunch, but none of the units offered in ’83 were particularly good. They were soft and fluid on small impacts and rolling obstacles, but crashes to the stops with a metal-to-metal clank on large impacts. Adding air and turning up the compression only added harshness, without doing much to aid the harsh bottoming feel. With an upgrade in springs and some oil fiddling, they were raceable, but nothing to write home to Jody about.

Hurricane warning: The big news in the motocross world for ’83 was the defection of longtime Yamaha ace Bob Hannah to the powerhouse Honda squad. It was no secret that Bob was unhappy with his bikes at Yamaha and willingly took a pay cut to sign with Big Red. Once on the Honda’s, The Hurricane was back to his blazing self and the fastest man on the track in ’83. If not for an injury, Bob probably would have been the 1983 Supercross champion.

In the rear, Honda spec’d an all-new Showa shock for its Pro-Link suspension in ’83. The new shock featured a lightweight alloy body and shock shaft, as well as a remote reservoir to aid cooling. New features included 20 rebound and 12 compression damping settings (the ’82 shock offered far fewer settings and compression damping adjustment only). Travel matched the industry standard at just over 12 inches. Performance on the Showa boinger was very good for the time, offering a plush ride over most surfaces. Like the forks, it was better at small chop than big hits and could be made to bottom with a thud on hard landings. Rebound started out light and got downright busy as the shock heated up. Reliability was also an issue; as the shock was known to blow the hose to the remote reservoir clean off with alarming regularity. In terms of performance ranking, there was no clear-cut winner for ’83. All the bikes suffered from various performance and reliability issues and none of them offered a flawless package. If you wanted to race motocross in ’83, it was a good idea to have Tom’s Bumpsticks on speed dial.

Honda’s new Showa shock offered a great deal of adjustability, but suffered from a few issues. It handled small-to-medium impacts well, but crashed to the stops on major hits. Fade was also a problem, as the Showa unit tended to get hot and lose effectiveness very quickly. Worst of all was reliability, with many riders suffering blown hose lines to the remote reservoir.

The heart of any motocross machine is its motor, and for ’83, Honda spec’d out one sweetheart of a mill. The compact 66mm x 72mm reed-valve two-stroke power plant in the CR displaced 246cc and breathed through a 36mm Keihin round slide mixer. While it looked very similar to the ’82 mill, Honda made several important changes to improve performance.  An all new cylinder and head were spec’d to allow better coolant flow and lower weight. The new cylinder offered different porting (lower exhaust ports and higher transfers) and a higher compression ratio than ’82 (8.4:1 vs. 7.4:1). Internally, there was a new lighter piston (this caused some issues, as pistons were known to break at around the ten hour mark), revised ignition and modified reed-valve to aid performance. On the outside, an all-new lower mounted exhaust pipe and works style alloy silencer finished off the motor package.

In 1983, Honda’s Factory race bikes shared not a single part with the production machines. This RC250 of David Bailey’s did not even have the kickstarter on the same side as the production CR250R.

On the track, the CR250R provided the best power spread of ’83. The previous year, it had been Suzuki with the motor of doom and Honda trailing with its midrange-only blaster of a mill. For ’83, the two switched places, with Suzuki misplacing its horsepower advantage and Honda gaining a much-needed injection. Unlike the short powerband of the ’82, the ‘83 CR produced a strong and seamless flow of ponies from bottom to top. There was no sudden blast or explosion, just a luscious flow of torque. It lacked the arm-stretching hit of the Yamaha, but was far easier to ride and kept pulling past the point where the YZ gave up the ghost. In the powerband sweepstakes, it was the do it all Honda on top, followed by the chunky Yamaha and low-end only Kawasaki. In last, we had the previous years winner: Suzuki. The RM cranked out a pleasant and wide spread of power that mimicked the Honda in breadth, but lacked its impressive output.

In ’83, this was the best brake in motocross. The dual-leading shoe binders on the CR offered excellent power and feel. Amazingly at the time, most riders actually preferred Honda’s excellent drum unit to the grabby disc of the Kawasaki KX250.

In terms of detailing, the Honda had the others covered in ’83. While styling preference is certainly a matter of opinion, the superior looks of the Honda were impossible to deny. Its styling borrowed heavily from their RC250 works racer and truly looked years ahead of the competition. Fit and finish were impeccable on the CR, with high quality materials and excellent build quality throughout. Braking, shifting and ease of maintenance were all at the top of the class. It was the only Japanese bike with a fully removable rear subframe and the only bike to have its decals survive the length of the bike tests.

In 1983, the $2218 Honda CR250R offered the best 250 package in motocross. It rocketed out of corners, handled with precision, stopped on a dime and looked like a winner. Its suspension was not perfect, but it was the best of a flawed field. The ’83 CR250R laid the foundation for a fifteen-year run of blazing fast Honda 250’s that would set the standard for motocross performance well into the next decade. When you think of the glory days of Honda, that legend starts right here.

In 1983, Honda produced a bike that would birth a dynasty. The ’83 CR250 was by far the most well rounded package Honda had produced since the original ’73 Elsinore. It was fast, smooth, easy-to-ride and handled great (with a bit of headshake to keep you honest). The suspension was not perfect, but it was the best of a lackluster field and certainly workable. If not for its reliability issues, it would have been a nearly perfect racer. As it was, it was a bike that defined its era and helped propel Honda into a Motocross powerhouse.

