Take an inside look at Honda’s first 2-stroke engine and the 1973 Honda Elsinore 250 that carried Gary Jones to victory 8 times that year.
- Engine: 248cc single-cylinder, air-cooled, piston-port, 2-stroke, 70mm x 64.4mm bore and stroke, 29hp @ 7,500rpm (period test)
- Carburetion: 34mm Keihin
- Transmission: 5-speed, close-ratio
An old adage “never say never” proved itself to be ever so true when, during the late 1960s, Soichiro Honda once proclaimed: “Honda will never build a 2-stroke motorcycle.”
Several years later, the company that Mr. Honda had founded and that was known for its 4-stroke wizardry quietly debuted a new motocross racer powered by … a 2-stroke engine. It was a bike that, for model year 1973, became known as the CR250M Elsinore. Moreover, and since that day, the world of motocross racing has never been the same. Never.
Interestingly enough, Honda’s 2-stroke motocross program was a response to three other Japanese motorcycle brands — Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki — staking their own claims in the growing sport of motocross during the 1960s. Suzuki, in particular, began dabbling in international MX racing with a fair amount of success, including signing several top European riders such as Joel Robert and Roger DeCoster to their international racing teams.
Meanwhile, Honda forged onward with its 4-stroke program, its centerpiece a 125cc-class contender. As you can imagine, the bike was overweight, underpowered, and noncompetitive. Slowly, Mr. Honda relented, and a 2-stroke engine program emerged that included 125cc and 250cc engines. Kazuhiro Okimoto served as Large Project Leader, overseeing 2-stroke development in Japan. An experienced American motocross racer, George Ethridge, managed the initial field research and development in America. The U.S. market also happened to be the prime target for the two new models that were destined to earn the moniker “Elsinore,” a name inspired by the Southern California race featured in Bruce Brown’s movie On Any Sunday that premiered the summer of 1971.
Long story short, both bikes were instant successes, the CR250M Elsinore bowing in early 1973 at Honda dealers across America, with the CR125M Elsinore in dealer showrooms for the 1974 model year. Honda also formed an America-based motocross racing team around the two bikes, with bothers Gary and Dewayne Jones, and teen sensation Marty Tripes as riders for the 1973 season aboard Honda Elsinore 250s. Don Jones (Gary and Dewayne’s father) served as 1973 team manager, and it’s worth noting that the Jones family had prior experience in chassis and engine development with Yamaha that led to the popular and successful YZ250, which, ironically, became the prime market target for Honda in 1973. And not to be overlooked, Melinda Jones, the prideful matriarch of the Jones clan, hand-sewed distinctive red, white and blue Team Honda jerseys for the riders. Truly, history (herstory?) was in the making.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Gary Jones won the first AMA National Motocross that the new Honda Elsinore 250 ever entered, topping the field on May 13, 1973, in Florida. By season’s end Jones had eight overall wins that included a one-two finish with brother Dewayne at the Texas round. No surprise, and rightfully so, Jones was 250 National Champion. Tripes scored two overall wins himself, plus he won the Super Bowl of Motocross for the second time. But most important of all, future 250 Elsinore customers and privateer racers were gifted with priceless R&D that the team gleaned at the racetracks.
The new CR250M was not only fast on the racetrack, it was fast off the dealers’ showroom floors, selling like proverbial hotcakes. The feeding frenzy continued the following year when the CR125M Elsinore joined the menu, experiencing similar success in sales and at the racetrack.
So what made the 250 Elsinore so popular and successful? Start with the price; MSRP for the 1973 CR250M was $1,145, compared to, say, the YZ250’s $1,836 tag. But price was only half the story. Simply, the CR250M was an incredible bike. Consider what Dirt Bike magazine wrote about it: “It’s difficult to write a test on a motorcycle that has so little wrong, and so much right.” That is to say, DB editors could find little, if any, fault in Honda’s new MX bike.
Cycle News added more seasoning, citing the CR250M as “a production motocrosser that is more ‘works’ like in power and components than any machine to date.”
