THE sound of a race bike at full chat is pretty exciting when you’re stood behind one as it flies past in a race.
It’s even better if you manage to wangle your way into the paddock and get behind one as it warms up.
But hearing a 300cc, six-cylinder Honda RC174 revving at 15,000rpm in a workshop about as big as your local dealer’s is an enlightening experience. Especially when it hasn’t been run for two years and as soon as it’s fired the mechanics are spinning the thumb-sized pistons for all they’re worth, with smoke billowing from the six, stacked uncorked exhausts.
It may be a piece of history, but this thing is being rung out for all it’s worth. After a couple of minutes, the workshop is covered in smoke and there’s a rapturous round of applause from the 10 people lucky enough to witness the event.
I’m at Honda’s Twin-Ring Motegi race track. Well, at the circuit’s Collection Hall to be precise. But this isn’t where factory executives wait to be picked up by men in black Mercs.
No, walk in here and you’re greeted by an MV Agusta once ridden by TT legend Giacomo Agostini. Hanging from the ceiling there’s a Formula One car and to the left I can see hundreds of bikes. There’s a yellow and black one with Yamaha on the tank and Roberts on the screen. It’s parked next to one of Barry Sheene’s Heron Suzukis.
It’s not what you expect to find at a circuit owned by the biggest Japanese
company of them all, but that’s just one of the great things about Honda’s Collection Hall.
Many of us have sat with a pint at a Wednesday meet and mulled over our dream garage, but this place takes the mickey. It’s a petrolhead’s wildest fantasy. I am that kid in the sweetshop.
It’s the firm’s celebration of itself from the moment when founder Soichiro Honda decided to " build products that serve people, aiming to be the best in the world " .
But Honda knows it wouldn’t be what it is without the efforts of its rivals, so there’s everything in here that Honda considers important to its history, whether it has a flying wings logo or not.
The museum is free once you’ve paid to get into Motegi, whether that’s for one of their many race schools or a race meeting. Milling around inside are dozens of pretty Japanese ladies equipped with pink feather dusters and dark blue suits similar to the ones used by airline stewardesses – the suits, that is, not the dusters. We’re greeted by the lovely Junko, who’s offering to be our tour guide and is laying it on thick in perfect English about why this most special of all museums exists, what’s in it and what we can expect to experience.
I’ll save you the tour chat, but let’s just say that when Junko forgot a line in her robotic speech it was as if her world had fallen apart.
Speech aside, there are three floors packed with every important road bike, race bike, race car, generators (yes, generator), rotovator and boat Honda has ever built. There’s around 350 exhibits in all. But the good news for us is that the biggest share of the place is taken over by bikes. Not only that, but they all run. I mean all. And run like the RC174 mentioned earlier. That’s in run as flat-out around a race track. You can put oil and petrol in anything from the first four-stroke Honda motorcycle the Dream E, built in 1951, to the six-cylinder 250 RC162 from 1961, or Mick Doohan’s NSR500 from 1994. The reason is that the museum is not just a museum. It’s a living and breathing work of art with its own workshop full of factory engineers capable of re-making a piston ring for Kenny Roberts’ OW35 V4 two-stroke should it be needed. In fact they’re working on replicas of some of the bikes so they can keep them on show at classic parades. Many of the originals have just minutes of engine life left in them before they rest in peace.
Honda is keen to spread the word about important bikes from the past by showing them at classic displays around the world whenever possible. The bikes like Hailwood’s Honda Six many of you would have seen revving the nuts off at the Isle of Man TT last year came from this museum.
So now you know what it is, let’s, er, junk Junko and allow me to guide you through the labyrinth.
Turning left past the gift shop that sells everything from die-cast replicas of pretty much every bike in the museum, I step into the first hall. It’s rammed full of around 40 racers. On the left I see Jim Moodie’s Sanyo Honda TT-winning FireBlade, but farther around is something even more special – Honda’s oval-pistoned NR500. The bike is the same one the firm returned to the GP scene with in 1979. I remember this bike is from the late 1970s and am amazed by the technology on it. A four-stroke V4 built to cane the two-strokes of the day, with oval pistons, eight valves per cylinder and a monocoque frame never seen before. There’s also a stripped-down version parked on the plinth next to it, which reveals more of the carbon-fibre brakes, underseat exhausts and that bizarre chassis. It also has side-mounted radiators – now I know where Honda got the idea from for those on the VTR, VFR and SP-1.
The bike was soon replaced by the NS500 in 1982, a three-cylinder
two-stroke that was developed at the same time as the NR. It won the Belgian GP in 1982 and clinched the championship the following year. It spawned the NSR500, which took Freddie Spencer to the title in 1984. That bike is here, too, with its red, white and blue paintscheme. It looks tiny even compared to modern-day sports bikes.
Farther round it starts to get a bit older, with Hailwood’s No7 RC166, the famous 250 six-cylinder used by the great man.
Just down from that is something perhaps even more special, a five-cylinder 125 which won the 1961 Spanish GP, giving Honda its first victory in the series. Just for a minute, imagine one of those on full chat screaming past on a warm July day at Donington...
Upstairs, there’s a load of older cars which I whistle past and then step into the massive room that’s mostly taken over by road bikes. There’s an example of every machine Honda’s ever built in here, but that’s not all.
A flat-tracker takes my eye and then I look harder. It’s a fat thing with big tyres and a weird engine. It actually has a CX500 motor, mounted farther round. The bike was built to take on Harley-Davidsons in the U.S. and went on to kick their asses. A year later, the rules were changed and the bike was banned from the class.
Moving past the early machines that look like push bikes with engines (because that’s what they were), I come across the first FireBlade. It still looks immaculate, but then I look on the clock and see it’s only done 2600 miles. More than likely it was one of the first Blades ever built. Next to it is an NR750, the ill-fated oval-pistoned V4 which was the first road bike with carbon-fibre bodywork. Opposite that are five NSR500s, all with the No1 plate and Doohan’s name on the screen. That’s five world titles on a bike that’s pretty much the same as it is today. But look closely and you can see how the racer has evolved from a slightly square thing into a work of art with swooping bodywork and magnesium everywhere.
Beyond that there’s everything from a selection of factory RVFs, including the bike that won the Bol d’Or in 1985, and various works RC45s that have taken victories at the Suzuka
Eight-Hour. There are tricks on these bikes that we’re only starting to see on
top-notch road bikes now and I wonder what they’d be like to ride against something like an R1. A bit more scary perhaps, but actually they’d probably kill it as they’re pretty much the same as the bikes racing in WSB a couple of years ago, even though one of them dates back to 1989.
I rummage endlessly around CB1000s, Monkey bikes, Blades and yet more race bikes right from the beginning. There’s just one thing missing – the V5 four-stroke revealed in MCN last week. Oh, well, I guess I’ll just have to come back one day. What a pity.
n Entry to the Honda Collection Hall is included in the cost of entry to Twin-Ring Motegi, which is about three hours north of Tokyo. It is open 9.30am-5.30pm at weekends and 10.30am-5.30pm on weekdays. Details: 00-81-285-640-341.