With Honda’s tradition of producing 4-strokes, many were caught off guard by the lightweight MT250 Elsinore.
Top Speed: 76mph (period test)
Engine: 248cc air-cooled 2-stroke single, 70mm x 64.4mm bore and stroke, 16.69hp @ 6,500rpm (period test)
Weight (wet): 280.5lb (127kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 2.2gal (8.3ltr)/45-55mpg
Price then/now: $870 (1974)/$1,200-$2,500
Given the conditions in which they were used, early motorcycles were, by default, dirt bikes — pioneer motorcyclists didn’t have any choice in the matter.
They rode and struggled over gravel tracks and clay ruts, and had to contend with dust when it was dry and gumbo when it was wet. As the motorcycle industry progressed and roads improved, though, machines became specialized for the specific task at hand, whether that was commuting, fast road racing or playing in the dirt.
Offroad machines built by European companies such as Bultaco, CZ, Dot and Greeves dominated the dirt market in the 1950s and 1960s. By the late 1960s, however, Japanese manufacturers dropped a bombshell as they began introducing lightweight, easy-to-handle offroad bikes. Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha all built 2-stroke powered dirt and enduro-style bikes, starting a craze for hitting the path less traveled. Hitting the competition circuit, Suzuki was the first Japanese manufacturer to claim the 250cc MX World Championship, in 1970.
By comparison, Honda had been building scrambler-style 4-stroke powered machines, such as the 305cc CL77, for several years. They even launched the dual-purpose 4-stroke, single-cylinder XL250 in 1972. Given Honda’s tradition of 4-stroke production, it was something of a surprise when, in 1973, Honda unveiled the CR250M Elsinore, a dedicated and lightweight motocross machine powered by a 2-stroke engine.
The CR250 weighed in at just 214 pounds and featured a 248cc 2-stroke, piston-port, single-cylinder engine with cast magnesium cases.
An aluminum gas tank sat atop a chrome moly frame and the machine rolled on alloy rims. Everything about the CR was built for the sole purpose of going fast and furious around the bumps, jumps and berms of a motocross track.
Immediately after launching the CR250, for the 1974 model year Honda unveiled the MT250, a dual-purpose version of the Elsinore. Yet according to the testers at Cycle World magazine writing in the August 1973 issue, there weren’t many similarities between the two motorcycles.
Cycle World editors were particularly captivated by all of the lightweight goodies that made the CR such a winner, and lamented the fact the MT was given a mild steel frame, steel triple clamps and steel wheel rims. All that steel added extra weight, bringing the MT250 up to 280 pounds with a full tank of gasoline.
And while based on the CR250 engine, the mill in the MT250 was slightly redesigned for more pedestrian duty and was equipped with heavier flywheels to keep the dual-purpose unit happier at idle and running more smoothly through the rev range.
Following typical 2-stroke technology for the era, the MT250 featured double transfer ports and a large exhaust window. A two-ring alloy piston traveled in a steel cylinder liner, and joined the steel connecting rod via a caged needle bearing at the piston and a caged roller bearing at the crankshaft. Four studs secured the head and barrel to the engine cases.
The MT250 incorporated a flywheel magneto for ignition and also included two small coils to provide juice for the 6-volt lighting system, with an alternator to charge the battery. Power was transferred to a 5-speed transmission through a geared primary drive and multiplate clutch running in oil.
The front suspension was borrowed from the XL250’s parts bin and featured 7.1 inches of travel. Hubs, too, came from the XL250 and were constructed of alloy. Dual rear shocks anchored a steel swingarm, but typical of the time, their performance was less than commendable.
“It’s unfortunate that we can’t praise the rear suspension,” Cycle World wrote in their review. “Honda could have easily used the superb rear shock units from the CR, but instead made one more switch. The items fitted in place on the MT model only perform satisfactorily up to a point … and the point just happens to be the end of the pavement. In the dirt the 5-way adjustable shocks do lots of bottoming and slamming, making control more of a problem.”
Honda replaced the aluminum gas tank found on the CR with a steel tank on the MT, and all other body panels, including fenders and side covers, were made of plastic, with the rear fender getting an inner brace to support the taillight.
The 1974 MT250s were finished in silver metallic with Daytona Orange stripes on the tank top. Model specifications did not change dramatically for 1975, apart from the stripe changing to Tahitian Red. The side covers and the headlight shell went from silver to black, and the side cover decals became yellow and white. Fenders for both years were silver-painted plastic. For 1976 the MT250 was still silver, but now had an Aquarius Blue stripe, while the fenders were white impregnated plastic.