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1983 CR250

Your piece on the 1983 CR 250 brought back great memories - of a breakthrough bike that (here in Ireland and the UK at least) didn't necessarily get the credit it deserved.
We had just cleared the open class/Maico era, and it was a time of uncertainty in that it wasn't clear where bike design was headed.
There had been the odd good Japanese bike to that point, and there was a lot of experimentation with layouts going on - but most still incorporated basic and major faults to do with power delivery, weight distribution and chassis geometry. They were still built in the mould of the heavier previous generation too.
The Japanese to that point had an especially patchy history in production bikes, with Honda (while showing some promise) no exception. Especially relative to the obvious capability of the factory bikes.
The 1983 CR was a revelation. So much lighter and easier to ride - the first application in one bike of the basic formula of mass centralisation, low placed linked monoshock suspension, weight reduction and tight chassis geometry that 'worked' as a total package, and permitted full exploitation of the increasingly capable watercooled 250 motors.
These motors were by now (especially when jetted properly) delivering a quality of power that was faster for most riders than that of an open bike (except perhaps on very fast and smooth tracks) - so the bike played its part in setting the scene for the 250 revolution too.
It's to this day the thinking at the core of all competitive MX bike designs, although it looks like the principles have by now been applied so much more rigorously that the bikes represent a major step forward again in terms of ease of handling.
It took some time for people to realise that the 1983 CR250 was this huge step - Hondas were very rare in MX here and something of an unknown. The deceptively mild feel of the bike did it few favours since most that test rode one were initially underwhelmed - they tended to be influenced more by sound and fury. Revs and (hard to use) hit.
It's great to see a write up that actually reflects the reality of the bike.
I rode one in our (very small/club level and strictly amateur) national championship, and think I ended up 4th or something like that.
I'd been on open class bikes, and had just had a disaster the year before on a 1982 YZ 490 - the one with the high mounted L arm suspension. Amazed it's not in your camel list. It weighed a ton, steered like a bus, wouldn't turn and had a motor that as a result of far too much low end could not find traction, then would not rev.
The previous YZ 465 while having a few downsides became very capable with the frame cut and tucked to tighten the rake, an extra head gasket to soften the delivery and some suspension work. The 490 was irrecoverable via reasonable owner modification.
I was sceptical of the Honda at first (some of their previous models had been very iffy), but was offered a new one to test on a muddy track for an afternoon by a very generous dealer in Northern Ireland. (Allen's Honda)
What a revelation.
It felt featherweight, was beautifully balanced, steered really well, had nice power that took care of itself, had great brakes and best of all it was one of those bikes that you could take liberties with and not be punished.
Suspension and jetting apart the only real mod I went with was a set of DIY blocks to move the handlebars forward by a bit more than an inch. This made weighting it right up front (taking advantage of the seat) when needed a lot easier given my long arms, and delivered a truly inspring front/rear balance.
So easy to drift, and safe to push into the zone where it was all getting a bit loose - unlike so many of the previous generation bikes that would bite badly in similar circumstances.
It brought my riding forward in great steps with every race.
There were a few downsides, but they related mostly to the only average OEM suspension and the unprecedentedly high level of repair required vs the older style 500s most of which (Maico and the like excepted) would do a season with just routine servicing. The funds weren't available to sling on the new pipe, muffler and top end it needed every few weeks to keep it sharp (it wore the barrel very quickly too, and reboring was difficult to get done right locally since the piston fit was very tightly toleranced - and getting it right made an enormous difference to the power, especially the mid range), so this meant the bike wasn't at 100% every weekend.
The latter was a consequence of the light build. i.e. an easily dinged pipe, a pipe to muffler joiner that burned out easily (and the power instantly disappeared if it lost back pressure/the pipe wasn't otherwise exactly right - even the correct density of muffler packing mattered), rapid piston wear when revved as at expert level, and a tendency to stuff like droopy footrests, rear sub frame damage etc.
It blew the original shock very quickly, the replacement Ohlins was a huge improvement.
It'd head shake on faster tracks if set up wrongly, although this could be dialled out.
The 1984 CR which replaced it promised more of the same but was disappointing in comparison. It perhaps had a bit more potential, and the packaging was another step forward - but it was often a bit too revvy for our typically tight, slippery and very bumpy mud tracks, the overly tightened rake led to a tendency to turn in well but then abruptly lose the front in tight turns, the disc brake was too sharp on first touch, and it suffered from really bad head shake which wasn't easily dialled out. (one of our tracks had a really fast long downhill over a succession of ski type jumps which was downright scary on it)
The back injury that resulted in my retirement arrived early season (what if?) before I'd got the bugs out of the 1984, so the 1983 CR remains for me the best bike I ever raced in 12 years of pretty serious commitment to MX.
It was much in fact like the MK 7 250 Bultaco (the last one with short travel suspension) of years before - an incredibly balanced all rounder that delivered pace as a result of its all round trustworthiness and ease of handling.
It's a long time ago now, and at age 62 there's just the aches and pains from old injuries left. I had a stack of worn pistons on the shelf in my workshop until recently..