• Watch: When Honda Made a 50cc Race Bike That Would Do 115 MPH

The Honda RC116 Was A Masterpiece of Engineering

LISTEN 02:18

When the Japanese came into Grand Prix motorcycle racing in the late 1950s, no one could have foreseen what a dominant force it would become, not only in racing but in motorcycling in general. And certainly, no one could have foreseen the engineering that would go into the bikes.

The Honda RC116, 50cc Grand Prix Bike


Looking back, it’s hard to understand how, at one point, the Japanese motorcycle industry was a completely unknown force. When Honda made its first tentative steps onto the world stage with an appearance at the Isle Of Man TT, in 1959, no one knew who they were, nor could they anticipate how dominant they would become on the world stage.

Watch: When Honda Made a 50cc Race Bike That Would Do 115 MPH
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Honda RC116
A twin-cylinder, 50cc machine, that would rev to 20,000rpm and produce anything up to 16bhp

At the time, Honda’s obsession was with power: their thinking was that the more power, the faster you would be. Unfortunately, they forgot that to harness the power, you needed a good stiff chassis. Mike Hailwood famously christened his 500cc GP bike ’The Bronco’ and fellow riders who tried it marveled that he managed to keep it on the track, so unwieldy was it.

Watch: When Honda Made a 50cc Race Bike That Would Do 115 MPH
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Top Speed: 115mph!
With a power band that was maybe about 500rpm wide, gearboxes with up to 14 speeds in were used

In the smaller classes, this wasn’t such a problem and some of the engineering has to be seen to be believed: four-cylinder 350s, six-cylinder 250s, and, the subject of this video, twin-cylinder 50cc machines that could rev to 20,000+rpm and produced power outputs that are still unbeaten in terms of bhp/liter of displacement: up to 16bhp from 50cc.

Watch: When Honda Made a 50cc Race Bike That Would Do 115 MPH
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Engineering in Miniature
Jewel-like hardly starts to describe it.

It was a crazy period in racing, in which the Japanese factories were spending ever more money on the development of new engines until the F.I.M. stepped in and started slapping restrictions on the number of cylinders allowed, depending on overall capacity: 50cc = one cylinder, 250cc = two cylinders and so on.

Watch: When Honda Made a 50cc Race Bike That Would Do 115 MPH
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Masterpiece
Cutaway drawing reveals use of cogs to drive overhead cams and the complex gearbox

The spending frenzy couldn’t last and Honda pulled out at the end of 1967, only to officially return to GP racing in the 1980s. But, while it lasted, it was an incredible time for racing motorcycles.

Harry Fisher
Harry Fisher
Motorcycling Contributor
Born and raised in England, he has lived in South Africa with his family since 2002. Harry has owned examples of Triumph, Norton, BSA, MV Agusta, Honda, BMW, Ducati, Harley Davidson, Kawasaki and Moto Morini motorcycles. He regrets selling all of them.  Read full bio
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