For four-stroke fans there was a glimmer of hope when Honda announced the launch of its TL125 in the early 1970s. At last, it seemed, the sound of those ringadingding two-strokes would be drowned out as the throaty rumble of a single cylinder four-stroke would be heard again. Classic fans were to be disappointed because there wasn’t a pushrod in sight. No, the compact engine unit was an ohc one and such exotica was surely for racing. Not if you’re Honda, four-strokes were what the company made and that was what would be used.
It is a long way from the early TL to the stunning RTL of David Bathe’s, pictured here at our test location in Derbyshire. The intervening years have seen the Honda name be inscribed on British – and other national – championships as well as the world crown. That these titles were won using specialised hand built machines rather than production ones is not in dispute at all but that’s the Honda way. The fact is that lord knows how many TL and TLR models were sold because of the trials successes but there it is... Honda was content to produce superbly engineered motorcycles that were easy to ride and bullet proof. The company could also ignore the demands from the public who wanted Shepherd, Lejeune and Saunders replicas, as this would be a ridiculously small production run for such a large company.
Then for some reason there was a change of heart and RTLs started to appear, first in twinshock and then, like David’s, monoshock. “Oh yes, I wanted one from the start,” David tells me as Nigel Birkett fires up the RTL and rides up the bank in front of us. “Problem was they were so rare and expensive that the chances of finding one were slim.” As ever though fate can often play a hand in such things and David heard of a 1989 RTL for sale in Yorkshire. The owner was in an irredeemable marital breakdown situation – getting divorced mate! – and things had to go. “It was six months old when I got it, so effectively new really and I’ve competed on it regularly in various nationals and Southern, South Eastern Wessex and South Midland centre events ever since.”
David admitted the new breed of water-cooled bikes being introduced in the mid 1990s encouraged him to part with a shilling or two in development money to bring the Honda up to scratch a bit. “These new bikes were taking a bit of competing against and I’d enjoyed some success with the Honda, sp naturally I wanted this to continue. I went down the ‘pass it to a tuning expert’ route and the RTL got different carburettors, modified exhausts and a few other things.
“The sad thing is while each of the mods worked and improved one area of the bike, there was a negative effect elsewhere in the performance, in the end I drew the conclusion that HRC – Honda Racing Corporation – had more money to spend on development than I did, so the bike is reasonably standard now.” Reasonably?
“Yes, there’s a stainless steel middle box in the exhaust system as RTLs have a reputation for these rusting through, mine was completely gone and the rear shock should have a gas bottle with it but when the shock was rebuilt I took it out, it’s a standard unit otherwise.” David did go on to say he’s considered a modern rear shock but hasn’t unlimited finances. So, that’s it then? “Oh, the front forks are from a 2001 Montesa 315 fitted because the parts are much easier to get for these.”
Despite the realisation that HRC has more budget than he has, experimentation does still go on: “I popped a flat slide Keihin carburettor on for a while, they’re all the rage at the moment and I’ve thought about altering the steering head angle but that would be a major alteration and I’m not that keen on cutting the frame.”
David’s successes on the Honda have included the senior class in the 1994 French Four Days De La Cruise. No mean feat, he says, because the bike didn’t like the hot weather – changing the oil every day helped make sure that it ran okay for most of the time.
The Normandale championship, when it was the Traditional Championship, in 1999 came his way on the bike and he was second on a technicality in 2001; it was foot-and-mouth year, so there was only one round and that round was won by a local lad. In 2002 he had a DVT which meant no riding for 18 months and since then he’s been choosing the Normandale rounds he enjoys because of expense getting to all the trials. In 2008 David won the Southern Eastern Centre Air-cooled Monoshock class.
“Several people tell me that I ride the RTL better than my other steeds, like the TLR250 and Montesa 4RT, but that is probably because I’ve been riding it since 1989. It’s one of those habits you just can’t seem to kick and to be honest I wouldn’t want to kick it.”
The Birkett view
Nigel Birkett, ex- works and development rider: “I’ve only ever ridden one other RTL, that was Chris Myers’ bike at a Cumbrian event,” admitted the evergreen trials legend as he set off to re-acquaint himself with the four-stroke way.
