2003 Honda CR125 – Craigslist Killer Project

July 20, 2011
JC Hilderbrand
JC Hilderbrand
Off-Road Editor|Articles|Articles RSS|Blog |Blog Posts |Blog RSS

Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA’s Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn’t matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

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Get the breakdown on this used project bike in the 2003 Honda CR125 Craigslist Project Video.

Craigslist – the place where Internet surfers can find everything from sex to scuba equipment and anything between. For motorcycles it’s become a go-to source for used bikes, parts and gear. Forget the local paper classifieds. When it’s time to find a new (used) bike the first place anyone goes is straight to the CL. We all know someone who knows someone that picked up a cherry ride for practically nothing; stealing an iconic moto classic, swiping a fresh four-stroke or sourcing the perfect project bike. That was the case at MotoUSA when our buddy and owner of Jay Clark Enterprises called to say he’d found a 2003 Honda CR125 for 500 bucks.

Well, it was most of a 2003 CR125. A complete rolling chassis and box of engine parts made for an almost complete bike. Two-strokes are some of the most popular machines to

Videos Our Sponsor

Hear comments from our test riders about the Honda project bike and how it stacks up against the new Yamana in our 2003 CR125 vs. 2011 YZ125 Video.

find a home on Craigslist, and they’ve been enjoying a resurgence in the past few years. Riders are tired of paying the high prices associated with owning and maintaining a four-stroke, or may just want to find that light, snappy riding style again. If there’s one bike that has been a favorite around the MotoUSA offices it’s the 125cc motocrosser. These machines are so much fun that it’s hard to put into words, so the ’03 made a perfect platform to build our play/race bike. We decided to see if it’s possible to find something on CL, throw a little coin into it and come away with something that’s comparable to modern bikes. Really, how good of a deal is Craigslist?

Once the bike was purchased it was a matter of cleaning up. The first appointment was with the pressure washer where the CR got a thorough blasting and scrubbing from top to bottom, including the partially assembled engine components. Jay Clark handled the rebuild and we set our resident pro-level rider, Chris See, and intermediate guest tester, Cameron Kyler, on the bike for a day at Milestone MX Park. Our 2011 Yamaha YZ125 was on hand as a baseline comparison for modern tiddlers (even though America only gets the Yammie and KTM).

“Just the sound of a 125 two-stroke has me super excited to see what Jay could do to that CR125,” said See. “Having ridden the YZ already, which is a superb motorcycle in stock form, things are going to get a little crazy on the fun side of the motocross track.”

The Honda came a long ways from when it was first purchased for $500.

Taking care of that incomplete pile of engine parts was the first priority. With the cylinder head missing it was a matter of an entire replacement. That came down to a billet head from Phathead Racing. Moving south, Millennium Tech stripped and re-plated the cylinder to remove a few scratches that came from the original meltdown. The new cylinder plating was set at the stock configuration and matched to a Vertex Pro Replica Racing Piston. Since the engine was apart it made sense to inspect the crank. We opted to go with a Hot Rods unit. This complete crank replaces the stock version and comes as a single piece. Cometic gaskets kits for the top and bottom end seal everything together and all of the new engine components are lubricated with Bel-Ray oils.

Once the new engine was put together it was time to address the intake and exhaust. An Uni air filter feeds a MotoTassinari VForce3 reed cage. An FMF Fatty pipe and Shorty silencer dispense the burnt VP racing fuel on the way out.

All 125s are top-end screamers that will fall on their face if shifted incorrectly. The CR is no different though it has an even narrower powerband than the YZ. The engine has plenty of power but it is delivered in a high-rpm wallop. We made some small jetting improvements throughout the day that helped the bottom end but never had it entirely cleaned up. A few rounds of trackside tinkering made the CR a little crisper, but there was still room for jetting improvement. The bike has since gotten dialed in as it works its way around the SoCal motocross scene. This is one of those areas that will have to be fine-tuned for a particular riding area and will also change over time depending on where someone goes to ride.

Part of what made the Honda really feel temperamental was the clutch. Our riders noted that the new Hinson clutch was fairly stiff, which likely would have broken in after a bit more time. Both riders noted that the Yamaha has a much smoother pull. Working the CR’s left lever takes effort and combined with the top-end bias makes for a more difficult powerband to control. Clark installed a Hinson billet clutch basket, inner hub fiber and steel plates, pressure plate and springs.

“The clutch on the Honda was hard to use,” notes Kyler. “It would grab and wasn’t smooth to pull in. The motor was great on mid and top so you really had to feather the clutch to keep it on the pipe.”

Left: A billet head from Phathead Racing. Center: QTM 270mm oversized front brake kit. Right: FMF Fatty exhaust pipe. 

