Memorable Motorcycles Honda RC181

March 18, 2009
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.

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda RC181
“The Agoston replica also recreates the sight and sound of an authentic factory Honda in a way which modern bikes dressed up to look like the real thing never achieve. That’s why I believe it makes an important contribution to keeping the spirit of classic racing alive.” – Sammy Miller

Jim Redman was six times World Champion and six times TT winner – all on Hondas. Later, he became Honda team manager and a personal friend of Soichiro Honda, so when Jim makes a statement about classic Honda race bikes, his view is worthy of careful attention.

Redman’s opinion of the Ronald Agoston-built Honda RC181 replica is straightforward: It’s the only bike which looks, feels and sounds like a genuine factory Honda of the period.

Ronald Agoston is a Hungarian architect. His Dad was a huge fan of Redman, Hailwood, Taveri and the other icons of Honda’s glory days but neither father nor son got to see much of the bikes when Hungary was isolated behind the Iron Curtain. When freedom did eventually come, the classic Hondas had disappeared but Ronald was yearning to relive his memories and began building cosmetic replicas of the race bikes, using the ubiquitous Honda K4 – the basis for so many current classic race bikes.

In semi-retirement, Ronald built himself a copy of the legendary “Hailwood” RC181 and this attracted so much attention that, almost by accident, he found himself in a second career as a replica manufacturer.

The RC181 rates right up there at the very top of the motorcycling legends’ tree. Honda “6”, MV “3”, the Guzzi V8 and the Hailwood Honda are all in the same stellar league of biking greatness. It’s for this reason that Agoston’s creation attracts such critical attention.

So what makes the Agoston replica so different from the norm? The bike is stunning, finished in the iconic red and silver of the Honda factory and the detail finish is quite breathtaking. But this alone isn’t enough to make the bike special because there are a lot of beautiful Honda copies in the paddock.

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda RC181
The Agoston Honda is a faithful replica, right down to the aluminum tank and iconic factory red and silver.

Beneath the immaculate paintwork, the Agoston bike goes into esoteric, and expensive, territory. Originally, Honda would have nothing to do with Ronald’s replica and refused requests for copies of the original drawings saying that they were in Japanese and couldn’t be translated. Ronald got round this problem with the help of well connected English friends who provided a mountain of photographs and measurements which were translated into a frame by one of Agoston’s associates. Later, Honda did relent and the Hungarian team was delighted to discover that their reverse engineering was absolutely accurate.

The fuel tank, brakes, seat and fairing are also totally faithful replicas – even down to the fairing being made in aluminum. So, a Honda mechanic walking past the bike in 1967 might well think that someone had taken a newly delivered bike out of his garage.

He might also still be confused when the bike cracked up. The truth is that Honda replicas do not sound anything like the original factory bikes. They are the difference between a red-colored theme park fruit drink and a fine Californian Cabernet. They might have vaguely the same appearance – but that’s all. The Agoston bike is completely different. It has the harsh, even crude, boom and rasp of the genuine article and that’s an uncanny experience for someone who watched Hailwood race this bike in his heyday.

Where our friendly Honda technician would not be fooled is when he looked at the engine. A 550cc Honda CBX engine is the core of the motor but with the addition of a barrel from the 400 which then gives a Ronald a 55mm x 52mm, 494.2cc motor compared with Honda’s original 57mm x 52mm, 489cc unit. Not perfect but an excellent stab at creating the correct sound and feel.

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda RC181
A 550cc Honda CBX engine isn’t a perfect match with the original but does a good job of approximating the correct sound and feel.

The shaft drive valve opening of the CBX engine is converted to chain drive, like the original RC181, and a camshaft which replicates the original RC181 is fitted. Power at the back wheel is now around 80 hp at 10,500rpm. This would have been a bad day for the original works bikes, which made maybe 90 hp, but a very fair attempt at producing the genuine article.

With careful mixing and matching of Honda road bike pinions, Agoston has also managed to create a good replica of the original Honda race gearbox but with, I would guess, a much better clutch than Hailwood and Redman had.

Finally, Agoston has machined the outer engine cases of the CBX motor to imitate the RC181’s originals. If you know what a real one looks like, it’s not much of a disguise but it is excellent theater set design if you are prepared to suspend belief for the sake of the performance.

As I sat on the bike, I was still skeptical. Yes, it was beautiful and yes, in a theme park you could easily pretend to be a works star on the “GP Icons” ride. But this was the pit lane at Spa with four and a bit miles of very real GP circuit in front of me.

The rear wheel spun on the roller starter, I fed in the clutch and was instantly greeted by the harsh wail of a real GP Honda. Now I was beginning to see what Redman meant. If this was a replica, it was like nothing I had ever ridden before.

The bike instantly feels like a GP machine. It stutters and wheezes until around 6,000 and then clears and is off. From around 8,000rpm it is well away and, in normal circumstances, it will rev to 10,500rpm. With new pistons in the barrel, I was under strict orders from owner Sammy Miller, not to go above 9,000rpm and this meant tapping in gears with furious speed.

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda RC181
The Agoston replica feels like a true GP machine of yesteryear.

The most immediate impression is that the RC181 would slaughter my single-cylinder Matchless G.50 in a straight or uphill. The Honda simply zips up the rev band in a manner which would leave the British Single gasping.

Hailwood and Redman struggled with the Honda’s handling but, with gentle riding and modern tires, it is fuss free. The “RC181” is ponderous compared to a British racing Single, and the front end patters on long corners, but this is a replica intended for demos – not to win races.

The double-sided 8-inch front brake, although externally impressive, needs some serious tweaking and the suspension is miles too soft. Is this a problem? Well, not for me. On the long, long curving left-hand straight of Blanchimont at Spa, I tucked in behind the big screen and the noise, vibration and pure feel was enough for me to be alongside Agostini and his MV battling for supremacy as we screamed into the La Source hairpin for 1967 Belgian GP. Yes, it is that good.

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda RC181
Sammy Miller looks to be very pleased to own one of 15 RC181 replica bikes.

It is also a brand-new bike and that raises important questions. Sammy Miller, owner of a huge collection of fantastic original bikes in the Sammy Miller Museum explains: “The RC181 is safe, reliable and can be ridden hard and this is just impossible on genuine classic machines of the period.

“The Agoston replica also recreates the sight and sound of an authentic factory Honda in a way which modern bikes dressed up to look like the real thing never achieve. That’s why I believe it makes an important contribution to keeping the spirit of classic racing alive.”

Now to the big question. How much does this quality cost? Ronald has made just 15 of the RC181 replicas and has given an undertaking to manufacture no more in order to protect the investment of his customers. Therefore, the price is a closely guarded secret but what I can say is that the lucky owner of these bikes got the bargain of the century.

Our thanks to the Sammy Miller Museum for the loan of the RC181.