The month before I rode this Honda NSR 500, I tried to get under the skin of two-stroke motorcycling by rebuilding an old Kawasaki KMX 200. This time I’d get to experience the faster side of two-stroke technology.
This month, I put down the hammer and chisel and picked up this bike. When I say ‘picked up’, I don’t actually mean that I wrapped my arms around its carbon fibre flanks and scooped it up, but I could have, if I wanted to. The bike that you’re looking at is a 1998 Honda NSR500V. It’s a water-cooled V-twin two-stroke Grand Prix bike from the era that many will remember as the absolute pinnacle of two-stroke racing, as it was the final one. In 2002, MotoGP ditched the 500cc two-dinger in favour of the 990cc four-stroke, and that was that. Let’s not get sidetracked, though; I promised to bring you a tale of two-stroke riding, and there are far more important things to talk about than the evolution of MotoGP.
My experience of riding two-stroke road bikes is pretty limited. I rode a Yamaha TZR125 (blue and yellow with gold wheels, naturally) when I was 11, for five minutes. To get the ride, I’d traded my best friend’s older brother’s Yamaha DT50 with some bigger boys. In return, I got five minutes on the bike of my dreams, plus a Benson and Hedges cigarette. Hours after my bezzie’s older brother had punched me in the face for giving his bike away, I was still smiling.
The next time I rode a two-stroke was in 2009. It was Barry Sheene’s Suzuki RG500 up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Nobody punched me in the face, but I did stall the bike in front of about 50,000 people. The gearshift was on the opposite side and was upside-down, so every time I dabbed the rear brake, I was actually changing up a gear. Eventually the bike stalled. I was riding side-by-side with Mick Doohan at the time; he looked at me like I was some kind of idiot. What a fantastic judge of character he is.
I can’t remember much about the riding experience, other than being very nervous. Oh, and that the bike made a nice noise and felt like it was worth a gazillion pounds. I delivered it back to its owner in one piece, grateful for the experience but even more grateful that I hadn’t parked it up a tree.
I came to the Goodwood Festival of Speed media day in 2012 better prepared. I knew that I’d be riding a two-stroke race bike. I knew that the gearshift was on the conventional side and I knew that (thanks to the lack of thousands of baying fans), I’d be able to concentrate and appreciate what the 1998 Honda NSR500V had to offer.
So what does it have to offer? Well, if you ask 500cc aficionados they’ll tell you it had less to offer than the NSR500 fours of the same era. They’ll also tell you that it didn’t ever really have a hope of competing with the top-10 finishers of its day in a dry race, even when it was absolutely singing. What the DFS crew chiefs won’t tell you is what it feels like to be sitting astride a bike that weighs 103kg, has 138bhp and a window of power that you’ll likely be hurled through if you haven’t had your Weetabix. That’s my job.
Those numbers, the power-to-weight ones, equate to roughly 1,400bhp per ton (depending on rider weight). If you don’t understand power-to-weight ratios, I won’t try and confuse you; just trust me when I say that 1,400bhp per ton is more than shit-loads and a tiny bit less than the amount required to flip the world upside-down. I went looking for the perfect example of what a two-stroke motorcycle represents. I think I found it.
Aside from the beautiful bits bolted to this bike – the brakes, the forks, the one- piece carbon rear sub-frame, the sweet-looking exhaust and the race paint – it is dripping with the kind of detail that would have people like you numb for half an hour while you point and poke and wonder. I spent 15 minutes just feeling the honeycomb weave of the carbon on the inside of the sub-frame. ‘Tis a beauty, make no mistake.
When I came to ride it, eventually, I had to stop pretending I knew what I was doing and reveal myself as a complete two-stroke numpty. I got three runs up the 1.16-mile Goodwood hill-climb route. It’s a little wider than a single-track road, is well-surfaced and has reasonable run-off, except for the bits where there are huge flint walls or thick clumps of forest right next to the track.
I’d be sharing the track with the cars and bikes that had converged to help promote the upcoming Festival of Speed. If you’ve never been, you really should. It’s the closest thing to sitting on YouTube and typing in random cars and bikes. Weird stuff just appears in front of your eyes, usually flat-out and very sideways.
Like most race bikes, the NSR needed starting on a spinning wheel, on which I managed to flatten the battery before the bike coughed into life. Instead, we ended up bump-starting the bike down the hill in front of the grandiose house, watched by every grown-up motoring journalist and racer in the country. Nice one. I kept my head down and focused on paddling the bike down the hill.
