The importance of local culture in shaping a marketplace was never more conspicuous to this Western mind than at the Bangkok Motor Show when Honda showed two concept bikes that are so far from the normality of Western markets that they will challenge your thinking as they did mine. The highlights of Honda Thailand's massive exhibition were a Chopper-styled scooter and a Grand Prix Racer-styled mini-bike meant for the road.
The Zoomer X California Style is designed by Honda's R&D in Thailand to "combine the Californian culture and the hiphop style," while the RC-X Mini Vintage Racer is based on the new Honda MSX125 miniature sports bike (a descendent of the original Honda Monkey bike but now an entirely new category of motorcycle – the bonsai motorcycle) and is inspired by Honda's all-conquering Grand Prix racing bikes of the sixties.
At first glance, neither bike would have a snowflake's chance of selling in markets outside Asia's scooter-centric culture without some re-education, but there's every chance both will see the light of day in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and all the other massive marketplaces for which Honda's Thai-based SE-Asian design studio caters.
The scooter in AsiaThe first thing to understand is that the scooter is key in Asia.
Most of the road traffic in a region where 60 percent of all humanity lives is still comprised of two wheelers and 90 percent of those two-wheelers are scooters. Men and women ride in equal numbers, age is no barrier with most males riding pre-teen and many girls of the lower teenage years often seen on public roads, usually without a helmet.
People all know the risks, they happily accept them, and the under-funded police forces have better things to do than stop a kid getting to work. Even if a policeman were to take action, it would be silly to take a fine from someone who earns so little. This is low friction society. Everybody gets on with their business.
In the low-speed urban environment where the majority of the world's powered two-wheeled machinery live (Asia), comfortable riding requires a different type of machine than the much heavier large capacity motorcycles which rule in Western countries.
Scooters are much easier to ride than traditional motorcycles in urban conditions, particularly where you need to pick your way through the acres of cars which comprise Asian urban traffic and essentially crawl their way to any given destination.
The reality is that most of the two-wheeled machinery sold into the American and European markets would rarely get out of first gear in most Asian cities.
Of the world's urban conglomerates with populations greater than a million humans, 46 percent are in Asia.
A scooter's big advantage is its light weight. It weighs half a normal motorcycle. The less a bike weighs, the better it handles ... and it's an inverse squared relationship as to how it feels. Almost anyone can ride a scooter because it is so light and well balanced.
Scooters are also considerably cheaper to run in an environment where gas stations as we know them in Western countries are rare. In Asia the laws of economics dictate that a second tier gas distribution system exists, selling liter bottles of petrol at local stores all over the place. In the vast majority of cases in this region, you buy your gas from a small shop which advertises its purpose by lining up bottles full of petrol out the front.
I wonder sometimes about the laws for occupational health and safety in different countries and how those laws have made our countries inflexible. With everybody accepting full responsibility for the obvious dangers under which they are working, most countries in South East Asia distribute petrol in an entirely "mom and pop" way.
You pull up at one of these stores on a scooter, ask how much in whatever language they speak (always carry a translation book covering the essentials), and buy a few liters, a bottle at a time by waving one or two fingers. The proprietors empty the contents of a bottle into your under-the-seat tank in a few seconds without spilling a drop. In the process they make a healthy premium on the supplies they purchased from a petrol station a few miles away for providing you with the convenience of local petrol in small amounts, and everyone is happy.
This below-the-radar system has enabled the Asian scooter market to grow to astonishing levels – two million scooters were sold in Thailand last year versus 1.5 million trucks and one million passenger cars. There are reportedly nearly seven million scooters in Ho Chi Minh city alone.
In terms of economical transport, the scooter is the world's choice. No parking costs, sufficient speed to run comfortably with the traffic, and running costs of close to nothing. The Honda PCX flies below the radar in many Western nations where scooters are not part of the culture. I've rented hundreds of scooters across Asia and the PCX always commands a premium. Apart from being faster, it is also extremely economical to run when ridden sedately – at the same speeds as traffic in these countries. Owners routinely report 120 mpg and better. Frugal, reliable, fast ... with extremely low running costs for the short distances usually traveled, then throw in the convenience of having a scooter always parked within easy reach and the scooter trumps all other forms of transport.
Scooters were the first mass-market motorized transport in all Asian countries, they still comprise the majority of sales, and you need to be very upwardly mobile to aspire to the cost and inconvenience of a car – parking a car is so difficult that to use it in a business context, you need a driver too – whereas a scooter can be parked anywhere.
Indeed, the financial incentives which Thailand's booming middle class is getting from the Government in the form of a first-car-buyer scheme, have exacerbated the capital's congestion to the point where many people are wondering about the wisdom of their four-wheeled purchases as travel times have increased noticeably over the last two years.
The motorcycle taxis (aka "the Bangkok helicopter") are doing more business than ever before because it's by far the quickest way around the capital. Going in four wheels takes time and money.
With scooters being the norm (see how many scooters are in each of the traffic pictures above), Honda is currently developing a strategy of increased personalization for its biggest selling item, as we noted in our coverage of the recent Bangkok Motorbike Festival.
Honda Zoomer X California Style
The Honda Zoomer X California Style is a scooter with the design features of a chopper – it is based on a lowered Zoomer X with a fat rear tire and steeply raked chrome front fork and a faux shotgun exhaust. It was introduced to rapturous applause and a media frenzy – all in the name of a product AP Honda President Chiaki Kato (that's him on the chopper) says has been built with the "concept of Western culture."
