In 1990, though, things started to change. Just like Vanilla Ice showed that year that white men could jump with his smash hit Ice Ice Baby, the new NSR250 model – dubbed the MC21 – showed the world that a company’s flagship bike didn’t have to be an 1100 or a 750 … no, it could be a 250 two-stroke.
The NSR250 MC21 took every technological advancement of the 80s, everything the Honda engineers had learned from their race machines on Grand Prix circuits and from their road-oriented machines busting boundaries on the streets, all the lessons learned by the designers and marketing teams about which bikes were moving fastest off showroom floors and which ones the press were raving about – and blended all of this into one superb, revolutionary machine that changed the rules on what a 250 two-stroke should be and how it should be built.
The bike utilized the new PGMIII unit, the most advanced of the time, which featured true 3D mapping, individually tailored for each cylinder, and read and controlled a complex interaction of gear position, throttle position and speed of opening or closing thereof, revs and air mixture to give excellent low end torque, unheard of for a 250 two-stroke, as well as a brilliant hit of power when the revs climbed into the powerband. Power remained restricted to 45 horsepower in stock form, but again it was possible to easily bypass this and free up over 60 horsepower.
Weight stood at 133kg (293 pounds), and this, coupled with the new, wider rims to take the latest rubber, and upgraded suspension and frame, made for astoundingly precise handling. To call the way the bike handled at speed “sublime” did not do it justice. The styling was not simply inspired by the Grand Prix winning HRC NSR250 and NSR500 models – it was a direct copy, and if you took the lights and mirrors off the MC21 and stuck it next to the latest factory race machine you’d have a hard time telling them apart. The “gull arm” swingarm (bent to accommodate the curve of the exhaust) and frame were also direct copies of the championship winning GP machines.
It came as no surprise to the team at Honda that the NSR250 MC21 quickly earned the title of best-selling 250 in Japan that year. At home, it seemed that the rise of 250 two-strokes was an unstoppable force, a tsunami gathering in power and momentum that would soon surge beyond the shores of Japan and engulf the rest of the motorcycling world.
The pinnacle of the NSR250’s evolution was reached with the release of the MC28. Stylistically similar to its stunning sibling the MC21, the MC28 refined the looks by smoothing out some of the harsher angles and taking a few styling cues from Honda’s flagship homologation special racer, the uber-expensive, ultra-exclusiveV4 four stroke RVF750R RC45. The most notable similarities were the smoothed out tailpiece, and of course the gorgeous single-sided swingarm (originally used on the legendary RC30 in 1988).
Like its predecessors in the NSR series, the MC28 was a bike of technologically dazzling firsts in the motorcycling world. It was the first production motorcycle to ever use a digital display instead of analog dials, and it was the first ever (and only, it later turned out) Honda to use a “smart card” ignition system instead of a key. You read that right: this bike, built way back in 1993, had a plastic card with a computer chip that you would insert in order to start it. The PGMIV system was the most advanced one ever built, and was designed to work with the smart card to effectively customize how the bike handled and delivered its power to the back wheel in a variety of situations. Honda made a few different cards to customize engine performance and power characteristics for a variety of situations, including weather, type of fuel used … and of course, the one everyone wanted, the HRC racing card that would unleash the bike’s full power.
This technological wizardry, however, ironically ended up being one of the major factors that would later end up killing the NSR250. Japan’s laws on motorcycles and power output were becoming even more stringent, and, as such, the MC28 came out of the factory pretty stifled, putting out a mere 40 horsepower, five ponies fewer than its now-decrepit grandfather, the NS250R. And because of the advanced technology involved, derestriction proved nigh on impossible unless you held an advanced degree in electronics and computer programming.