The golden age of works bikes has come and gone but that doesn't mean we can't put a list together ranking our favorites
There’s no doubt about it, we’re living right now in the technological glory years when it comes to dirt bikes right now. Fuel-injection, aluminum frames, titanium everywhere, variable ignition mapping, name brand aftermarket parts coming on production bikes- you name it and the bikes have never been better. And add in the factories still hard at work trying to make their race bikes better than ever so that they can win on a Saturday and we have a special time happening right now.
But there was an era where what the superstars of the sport rode was something vastly different than what you had in your garage. The OEM’s have always used racing to make the bikes they sell better but back in the day, man, those machines were something special. The era of when works bikes, true works bikes- not warmed over production bikes that we have now, roamed the earth. These machines were something else, something radical and things were different back then.
So with that in mind, myself, Tony Blazier and DanDunes of Promototalk.com got together to make a list of our five favorite works bikes from the golden ago of motocross.
By Tony Blazier
Works bikes are the dream machines of motocross. They are beautiful to look at, impossible to obtain and ungodly expensive to build. In their heyday, the works bike served several purposes. First and foremost, they were race machines designed to take their riders to the victory podium. Over and above that however, they were development tools. Much of the technology on your bike today started out on yesterday’s works machine. Thirdly, they were rolling expressions of the prestige and technological prowess of their manufacturer. The true “works” bike was much more than just a tool to win races; it was a means to capture imaginations.
When I pitched Matthes on the idea of putting together a list of history’s coolest works bikes, he was afraid the list would just be a bunch of works Honda’s front to back. His reservations are well founded, as Honda has certainly produced more than their fair share of exotica over the last forty years. In truth it would be very easy to make a list like this with Honda’s from top to bottom, but I think there are certainly other bikes that deserve a mention of the world’s coolest works bikes.
For this list, Matthes, Dan Dunes and myself each get to pick five bikes that we think should make the cut. We can select them for any reason we choose; looks, technology, significance to the sport (If Matthes chooses his ’99 Sumercross winning Chapparel Yamaha, I quit), whatever we see fit. The only requirement is it needs to be badass in one way or another.
Here are our picks for the coolest works bikes in history.
#1 The 1972 Suzuki RH72
This RH72 was originally ridden by Joel Robert on his way to dominating the 1972 250 World Title. The RH was an incredible 30 pounds lighter than most of its competitors in ’72, and is perhaps the single most exotic works machine ever produced. Collector Terry Goode is the current owner of this incredible bike.
No list of works bikes can be complete without this amazing machine. Although it may not be much to look at today, when you take into consideration its era, this may be the trickest works machine ever built. The RH72 was the culmination of seven years of hard work and dedication by the Suzuki Factory. Originally begun in 1965, Suzuki’s motocross racing program started out as a miserable failure. For the first three years of the race team, their bikes were overweight, slow, ill-handling messes. Then in 1968, Suzuki went looking outside of Japan for help, and enlisted the assistance of Swedish motocross champion Olle Pettersson to turn around their ailing race program.
The Swedish - Japanese pairing was a huge success, and within two years Suzuki was building the best race bikes on the track. While the ’70 and ’71 bikes were awesome machines, the ’72 RH was the true pinnacle of Suzuki’s dominance. The RH72 was the result of Suzuki’s single-minded drive to produce the fastest, lightest and best handling machine ever built. When you look at the details of the RH72, you realize just how exotic it really was.
In 1972, when the average Grand Prix 250 machine weighed in a just over 200 pounds, the RH72 weighed in at just 168 pounds. This was accomplished by the use of an incredible array of lightweight space-age alloys on the machine. Every single part was scrutinized to see what ounces could be saved. For starters, except for the super thin walled chrome-moly steel frame (which only weighed an amazing 15 pounds) there is virtually no steel on the bike at all. Nearly every bolt or nut on the machine is titanium, right down to the rear brake clevis pin. The hubs are magnesium and drilled for lightless. The top triple clamp was sand-cast magnesium as well and paired with an incredibly trick lower clamp that was actually hollowed out inside to save weight (incredibly there was never a failure). The RH’s motor was amazingly compact and weighed in at an astounding 35 pounds (half what a production 250 motor weighed in ‘72). Even though it may look like steel, the RH’s delicate rear swingarm was actually aircraft grade aluminum and weighed only 4 pounds. Suzuki was so fanatical about weight on this machine, that they reportedly never reused any of their ultra expensive hand formed expansion chambers, because they were concerned about carbon build up adding to the weight of the machine. Now that’s obsessive.
This machine was so advanced and such an advantage, that it actually changed the course of Gran Prix racing. At the end of the ’72 season, the other manufacturers cried foul and stated that they could not compete (much like Yamaha would do to Honda a decade later in the US). They demanded that the rules be changed to outlaw the featherweight Suzuki. As a result, the FIM changed the rules in 1973 to raise the minimum weight limit to 198 pounds. This meant that Suzuki’s ’73 bikes (which were already built) were 30 pounds underweight! As a result Suzuki literally had to poor lead into their works bikes frames. This of course ruined the handling of the amazing machines and destroyed Suzuki’s advantage overnight. Suzuki would continue to garner success throughout the rest of the decade, with riders like Roger DeCoster at the controls, but they would never again enjoy the incredible advantage they had with the 1972 RH72.
