The Honda story would not be complete
without a portrait gallery of the various riders who helped Honda
to their successes.
On 5 May 1959, the
Japanese riders arrive at London airport. From left to right: G.
Suzuki, J. Suzuki, N. Taniguchi and T. Tanaka.
Image at left shows
Bill Hunt, the team captain and the man that fell off.
The Japanese works riders this year are Kunimitsu Takahashi
(see top image), Shimazaki, Yukio Sato (see second image) M. Tanaguchi,
and Australians Tom Phillis (see third image, bottom right) and
Bob Brown (see forth image below) are contracted.
Phillis acts as team leader until his death in the 1962 TT
of Man during the 350 cc race.
Bob Brown is killed when he crashes on the Solitude in Germany.
When Phillis crashes during practice for the Dutch TT, Rhodesian
Jim Redman joins the team (see fifth image, bottom left). After
Phillis' death, he takes over as team captain until his retirement,
aged 36, after his crash in the Belgian GP in 1966.
Redman was a brilliant rider and an absolute professional, who
was, I feel, underrated by most people. He won six world titles
for Honda, two times in the 250 class and four times in the 350
class and had 46 GP victories.
1961, and Luigi Taveri (see top image at left), born in 1929
near Zürich, in Switzerland, joins the team.
He becomes a three times world champion 125 cc for Honda. Although
Taveri was mainly involved in the 50 and 125 cc classes, he would
sometimes ride the 250 fours and the CR72 and CR77 production racers,
which earned him third place in the 350 cc world championship in
Thanks to some arm twisting by Mike Hailwood's father Stan,
Honda lend a 125 cc twin and 250 cc four to 21 year young Brit Mike
Hailwood (see second image at left - Mike with his father Stan after
winning the 125 cc class on Man, 1961).
Hailwood gives Soichiro Honda his first TT victory in the 125
cc class on Man. He goes on to win his first world championship
this year, the 250 cc. Honda are not happy that he beats their works
riders, and it is only in 1966 that he gets a works contract.
Another man, racing Hondas in national races in England is John
Hartle (see third image at left), a former MV works rider. Although the works riders are not happy with these "privateers",
it gives Honda a lot of publicity, and that is what racing is all
During this year Japanese riders Moto Kitano and Teisuke Tanaka
compete in various races – the Honda policy with regard to the Japanese
riders is a bit obscure.
Bob McIntyre (see top image at right) joins the team, after
having had some Honda rides before.
McIntyre was the man who, for the very first time, lapped the
Isle of Man course at over 100 mph during the jubilee TT races in
1957 on a Gilera four 500 cc.
With the Honda 250 four he sets a lap record on Man this year
of 99.58 mph, but retires with oil problems. Later in the season
he is tragically killed when competing in a local race on a Norton.
Irishman Tommy Robb (see middle image) also joins the team.
He comes in third in the 350 world championship and claims Honda's
only 50 cc win this year with the RC112 twin on Suzuka in Japan.
After a poor 1963 season, he is sacked halfway through the 1964
A noteworthy "privateer" this year is Derek Minter (see bottom
image), who gets a 1961 Honda four on loan for the TT on Man.
Against team orders he wins the race, ahead of the works riders.
Honda are not happy.
The practically unknown Irishman Ralph Bryans (see image at
left) joins the team, concentrating on the 50 and 125 cc classes.
He wins the world championship 50 cc for Honda a year later.
Halfway through the season Tommy Robb and Kunimitsu Takahashi
(who later joins Nissan as a test driver) are sacked.
No changes to the team. During the last
GP of the season, in Japan, Mike Hailwood wins the 250 cc class on
a "privately" entered Honda six.
Mike Hailwood (see image at right) now enters the team as a
works rider. In his book "Hailwood", Hailwood complains: "Racing
has made me an old man before my time." Well the change is
During the Belgian GP on Francorchamps, Jim Redman crashes in
pouring rain, and breaks his arm. He returns for the Ulster GP,
but the arm gives too much trouble, so he doesn't start. He again
tries at the IoM TT but the arm is not right, and Redman decides
to quit racing. He becomes a Yamaha dealer in Rhodesia, where he
privately races a couple of Honda 250 fours, which he later sells
to a Dutch collector. I acquired one of them, but sold it later.
To assist Hailwood, Stuart Graham, son of Leslie Graham, the
first ever 500 cc world champion, joins the team.
For some reason, Graham is no longer part of the team, that
now consists of only Hailwood and Bryans.
At the end of the season, Honda retires from Grand Prix racing.
Matter of Handling
Time and again the Honda GP racers have been described as atrocious
handlers, to such an extent, that all subsequent Hondas were doomed
to live under the alleged curse of bad handling and road holding.
Where do all those stories come from? Well, one powerful reason
is, "because everybody says so." Even people who have never, ever
ridden a Honda know exactly how to tell the blood curdling tales
about their roadholding. A second reason is some totally irresponsible statements by writers
who should know better. In his book "Honda GP racers", Colin MacKellar
writes (page 48): "….recalling how, when Honda started in Europe,
they only began to win GPs when they changed to English frames".
