Memorable Motorcycles Honda TL125

March 8, 2007
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The Honda TL125 had a solid  streamlined design  close gearing ratios on the low end for trials riding  and was affordably priced  but its rejection by the American market facilitated its ultimate demise.
The Honda TL125 had a solid, streamlined design, close gearing ratios on the low end for trials riding, and was affordably priced, but its rejection by the American market facilitated its ultimate demise.

I must confess to a degree of racial bias in writing this article. I like the Japanese as a nation. I like their courtesy, their focused energy and drive. I also admire how they dug themselves out of the post World War II pit of despair into becoming an economic superpower.

However, there are flaws in the Japanese character and one of these is the committee. Team playing is a key Japanese trait even now – and 30 years ago it was absolutely sacrosanct. The other trait which is critical to the Japanese psyche is the objective evaluation of data. The Italians might build a bike because the designer wants to make passionate love to it, and the British because there is a niche to be filled, but the Japanese will usually, but not absolutely always, have a thoroughly sound reason for producing a motorcycle.

So, let’s go back to the early 1970s. In terms of dirtbike sales, America was the Yukon Gold Rush all over again. Large fortunes were being made as everyone wanted a dirtbike. It is this universality which is important to understand today. Watch a current Supercross rider launch himself 30 feet in the air and many of us will think that even if we could ride like that, we wouldn’t want to. By contrast, 33 years ago everyone could aspire to riding a dirtbike, whether it was in motocross, desert racing or simply playing about on the trails.

The 1st  2nd  and 3rd gears of the five-speed transmission were very low and close for off-road work  but overall the 122cc engine lacked enough power.
The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd gears of the five-
speed transmission were very low and close
 for off-road work, but overall the 122cc
engine lacked enough power.

Just as important was that a huge proportion of road riders had dirtbikes. Machines like Suzuki’s TS185 were extremely cheap, reliable and could be ridden on the road – and in surprisingly challenging off-road conditions.

The one part of the jigsaw puzzle which was missing from the burgeoning U.S. market was trials. Again, there needs to be a historical note added. If you see a film of current trials riders, the spectacle is awe-inspiring. But blasting up sheer 100-feet high cliffs and balancing on the top of precipices tends not to have mass-market appeal.

By contrast, trials riding at the start of the 1970s was a vastly different affair. Challenging obstacles were a few rocks in a river bed or a 10-foot climb up a grassy bank. In short, everyone could ride trials from the 10-year-old kid to the white-haired granny – and did.

Another factor was the environmental impact caused by off-road sport. Even in the early 1970s, there was the start of environmental challenges on the grounds of noise and land erosion – particularly in terms of desert racing and hare scrambles. Trials had no such problems. Five acres was ample space for an amateur trial, the noise impact was almost zero and land wear was minimal.

So back to Tokyo and Honda. The committee convenes. Trials ticks every box in terms of a product with universal appeal for the U.S. market. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans must want to ride trials recreationally, and what they need is a light, easy to handle, utterly reliable trials bike which can be maintained with hosepipe and brush. In fact, what they need is the Honda TL125. And so Honda made it.

Honda s entrant into the trials foray borrowed the hubs and forks that were already in use in the Honda SL125.
Honda’s entrant into the trials foray borrowed the hubs and forks that were already in use in the Honda SL125.

As an engineering response to a marketing request, the little Honda was perfect. Not nearly right, or almost a solution, but absolutely right in the middle of the target: a perfect hit. Honda’s new trials baby was based on solid, proven technology – in this case the well established Honda SL125. The engine was largely SL125 but had heavier flywheels to help “plonking” power. The little OHC motor started instantly hot or cold, was beyond bomb-proof reliable and did not have an aggressive molecule in its tiny, two-valve cylinder head. The hubs and forks were SL too, and the rims were XL250 parts. So, in all, the bottom-line numbers looked very attractive for Honda’s accountants.

What was unique to the TL125 was all good. The fuel tank was a real slim-line special which had the added advantage of one of the nicest paintjobs ever seen on an off-road bike. The footrests were in the correct, rear-set position, the saddle trials-sized and the wheelbase a miniscule 50 inches to allow for threading through the trees.

The TL was also surprisingly adaptable. The first three gears were close, giving useable ratios in trials going, and then there were a further two cogs to allow a 45-mph cruising speed on dirt or paved roads. TLs were also fully road legal and in Europe came equipped with a comprehensive lighting kit as good as any road bike. A strong carrier could be fitted to make the bike even more dual-purpose.

Finally, the price was right. At the time, the top bike in the trials scene was the 325cc Bultaco and this was a whopping $1,250 compared with the Honda’s highly affordable price of $700.

With footrests in the rear-set position  a trials-sized saddle and a tight 50-inchwheelbase  the Honda TL125 had many traits of a solid trials performer.
With footrests in the rear-set position, a trials-sized saddle and a tight 50-inchwheelbase, the Honda TL125 had many traits of a solid trials performer.

So the design was perfect, the execution impeccable and the bike looked drop-dead gorgeous, too. But what was it like to ride?

Again, Honda was absolutely spot on the mark. The TL could be started almost by looking at the kick-start it was so user friendly. It was surprisingly competent as a beginner’s trials bike too – although much more at home as a dirt play-bike.

The bike’s problem was two-fold: First was a lack of out and out power; 9 bhp was not a lot to play with. And, second, where that power occurred; 9,000 rpm was just not trials territory, especially in muddy going which demanded low revs and pulling power.

But neither of these traits was the real problem for the TL. The core issue which was to prove insuperable is that Americans did not like trials.

This was quite unfair on Honda since all the market research suggested that trials, and the TL125, should have been the ultimate motorcycling marketing masterpiece for the USA. Unfortunately, the difficult Americans hadn’t read Honda’s report and voted “no” in their hundreds of thousands. No amount of persuasion could convince American customers that the TL was anything other than a bike to be avoided at all costs.

Honda persevered with the idea of selling trials to the Americans, sponsoring some fine American trials riders, but all to no avail. Trials never caught on. Finally, the little TL came to the conclusion of its short three-year life in 1976.

The Honda TL125 was sticker priced at  700 in the early  70s  but collectors today can expect to pay around  3 000 to add this vintage Honda to their collection.
The Honda TL125 was sticker priced at $700 in the early ’70s, but collectors today can expect to pay around $3,000 to add this vintage Honda to their collection.

It did better in Europe, with big-bore conversions aiding torque and power, but in truth it was never competitive amongst serious trials riders.

Now, a standard, mint condition TL125 is worth serious money. Expect to pay $3,000 for the best examples and $1,200 for a hacked about but useable example. The reason is that the little TL is just as pretty, just as charming and just as thoroughly nice a motorcycle as when it was conceived at that Tokyo planning meeting in 1972.

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