Honda’s Best Racing Livery Lives on Two Wheels
Story by Joel Clark
Bikes, you say?
Well! I’ve been riding bikes since I was 16 love them, so where do I start? With so many iconic liveries on so many iconic race bikes, it was a struggle to stick to just one example. Until, that is, we decided this piece should coincide with this year’s Isle of Man TT.
And that is why I have picked the classic Honda Racing Corporation livery of the ’60s. There isn’t just one example of this striking silver-heavy livery, as along with the numerous factory race bikes that the livery adorned throughout the ’60s, it has also appeared on much more modern machinery too—on track, road, and concept—though not always in a well-executed manner. I’ll explain later.
We all know how the Japanese motor industry looked to the West for inspiration in their early years (before trying to conquer the world, of course), and the Honda Racing colours are no exception to this rule. Not only does the silver and red mirror that of MV Augusta, but the shade of red used is Italian Red.
The engineering on these bikes was in another world altogether, though. The first image shows the 1966 TT winning RC166 (in-line 6) 250cc with a mad 20,000 rpm red line—that says it all, really!
What makes this livery special for me is the yellow stripe, or swoosh, or tick—I’m not quite sure what to call it really. It looks as though a fearless signwriter had held a yellow daubed paint brush at arms length, while crouched down on the inside of an apex, allowing just the faintest touch to leave that elegant swoosh. It’s such a simple, basic, stripe it’s hard to see why it’s worth talking about, after all, these bikes became iconic far more for their legendary racing history and engineering, than for their paint job.
However, as soon as you try to replicate it, things can go terribly wrong. While searching for images to use, I came across so many replica paint jobs that failed miserably. The stripe would be too fat, too thin, the wrong angle, terrible and miss-fitting lettering…the list goes on.
Even Honda themselves made a hash of things with the 1999 50th Anniversary VFR800. The bike design itself had a role to play, but overall it was a good example of how not to modernise a classic livery. So, you can see how delicate this element is.
And when it comes to the number plates, then these must be in pale green on the side, and white on the front. That colour pairing will never fail. Each of these seemingly basic elements create such an iconic look when put together—and I’m sure we’ll see this livery “updated” again.
Talking of comebacks, as I mentioned before, many bikes were dressed in this livery throughout the ’60s, and things only changed after having been in use for almost a decade.
It didn’t stop there though, going forward a few decades (I’ll exclude the aforementioned 50th anniversary road bike) to 2010, as this is when I saw the best reincarnation of the livery: the Wilson Craig Racing Honda that Guy Martin rode in the 2010 Isle of Man TT.
To see those colours back at the TT on one of the best-looking modern Honda sports bikes just reinforced my appreciation for the original design. This came even more apparent after watching 2011’s Closer to the Edge film. Not only did Guy Martin shine through as a great character, for me his bike was of equal star quality, too.
It cut through the usual grid of complicated, computer-reliant designs like a bullet of design craft. Guy’s jet black leathers complimented the overall effect with devastating coolness too. As a package, bike and rider presented a perfect marriage of old and new. Which, as you know, is all too easy to get wrong.
I haven’t mentioned the rider’s role much, as really, with motorcycles the leathers have equal significance to the overall look but in this case, every rider in the ’60s would have been in plain black leathers. With retro intentions, what else could Guy have worn?
Also in 2010, Honda showed us the RC-E electric concept bike, at the time the cutting edge in motorcycle and electric vehicle technology.
The concept’s sights were set far in the future for generations of digitally driven, screen gazing, app-head bikers to (silently) rip around the twisties. And what did they decide to paint on it? You guessed it: that iconic red and silver livery with its strange yellow, obscure stripe, swoosh, tick thing.
And this time, they nailed the modernisation of the design. There’s a lot of criticism still aimed against designers that look back to vintage, classic and iconic designs—especially in the motor industry—but they’re not classic and iconic for no reason.
Like timeless songs, they stay with us for a reason, and those reasons are always good ones. Honda, for this livery, I salute you—the anniversary VFR excepted.