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Vintage Honda

1961 - RC143
Wringing more than 23 horsepower from an air-cooled 125cc four-stroke twin at 14,000 rpm would be a respectable bit of engineering today. Doing it in 1961 was nothing short of world-shattering, which, in turn, was an apt description of the RC143. On this remarkable machine, Tom Phillis scored Honda's very first World Championship victory at the 1961 Spanish Grand Prix.

The rest of the machine was equally impressive. In marked contrast to modern high-performance four-stroke motorcycle engines, the RC143's 44mm bore and 41mm stroke described cylinders that were only slightly oversquare. Its dual overhead camshafts were prophetic of modern racing technology, using gear drive to maintain accurate valve timing all the way to 14,000 rpm. A pair of ubiquitous piston-valve carburetors fed the eighth-liter screamer, while its oil lived in a wet sump. Rising up from a modest steel-tube backbone frame, the 215-pound package was good for 111 miles per hour in the top cog of its six-speed gearbox.

Impressive as it was on its own, the RC143 is perhaps most notable as the cornerstone in a dynasty of screaming Honda works racers that would dominate Grand Prix racing through the balance of the '60s and beyond. Phillis encored that first win the 1961 125 World Championship, while the legendary Mike Hailwood took the 1961 250 World Championship.

Luigi Taveri won the 125 World Championship for Honda again in 1962, while Jim Redman won the 250 and 350 titles. The 50cc RC113 that won the 1963 Dutch TT made more than 10 horsepower at 19,000 rpm, arranging four valves atop a tiny, 33mm bore, scarcely larger than the diameter of a quarter. That same technology inspired the world's first five-cylinder 125cc road racer. Its 35 horsepower at a dizzying 20,500 rpm was enough for 126 mph in the top gear of its eight-speed transmission. That was enough to win Honda the Rider's and Manufacturer's 125 World Championships in 1966. For an encore, Honda won all five Manufacturer's Championships that year, including the first of twelve 500cc crowns.

The 180-horsepower NSR500 carried that spirit of domination into the modern era. Honda would focus its modern engineering might on the prestigious 500 class, winning its first world championship in 1985 under Freddie Spencer, again in 1987 with Wayne Gardner, and again to close out the decade with a title for Eddie Lawson in 1989. Aussie legend Mick Doohan took over from there with five straight titles from 1994 to 1998. Then Spanish sensation Alex Criville closed out the century with his first 500 GP crown. In the year 2000, Honda would nail another milestone, surpassing MV Agusta with more 500cc GP wins, 142 to date, surpassing any manufacturer in Grand Prix history.

As Honda's racing machines do battle on circuits around the world for championships in 2000, the RC143 enjoys its well-deserved retirement at Honda's Collection Hall museum near Japan's Motegi Circuit, a fitting destiny for the machine that formed the cornerstone of the most successful GP road-racing dynasty in history.