For this week’s GP’s Classic Steel we are going to step into the way-back machine to take a look at the 1980 Honda CR125R.
In 1979, Honda introduced the first all-new CR125 since the first game-changing Elsinore of ’74. Unfortunately, the new “R” model was slow, poorly suspended and a miserable failure. For 1980, Honda scraped the ’79 design and came out with a much-improved motorcycle.
The seventies were an interesting time for Honda’s motocross program. In 1973, Honda shocked the old guard motocross powers with their first two-stroke motocross racer, the CR250M Elsinore. The silver tanked Elsie was a revelation at the time, offering performance, reliability and build quality unheard of at its rock bottom $1150 price. Hot on the heels of the success generated by the CR250M would come Big Red’s next bombshell to the stodgy status quo, the 1974 CR125M Elsinore. The littlest CR was perhaps even more influential than it remarkable big brother had been and single handedly turned the 125 class from a afterthought, into the hottest division in American motocross.
Far and away, the highlight of the ’80 CR125R package was its rocket-fast motor. Hard hitting off the line and rip-snorting through the middle, the Honda tiddler had no peers in 1980.
With teen idol Marty Smith aboard, the little Honda buzz bomb dominated America’s first two 125 National Championships and quickly became the machine to have in the 125 class. By 1975, however, the relentless pace of seventies motocross innovation had already claimed the once omnipotent CR125 for its victim. A new works replica Monoshock YZ and a vastly improved Suzuki RM would shoot it out for 125-class dominance, leaving the lowly CR to pick up the scraps.
For 1980, Honda abandoned the underpowered motor of ’79 (right) and spec’d an all-new power plant for the Red Rooster (left). The new 122.7cc mill featured a “works style” center-port exhaust, a borable liner and larger cooling fins to keep temps under control.
As Suzuki poured on the coals in the 125-class, Honda continued to trot out the same basic machine year after year. A change to red paint and a few more inches of travel were just not going to make it in the cut-throat world of seventies motocross. By 1978, Honda had fallen light years behind the competition.
In addition to the new cylinder, Honda switched to a dual-ring piston for the ’80 season. This designed offered better sealing and increased longevity over the ‘79’s single ring design.
After sitting out the ’78 season to retool their flagging 125 motocross program, Honda came out swinging with an all-new CR125 Elsinore for 1979. The new machine was redesigned from the ground up and became the first CR125 to bear the “R” designation after its name (a designation signifying that that new machine was supposed to be a full-on works “replica”). The new works replica Elsie featured nearly double the suspension travel of the bike it replaced and looked incredibly trick, with its fire engine red motor and skyscraper suspension.
With excellent power and marginal suspension, getting airborne was more pleasant than coming back to earth on the ’80 CR125R.
While the new machine certainly looked the part of a serious challenger to the dominance of Suzuki, the ’79 CR125R actually turned out to be a miserable failure on all accounts. In trying to leapfrog the competition suspension wars, Honda spec’d forks that were too long for spindly stanchions and a rear suspension unable to cope with the demands of motocross. The motor was anemic, the chassis was unhinged (and saddled with a bizarre 23 inch wheel and worthless Honda designed “Claw Action®” tires) and the suspension was worthless. The all-new CR was a turd of epic proportions and no match for its 125 competition.
The switch to a center-port exhaust on the ’80 CR meant an end to the old-school single-down tube frame. A new double-cradle “works style” chassis offered greater rigidity and improved steering precision.
After the miserable failure of 1979, Big Red was forced to go back to the drawing board in 1980. Unlike today, where a manufacturer is forced to soldier on for several years with a flawed design, in the seventies and early eighties, it was not uncommon for a manufacturer to completely redesign their bikes from year-to-year. If a design did not work, round file it and start all over.
After the CR’s pathetic suspension showing in ’79, Honda went back to the drawing board for 1980. All-new hardware front and rear featured increased adjustability and special “low-friction” internals.
For 1980, Honda did just that with their CR125R Elsinore. Cosmetically, the new ’80 model actually looked little changed from the unloved ’79. Visually, the absence of the funky 23” wheel and the addition of a set of larger “FIM” style side plates were the only major differences. If you dug a little deeper, however, you would find that this was a whole new breed of CR125.
