Brian Catterson:1974 Honda CR125 Elsinore - Homecoming

Who Says You Can't Go Home Again?

By Brian Catterson, Photography by Tom Riles, Dick Miller

Brrrrrrzzzzzz... I'll never forget the sound. Except I had: I'd forgotten the noise my Honda CR125 Elsinore's constant-mesh transmission made when I downshifted. I hadn't forgotten its light handling and pipey powerband, nor the sweet smell of premix coupled with freshly overturned earth. But I have to admit it smelled better than I remembered after decade of inhaling acrid race gas and adobe dust.

I was at Broome-Tioga Raceway in upstate New York, reliving my youth by riding a surviving example of my very first motorcycle as close to my home town as I could. Truth be told, I owned a 1975 model, with a red stripe atop the gas tank instead of the green of the first-year '74 like the one I was riding now. Not that that mattered, because owner Greg Bastek (former Old Bike Journal editor and all-around vintage fast guy) had painted his Elsie red to replicate the factory Hondas, as many of us did back in the day. We all wanted to be #522 too, like our mutual hero Marty Smith, the long-haired SoCal surfer boy and two-time AMA 125cc national champion who was arguably the first true motocross rock star. I remember the Schoolboy class at Bridgehampton Raceway started at #522 and went up from there, my high school friend Tim Stearns running #527. Funny I can remember that but not my cell phone number...

Of course, Tim had an understanding father who rode and raced with him (a Cooper and a Yamaha YZ250, if I recall correctly), whereas my parents were dead-set against me owning a bike. Though I'd previously ridden some Tecumseh-powered contraption at my cousins Rick and Tim Wapinsky's house in rural Pennsylvania, I didn't discover motorcycles until my aerospace-engineer father got transferred to Southern California in '73 and took us with him. Living in Orange County when it still lived up to its name, I was fortunate to ride various friends' mini-cycles though the groves and along the railroad tracks. When we moved back to Long Island a year later, I naturally wanted a bike of my own. And while money wasn't too much of an obstacle, my dad's best friend John Wrobel was. A fireman by profession, he'd seen a few too many gruesome motorcycle accidents and had once been involved in a bad one himself. So it was an uphill battle.

I was a devout reader of Popular Cycling magazine-gotta love Brad Zimmerman, who went on to work at some rag called Motor-cyclist-and in one issue they ran a story that told teenagers how to convince their parents to let them get a dirtbike. It was a good story, too, with all the usual bullet points about how owning a dirtbike keeps kids away from alcohol and drugs; how parents could use it as leverage to ensure good grades; how motocross was a wholesome family sport; etc. And it might have worked, had it not been for the fact that that very issue contained a tribute to racer Jim West, who died from internal injuries sustained while competing in a Trans-AMA race at Saddleback Park. My dad-like countless other dads, probably-took the magazine into the bathroom and read it from cover to cover. So instead of advancing my cause, it set me back even further! If only I'd torn out that page...

Like many teenage boys in the '70s, I had a paper route. And so I vowed that if my parents wouldn't buy me a dirtbike, I'd save enough money to buy one myself. But it was slow going, and as the years (only a few, though it seemed like many) wore on, and my dad had accompanied me to spectate at various MX races and seen that it really was a wholesome family sport, he finally broke down and said he'd match whatever money I saved.

I probably should have gotten a mini-cycle of some sort, like the Yamaha MX100 I'd lusted for in '73. But by now it was '76, I was 15, tall for my age and looking to make up for lost time. My peers all rode 125s, and I wanted one too. The Honda Elsinore had won every comparison test I'd read and every AMA national championship since it was introduced three years earlier, and I would settle for nothing less.

So I did the math: I figured I could buy a used '74 or '75 Elsinore for around $500. (They only cost $835 brand new, mind you.) Scouring the ads in the back of PopCycle, I determined that I could get a Bell RT helmet, a set of Scott goggles with face mask, some Full Bore boots and gloves, plus a Gold Belt kidney belt for $180. That brought the grand total to $680, so I'd need to save $340, which I eventually did. In due course I found a '75 CR125 for sale in the Newsday classifieds for $500. Raced for a single season by a local expert, it had its lower shock mounts moved forward like the '76 model did, increasing rear wheel travel from the stock 4 inches to 6. Likewise, a Goki fork kit increased front wheel travel from 7 inches to 8. It had one of those trick DG radial heads, too.

My first ride was painful. All of the gear I'd ordered had arrived except my gloves, and with a sun-baked, hard-packed surface at the Commack sand pits, a worn-out rear knobby and ham-fisted throttle control, I spun out the piston-port two-stroke so many times that my hands looked like hamburger!

Over the next few years, that little red-and-silver motorcycle taught me a lot. I learned how to ride chasing my high-school friend John Graziano on his Suzuki TM125, and how to wrench working on my bike in auto-shop class with fellow Elsinore owner Bill McDonagh.

By Brian Catterson
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