Motorcycles are addictive, sensational machines. There’s nothing quite like swinging a leg over a nice bike and setting your sights on the horizon. However, some motorcycles are far too fast to enjoy at legal speeds. Back in the 1990s, Honda had the antidote. The Honda CBR250RR MC22 was a 250cc-class motorcycle. But unlike most 250s, this motorcycle had an engine firing from four teacup cylinders, 45 horsepower, and a 19,000 RPM redline. Oh, and did I say it sounds like a vintage Formula One car? This Honda is basically the concept of “slow car fast” distilled into a motorcycle.
Last time on Holy Grails, we took a look at the most intense third-generation to leave Ford’s factory. The 1993 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R was a swan song that tossed out every single comfort feature in the mission of speed. This is a Mustang so obsessed with losing weight you didn’t get a backseat, rear carpets, air-conditioning, power options, or even a nice seat to ride in. Instead, Ford added some go-fast parts and chassis upgrades to make what it thought was a track weapon. Ford didn’t even want regular people buying them and tried to lock the 107-unit run to racers only.
Today, we’re finally departing from factory track specials. In fact, today’s Grail isn’t even a car.
If you want a motorcycle that revs to the high heavens, you’ll often find yourself looking at something with big power. There are racebikes, but you can’t afford them or ride them on the road. You could get a supersport, but exceeding 10,000 RPM on one of those usually means going speeds that the state of Virginia will throw you into jail for. What about small bikes? Well, most of those are great for beginners and commuters, but you aren’t really going to find a super high revving 250, and often, power outputs are on the lower end and might not be that thrilling of a ride.
For a brief period of time in the 1990s, Honda made essentially the Goldilocks of small motorcycles. The CBR250RR MC22 is fun-size but has a decent power rating. It redlines at 19,000 RPM, but you won’t get arrested doing it. As a bonus, it looks oh-so good.
A Product Of Wild Japan
This story takes us back to the 1980s. Like many of the cars enthusiasts adore, these motorcycles have origins in Japan’s bubble economy. The “Bubble Era,” as some call it, was a time when real estate values reached staggering levels, the standard of living in Japan uplifted citizens, and companies were hard at work inventing new products and innovating existing ones. For a while, it seemed as if money rained from the sky in Japan.
Motorcycles were also getting properly nutty. The 1980s were a time when Japanese motorcycle technology flourished. Manufacturers pulled more power out of their engines by way of higher cylinder counts and occasionally, forced induction. The birth of fuel injection in a mass-produced motorcycle was also a product of this era.
In 1980, Kawasaki introduced the KZ1000G-1 Classic. This motorcycle was your standard Universal Japanese Motorcycle-style cruiser, but it had a trick up its sleeve. For the price of $4,199, or $500 more than the standard model, the 1,015cc inline four drank by way of fuel injection. This motorcycle is often cited as the world’s first mass-produced fuel-injected motorcycle.
In 1982, Honda moved the needle with its release of the CX500 Turbo. Honda took its first-ever V-twin motorcycle, the CX, hooked a turbo up to the engine, and fed it with fuel injection. When the CX500 Turbo spools up, it puts out 19 psi of boost, helping the V-twin attain 82 HP, or double its original output.
Those are just a couple of examples of the madness coming out of Japan during the era. Japanese motorcycles got faster, more brutal, and sometimes just plain silly. Consider that the Honda CBX, a superbike sporting a 1,047cc inline-six, was a motorcycle that sold from the late 1970s into the early 1980s.
As Motorcyclist magazine writes, the 1980s also sparked an arms race of small motorcycles. Licensing restrictions made small-displacement motorcycles far more attainable. Motorcycles with displacements under 250cc were exempt from emissions testing and equipment inspections. So, if you didn’t have a lot of cash or maybe wanted to modify your bike, you got something packing less than 250 cubes. Thus, small-displacement motorcycles dominated the sales charts in Japan at the time.
But this wouldn’t be all that influenced the Japanese motorcycle makers to treat baby 250s as if they were superbikes. Motorcycle racing was reaching peak popularity in the country. As Motorcyclist notes, fans came out in droves to watch the Japanese Grand Prix and the 8 Hours of Suzuka. When those people went home, they wanted to buy race replicas of the motorcycles they saw storming down the track. Combine these events together and you have Japan’s marques fighting each other for small displacement supremacy.
However, there was one more part worth mentioning. Japan limited the 250cc class to a maximum output of 45 HP. How did the motorcycle manufacturers cope? They dumped an impressive amount of engineering into tiny engines with shot glass-size cylinders that revved higher than their larger contemporaries. In other words, the manufacturers made pint-size superbikes and of course, they looked like the big bikes that raced around tracks.
