Honda Six – a legend of technology and a piece of art
In 1963, the last race of the season was the first Japanese Grand Prix at the recently built up Suzuka circuit. Honda was already established as a top manufacturer in competition, holding the 125cc and 250cc titles since 1961 and the 350cc since 1962.
But in 1963 the 125cc title was lost to Hugh Anderson’s Suzuki, the two-stroke manufacturer which was already holding the 1962-created 50cc class. Soichiro Honda was a strong supporter of the four-stroke technology, but he knew it would be difficult to resist, particularly in the lower cubic capacity classes. In the 250cc Yamaha was building a very fast 2-stroke machine, which finished twice second (TT and Assen) in the hands of Japanese rider Fumio Ito. The following week Ito won the race on the ultra-fast circuit in Spa-Francorchamps. In Suzuka Jim Redman won the race on the 4-cylinder Honda, followed by Ito and a young rider called Phil Read, both on the RD56 4-cylinder 2-stroke Yamaha. The threat was coming closer. The 1964 250cc title went to Read by a little margin, despite the extraordinary piece of mechanical engineering brought for Redman at the Nations GP in Monza: a machine fitted with a six-cylinder 250cc 4-stroke engine was unveiled! But it was not sufficient: Redman took the lead of the race but near from the end the machine slowed down. Read received the chequered flag and took the title.
The six cylinder engine made by Honda was a really fantastic piece of engineering and top of technology (except maybe for the air cooling) available at that time (remember it was 1964!), and also beautiful to watch … and to listen to! It was a (very loud…) sound of music, unique in a wide range of various different types of engines. Up until today it draws all the attentions at any vintage event where the machine is present. The six-cylinder four-stroke engine features a double overhead camshaft driven by gear train, with 4 valves per cylinder. Cubic capacity is 249,42cc, and power is 54,3 CV at 17500 rpm. Gearbox has 7 gears. The version developed for 1966 for Mike Hailwood would have a couple of more horses at 18000 rpm…
Jim Redman was alone in the team for the 1965 season in the 250 and 350 classes, and there was no miracle. When he finally scored points by winning the TT at the Isle of Man on the six-cylinder machine, Phil Read had already four wins in his pocket, and eventually took his second title in the class. On his side Redman took a 4th 350cc crown. However, in the 1966 and 1967 seasons Honda won the titles in both classes. The 250cc RC166 and the 350cc RC174 (a 297cc version was made to contest the 350cc class in 1967) were almost unbeatable in the hands of Mike Hailwood, before the curtain would suddenly come down in February 1968. Honda quit, big changes in the rules were announced, and six-cylinder engines would be out of Grand Prix racing.
Text Marc Pétrier - Photo FIM/Maurice Büla collection