Honda’s MT250 Elsinore was always an attractive package, but sales were disappointing. Testers criticized the MT250 for being underpowered or over geared, and instead of perfecting the motorcycle, Honda quit production of the MT250 in 1976. Meanwhile, its CR motocross sibling remained in production until 2007, when Honda dropped all 2-stroke production. Honda’s offroad family is currently represented by the 4-stroke CRF line of machines, available in a dizzying array of platforms to suit almost any style of riding, from mild trail excursions to fast track competition.
Anthony Wiebe, a constable in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, lives in Crossfield, Alberta, Canada. His first motorcycle was a 1974 Kawasaki 100 Enduro, purchased brand new for $500. He rode it year-round for three years, using it to get to school and to his job pumping gas, before graduating to a Suzuki GT380 triple. “Since then, I’ve owned everything from Gold Wings to Harleys. I’ve always had a dual-purpose or a big motorcycle in the garage,” Anthony says.
Forty-one years ago, when Anthony bought his Kawasaki, it was actually the Honda MT250 Elsinore that had captured his attention. Yet he never did buy one, and even after all of those other motorcycles, the MT250 was still alluring.
Three years ago, Anthony found himself with a little extra time — he works five days on and four days off — and he started looking for an Elsinore. “I’d admired that particular motorcycle for four decades, and that was it,” Anthony explains. “The time was right, and I wanted to get one.” He wasn’t looking for a project, but the 1975 MT250 he found for sale online in Idaho had sat outside for many years. Although it showed only 2,800 miles on the odometer, it wasn’t running, the seat was rotted out, and the entire machine was covered in surface rust. “I emailed the seller, told him I wanted it and that we’d be down to pick it up.”
Anthony drove to Idaho, paid $800 for the project, and loaded it in the back of his truck. Once home, his initial goal was simply to get it running. There was plenty of rust in the gas tank, and the kickstarter wasn’t working. He knew the engine wasn’t seized, because he could put it in gear and roll it over compression, but he thought it best to strip the MT250 down to the last nut and bolt, and start afresh.
First on the to-do list was the gas tank. Anthony bought a coating kit, following the package directions closely to clean out the rust and etch the metal before applying the sealer. After that, he sanded out a couple of scratches on the plastic fenders before delivering them to Shorty’s Crossfield Garage for paint. He found color codes to match the original Honda silver and Tahitian Red on an Internet forum, and Anthony says Shorty’s nailed the spray job.
Next came the frame. It was in good shape, and was media-blasted together with the swingarm, kickstand and various other small pieces before being delivered to Kojah Powder Coating in Cremona, Alberta, for a satin black finish.
“I tried to rescue as much as possible of what was originally on the bike,” Anthony says, “but the wheel rims were too badly rusted to be saved.” He stripped the wheels to the hubs, polished the alloy and installed new bearings, and then searched high and low for replacement steel rims. Unable to locate any, he contacted Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim and ordered a set of aluminum rims and spokes to match. He took all the wheel parts to the Old Motorcycle Shop in Calgary, where the crew laced and trued the wheels, and installed Vee Rubber Super Trail Star tires.
With the frame and wheels back in the garage, Anthony detailed the forks and polished the alloy sliders, putting everything back together with new seals. The fork tubes were surprisingly rust free. He disassembled the rear shocks, had the springs powder coated, then reassembled them with new mounting rubbers.
Turning to the engine, he split the cases, cleaned and checked them, and once everything was confirmed to be in good condition, he sprayed the castings with a fresh coat of high-temperature satin black paint. As the bottom end went together, he replaced every bearing and seal. Because of its low mileage the engine was in fair condition, but Anthony installed new piston rings and honed the cylinder, which he also painted, together with the head.
Worried about parts availability before he started the project, Anthony was pleased to find most everything he needed. “I made a list of all the Honda parts I’d need, and I had great help from Medicine Hat Moto-Sports Ltd.,” the local Honda dealer in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, Anthony says. “They worked with me to find what they could.” He also found parts online, including a set of brand-new gauges and switches, plus cables, rubbers and light lenses. “While working on the bike, I soon came to the conclusion that I wanted the whole thing to be new,” he says.
A fresh seat cover was included with the project, and after locating a pan to replace the rusted out original, Anthony and his wife, Melanie, installed the new vinyl over new foam. Anthony wanted to save the period accessory rear carrier, which was on the bike when he bought it, so he sent it to Alberta Plating Ltd. together with the handlebars for fresh chrome.
After some eight months, Anthony completed the MT250, his first motorcycle restoration, by cleaning and installing the original factory wiring harness. Once done, it was finally time to see how it ran, and it fired up without any fuss. He now uses it to spin around town. “It’s not as powerful as I thought it would be,” Anthony says, “but it’s certainly perky, and it’s noisy!”
Riding the Honda is satisfying, but what Anthony really enjoyed most was the restoration process, which he says he found to be therapeutic. For now, the street and trail MT250 will remain an asphalt-only rider, and it won’t see any of the dirt for which its other half was originally intended. MC