#2 The 1976 Honda RC500M
The 1976 RC500M Type II was the beginning of the incredible works Honda dream machines of the 70's and early 80's. Blazing fast and flawlessly crafted, the RC Type II and it's descendants would capture the imaginations of a whole generation of motocross enthusiasts.
In 1976 Honda was not yet the feared motocross powerhouse they would later become. While the first Elsinore had been a big hit with consumers, Honda’s works machines had been much less successful. The original Type I works racer, which had debuted in 1974, proved to be far too fragile and uncompetitive on the rough, high-speed European tracks of Grand Prix motocross. For ’76, Honda decided to scrap the lackluster Type I and build a bike that could go head to head with the long travel Husky’s, Suzuki’s and Yamaha’s winning the GP’s at the time.
The all-new Type II RC500M was a total clean sheet design. Looking every bit like a two-wheeled Ferrari, it is hard to overstate the attention this fire engine red screamer generated in ’76. After their mediocre first effort, the new Type II RC was the bike that signaled to the world that Honda was serious about being a player in GP motocross. It was a no-compromise machine that used all of Honda’s considerable resources to the fullest.
The inspiration for much of the Type II’s design came from Husqvarna’s being campaigned by Heikki Mikkola at the time. The Honda’s chassis closely mirrored the Husky in design and incorporated their laid down shock positioning and left kick-right drive configuration. The RC500M’s motor was incredibly compact and extremely powerful. The motor itself was an amazing piece of engineering know how, featuring all manner of tricks to keep its size end weight to the absolute minimum. The 400cc power plant (mid sized open bikes were all the rage in the mid-seventies) was a magnesium and titanium masterpiece, famous for its incredible output and wide, usable powerband. This mill was the start of Honda’s reputation as “The Motor Company”.
As remarkable as the RC’s motor was, it was the suspension that was the real star of the machine. Where the Type I chassis had only allowed for a maximum of 6-8 inches of travel, the new Type II RC was designed from the ground up to accommodate long travel suspension designs. With 11 inches of travel available front and rear, the new chassis was up to taking on anything the competition could offer. The RC500M featured Honda’s first application of Showa’s remarkable cartridge fork system (a full decade before they would see production). The forks on the RC500M were particularly unique, in that they carried the springs on the outside of the fork sliders. Honda believed that keeping the springs separate from the fluid would prevent foaming of the fluid and reduce fading. While it may have helped with fading, the design caused other problems. The wider fork boots necessary to cover the external springs, blocked air flow to the motor and led to overheating at some tracks. As a result, the external spring fork was replaced with a more conventional design the following year. In the rear, the RC used specially made Koni works shocks, specially designed for each rider. The laid down long-travel shocks worked flawlessly, and were a huge improvement over the Type I.
The ’76 Type II was the genesis of Honda’s dominance in the 1980’s. This was the machine that got the ball rolling and demonstrated Honda’s design prowess and engineering know how. It would be the basis for GP winning machines for the rest of the decade, and inspire the design of Honda’s iconic ’78 CR250R Elsinore a few years later. While other Honda machines may seem more exotic, you have to evaluate this machine in the context of its era and its historical importance. The legend of Big Red starts right here.
#3 The 1997 Yamaha YZM400
The YZM400 was the most exotic machine seen in the US since the implementation of the production rule eleven years earlier. No one at the time (least of all myself, who thought Yamaha was off their rocker to race a stupid four-stroke) could have foreseen the impact this groundbreaking machine would have on the sport in the years to come.
As influential as my top two picks were, neither one can hold a candle to number three in terms of impact on the sport. The YZM400 was a bombshell that shook the sport of motocross and forever altered the course of off-road racing around the world. Even though the YZM was remarkable, it certainly was not the first four-stroke to make a dent in motocross racing. For the first thirty years of the sport in fact, big thumpers ruled the roost. It was not until the sixties that lightweight two-strokes from Husqvarna and CZ began chipping away at the big thumper’s dominance. Once the smokers caught on, however, they dominated racing for the next thirty years. Then in the early nineties, the four-stroke started to make a return appearance.
Once again, it was Husky at the forefront. This time, Jacky Martens was taking the 1993 500 World Championship on a booming Husky 610. Then Husaberg stepped in with their incredibly cobby, but effective racing four-strokes, and took home even more World Titles. With this four-stroke renaissance in full swing, the stage was set for an unknown Yamaha engineer to change the motocross world.
The works YZM400 and its eventual descendants, the production YZ400F and YZ250F, were all the brainchild of a single Yamaha engineer, Yoshiharu Nakayama. Nakayama, working alone in his spare time, came up with the idea to make an all-new type of racing thumper. His design would eschew the traditional chugging four-stroke power plant, in favor of a high revving road race style of power. The resulting YZ/YZR hybrid delivered an experience that was as far from a traditional slow revving thumper as was imaginable. This new style of racing four-stroke craved revs, and made every four-stroke that came before it obsolete.
