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Memorable Motorcycles Honda RC181

Wednesday, March 18, 2009
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.
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Big sven -Yes and no.  June 15, 2010 06:02 AM
I'm on the fence on this one, to (vaguely) replicate, or to renovate and parade the REAL bikes.... that is the question. It comes down to safety and cost, really. Accidents have happened even with the robust Brit bikes of the 50-60's, metals do age, parts do explode and throw the rider down the track (I have personally seen a gearbox-casing on a pre-unit Triumph let loose, not a pretty sight). While it is cheap enough to remanufacture brand-new parts for the fairly simple Brit bikes of yor, even the German and Italian, this is not the case when we talk of the Japanese bikes of the 60's. These bikes were the cutting-edge, designed to be replaced on a regular basis as this is what it took to win back then, many castings were wafer-thin to save weight. Redman didn't use just the one bike all season, he had around a dozen or so, plus extra engines, though he only had about 2-3 or so 6's, they were so expensive and difficult to make even Honda could barely afford it, why they stopped racing in '68. Despite the fabulous computer-aided CAD/CAM/CAE/CAA tools we have today that have cut design and manufacturing-time, and thus costs, to a fraction of what it used to be, it is still not economical the remake many of those bikes we all love so well. George Beale did it anyway. But how many of us can afford to buy one of the Honda 6's, let alone USE one. For they need mollycoddling all the time, and will need parts replaced all the time, too, often using expensive special tools to disassemble and reasemble it all. Can you do that, do you know (and trust) a local dealer who can? The answer has to be 'no' to all the above. I was once slated to renovate the original 'Monza' Honda 6, the one Redman later paraded, and was able to have a very close look at it, and believe me I'm glad the project fell through! In this regard the remodelled roadbikes are a viable option. As long as they do look reasonably like the real bikes. For, how many spectators out there today ever saw the real thing and can tell the difference? A modern watercooled engine is out, only the aircooled engines are usable, with as many bits re-made to more resemble the real thing. For these bikes will last far longer as they rev far less than the real thing did, are more robustly made, and parts are available off the shelf still. I think the best thing is that the original bikes are there for people to look at. The replicas can be raced so they can see roughly what they looked and sounded like out on the track. Sad, but time runs out for us all.
Bernard GIRARDOT -Replica ? No  April 24, 2010 01:20 AM
If you want to see a replica , take a look at George Beale's 250 Honda 6. You will not be able to find a single difference between the Honda museum bikes or the pictures from the old time with the Beale's bike. In fact you speak about a bike fitted with a 550 CBX road engine which has nothing to do with reality and history. I know it's easy to start with electric starter and it's cheaper to use as an original bike. It's a very good mecanic work but definitively not a road racing bike and a replica; just a lookalike or a bitza... You can take a look at the last issue of Classics bikes April 2010. there is an interesting article about the RCs lookalikes. I am founder member of a european group of road racing bikes collectors and we think now it's time to respect more the spectators in classics events. If you go to see a historic formula one event , would you accept to see a Maclaren fitted with a road V8 Rover engine in place of a cosworth ? I think no. keep the passion authentic...
Colin Barker -Video  April 6, 2009 12:17 PM
Try YouTube '500 Honda Mick Grant'. The bike on this belongs to an English guy who has both the 500 and 350 Agoston Hondas.
Ryan Smith -A Look Into Honda Racing Past  April 2, 2009 10:51 PM
Thanks to Sammy Miller for letting this bike out for some fresh air around the race track. What a nice looking replica while being a tad more updated and very friendly while being operated. Now we just need some video or at least a recording of how it sounds!
Tom Joyce -editing  March 22, 2009 04:17 PM
Soichiro Honda