When it fired, I did what I usually do when people are looking at me with some expectation: blagged it. With the bike rolling along at sprinting speed, I kept the clutch in and blipped the throttle, just like they do on the telly. It felt good, though, and was much easier to pilot than I expected, despite the absolutely useless steering lock. A three-point turn became an Austin Powers outtake as I shuffled it forwards and backwards like a bow saw. By the time I lined up, the temperature gauge had crept to 64 degrees, only six away from what owner Martin Jones said was a dangerously high figure to allow the bike to run at.
With the track still closed, I ran the bike up and down the form-up area, Ferrari GTO here, half-million-pound AC Cobra there. At one point, it felt more like filtering through town than warming up a GP bike. I slipped round a Le Mans car and shot past Capirossi’s barking Ducati GP bike. Within minutes of getting it running, I’d forgotten to be scared of the NSR, for now.
Eventually I was at the line, staring at the hay bales and trees a couple of hundred metres up the road. I already had a handle on the easygoing clutch, I knew I wouldn’t stall it. What I didn’t know, though, was what would happen when I let the thing out with more than a whiff of gas. It didn’t take long to find out.
Whhaaaaaaaaaaapppp, second gear, whhaaaaappppp… Forget all that junk about two-strokes having no bottom-end; this one had useable, driveable punch from 3,000rpm. After the first right, you have to ride past the house, where everyone was watching. It’s kind of like riding past your favourite pub on a sunny Sunday; you can feel the expectation from the watching crowd. I did my best to ignore it but couldn’t help letting the bike rev out a little in second. This was the first time I’d ever wheelied a 500cc GP bike.
You can see in the pictures that I was taking it steady – you would too – but what you can’t see is the bike and me chatting away like old mates. Turns out I’m fully conversant at riding really fast bikes quite slowly, as the NSR and I got along just fine. When it wanted to wheelie, it did; when I didn’t want it to wheelie, it did anyway. When it’s revving over 7,000rpm, unless your throttle input is microscopic, the front lifts. This wasn’t as hard to figure out as how quickly the thing turned.
Past the house, up to third gear and too busy looking good, I approached a left turn that seemed to be much, much sharper than it had ever been before. I was scared. I pushed the inside bar away from me and pulled the bike to the inside curb. I avoided riding off the inside of the track by what felt like a centimetre, maybe two at a push. It turned it so quickly, like no other bike I’d ridden before. That lightweight KMX 200 engine that I was throwing round my shed a few weeks before operates on the same principle; fewer moving parts equals less weight.
This bike certainly had less weight than anything I’d ridden before. The corner exit followed by a front wheel bouncing second, third and fourth gear squirt along the final straight triggered a nervous giggle that didn’t end until after I’d left the bike leaning against a fencepost and put some distance between us.
Sitting with my head in my hands, at ground level with the NSR, I had my two-stroke epiphany. It was quite simple really. While I enjoy spinning spanners and getting my hands dirty, I don’t love it. I never have. It can be good fun, but I don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Yes, it’s raining, I’m in the workshop today!” Fixing two-strokes is as interesting to me as fixing diesel digger engines, in that you go looking for a broken part, you find it and you put it back together again. I get just as excited starting my car after I’ve serviced it as I do putting a motorbike engine back together. If it runs after I’ve had my hands inside it, then basically I’ve won.
Riding is what it’s all about for me. However many times the NSR had just tried to kill me on the way up the hill, I was ready to do it all over again. In fact, it felt so rideable that I considered squeezing through the gate at the top and riding it home. I had two more runs up the hill. Each one allowed me to concentrate on what it was about the bike that I was getting so attached to. When I look at these pictures, I’m instantly reminded of that throat-clearing feeling the motor made as it shifted from torque pull to crazy pushing power.
I’m under no illusion that the bike has had far harder days at the office than carting me up somebody’s overgrown driveway, but at the same time I know I made it work. I know I put it fully on the stop in second gear and held on (with white knuckles) to see what would happen. Lots happened, and I loved all of it. Sure, this bike isn’t exactly road-legal, but everything I’d heard from other bikers about the two-stroke road riding experience happened to me while I was on the NSR. I think that, if you want to replicate it, you have two options. The first is to find the nearest block of flats, drag your litre bike to the roof, take the engine out and get a mate to push you over the edge. The second is to head to eBay and do the obvious.