Buy a 250 these days, and usually, you’re buying a budget bike. With the exception of the Yamaha WR250R (which appears to be cancelled for 2021, although we’ve heard nothing official), the rest of North America’s 250 lineup is designed to be affordable. Generally speaking, these machines are low on performance.
But, back in the 1980s and 1990s, you could have a lot of legitimate fun on a 250, if you bought a two-stroke. We’re not talking the “Oh, I guess any motorcycle is exciting,” kind of fun. The ’80s and ’90s were the glory days of the 250cc race replica, bikes like this 1992 Honda NSR250.
The NSR250 series came to life in the mid-1980s, with the ’86 Honda NSR250R MC16 model. It was very much a bike of its time. The big-bore two-smokers were all cancelled at this point (with the exception of a few off-road models), as riders had rightly decided that a four-cylinder, four-stroke 750 was much easier and safer than something like Kawasaki’s H2 series. Small-bore two-strokes still made sense for a few reasons, though. Environmental regs hadn’t quite killed them off yet, and using a two-stroke engine was an easy way to make lots of power out of a lightweight motor. Plus, if you wanted to make a scaled-down sportbike that looked a lot like a race bike, well, two-strokes fit the bill, and there were several classic Japanese and Euro bikes along these lines.
When the NSR250R first came out in ’86, it was supposed to look like the Honda RS250R production race bike. It’s the same idea Honda uses today, with its Repsol-liveried models.
A Repsol version of a CBR300 is still a plodder, but the NSRs weren’t plodders. Unlike the stereotypical wimpy quarter-litre four-stroke motor, the NSR had a liquid-cooled 90-degree V-twin engine, with reed valve induction and nikasil-lined bores (a smart move in a two-stroke; this would preserve cylinder life). The designers used Honda’s RC-Valve system to broaden the powerband, and reduce the typical two-stroke peaky output. The engine made around 45 horsepower in stock trim, supposedly. This was allegedly restricted to meet government regulations.
However, as any gearhead knows, there are lots of ways to get more power out of a two-stroke, once you de-restrict it. The NSR250R was supposedly capable of reaching at least 60 horsepower if you started tinkering with the engine. That’s more than even a modern Kawasaki Ninja 400. Currently, the latest and greatest four-stroke 250 from Japan, the ZX-25R, only makes about 50 horsepower at speed.
The NSR250 only weighed around 330 pounds wet, so 60 horsepower was plenty. Even 45 horsepower was plenty, as long as the rider was lightweight.
Although this was designed to be street-legal, there were still race-friendly touches. Honda put a six-speed cassette transmission into the NSR250R. Even though it was tiny, it got dual disc brakes up front. Honda used an aluminum frame, and you can see the rider accommodations were spartan. The minimal padding barely passes for seating, and you certainly wouldn’t call this bike an all-rounder. There’s a pillion pad, but if you took your boyfriend or girlfriend for a ride on this, they’d probably dump you shortly afterwards.
Because it’s a 1992 model, this particular NSR250R for sale at Moto2 Imports is an MC21 model, a few generations removed from the original. There were several mechanical updates over the years, and the MC21 was a complete overhaul of the bike, from the ground up. Honda put its PGM-III ignition on this machine, with separate ignition mapping for each cylinder. The MC21 models also came with a dry clutch, just like a Ducati 90-degree V-twin.
As a result of the trimmed-down design, these machines were still very popular race machines in their own right. Honda sold more of them to people who wanted to look like racers, though—particularly this Rothmans SP machine. The early ’90s were the last days of cigarette sponsorships in motorcycle racing, but it was still a thing. It sounds funny now, but if you wanted to look like a high-performance rider, you had a cigarette logo on your bike.
With only 1,500 of these Rothman SP models made, they’re very, very collectible. That’s how Moto2 Imports is able to put a $25,000 US price tag on this bike. It’s rare, all-original, and only has 9,500 miles on the odometer (although, on a two-stroke sportbike, that’s still plenty!). Moto2 already has the paperwork in order and imported the bike to the USA, too, which makes things a lot easier for the buyer.
I understand why the price tag is that high, but it makes me sad to see these machines becoming unobtanium to the average rider. Where I grew up, these machines were surprisingly common. A local grey market importer had a nice business of shipping containers of old American muscle cars to Japan, and getting containers of weirdo 250-400cc Japanese bikes in return, including NSR250Rs. JDM regulations meant riders were mostly restricted to machines in this class, so once upon a time, these bikes were cheap as chips in Japan, and a good way to get around learner laws. Those riders moved on, and were happy to ship their tired bikes to North America.
Oddly enough, we never really respected these bikes for what they were, when I was a kid, and up until fairly recently, they were available at reasonably low prices. The last one I saw for sale was $2,000 CAD, but that was almost 10 years ago now, and I haven’t seen another since. I suspect the advent of web-based used vehicle sales sites ended any chance of finding these oddball bikes on the cheap.
But I still dream of finding one on the cheap, sometimes. Unfortunately, if that happened, I’d still have to dream how to convince my wife we needed it, and then dream up a way to actually squeeze myself onto the bike. My DR650 may be a lot less exotic than this NSR250R, but at least it nicely fits a North American-sized rider …