The answer to this enigma is this: a 1991 Honda NSR 250 SP, the MC21 model to be specific. And the moment you saw it, you know that you had to have one. Although, chances are, unless this biker bar happened to be located in Tokyo, this scene wouldn’t have played out at all. The NSR250 models were almost entirely restricted to the Japanese domestic market, but tens of thousands of them did later end up in many other countries as second hand gray/parallel imports from the early 90s through to the early 00s.
If you’re of a much younger generation (I’m looking at you, Millennials, and casting a particularly stinky glare at the members of Generation Z) you’re probably rolling your eyes right now and scoffing. You’ve ridden a Kawasaki Ninja 250, or a Honda CBR250 … and while these are competent, pleasant bikes to ride, they’re hardly the type of machine to get one’s blood racing or adrenaline pumping, right? So what’s so special about this, like, suuuper old 250, dude? And what the hell is a two-stroke anyway? Isn’t that an iPhone app … or, like, some kind of weird bondage fetish or something? I’ve got two words for you: Nope, and nope. Okay, that was three words, to be precise. Oh well, whatever, never mind. Read on, for enlightenment awaits.
Few things are more quintessential to the concept of pure, focused motorcycling than two-stroke motors, either in single or twin piston configurations. A V-twin two-stroke? Even better. This isn’t to say that two-stroke engines are unique to motorcycles (snowmobiles use ’em, as do leafblowers, chainsaws, jetskis, powerboats and even a few vintage cars), or that four cylinder four-strokes are less “pure” bike than two-strokes (they aren’t) – but when you catch a whiff of that sweet aroma of the afterburn of two-stroke oil combusted with gasoline, and hear the high-pitched banshee howl of a two-stroke motor screaming its revs into the meat of the powerband, two words flash, in bright late 80s neon hues across your mind (especially if you’re a child of that decade, or an earlier one): MOTORCYCLE and SPEED.
Two-stroke motors have been around since 1881, but in the motorcycling world, at least, they didn’t really come to dominate any specific sphere of motorcycling … until the 70s and 80s, that is. In the 70s, the major Japanese motorcycle manufacturers all started to introduce two strokes into their streetbike lineups – everything from 50cc mopeds to the monstrously powerful Suzuki GT750 two-stroke triple, and the legendary giant killer, Yamaha’s RD350 two-stroke twin, which Yamaha described, when releasing the ’82 YPVS version, as “the nearest thing to a road going racer ever produced”. This budding notion – producing street bikes that were as close as possible to the racers that were tearing up tracks all over the world – would come into its own in a huge way in the ’80s.
Of all the street-legal ‘stroker models made by the Big Japanese Four of the 70s, only the RD350 continued to be produced well into the next decade. In the world of MotoGP racing though, two-strokes were utterly dominating the sport, and all sorts of technological advances were being achieved which made the 125, 250 and 500cc two-stroke racers ever lighter, more powerful and better handling. In light of these developments, the Big Four decided to go back to the drawing boards with their road-going two-strokes, lifting the latest in technological advances directly from their MotoGP racers and transplanting them into street-legal models.
With the goal of replicating, as closely as possible, a no-holds-barred, champing-at-the-bit race bike for the street, Suzuki pipped the other manufacturers at the post by bringing out the RG250 Gamma in 1983, a bike that looked as if all it needed were a few race number decals slapped onto its aerodynamic bodywork to enter – and win – a race on any track in the world. It was the first mass production motorcycle to feature a lightweight aluminum frame, and it also boasted other technology that had been taken straight from Suzuki’s race-winning two stroke MotoGP beasts, like a complete race-style fairing, full floater suspension and anti-dive forks – not to mention a blistering power-to-weight ratio that outgunned any of the powerful but excessively lardy big-bore four strokes of the time.
Following closely in the Gamma’s trailblazing footsteps came Honda’s NS250, the granddaddy of the NSR250. Well, the great-granddaddy was actually 1982’s oddball MVX250, a commuter slash street bike with a three cylinder liquid-cooled 250 two-stroke in an unusual V3 configuration, detuned for more torque and a broad, low-down powerband. Every family has to have its black sheep, I guess.
Since the MVX didn’t do that well sales wise, the Honda design team went back to the drawing board, and thus the NS250 was born. Two versions were produced, the earlier, unfaired and more street-oriented NS250F (1983), and the balls-to-the-wall NS250R (1984), an all-out, take-no-prisoners racer with lights and mirrors seemingly slapped on as an afterthought.
Indeed, unlike its civilized forerunner, the surprisingly torquey and tractable MVX, the NS250R, with its V-twin 250cc two stroke powerplant a virtual clone (albeit chopped in half) of the Grand Prix-winning NSR500 race bike, was an unruly, ill-tempered beast, pumping out an impressive 45 horsepower, most of which was crammed into in a narrow all-or-nothing powerband that kicked in around 8000rpm and which trailed off a mere 2000rpm later.
But what a kick that sliver of a powerband gave one in the proverbial ass! On your favorite set of twisties, tapdancing on the gear lever to keep the motor in its sweet spot, you could play out all of your MotoGP fantasies; riding the ultra-light, superbly flickable NS250R was about as close to replicating the experience of actually being a MotoGP racer as one could come, back in the mid-80s anyway. True, there were the big 500cc two-stroke race reps – Suzuki’s RG500 and Yamaha’s RD500 – but as impressive as they looked, their weight and motors, coming in a relatively soft state of tune from their respective factories, made them more street, less race.
Honda retained their NS250R model until 1986, changing little but the paint, and making no bones about the fact that it was a race replica by offering it in an eye-catching Rothmans paint scheme that mimicked that of the track racers. Meanwhile, however, the engineers and designers at Honda HQ were hard at work on a new, even more uncompromising race rep 250.