Motorcycle Classics

King of the Hill: 1974 Honda CR125M Elsinore

1974 Honda CR125M Elsinore
Claimed power: 21.7hp @ 9,500rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 60mph
Engine: 123cc air-cooled 2-stroke single, 56mm x 50mm bore and stroke, 7.6:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 179lb (81.4kg)
Fuel capacity: 1.6gal (6ltr)
Price then/now: $740/$2,000-$4,000

In 1973, motocross was hot. Motorcycling as leisure was big business, and lots of kids lived within easy reach of places to go offroad riding, with lots of opportunity to explore almost in their own backyards.

With aspiring dirt riders pouring onto the trails, motocross and enduro organizers found little difficulty attracting competitors to their events. One of the most famous offroad races, immortalized in the movie On Any Sunday, was held every year through the Sixties and early Seventies in the Southern California desert town of Lake Elsinore, with part of the route going through the downtown streets. More than 1,500 riders regularly turned up.

But while it was easy to find a place to ride, it wasn’t so easy to find a really effective small-bore motocross bike in the 125cc range that would appeal to younger riders. Dirt Bike ticked off the choices in its September 1973 issue, starting with the Bultaco 125, which was screamingly fast, but frighteningly unreliable. “Learn to live with its mechanical suicide tendencies,” Dirt Bike editors said. “If it runs, nothing can keep up with it.” Dirt Bike‘s editors were pretty much down on the category: They thought the Sachs- and Zundapp-engined specials on the market were heavy, had bad shocks and unreliable gearboxes; most of the Japanese 125cc bikes didn’t handle well; CZs were heavy; Husqvarnas couldn’t keep up with Bultacos and had unreliable gearboxes; and Hodakas were fun but didn’t win a lot of races. According to them, there wasn’t much to be excited about in the 125cc class — except for the newest offroader from Honda.

Honda makes a 2-stroke

Honda had built its brand and reputation on 4-stroke engines. But Honda wanted to be the pre-eminent motorcycle company in all types of motorcycling, and by the mid-Sixties, the only competitive offroad bikes were 2-strokes.

While management mused over this puzzle, Honda staff research engineer Soichiro Miyakoshi kept busy catching up on 2-stroke technology, obtaining bikes from rival makes and stripping them down. Hypothesizing that a good power-to-weight ratio was essential for motocross success, he headed a team that designed a feather-light 250cc 2-stroke prototype, which they sent out late in 1971 (with no name on the tank) to compete in Japanese motocross races.

By the spring of 1972 enough of the bugs had been worked out to allow the Honda name to grace the tank. Now known as the RC250M, development continued on motocross tracks around Japan, and a smaller 125cc version was tested in June of 1972; before adding gas, it weighed a mere 154 pounds.

Still in the development stage, the 250 turned up at tracks around California in 1972. It was soon found to be far too fragile for American motocross, and the factory revised parts until the machine could last through a weekend without visible damage. It finally appeared in showrooms in early 1973 as the CR250M Elsinore.

The heart of the new 250 Elsinore was its piston-port 2-stroke engine. Thanks to good design and judicious use of magnesium alloy, the 250 weighed in at 225 pounds and produced 29 horsepower. Honda had a winner, as Gary Jones proved when he won the 1973 AMA National Motocross title on a factory 250.

In the fall of 1973, the 125 production version of Gary Jones’ Elsinore started to trickle into dealerships, where it was met with huge enthusiasm — hands waving fistfuls of cash and long waiting lists. “Unless you are very, very lucky, you’ll not be one of the lucky ones to get your sweaty little zipper grabbers on a CR125 this year,” Dirt Bike groused.

The 125 Elsinore

The production 125 Elsinore was powered by an all-new 123cc piston-port 2-stroke. Not just a sleeved down version of the 250, it had a bore and stroke of 56mm x 50mm, with a two-ring aluminum piston lightly etched to help oil retention and ward off seizure. Engine cases were made from weight-saving magnesium alloy. It was sparked with a Kokusan magnetically-triggered capacitive discharge ignition (CDI) system, and a 6-speed gearbox transferred power to the rear wheel.

Period dyno tests confirmed what riders soon learned: This 125 made a lot of power for its size, and it was all at the high end of the rpm range. Cycle graphed 9.44 horsepower at 6,000rpm, 14.14 at 7,000rpm, 16.33 at 8,000rpm and 16.93 horses at 8,500rpm. The Elsinore would lead the pack, but you had to keep the engine buzzing.

The frame was manufactured from high-strength chrome-moly tubing, with a large backbone tied to the steering head and the front downtube with carefully engineered gussets. Front forks provided 7.1 inches of travel, which was excellent for the time. The swingarm was also made of tubing, riding in Bakelite bearings, and secured the rear hub with threaded axle adjusters. Plastic fenders kept some of the mud off the rider and Showa shocks with four-position adjustment provided excellent cornering potential. The knobby tires were mounted on ridgeless aluminum alloy rims, advertised to be self-cleaning.

