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For decades, the 500cc class was the pinnacle of Grand Prix racing. At the close of the 1950s, top teams in the class included Gilera, MV Agusta, Norton and BMW, all ridden by champions and legendary riders.
Soichiro Honda recognized in 1959 that the 500cc class was no place for an upstart Japanese company to enter Grand Prix racing. So he competed first with a 125 at the Isle of Man. In 1960, Honda launched a full-fledged racing program, contesting all seven rounds on the Grand Prix calendar in the 125 and 250 classes with multiple riders. Success quickly followed. Honda won its first Grand Prix in Spain, the race that kicked off the 1961 season in the 125 class. As that memorable year closed out, Honda riders dominated both the 125 and 250 classes, locking down four of the top five spots in the 125 class and all top five in the 250 class. Not bad for newcomers.
By 1966, just seven short years since the competition had raised a skeptical eyebrow at the unknown Japanese racing team, Honda had earned world championships in the 50, 125, 250 and 350 classes. Only one crown was missing: the 500cc World Championship. This omission would soon be addressed.
The 500 class was packed with formidable opposition fielding well-honed race programs. As the 1966 season approached, all kinds of rumors and speculation regarding Honda’s new half-liter racer filled the paddock. Everyone had marveled at Honda’s incredible six-cylinder 250cc RC165 and RC166, and those machines fueled speculation that Honda would build a six-cylinder 500 or perhaps even a V-8.
Instead, Honda rolled out the RC181, a four-cylinder that would establish the most enduring engine architecture in motorcycling: an inline four, air-cooled, with double overhead cams. Gearbox behind the crank, carburetors above that. Tubular-steel, twin-loop chassis. Down the road, hundreds of thousands of motorcycles would follow this broad outline.
At the very first 500 GP of 1966—the old TT track in Assen—the RC181 won the race, beating the great MV Agusta team. By the season’s end, Honda had easily won the manufacturer’s championship in the 500 class, but the rider’s title would slip through the team’s hands.
Honda could clearly run with the big dogs, but the RC181 never won the rider’s title and would be in mothballs for many years before Honda would make its return to Grand Prix racing and attempt again to win the 500cc world championship. It wasn’t until 1983 that an American teenager from Shreveport, Louisiana, would bring Honda its first 500cc World Championship. But that’s another story…
Model: Honda RC181
Engine: DOHC four-stroke inline-four, four valves per cylinder
Bore and Stroke: 57.0 x 48.0mm
Output: 84 hp
Compression Ratio: 12.0:1
Dry Weight: 337.3 pounds
Top Speed: Over 161 mph
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