Honda was first. In 1986, it began firing the Honda CBR250F MC14 from its factory, its 249cc engine singing a glorious soundtrack. In 1987, Suzuki punched out the GSX-R250, a sportbike featuring a 248cc four. A year later, Yamaha arrived on the scene with its FZR250, its own baby sportbike firing on a 249cc four. Finally, Kawasaki brought out the ZX250R with its own 248cc firepower.
A common theme among all of these motorcycles is a tiny engine that revs ridiculously high. The Honda reached 17,000 RPM before hitting the red. Suzuki’s entry followed suit with the same redline, as did Yamaha and Kawasaki. Reviews suggest that these motorcycles didn’t even wake up until you pushed the tachometer over and each of them rode and handled like a large race replica, only scaled down.
The best part is that the manufacturers treated these like superbikes, too, and updated them every year. In 1987, Honda released the CBR250R MC17, which included evolutionary adjustments such as a slightly smaller size and shorter wheelbase. Just a year later, Honda updated the motorcycle again, coming out with the CBR250R MC19, which got new plastics and changed ever so slightly in size. By now, the redline was nudged up even higher to 18,000 RPM and the dual overhead cam engine became gear-driven.
All of these motorcycles are awesome and sound clips suggest all of them sort of sounded like vintage Formula One cars at full chat. The Formula One comparison is also a bit wild in itself as F1 engines reportedly didn’t reach those stratospheric heights until around 2002. Nowadays, F1 engines are electronically limited to revolutions lower than what these rabid teacups did back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Any one of those bikes could be classified as a Grail, but for fans of these baby racers, one stands above all. In 1990, Honda released another update to its pocket rocket, the CBR250RR MC22. This motorcycle wasn’t a reader pick, but it definitely fits the Holy Grails moniker.
This ultimate version of Honda’s entry ratcheted the redline even higher. When its competitors had to make do with at best 18,500 RPM, the Honda reached the red at 19,000 RPM and would hit 20,000 RPM if you let the engine continue its unstoppable march. So far as I can tell, the Honda didn’t just scream past its competition, but it’s one of the highest-revving street-legal mass-production motorcycles of all time. Honda’s carbureted 45 HP 250cc four-cylinder has an adorably tiny bore of 48.5mm and a stroke of 33.8mm, and the engine produced just 17.7 lb-ft of torque. Toss in the motorcycle’s 315-pound weight and it’s both lighter and faster than a brand new Honda CBR300R.
Honda didn’t just dump all of its resources into making an angry beginner bike, either. In a modern review, Motorcyclist magazine explains the additional work that went into the MC22:
While the styling shows a bit of age, a closer look at the bike reveals componentry that literally shames anything in today’s small-displacement categories. The frame is a massive twin-spar aluminum unit with offset main spars suspending the engine below that allow fresh air intake runners (ram air technology hadn’t quite made it to production motorcycles yet) a direct shot at the airbox intake. The gull-wing swingarm (identical to the two-stroke NSR250…that’s a Japanese domestic market story for another day) has undoubted race-ready rigidity while allowing the exhaust to be tucked up tight for ground clearance.
If that isn’t tantalizing enough, read Motorcyclist‘s ride notes:
Despite its hard-core racing persona, the CBR has a very amenable riding position, with a short reach to the bars, low seat height, and average legroom. The engine starts readily on cold mornings using the cable-operated choke knob, and quickly settles into a smooth, 1,200-rpm idle once warm. Because of its ultra-high rpm ceiling, the gearing can be short enough in the lower gears that taking off from a stop doesn’t require tons of clutch slip unless you’re trying to holeshot traffic. While not exactly a powerhouse below 10,000 rpm, the Honda still has enough torque to pull quickly through the gearing, and is easily a match for any modern 300cc machine.
Motorcyclist goes on to note that due to the motorcycle’s short gearing, you’ll be banging gears frequently and keeping the revs high to keep the engine in its powerband. Really, that translates to bombing down country roads going 55 mph but sounding and feeling like you’re going a much more illegal 155 mph. The review continues that the motorcycle handles well and the twin-spar aluminum chassis is a marvel of engineering, even today.
It seems Ryan from the YouTube channel FortNine feels a similar way:
By all accounts, it seems like riding a Honda CBR250RR MC22 gives you the sensation of being a MotoGP racer, but at speeds anyone can handle. That’s essentially “slow car fast,” but in motorcycle form!
I could not find production numbers for the Honda CBR250RR MC22, but they were never sold in America, making them a rare sight here. The Honda CBR250RR MC22 was sold in 45 HP tune from 1990 to 1994. After, the engines were detuned to 40 HP. I could not find any of these currently for sale in America, but in the past, they have sold for over $10,000 on this side of the Pacific. These motorcycles do roll across Japanese auctions, so I would recommend reaching out to an importer. If you do buy one or have owned one, I’d love to know all about it because the Honda CBR250RR MC22 sounds like a masterpiece.
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop it down in the comments!
Update: A reader submitted a sound clip from their own MC22!
Topshot photo: Moto 2 Imports
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