Some of the credit for the 1980 Honda’s power improvement was certainly due to the switch to this new 34mm Keihin carb. Large for a 125 of the day and 2mm bigger than in ‘79, this vergaser gave the CR beaucoup midrange muscle.
First up on the list of changes was an all-new “double down-tube” frame, which replaced the flex-prone ‘79’s single tube arrangement. This new design was taken right from the Factory Honda works bikes and while slightly heavier, was far stronger than the old design. Along with the sturdier frame, Honda beefed up the legs on the Showa front suspension to fight flex and spec’d out an all-new “banana” swingarm, to go with a set of remote reservoir Showa shocks.
One oddity to the CR125R’s of this era was the usage of a right-hand drive, with the right-hand kick-start. The combination gave these motors a very unique appearance.
In order to work with the new frame, Honda also had to redesign the little CR’s motor. The new double cradle frame necessitated a switch to a center-port exhaust, so a new cylinder needed to be designed. While they were at it, Honda decided to ditch the ’78’s controversial chrome cylinder bore (better for heat transfer, but unpopular do to being unboreable), in favor of an old school iron liner and added a second ring to the piston for durability. A new reed cage was designed and incorporated Honda’s patented "Grid Pattern" design (Honda had strayed a little to close to Boyesen’s Power Reed design in ’78 and after being sued, had to come up with a new design of their own). In addition to the new porting and liner, Honda also upsized the cooling fins on the barrel and head, to help avoid the overheating issues that plagued the ’79 CR. Topping off the motor package, was a switch to a 34mm Keihin carb from the ‘79’s 32mm mixer.
In 1980, 20.8 horsepower was enough to make you the star of the 125 class.
On the track, the ’80 CR125R actually had the cojones to live up to the “R” after its name. It was everything the pathetic ’79 had not been and an absolute rocket. It barked off the bottom (for a 125) and ripped through the middle with a hard hit and strong flow of power. On top, it ran out of steam a bit, but from turn-to-turn, it was the fastest machine of ’80.
The 37mm Showa forks on the CR125R offered air-adjustability and a punishing ride. Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha all did a better job in 1980.
In a comparison of the 125 powerbands, the Honda claimed the top spot by a wide margin. It was the strongest down low and through the middle, and only petered out slightly on top. The Yamaha was more powerful in the upper range of the powerband, but its utter lack of low and mid made it a pro-only handful. The Suzuki RM offered a solid mid-range and pleasant spread, but lacked the bark of the red machine. As for KX, the machine that had impressed the year before, seemed to lose something it its off-season makeover and was the least powerful 125 of 1980.
While old CR had need some help in the motor department, by far its biggest deficiency was its pathetic suspension. In shooting for the most impressive ad copy, Honda had given the ‘79 nearly a foot of travel front and rear. Unfortunately, Honda neglected to make sure their long-legged wonders actually worked. Grimly damped and so flex prone that they would actually bind up, the ’79 CR’s forks were an abysmal disaster.
In 1980, these remote-reservoir alloy Showa shocks were considered quite trick. Offering a dizzying two rebound settings (hard or soft), they trumpeted their adjustability proudly on the side in bold letters.
After the disappointment of 1979, Showa went back to the drawing board for 1980. The new 37mm forks were stronger and less prone to flex, but offered the same 11.8 inches of travel from the year before. Internally, Honda added new low-friction bushings to fight stiction and an all new damping system to smooth out the bumps. In addition to the new internals, Showa added air adjustable fork caps to the CR, which allowed a small degree of fine tuning via air pressure.
Visually, the biggest difference between the ’80 model and previous Elsinore’s was the inclusion of FIM mandated rearward-mounted side plates. The institution of this rule improved (to my eyes) the looks of most bikes, but led to the usage of some some bizarre rear fender number-plate combos in the early eighties by KTM and Kawasaki.
