Memorable Motorcycle: Honda CR110

January 13, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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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.

 CR110s were now fetching  45 000 and then some. However  currently the market is heading in reverse and now there is a good sprinkling of unsold CR110s.
In 1961 FIM announced that a 50cc racing category would be developed paved the way for Honda’s  CR110 project.

The Honda CR110 is best understood if I relate the story told to me by six-time World Champion and Honda team captain in the 1960s, Jim Redman.

“It was my first visit to Honda and I was taken through the R&D department which was working flat out on the following year’s race bikes. There was a change in my guide’s attitude as we passed a middle-aged bloke in a white coat working at a bench. I asked who the engineer was. My guide smiled and replied: ‘That’s Mr. Honda who owns the factory. He’s your new boss!’”

In 2010 you couldn’t even imagine the CEO of a major manufacturer having oil on his hands and a spanner in his overall pocket. But 50 years ago things were different and Soichiro Honda in particular was obsessive about proving that he made the best motorcycles in the world, and the way to do this was by winning races.

In 1961 the FIM – the body which governs world motorcycle sport, announced that the world championships for the following year would include a 50cc category. With a new championship to win, Honda wanted a slice of the action.

Ralph Bryans on the factory 50cc twin CR110.
Ralph Bryans on the Honda factory 50cc Twin CR110. The Japanese company committed to racing under Mr. Honda’s personal directive.

Mr. Honda was frightened of nothing technically and also wasn’t afraid of spending a lot of money on racing. In later days this policy was to bring Honda to the point of real financial problems, but in the heady days of infinite expansion Sochiro’s word was law. If Mr. Honda wanted a 50cc racer then he was going to get one.

Initially, the works entry and production racer intended for general sale were almost identical. In fact, there was a third model also: the street legal hyper-sport 50. This miniature masterpiece actually went on sale in Japan, complete with “street scrambler” exhaust and lights.

The heart of both the factory and production bikes was a breath-taking piece of engineering. In the huge cylinder head are four valves and a central spark plug. Opening the valves of the CR110 are two camshafts operating through a gear train.

Although only barely oversquare at a 40mm bore x 39mm stroke, the tiny 49cc engine revved to 14,000 rpm and produced an astonishing 8.5 horsepower. With a feather-light pilot glued to the gas tank, a stock CR110 would manage over 90 mph. Peak torque came in at 12,700 rpm, although this was only 2.89 lb-ft – barely enough to open a jar of airtight olives!

Honda CR110
The CR110 is equipped with a 49cc engine capable of 8.5 hp and top speed of 90 mph.

The first CR110s left the factory with a five-speed gearbox and a blanking plug covering the aperture occupied by the kick-starter shaft. With miniscule torque, the five-speeder was soon replaced by an eight-speed gearbox on the customer bike and works machine also. A dry clutch of considerable size was fitted and of vital importance. Once the motor dropped out of its small powerband, the only way to tease it back into action was via the clutch.

The miniature drum brakes were, in fact, over engineered for the 50: simply sitting up from behind the fairing and closing the throttle was enough to induce a dramatic reduction in speed. Typically, a CR110 weighs around 140 pounds at the starting line and in physical form is very tiny. That’s why the top 50cc riders of the day were all extremely light. What wasn’t small, however, was the booming “braaaah, braaaah, braaaah” emanating from the long, tapered megaphone exhaust.

This brings us to the present day and a rather interesting shift in the classic motorcycle market place. Go back to 1970 when the CR110 was just another old, slow and redundant race bike selling for $600. Move on 30 years and the fever for classic Honda race bikes had kicked in to epidemic proportions. CR110s were now fetching $45,000 and then some. However, currently the market is heading in reverse and now there is a good sprinkling of unsold CR110s.

Currently CR110s are fetching around  45 000 in the market despite never winning a world championship.
Honda CR110s can still to be had in the vintage market. Riders must front around 45 Grand, however, not to mention the grim costs of upkeep.

There are a couple of reasons for this fall in price. First, the CR110 never won a World Championship or even a GP for that matter, so the mystique of owning a racing icon isn’t there. Legendary deeds in the past are what attract rich collectors, most of whom never even start their bikes. For race bike enthusiasts who do actively parade their machines at classic festivals the problem is running a CR110. There is nothing that mankind has made which can’t be re-made but spares for the baby Honda make hen’s teeth look common and unicorn horns quite freely available.

If you have a spare $30,000 I would hang onto it for awhile until the credit crunch becomes really tight in Europe. As miraculous as the CR1110 is, the bike is sure to be a lot cheaper in the coming months and years.