The YZM400 was old school “works” in a way that had not been seen on this side of the pond since the implementation of the production rule in 1986. Everything on the bike was one-off and completely custom built. The chassis was based on a ‘96 YZ250 and the bodywork was mostly YZ, with necessary modifications to accommodate that big, booming thumper motor. Everything else was sand-cast, hand built, unobtanium. Had this bike had been built in 1985, it may not have caused quite the fervor it did in ’97 (crazy one-off machines being all the norm in the early 80’s). As it was however, arriving in the works bike starved nineties; this thing generated more press than an alien attack on Washington during a Justin Bieber concert.
The YZM400 was THE works bike for a whole generation of enthusiasts, too young to remember or appreciate the remarkable creations of the seventies and early eighties. It was incredibly trick, amazingly exotic, and unmistakably influential. What more can you ask of a works machine?
#4 The 1980 Honda RC125M
There are works bikes and then there are WORKS bikes, and this machine definitely falls into the later category. The 1980 RC125M was so exotic, it got banned before it even got the chance to smoke the competition. Factory bikes do not get much more badass than this.
While Honda certainly produced some amazing works machines in the seventies, it was nothing compared to the outrageous excess they would unleash in the early eighties. Literally nothing was off limits to the HRC skunk works team. Some estimates had Honda sinking nearly 100 million dollars into their race team during this crazy era of unlimited excess. The results of this nearly limitless engineering budget were incredible machines like the one you see here, the 1980 RC125M.
The RC125M was the perfect example of Honda’s desire to win, no matter the cost. In this era, Big Red was willing to try nearly anything to gain an edge over the competition. The amazing RC125M featured a 124cc twin-cylinder, reed-valve rocket that put out an amazing for the time 35hp (traditional 125’s of this era cranked out closer to 22hp). This liquid-cooled twin cylinder masterpiece, revved to an ear splitting 13,000 rpm (twice as high as a 125 single) and put out horsepower numbers that could challenge most 250’s of the era. The trade off for all of that horsepower was low-end torque, which the high-strung twin had absolutely none of. Johnny O’Mara once reportedly remarked on the bike’s razor’s edge powerband by stating it was absurdly fast but just as absurdly hard to ride.
Amazingly, the motor may not even be the trickest thing about this bike. One look at the machine and its hard not to miss the crazy erector set bolted to the front end. Looking oddly like some kind of a cross between a transformer and a praying mantis, the “Ribi” front suspension (names for its inventor Valentino Ribi) on the RC125M was originally debuted by Roger DeCoster on his 1978 Suzuki RN works machine. When Roger moved to Honda, he convinced Honda of the benefits of the design and they purchased the rights to use the innovative front suspension. The benefits of the Ribi were its flex and friction free action and greater adjustability. The downside of the Ribi was of course its complexity and greater weight. While its performance was reportedly remarkable, in the end, the added cost and complexity of the design made it impractical for production use.
Unfortunately for Honda, the RC125M never really got to show how dominant it could have been. It was only used in a few races in Japan before bellyaching by Honda’s competitors (haven’t we been here before?) resulted in a changing of the rules to ban twins in FIM motocross competition. Even though it never got to strut its stuff on the big stage, the 1980 RC125M served notice that Honda was willing to stop at nothing to give its riders the absolute best equipment possible, no matter the cost.
#5 The 1982 Honda RC250
The early eighties were the heyday of Honda’s works machines, and this ’82 RC250 is in my opinion the king of the exotics. In terms of technology, the ’85 RC’s probably trump it. But when you factor in its historical significance, the ’82 is hard to beat.
In terms of pure trickness the ’82 can certainly hold its own. This was the first works Honda to feature that ridiculously cool super low drop tank that goes all the way down to the clutch cover. The hand-formed aluminum “low-boy” tank was used to lower the center of gravity on the bike as much as possible. Because it carried fuel below the level of the carburetor, it actually required a fuel pump be used . Interestingly, Honda actually chose to hide this fact by painting the lower part of the tank black to match the rest of the engine. The whole rear section of the machine is a monocoque aluminum structure incorporating the airbox and subframe in one unit. There is of course, the requisite delicately beautiful works swingarm and shock to go with the 43mm works Showa cartridge forks. All of this is topped off by my all-time favorite color combination that received its first usage on this machine (the stock Honda’s this year still used the deep red and black color combo) and would become a Honda signature for much of the decade.
While all of those features are more than enough reason to make the list, for me this bike is most special for its place in history. This 1982 RC250, ridden by Donnie “Holeshot” Hansen, would take home the 1982 Supercross Championship and deliver Honda its first ever SX title. This bike would be the start of a dynasty that would capture thirteen of the next fifteen Supercross titles. It is an unprecedented run that may never be equaled. Much like the number two selection on my list, this bike was the start of something big for Honda and deserves a special spot over and above some its more flashy siblings.