When Honda created its fabled six-cylinder racebikes in the 1960s, it was pushing back the frontiers of the technically possible. Honda's attitude was that if its engineers could imagine it, they could build it-and it would win. The machines they created were the two-wheeled equivalent of the Apollo 11 spacecraft and the first manned mission to the moon in 1969.
Yet if you're tempted to imagine, from the smug viewpoint of the 21st century, that re-creating one of Honda's Sixes ought to be fairly easy, think again. Imagine attempting to build a replica of NASA's Columbia, the Eagle lunar module and the Saturn pile of pyrotechnics that sent it toward the Sea of Tranquility. Even nearly 40 years later, much of what Honda's race shop achieved remains at the cutting edge of what can be done with metal. That one man attempted to reproduce it in a sleepy English village is staggering. Cold fusion might have been easier.
That man is George Beale. A retired pharmacist and for many years a sponsor of the cream of U.K.-based riders, Beale is better known for the other race replicas he's already built. Among his last big projects was making 1969 four-cylinder GP Benellis from scratch, as easy as building bicycles compared to this job. So why take on something so mind-numbingly complex as the last Honda Six, the 297cc RC174?
Ask almost anyone who can remember the '60s and they'll tell you this was The Bike. The RC174 was an elegant stiletto, good enough to hold back Yamaha's and Suzuki's raucous tide of two-strokes. The unearthly sound it made was like nothing heard before. or since.
Then there was the word of god, otherwise known as Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood. Many years ago Hailwood told Beale that Honda's six-cylinder machines, in particular the RC174, were the best, most dominant bikes he'd ever raced. The RC174 was so fast, Hailwood declared, "I could have won on it with one arm tied behind my back." If re-creating great machines is what turns you on, then no other project could be so challenging.
For many years Beale's dream of re-creating the RC174 remained just that-a heady dream. Then, some years ago, a distinguished visitor dropped by his Leicestershire home. His name was Sato, director of the factory's own museum, Honda Collection Hall. "I was building a Benelli at the time," remembers Beale, "and he must have been quite impressed, because before he left he asked if I'd consider building a Honda Six. I never imagined I'd get permission from Honda. Later I wrote to Mr. Sato saying I'd love to build a Six, and he replied with permission to undertake the project.
"That was the easy bit. In comparison, the Benelli had been a doddle, using many parts from proprietary suppliers which are still fairly readily available today, such as forks, engine plumbing and bearings, all of which can be the devil to reproduce from scratch. But an old friend, Teruhisa 'Teri' Murayama, already had an original RC174, and I persuaded him to send what he calls his 'pension scheme' to England so I could copy it.
"Later, I went to Japan to visit Teri and Mr. Sato and discuss the project. Sato agreed to let me borrow the missing parts, but unfortunately no drawings were available since even Honda itself had none.
"When Teri's Six arrived, we took the engine out and thought it must be empty because it was so light." Anxiously, Beale stripped it, but everything inside seemed complete. In fact, everything was brand-new. It had never even been started. "This was probably the engine built for Hailwood to race in '68, just before Honda pulled out of Grands Prix," he says. "So it was ideal for us. All the parts were to the very latest spec, and there would be no need to estimate wear to reproduce them."
Among other parts acquired were banks of the Six's jewel-like carburetors. Both the 250cc and 297cc sixes were raced at various times with round- and flat-slide carbs, depending on the power characteristics desired for each race. Beale ended up with a set of each.
Bit by bit, all the original parts came together. All that remained to be done was to re-create these thousands of pieces to the tiniest tolerances, put them together and make them work like Honda did in '67.
Beale soon got a taste of what lay ahead. The first parts made were the oil coolers. If that seems an odd beginning, it was because Honda's own Sixes (the ones it was bringing to its 50th birthday celebration at the '98 TT) had a problem with leaking coolers. When even Honda couldn't get new ones made, Beale was asked if he could help.
"I went to several radiator specialists," Beale remembers, "all of whom said they couldn't match the originals, until I came across Anglian Radiators in Cambridge. They specialize in small production runs, and could source the characteristic frilly finning of the Honda parts from Sweden. Unfortunately it was the wrong size, so every one had to be laboriously cut down by hand with scissors."
In total, 30 coolers were made, including six for Honda, but the process took nine months. "And this is the first bloody bit," Beale thought, beginning to realize what he'd taken on. "I could have just bought an off-the-shelf cooler which would have done the job, but the point was that the replica had to be exactly right-or as near as it was possible to make it."
Yet even that was nothing compared to the engine parts. Most of these were made by JPX, a French company based near Le Mans, France, which specializes in aircraft and high-tech F1 car components. At JPX, the original engine was thoroughly photographed, then carefully stripped, and a detailed assembly handbook created. Every item was measured to the minutest accuracy and X-rayed, and had detailed three-dimensional drawings made-502 in all. Sophisticated hardness testing and metallurgical analysis was conducted on every piece, which revealed some interesting issues. Not a single engine bearing was a standard size, and some of the alloys and surface treatments used were quite unknown to modern science. Soichiro Honda, founder of the company, was also a gifted metallurgist.