Honda Starts Racing Legacy
The first Nagoya TT was held in 1953. Open to motorcycles up to 150cc, it was held over a 232km public roads course. Japan’s first large-scale race, it was contested by 57 motorcycles from 19 different manufacturers. This was Honda’s first race, and the company entered three Dream 3Es. The Hondas finished in 2nd, 4th and 18th with a combined elapsed time of 13hr 44’53″. This was the quickest team time in the race, winning the Manufacturers’ Team Prize for Honda.
Second place finisher Yasuo Tokunaga’s time of 4hr 17′ 53″ was only 16 seconds slower than the winning motorcycle. Although the riders were required to obey the speed limits while on public roads, the average speed was 55km/h and the top speed was 80km/h, proving that Japanese motorcycles had reached a higher level of performance than expected.
On February 13, 1954, Honda entered the São Paulo City 400-Year Anniversary International Motorcycle Race in Brazil. Invited by the local sponsors, Honda’s second only race would take place on the international stage. Honda’s entry was the R125, powered by a 125cc version of the 220cc Dream 4E engine. Ridden bravely by Mikio Omura, the machine finished in 13th place. It had taken the team three days to get to Brazil, and while everyone was happy that the motorcycle finished, the sobering results taught all concerned a valuable lesson.
Compared to the 110km/h top speed of the R125, the winning Mondial from Italy topped out at 160km/h. It was like the difference between a prop plane and a jet.
Prior to the race, then president Soichiro Honda knew that the Isle of Man TT Race was the pinnacle of motorcycle racing, and he knew that if Honda could win that race it would open the world’s markets to Honda products. The ‘reality check’ of the São Paulo race proved to be an inspiration. In March of that year, Honda declared his intention to race at the Isle of Man: “Whatever happens, we’re going to race the TT. If we keep dawdling around, the world will leave us behind.”
However, in Japan at that time no one knew anything about GP racing, and almost nobody had even seen a GP. So, that June, Soichiro Honda traveled to the Isle of Man to see for himself. What he saw shocked him to the core. “I thought I should go over there and see the race before we entered, but the huge difference in performance was a major shock for me.”
The declaration stated that 100 horsepower per liter would be sufficient to compete at the international level, but at the TT the NSU 125 was putting out more than 15 horsepower and the 250 was at more than 35 horsepower. This equated to 150 horsepower per liter. Soichiro was dumbfounded.
The declaration so bravely made now seemed like the words of a child who had just learned to walk predicting a gold medal at the Olympics. From this point Honda began intensive research and development of racing motorcycles, with the intent of competing at the TT in five years. It was to prove a long and difficult journey.
Soichiro Honda at the Asama Lodge
In July of 1955, Honda entered the 3rd All-Japan Mt. Fuji Race for lightweight motorcycles. Domestic racing was now firmly established, and Yamaha would be making its first entry in this race. The Honda team was led by Soichiro Honda himself, and the team took up lodgings at the venue one month before the race. The hard work paid off; Honda’s new 250cc OHC Dreams finished 1st, 2nd and 5th, the first win for Honda. But in the 125cc class, the main class for the domestic market, race regulations forced Honda to change their 4-speed Benly to a 3-speed on site, resulting in a 2nd place finish.
In November of that year the first All-Japan Motorcycle Endurance Road Race (the First Asama Highlands Race) was held. This race was a true test of a machine’s performance and was an important development opportunity for Japan’s manufacturers, nineteen of which entered motorcycles in the event. Honda won the 350cc and 500cc races, but lost to Yamaha due to engine trouble in the 125cc race and, after various troubles, finished 2nd to Lilac in the 250cc race.
In the smaller displacement classes, the 4-strokes were clearly at a weight and performance disadvantage when compared to the 2-strokes. Everything possible was done to increase the rpm and horsepower of the 4-strokes and to reduce their weight. And although similar performance to the 2-strokes was achieved, the highly tuned nature of these engines and chassis adversely affected their durability.
It was through these efforts to improve performance and reliability that Honda began to develop high-precision high-rpm engines that came to be called ‘precision machines.’ In an effort to nurture racing riders, HSC (Honda Speed Club) was formed, and work began on building the team for the Isle of Man.
The Second Asama Race, held in October of 1957, saw the first appearance of factory racers, production models specially tuned and modified for racing. The new engine featured geardriven cams and produced 100 horsepower per liter at 10,000rpm. Motorcycles were entered in each class, but the lightweight 2-strokes still held the upper hand. Honda again won the 350cc class, but finished 3rd in the 125cc class and 4th in the 250cc class.
“All I could think about was the TT,” said Soichiro Honda. For him, the Asama Race was merely a testing ground for his motorcycles’ performance. As a result, the motorcycles suffered various ills, and their performance was uneven. On top of that, there was a huge difference between the rough road surface of Asama and the smoothly paved roads at the TT. The machine regulations were also very different.
Accordingly, development of Asama machines and TT motorcycles proceeded on a parallel path, each benefiting the other. Still, if the motorcycles couldn’t win in Japan they had no hope on the world stage. Not enough time. Not enough horsepower. Too little information from abroad. Since making the declaration, the team had been plagued by a seemingly unending series of mistakes and problems.
In the midst of all this, the 1958 Asama Race was cancelled due to requests by the manufacturers, who were overwhelmed with developing new motorcycles every year and operating their race teams. Fortuitously, this allowed work on Honda’s TT motorcycles to progress, with performance and reliability improving remarkably. The new engines featured technology seldom before seen in motorcycles, boasting an output of more than 120 horsepower per liter. The time for excuses was over. The decision was made to race the Isle of Man.