This is blatant nonsense. Honda, in what is called their "Golden
Age", have never, ever used English frames – the frames were pure
Honda. They used some English parts, i.e. tyres (Avon and Dunlop),
rev counters (Smith, although also Honda counters were used), and
Girling rear shock absorbers. Two English frames were built for
the RC181: one by Colin Lyster, which was not a success, and one
by Reynolds' Ken Sprayson, which might have become successful if
it would have been further developed. However, those frames were
never used in GP racing.
Actually, during the "Golden Age", the only person who complained
about the roadholding and handling of the Hondas was the great Mike
Hailwood – nobody, but literally nobody else ever complained. Not
Jim Redman, not Bob McIntyre, not Tom Phillis, not Luigi Taveri
In his book "Hailwood", written with Ted Macauley, Hailwood states
(page 79): "The old Hondas, the ones used in 1961, were bad handlers
compared with other bikes. In the light of their history of atrocious
handling, Jim Redman comes out as a far better rider than most people
are prepared to give him credit for." History of atrocious handling?
Really? Then why did the same Hailwood write in his previous book
"The art of motorcycle racing", about the 1961 Hondas (page 166):
"I have already given my impression of the Honda 125 c.c. twin and
there is little I can add except to say it is, without doubt, the
finest 125 I have ever ridden. Although it is not nearly as outstanding
in its class as the 250 c.c. Honda four, it is nevertheless a superb
machine which combines ample, smooth power with perfect handling".
No grounds for misinterpretation here, is there? And about the 250
four (page 169): "This, like the 125, is a magnificent machine.
When riding close to a Honda four its handling looks frightful,
but its looks belie it, for it feels perfectly all right and does
not seem at all skittish. I never fell off a 250 Honda in spite
of some hair-raising battles with riders of the calibre of Bob McIntyre,
Tom Phillis, John Hartle, Kunumitsu Takahashi and Jim Redman, so
its handling must be all right". Pretty obvious, hmmm?
All those Hondas had the same type of frame. All those Hondas
I have seen being raced by the aforementioned riders, and some I
have ridden myself. Their handling and road holding was beyond reproach.
You don’t win that number of world championships with machines that
are really wanting in the handling department. During one Dutch
TT, in 1964, Redman won three classes, all three with new race and
lap records. On atrociously handling machines? Come on! But Hailwood keeps changing his mind. "Hailwood" (page 76): "I
really enjoyed racing the 250, even though the Yamahas I raced against
were quicker. The 250 was quite well behaved and easy to handle.
The 350 was okay, too." Somewhere, I have a statement by him, that
the 296 cc six was his all time favourite. But for the love of Pete
I can't find where it's stated. For the time being, just believe
So, what does it all boil down to? No doubt the reputedly terrible
handling of the big RC181. Two persons, other than Redman and Hailwood
have ridden this bike: Martin Hodder and John Surtees. But Hodder
rode the Reynolds framed version (see top image at left), and still
found fault with the bike (The Classic Motorcycle, May 1996): "
I had proved for myself that the Reynolds frame, significantly better
than the Honda original in every way, was not at all suspect, and
that the infamous handling we had all witnessed was down to a combination
of power, undeveloped suspension and inadequate tyres." The conclusion, or statement: "…significantly better than the
Honda original in every way…" is not his to give: he had never ridden
the originally framed RC181, and so couldn't compare. But his conclusion
about the suspension units and tyres is well noted.
the Reynolds framed version
Jim Redman winning the first GP in Germany in 1966
Writes John Surtees, who rode the original Honda framed RC181
(Classic Bike, December 1985): "The rear units are down to their
bump rubbers, which locks up their suspension movement, and a reaction
is then transferred to the front of the machine." And, a little
further on: "However, I would hesitate to blame frame flex or whip
without having the opportunity to modify features such as the rear
suspension pivot points, damping and spring rates, and wheel travel."
Words like these, from an out and out expert like John Surtees,
are not to be taken lightly. Moreover, how about the other person
who has ever ridden the RC181 in anger, Jim Redman? He won the first
GP in Germany in 1966 (see Bottom image above), looked at a 22 seconds
gap behind Agostini in the Dutch TT after Hailwood had crashed,
but fought back and won, and a week later, in Francorchamps, had
trained 1 second faster than Hailwood and 6 seconds faster than
Agostini, leading the race till he fell off in pouring rain – and
that was it. He never complained about the big Honda, on the contrary,
recently he stated, at the occasion of riding a brand new RC181
made by Honda, that he had never problems with the RC181 and liked
it. I have always thought, that if Redman would not have fallen
off in Belgium, he would have been the 1966 500 cc world champion.
No doubt Hailwood had some hairy moments on the big Honda. However,
it is wrong, in my opinion, to blame it all on the Honda engineers
and their frame creation – no doubt the combination of totally inadequate
rear suspension units (which had less than 60 mm travel, both the
Showas and the Girlings), and tyre sizes that were hardly bigger
than are now used on 125s, played a major role in the handling problems
of the RC181. The world was simply not yet ready for the power of