The suspension was in good shape but there’s no telling what has or hasn’t been done to it over the years. We shipped it off to MB1. The fork has .44 kg/mm springs with the oil level set at 350cc and a fork tube height of 5cc above the Ride Engineering 22mm offset triple clamps. The shock uses a 4.9 kg/mm coil. Both the front and rear were revalved to suit a fast intermediate rider.

“It handled well and was good in the whoops,” notes our 120-pound intermediate. “It didn’t buck or get sideways, which I liked.”

See was a little more opinionated about the setup, saying:

The Honda’s revised MB1 suspension worked well for our testers though our pro wanted some stiffer springs. Both bikes handle quickly, but they have different ergonomics.

“At cruising speeds the CR has a tractor feel to it, meaning the front end sits real high and the rear end sits real low and mushy. When I pushed (the pace) the front end felt decent, but the shock was still feeling like mush,” he said of the MB1 combo. “I softened the front fork compression one click, slowed down the rebound two clicks. The rear end went the opposite and we moved the compression three clicks stiffer and set the rebound going one click faster. At 160 pounds I think I would put a stiffer rear shock spring to match the fork and the suspension would be just fine.”

The tires were no good but the wheels and hubs looked straight. To be sure they were set up and trued correctly, we sent them off to TCR for the racer package. We had the rims polished, laced and trued with freshly anodized hubs. The hubs have a magnesium finish which gives them a trick factory look. Once the hardware was complete a set of Dunlop tires were spooned on. The front is a Dunlop MX31 front tire sized 80/100-21 and out back is a Dunlop MX51 rear tire sized 100/90-19. New drive components were necessary and were provided by Renthal’s front chainwheel, Ultralight rear sprocket and gold R1 Works Chain. Renthal also provided a set of 997-bend handlebars and half-waffle grips.

“The controls fit me great,” said our 5’10” test rider, “but I think for a smaller rider like a kid moving up from the mini-bike ranks the Yamaha might be a better fit in stock form.”

“When I sat on the Honda it was a little low with the handlebars higher,” agreed the two-inch-shorter Kyler. “I thought this would make it harder to ride but it turned really well and was easy to lay over in the turns. I expected the Yamaha to only do that, so it was a surprise.”

For half the price of a new YZ125 we had a bike that runs great but looks like hell. Clark decided to spruce it up by adding a few extras. A full set of UFO plastics was bolted on and covered with custom DeCal Works graphics along with a custom seat cover from MotoSeat. A Works Connection Elite clutch perch and billet front and rear brake covers add some color. Not all of the additional upgrades were purely aesthetic. Honda’s are known for their wimpy footpegs so a set of titanium pegs from Light Speed Performance were installed for better grip. Another performance mod that wasn’t entirely necessary was the Ride Engineering 22mm offset triple clamp, which was part of the handling package that our testers liked. Even a bike as light as the CR125 can benefit from better braking so a QTM 270mm front brake kit takes care of that. It mounts to the stock caliper holes and offers greatly increased torque from the front binder.

Our testers wanted to ride the Honda first simply because it looks so sweet. Many of the aesthetics elevate the cost, but when you look good, you feel good, and when you feel good you ride good.

“The Craigslist 2003 CR125R was at first a total roach, and not something you really want to ride, but I must say Jay Clark made this motorcycle look delightful. Jay had put subtle things on this bike to make it work better than stock, but also make it one of those bikes you want to look twice at. It’s a beautiful machine.”

Even though the bill started running higher by making it look as good as it performs, it’s still clear that the used bike market is a great place to find competitive bikes. An important key for our Craigslist sample is that the Honda had a solid foundation. The rolling chassis was in great shape and the engine was the main focus. It’s a good idea to pull the engine apart for inspection on any used bike, particularly one that comes pre-disassembled. Some parts like the crank were replaced out of caution since the cases were already split.

“You just really never know what you’re going to get so you must be willing to take the time to go through every part on the motorcycle,” said See about buying used. “When you buy a brand spanking new dirt bike you know everything is going to be perfect. After riding these two-stroke dirt-sickles it did prompt me to go purchase a CR125 of my own and try to fix it up.”

With eight years of technological disadvantage, our Craigslist Killer didn’t slaughter the tight-running 2011 YZ125, and the Honda isn’t going to wax modern 250Fs by any means. But, it also didn’t murder the bank account. Ultimately, our little CR is a great motorcycle for amateur weekend racing and play riding, and it proved that CL can produce those wicked deals if you’re willing to watch and wait for the right machine. From there it’s up to the individual rider to invest as much as they see fit toward making it their regular ride.

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