A few moments later he was back and enthusing about the clutch and gearbox being well matched. “It’s very light to operate,” he said about the clutch, “just as well as I’m not used to the braking effect of the engine yet. The actual wheel brakes are excellent too.” He was less keen on the steering though and went off to try it again, then spent a moment or two in discussion with fellow tester Mick Andrews.
The outcome of which was a call for tools and the forks being pushed through the top yoke by about 5mm. Then a further bit of testing before coming over to where David Bathe and I were standing. “That was better,” he said. “I felt it was trying to pitch me over the top on tight turns.”
So, all in all, did you like the bike? “I did, it would take a bit of practice to get used to the engine braking but that’s not a problem, the clutch too is a bit on-off rather than progressive but again, that’s just familiarisation, the first four gears are quite close together but I tend to use second a lot and that was okay with the Honda. So, yes I liked the bike.”
The verdict of riding legend Mick Andrews: Mick is probably unique in the way his experience and top level competition riding stretches from pre-unit British four-strokes right through to water-cooled two-strokes and he’s been a winner in each era too.
Add that he’s been a development rider for more factories than he can recall and had a hand in Honda development too and his comments must be worth listening to. His take on the four-stroke engine braking was positive, he liked it and didn’t even have to adjust to it.
He was less keen on the rear suspension though and had several goes at getting used to it, eventually coming to the conclusion that perhaps it was set up for a heavier rider than he. Up at the front however, the later forks were deemed spot on and as he didn’t ride it before the adjustments made for Birks didn’t feel as though it was tipping him over the top. His only suggestion for other improvement came after flicking the bike up a steep incline, and when he came to where David and I were he said: “Ooh, it’s bit sharp isn’t it.” David nodded in agreement. Mick added: “On the TLRs what we used to do was put two base gaskets in and that softened the power just enough. This was just one of the little tweaks we learnt as we went on with the TLR, it transforms the engine completely.”
A brief history of Honda in trials
This will be a very brief history... as to attempt to cover it all would be silly in a small number of words.
Honda itself has adopted a catchphrase along the lines of ‘Honda enters, Honda wins’ earned no doubt through Grand Prix racing in the 1960s. It seemed this was to be the case when the Japanese company looked at the trials world and decided Sammy Miller would be the best one to help with its feet-up aspirations.
Miller was interested, Bultaco released him and he headed east, where the TL125 was waiting. Not the most exciting of trials bikes but, after a bit of work, an accessory or two and a bigger piston, any number of riders made a gentle entry to the sport – as a beginner’s bike Honda had ‘won’. To win at a higher level something bigger was needed – the TL250 came along. They’re nice, don’t get me wrong, but very heavy. Again after being ‘Millerised’ some success started to come... but for world class riding something better was needed and Honda was very good at making one-offs to win at international level.
Using Miller’s SAM1N as a basis, the next stage were pure works machines and issued to the likes of Rob Shepherd, Nick Jefferies, Eddy Lejeune and Marland Whaley. At this point Honda was not interested in making replicas, despite the clamours from the buying public. All it seemed interested in was the publicity gained by having Honda as a winner. The TL was still selling, the TLR was about to come but still a trail type rather than a trials bike.
Then word came of an ultra special RTL, handbuilt at the Honda racing section, this was to be a replica of what Lejeune and Steve Saunders were riding, or as close as could be.
They were not cheap, Honda seemed not to care if they sold but if anyone wanted them then they were twice the price of the nearest competitor. Naturally, people wanted them and demand always outstripped supply – they are beautiful machines.
As Honda’s trials history would fill a book easily, we suggest you seek out a copy of Four-Stroke Finale by Tommy Sandham. We think it’s been reprinted recently as, again, like the bikes, the original sold like hot cakes. Finally, should Honda trials bikes interest you then have a look at www.onlytrial.com – an excellent website for Honda fans.
Barry Burton for allowing us access to the land for the day – it helps he’s a regular trials rider, and to Richard Jordan and Roland Slack for arranging the bikes, the owners themselves for coming along and to Mick Andrews and Nigel Birkett for their testing ability.