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.
Five Cylinders and Just 124cc
No one with a love of motorcycle racing can be in the presence of Honda’s tiny RC148 and not be awed. Compared with the electronic sophistication, and immaculate finish, of a modern GP bike, the Honda looks almost like an extremely well-made, home-built special – until the statistics are reeled off. A normal rev limit of 21,500 rpm – and another 500 rpm still left for the last lap dash to the line – eight-speed gearbox and a race weight of 85 kgs (187lbs) mean that the Honda “5” was the absolute limit of motorcycle engineering in 1965.
In every race, the Honda sounded as if it was operating on the last 1% of what a motorcycle could achieve before it self-destructed – although in fact it was utterly reliable. By contrast, the iconic Honda 6 always produced calmer, more controlled mechanical music – like a tenor singing soprano – while the “5” was a wailing, frenetic, Punk Rock lead singer.
What is all the more remarkable is that the RC148 was designed, manufactured and built largely without the aid of computers. Go to a GP today and the IT gurus are more important than the mechanics but in 1964, Honda’s race staff were able to achieve remarkable feats of engineering with nothing more than a mechanical slide rule, log tables, a drawing pen and a notepad.
They also had an enormous advantage over modern designers: they sensed the engineering in the same way that a top chef feels exactly the amount of seasoning required to make a culinary masterpiece. The RC148 came at a time when spring makers could judge the precise temperature of piece of red hot metal by spitting on it and watching how their saliva reacted.
The RC148 did not simply appear on a sheet of paper in Honda’s drawing office: the Tokyo factory had a lot of experience of very high revving, multi-cylinder engines stretching all the way back to 1959 and the RC142 Twin which revved to an astonishing, for the day, 14,000 rpm.
However, by 1965 Honda was facing huge challenges from the two-strokes of both Suzuki and Yamaha. The battle raged across all the small classes – 50cc, 125cc and 250cc – and Honda were determined to defend the four-stroke cause.
“It was also tiny and I couldn’t fit on the thing. Give me any of the ‘4s’, or better still my ‘6’ any day of the week.”
And as our conversation finished, Luigi beamed and asked me the question I had been praying for. “You want to try the bike?”
I am not excessively tall for road racing at 5’10”, and I am well used to threading myself on classic bikes, but the “5” really was a struggle and bits of me stuck out everywhere. This was more than a minor problem because racing the “5” in its GP heyday meant completely disappearing behind the fairing and there was nowhere to complete this conjuring trick.
Even when I did squash myself in my immediate thought was that it must have been agony in the long, GP races of the 1960s. In particular, raising my head when it was on the gas tank so that I could see through the windscreen was almost impossible. When I mentioned this problem, Luigi smiled and explained how he had managed to achieve this feat of contortion.
“I had a full size model of the ‘5’ made and put it in front of the TV. So, instead of watching TV from the couch I lay flat out on the model until I taught my neck to bend back.
“It worked and I could stay crouched throughout the whole race so that was good.
“But now I can’t move my neck properly so the wonderful ‘5’ destroyed my hearing and my neck! But it was a wonderful machine. I wouldn’t change a moment of my time with it.”
And that’s what it takes to be a three times World Champion…