Honda RC181: Almost World Beater

Check out the story of the ex-Mike Hailwood RC181 which Mike had built with a Ken Sprayson designed frame.

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by Phil Aynsley

Imagine if today’s MotoGP champion Marc Marquez was so unhappy with his Honda’s handling that he hired a local frame-builder to improve it. That was what Mike “The Bike” Hailwood did back in the 1960s.

Mike Hailwood is widely known today as one of the top five Grand Prix racers of all time. He is also widely known as being capable of riding any type of machine in any condition. He was a naturally gifted rider, but his colossal skills didn’t involve being a development rider. He simply rode and won on what was provided, making minor adjustments and never complaining about the deficiencies any of his machines might have had. One motorcycle was the exception: Honda’s 1967 500cc 4-cylinder RC181. This was a crucial time for the Japanese giant. From 1959 to 1966 it had gone from a tentative GP entry to dominating the sport. That year it won the manufacturer’s title in all five classes, along with riders’ championships in three of those.

Honda also had Mike Hailwood on its payroll. In 1966 he won the 250cc class with half a season of races to spare and beat MV Agusta’s Giacomo Agostini to the 350cc title, but had to play second fiddle in the 500cc championship to the only rider considered his true equal. Ago’s MV and Hailwood’s Honda were the pinnacle of 1960s 500cc multi-cylinder 4-stroke design. The world’s two best riders took their MV-Honda duel in the 500cc class to new heights in 1967. Their Isle of Man TT battle that year was a classic. Hailwood’s narrow win over Ago was also accompanied by a lap record that would stand well into the next decade.

The rest of the season was no less exciting with the pair ending on equal points and the same number of race victories (five each). With more minor podium placings, Ago was declared the champion.

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