Getting a little more specific, the crew at Cycle gave boost to those words, writing in their CR250M report, “Based on our judgment the Honda CR250M is, among its peers, a nimble-handling rocket.” Feel free to put emphasis on the word “rocket.” They also affirmed Mr. Honda himself, citing that going to the oil-burner engine proved itself to be a rather smart move, underscoring “god-awful power generated by Honda’s first 2-stroke racer.”
Perhaps the biggest accolades were found in Cycle World‘s shoot-out pitting the 1973 CR250M against its most formidable foe, the Yamaha YZ250. The test included sessions at three popular and demanding SoCal tracks (Saddleback Park, Indian Dunes and Escape Country — remember them?). The editors developed an objective scoring system, one that offered a maximum of 53 points for either bike. Result: the Yamaha took the prize by a single point, 24 to 23. The big decider, opined the editors, was in the MSRP for each bike, rhetorically asking: Is the Yamaha “worth an extra $691?”
Sum of the Honda Elsinore 250
The CR250M’s real attraction is found not in a single component or part, but in the sum total of the bike itself. Practically all the major motorcycle magazines that tested the new Elsinore were amazed by how well the 214-pound motorcycle handled what amounted to Mother Nature’s torture test of whoops, berms and jumps.
Start with the engine, a masterpiece in itself, boasting magnesium alloy engine covers for strength and lightness, a bottom end with a press-fit crankshaft that shared the ride with ball bearings and needle bearings for critical parts to withstand the abundant power generated by the 6-port cylinder and piston combo, which was capped by a cylinder head sporting fins top and bottom (much like a Husqvarna MX bike). A Keihin carburetor with spot-on fueling fed gas to the well-crafted engine. And packed within the compact aluminum engine cases was a close-ratio 5-speed transmission that shifted with the taut precision of a hand-crafted Swiss grandfather clock.
The frame offered a glimpse of a future that, within the decade, would boast some of the strongest, toughest, and lightest motocross frames imaginable. Strong, lightweight 4130 chrome-moly tubing served as the basis for the CR250M’s frame, and gusset reinforcements were found at critical points. If there was an Achilles’ heel to the CR250M it was the bakelite fiber bearing used for the swing arm’s pivot, a component that seemed to wear out prematurely. Alas, claimed CW editors, the silver lining with the weak bakelite fiber bearing and various other performance parts popular to MX racers of the time served as the gateway for another booming business — the motorcycle aftermarket.
And a cherry on top
The CR250M’s frame was topped with two efficient, yet very stylish, features; a compact and comfortable seat fitted with a thin aluminum base, and perhaps the Elsinore’s most recognizable component of all — its masterfully shaped aluminum alloy fuel tank perched regally atop the milestone frame. Seldom does 1.6 gallons of gasoline get treated to such a strikingly beautiful container.
The remainder of the Elsinore’s chassis was pure business. Hefty front fork legs offered 7.1 inches of travel, while a pair of finned, rebuildable shock absorbers with 4.1 inches of travel cushioned the ride at the rear. Most testers agreed that the Elsinore’s 7-inch front brake was smooth and responsive, while the same-size rear felt vague, often fading under heavy use. But for the most part the bike’s overall braking performance was deemed to be outstanding.
Above all, though, the big reward was in the way the Honda Elsinore 250 circulated the entire racecourse. Steering was considered precise, almost intuitive at times, and the bike absorbed big-jump landings well. Motorcyclist described in its CR250M track test that the bike had “few handling quirks other than those caused by grabbing too much throttle at the wrong time, and as the laps unreeled we found ourselves adapting to the terrific acceleration and adjusting our riding style to suit.”
In short, the 1973 Honda CR250M Elsinore was as complete a motorcycle as could be expected, especially for a first-year model. And that’s the beauty about this bike and all other Honda CR models that followed during the past 50 years. It’s been an incredible journey, one that motorcycle enthusiasts hope will never end. MC
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