Our European correspondent Frank Melling reminisces about Soichiro Honda's CB92 and how its influence helped shape the future of the Honda corporation.
There are three ways of looking at the Honda CB92. The first and most popular view of the little Honda today is that it is a motorcycling icon: one of the bikes which stand as a shrine to Honda's engineering excellence. The second way is as a practical classic motorcycle. In truth, the bike was hard work, in a multitude of ways, from the moment it was sold - and it hasn't got any better with age.
Now to the third view, which is the most interesting of all. The CB92 is a wonderful window on the thinking of Soichiro Honda and the influences which rested heavily on him in the late 1950s. Brought to life in metal, the CB92 shows the pressures on the father of Honda and how he reacted to them. For this reason alone, it is a landmark motorcycle.
We need to go back to 1954 - five years before the launch of the little Honda - to understand the CB92. It must be remembered that at this time Honda's future global success was far from certain. Soichiro's eponymous marque was in competition with hundreds of other Japanese motorcycle manufacturers - not to say the worldwide presence that the British bike industry still retained. A bet on the future success of Honda would have been distinctly speculative.
There were many forces acting on Soichiro, and these must be seen in historical context. In 1954, Mr. Honda undertook his now legendary European Odyssey. Leaving Japan, his view was that if he could build motors with an output of 100 hp per liter he would be competitive. Arriving in the Isle of Man, he saw that the NSU Rennmax was producing almost 160 hp/liter - and with outstanding reliability.
The CB92's overhead-cam, twin-cylinder engine never reached the podium in the coveted 125 class race up Mount Asama until a privateer named Moto Kitano won the very last race.
The Rennmax clearly had a huge influence on Mr. Honda, but it would be foolish to imply that he plagiarized the German design. Rather, he took back the big ideas and interpreted them in a very Honda way.
First was the Rennmax's pressed-steel frame. A frame constructed from metal pressings was stiff, cheap to mass-produce and could be made to give outstanding handling. The problem lay in the cost of the tooling and the consequential large pressing machines. Both required a huge amount of expenditure and this is why European manufacturers, largely but not entirely, avoided pressed-steel frames. Honda had no fear in committing his factory to such an immense outlay because he had production volumes in mind which would have terrified the rest of the world.
Next came leading-link forks. It must be remembered that at the time, telescopic front forks were crude and offered minimal travel and poor damping. By contrast, leading-link forks offered greater stability with better damping, especially in fast curves and straight-line riding. The problems were the cost of manufacture - steel pressings again - and a heaviness of handling in tight corners.
Honda was already producing overhead-cam engines, but the double-overhead-cam Rennmax was a Twin. This convinced Soichiro, if he needed help in making up his mind, that the way forward was with Twins and lots of revs. This approach was in direct contrast to the successful British race-bikes of the day, such as the Manx Norton and Matchless G.50, which Mr. Honda felt were a throwback to their pre-war heyday of torquey, high-performance Singles.
Melling said the streamlined tank and skinny seat of the CB92 was styled purely 'for racing.'
Now we must return to Japan and the Asama races. Again, there needs to be some historical background put into the story. In the immediate post-war years, Japan did not have a European quality race track or even an American speed bowl. The best available accessible space was the road system around the Asama volcano, 90 miles north-west of Tokyo. Mount Asama was very much an active volcano, and still is for that matter, so in 1933 an observatory had been built on the eastern side of the volcano. The observatory needed an access road and it was this which became the site for the "All Japan Motorcycle Race" in 1955.
The track was just over 12 miles a lap and, of critical importance, consisted of a rolled, volcanic ash surface. Thus, what was needed was straight-line stability and lots of power. Riders looked like American flat-track racers rather than the svelte, one-piece-suited Europeans of the Grand Prix circus. They wore lace up boots, tank driver's goggles, and serious expressions. Whilst the riders might have looked like amateurs, the Japanese manufacturers took the Asama races incredibly seriously - and none more so than Honda.
In fact, Honda never won the coveted 125 class with one of their works bikes in either the 1955, 1957 or 1959 races. But in the last-ever Asama race, a privateer named Moto Kitano took first place - not with a factory machine, but a CB92 production racer. Mr. Honda reportedly took this in good part because an amateur, winning on a converted road bike, was very good for sales in Japan.
The winning bike was pure CB92 - and there it was in all its glory: pressed-steel frame, overhead-cam twin-cylinder engine and leading-link forks - truly a window on the mind of Soichiro Honda in the late 1950s.
The leading-link forks offered greater stability with better damping than other crude telescopic front forks of the period that offered minimal travel and poor damping.
Perhaps the reason for the bike's quirky appearance now becomes apparent: it was an Asama racer with lights, completely ready for action straight out of the box. Certainly, few other motorcycles are more distinctive in appearance and this is why the CB92 retains such a cult following in classic bike circles.
The final part of the story lies in Europe. With 15 horsepower available as the bike left the showroom floor, and a factory race kit available over the counter, CB92s soon became the stock in trade for many amateur racers - and the depredation they wreaked on the little Hondas was legendary. This is a key reason for the scarcity of CB92s today.
In truth, the best place to see a CB92 is either on the race track or parked up at a classic bike show, since riding one on the road is a dispiriting experience for a full-sized man. Nearly 8,000 rpm is needed to make any progress, and then it's not fast - despite the Honda's appearance. High revs, a clunky gearbox and an extremely demanding maintenance regime do not make for a user-friendly classic bike.
Even so, there are few more charismatic motorcycles in the world, and therefore you can expect to pay a huge amount of money for a nice example. Write a check out for only $12,000 to own a nice example and you can count yourself very lucky.
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