On the track, the new Showa’s were a big step forward from the dark days of ’79, but still the worst units of 1980. At 11.8 inches, the Honda still offered the most travel, but combined it with the harshest damping and poorest bump control. Even though Honda bragged about their new “low friction” bushings, stiction was still an issue and the Showa’s transmitted a great deal of the track back to the rider’s wrists. In 1980, Showa had yet to produce a decent set of forks and the new CR kept this dubious streak going strong for one more year.
One big change for 1980 was the switch to plastic from aluminum for the Honda’s tank. The new tank was less prone to damage than the old alloy unit, but death to tank decals due to the permeable nature of plastic.
In ’79, the rear suspension on the little CR had been no better than the abysmal front, with grim performance and a weak and flex-prone rear swingarm design. For 1980, Honda round filed the ’79 design and spec’d an all-new suspension system for the red tiddler. It maintained the dual shock configuration of ’79, but added a new set of gas-charged remote-reservoir Showa dampers and a reconfigured swingarm design. The new swingarm featured a works cantilever “banana” designed, but lacked the trick alloy construction of the competition. As a result of the banana design, seat height was lower nearly an inch over ’79, while at the same time travel was increased .2 inches to a full 10.8 inches of movement.
Light? Nope. Rebuildable? Not a chance. Loud? You betcha.
While the CR’s new all-alloy adjustable (two settings, soft and hard) shocks looked impressive on the spec sheet, their performance left something to be desired on the track. Too-soft initially, they only got progressively worse as their garbage springs sacked out at an alarming rate. Within ten hours of use, the stock coils would be out of preload and requiring a spacer or a complete replacement to maintain ride height. Even when new, however, they offered grim performance. Damping was harsh on compression and too light on rebound, resulting in a bucking bronco ride in the whoops and a nasty hop in breaking bumps. As with the year before, a set of Fox Air Shocks were mandatory if you desired even decent performance in the rough.
For ‘80, Honda spec’d an all-new set of Showa shocks for the CR125R. Harsh on compression and too light on rebound, the new shocks came from the factory undersprung and only got worst as the poor quality springs sacked out in a matter of hours. Aftermarket shocks were the way to go in 1980.
In the handling department, the CR125R offered one of the sharpest handling packages of 1980. It was excellent at tight corners and exhibited none of the strange floppiness seen with the bizarre 23” wheel the year before. With its extremely steep rake and grim suspension, high speed was best avoided on the Elsinore. Head shake was vicious at speed and accompanied by an unsettled feel in the rough. If the track was tight, the Elsie was a good choice, but if it was fast and rough, there were better choices.
With a new stronger frame and ultra-steep rake, the 1980 CR125R craved the inside line. Fast straights were another matter…
In 1980, Honda was not the king of detailing it is today. Welds on the red chrome-molly frame were poorly finished and a far cry from the art-like precision seen today. Some items like the marshmallow shock springs and droop-prone footpegs showed a lack of quality control by Big Red. The airbox was a Japanese torture device that required half a dozen tools and a good fifteen minutes to extricate the filter.
In 1979, Honda made the bold (stupid) decision to buck the establishment and shod their full size bikes with a 23” front wheel. This produced an odd feel on the track and a nonexistent rubber selection at the dealership. For 1980, Honda would stop the insanity and go back to a conventional 21” front hoop.
On the plus side, the new plastic tank offered a larger fill hole and far more durability than the delicate alloy unit it replaced. Braking was very good for the time, with excellent power and feel and quality cables that lasted longer than the stretch-prone competition. Overall reliability was good, with the new cooler running motor and dual ring piston going longer between rebuilds.
In 1980, Honda introduced a rocket of a machine that set the standard for 125 performance at the time. It barked like no tiddler before, but banged and clanked around the track like someone filled the shocks with used motor oil. If horsepower was your hot button, it had not peers, but if you wanted more finesse in your 125 racer, there were better choices in 1980.
In 1980, Honda introduced a machine that would be the blueprint for their 125 program the next seventeen years. A blazing fast motor, bolted to sharp turning (but busy) chassis and saddled with marginal suspension. It was the fastest bike (by a wide margin), but also the worst suspended (by a wide margin). In a class where horsepower is king, that was usually enough to give the Honda the win. It would be a formula that would serve Big Red well, into the nineties and beyond.