Period testers were happy with the 125’s easy starting, light clutch, excellent acceleration and nimble handling. Comfortable for both tall and short riders, the Elsinore was stable coming off whoops with a center of gravity that was in just the right spot. The only things period testers really found to object to were the peaky power delivery and the design of the front fender, which allowed mud buildup in the cylinder fins. The 125 Elsinore’s good press and great sales irked Honda’s rivals and spurred them to action. The next year, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha all trotted out contenders for the title of Best 125cc Motocross Bike on Sale at Your Local Dealer. Cycle Guide ran a shootout between the four Japanese rivals, and reported the results in their August 1975 issue.

All four had similar bores and strokes, with compression ratios running between 7.4:1 (Suzuki) and 8:1 (Kawasaki). The Yamaha boasted reed valves, and the Kawasaki had a crankshaft driven rotary valve. The RM Suzuki had 7.1 inches of rear wheel travel compared to the Elsinore’s 4 inches, making it one of the first commercially available motocrossers with long travel rear suspension. When the dust settled, the Elsinore came in third place.

But Honda didn’t like coming in third, so for 1976 the 125 Elsinore got a revised frame and long-travel rear suspension of 7 inches. Specifications stayed more or less the same until 1979, when the designation changed to CR125R and the engine was improved with reed valves. Wheel travel was now 11 inches front and rear.

The Elsinore had a good run, but times changed. The race through Lake Elsinore had stopped, and the name was no longer synonymous with motocross; the Elsinore name was dropped after 1982.

Back to riding

When he was a kid, Peter Palko had enjoyed riding a BSA 441 Victor around Point Richmond, Calif., racing go-karts and flying motorized model airplanes. Bikes fell to the side, however, when Peter started a family — and got into collecting vintage cars. Peter has always prided himself on doing most of the restoration work himself, but as he got older working on vintage cars became more of a chore.

Peter’s brother and an old friend of his were motorcycle buffs, and they convinced Peter that motorcycle restoration would be more fun and less taxing. Going back to his early days, he started with a 1966 BSA 441 Victor before moving on to a 1961 C15T BSA trials bike. At that point, Peter discovered a beautiful U.S. Forest Service offroad vehicle park less than a mile from his vacation home. He was back to the dirt, but he needed a light, fun-to-ride bike.

The first bikes he restored to ride at the park were vintage trials bikes, a 1973 Honda TL125 and a 1975 Honda TL250, which he still enjoys riding. Then he found an Elsinore on Craigslist. “I discovered my niche,” Peter says today.

When he found the 1974 Honda CR125M Elsinore featured here, it was a basket case. “Getting it home, I discovered how little I knew about Elsinores,” Peter says. “After a week of looking at it and research I realized it was missing many of the hardest to find parts. The pipe was aftermarket, the engine cases were broken and so on. Case breakage from the chain flying off was a common occurrence with these bikes. Fortunately, the sale included a second engine. It was weathered and frozen up, but the cases weren’t broken.”

Peter looked at the project as a challenge and an adventure, and dove in. “My goal was not to find expensive new-old-stock parts but reasonably priced used parts restorable to 98 points. Half the fun in restoring is the parts chase,” Peter says.

As the work progressed, first taking everything apart, then cleaning and repairing each part, Peter found that, while it at first seemed that there wasn’t much to the little single-cylinder motocrosser, there were nuances and challenges to restoring the CR125M. “Dirt bikes are ridden hard, on the edge, and if you don’t crash occasionally, you’re not competing,” Peter says. “Most surviving C’s have many broken, bent, aftermarket and missing parts. The challenge is acquiring replacements for missing and broken parts and repairing the major ones, like the expansion chamber.”

Except for the chrome plating, Peter did all the work himself. “And there were only three parts I needed to have chromed,” he adds. He cleaned up the second engine, gave it a fresh bore, and new seals, bearings and gaskets. A Wiseco piston replaced the defunct original item. One item Peter didn’t have to repair was the steel gas tank, which had a remarkably rust-free interior.

Peter’s careful work has been appreciated by many. Last year, he was invited to show the Elsinore at the AMA Legends and Champions event in Las Vegas. The bike was entered in the 10th Annual Hall of Fame Concours d’Elegance and received first in class.

Peter says that, once set up, an Elsinore just needs to be kept clean and provided with fresh spark plugs. “It runs off a CDI system and coil. There’s no battery or lights or condenser or points,” Peter says. “You vary the timing by rotating the stator.”

The recommended gas/oil mix is 20:1, and while some people use castor “bean” oil, Peter says any good 2-stroke oil will work. The Honda factory repair manual suggests draining the gas tank if the bike is going to sit for longer than 24 hours, and explains that lubricity becomes poor if fuel is left in the tank. Peter also suggests sloshing the tank around before starting.

Assuming fresh gas/oil mix and a reasonably recent spark plug, starting is easy. “There’s a fuel enrichment lever on the carb to aid starting if the bike is cold. It will start by the third kick. You don’t have to worry where the piston is,” Peter says, clearly recalling his BSA days.

The bike is also a joy to ride. “It comes on the pipe quick,” Peter says, “and is very fast and nimble. I love the power curve.”

As near to perfect as this 1974 Honda CR125M Elsinore is, Peter’s not afraid to admit he’s careful how he rides it. That’s why he has a second one in the wings, which he’ll restore to be a rider. Even so, he can’t decide which he likes more: riding a vintage motocrosser, or restoring it.

“I love to restore these bikes, and I love to ride them.” Fortunately for Peter, he gets to do both. MC

  • Published on Oct 8, 2012
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