I can just imagine the response to Honda attempting to get some product placement for the Zoomer X California Style in the Sons of Anarchy TV series, or a bro rolling up on one at the local biker bar anywhere in the United States. In the United States, Europe, South Africa and Australia, the Zoomer X California Style would probably never make it out of novelty status. In Asia, with such large numbers at play, it would probably succeed. Custom scooters are commonplace, just as custom cars and motorcycles are in other countries. Local tastes in Asia though, are very different to those in other countries.
Fresh from Honda's presentation, I wandered around the corner only to find Suzuki also had a range of custom scooter concepts on display. Clearly scooterdom is about to be pimped – the bikes below were just some of the concept bikes on show from Suzuki.
The second of Honda's concept machines resonated in perfect pitch with my love of two wheelers.
The provenance of the RC-X Mini Vintage Racer
The RC-X Mini Vintage Racer is a based on the MSX 125, a new Honda model that was designed specifically for Asian markets. The MSX is actually an acronym – Mini Street Xtreme – and it's an apt description.
The MSX is a deceptively capable motorbike – indeed, if there were a motorcycle Olympiad, it would probably win the urban point-to-point time trials against all comers.
I'm sure some readers might be shocked by that statement, but hear me out.
Read this explanation of the dynamics of the motorcycle, and you'll understand what makes one of my all-time favorite motorcycles, the Buell, so very special.
The curb weight of the Buell 1200 is an anorexic 175 kg, but thanks to a lightweight engine and much smaller dimensions, the MSX tips the sales at an unfeasibly small 102 kg.
The center of gravity of a motorcycle is the AVERAGE location of the mass of a motorcycle.
One of the main reasons big bikes wallow and yaw on undulating and bumpy roads at speed is the amount of weight they carry at a distance from the center of gravity – panniers, a heavy fairing, a top box and heavy mufflers all contribute to the shimmy to warn the rider that any more power or speed or unwanted road forces might cause the motorcycle to samba out of control.
The Buell was purposefully designed to minimize those forces. Every fitting on the motorcycle is designed to be as close to the center of gravity as possible in order to reduce the moment of inertia in pitch, roll and yaw.
The MSX has undergone the same treatment and it is a much smaller bike than the Buell with plenty of rubber on the road and well modulated suspension.
The MSX weighs 101 kg against the Buell's 176 kg, and its wheelbase is 1204 mm – compared with some other naked bikes such as the Buell XB12 (1320mm), the Ducati Monster and Cagiva Raptor (both 1440mm and 186kg).
The MSX doesn't need a lot of horsepower to accelerate hard if it weighs half as much as a Buell or a Ducati Monster. It would trounce those bikes around any course up to 100 km/h.
Though it might be easy for Western markets to think of the MSX as a toy, it is far from that – it is a small motorcycle with a small engine, as distinct from most small capacity motorcycles in Western countries which are big motorcycles with small engines.
You can buy one of these pocket rockets in Thailand for THB66,000 – a smidgen over US$2,250. It will deliver 100 mpg ridden carefully and 80 mpg ridden hard. It is surgically excellent and feels more like an extension of one's body than a motorcycle does because it responds so willingly to input.
I found the thought of a modern day replica of a Honda's Grand Prix racers of the sixties very enticing and noted that Honda has done a nice job with the styling.
The R&D styling team has done a remarkable job of capturing the visual cues of the great cavalcade of sixties Honda Grand Prix racers with the RC-X.
The tiny MSX125 bonsai motorcycle is so compact that it offers a greater level of agility than a full-sized motorcycle, suits the smaller Asian body more, can pick its way through a traffic snarl better than a scooter – think of it as the perfect urban motorcycle.
Honda's racing exploits are legendary. It owned the smaller (50cc ,125cc, 250cc) Grand Prix classes with its race machines in the early sixties, first appearing on the grid in 1960, winning the 125cc and 250cc titles narrowly in 1961, winning both more decisively in 1962 whilst adding the 350cc class title.
Honda then faced its biggest challenge. Its motorcycles were being purchased globally. Honda sales had gone from US$500,000 in 1960 to US$77 million in 1965. Honda had achieved global dominance in racing, was making a lot of money and suddenly, the racing heritage was under grave threat from the two-stroke.
The development of the two-stroke under East German motorcycle manufacturer MZ was the catalyzing factor in challenging Honda's ambitions, and when other Japanese manufacturers began using the two-stroke expansion chamber technology, the four-stroke was slowly expelled from all classes of motorcycle racing.
Honda firmly believed in four-stroke technology over two-strokes, and had bested all other four-stroke manufacturers in all classes save for the 500cc four-cylinder Italian MV Agusta with Giacomo Agostini in the saddle.
Honda chose to stay in Grand Prix racing and fight against the two-strokes and the technology it brought to bear was simply awesome, creating one of the most interesting wars in history – a war fought with technology between 1960 and 1967, at which point Honda pulled out of Grand Prix racing entirely.
The fortunes of the humble smokey two-stroke engine had been rejuvenated under the genius of MZ team manager, engine designer and engineer Walter Kaaden.
Kaaden's motorcycle engines won 13 Grands Prix on a shoe-string effort and were developed using lessons learned from pulse technology developed by the German military for its WWII long range rockets, Werner Von Braun's V2 being the best known.
Coming to motorcycles after working with and understanding pulse technology enabled Kaaden to wring prodigious power from two-stroke engines.
Pulse technology rockets offered Kaaden the answer as to how to solve the eternal two-stroke problem of low volumetric efficiency. As both the inlet and the exhaust ports in the cylinder walls of a two stroke are open at the same time, a large percentage of the incoming fuel-air mixture follows the exhaust gasses out the exhaust port before the piston slams it shut.
Kaaden's expansion chamber exhaust system enabled him to keep the incoming charge from exiting straight out the exhaust by hitting it with a wave of energy bounced off the other end of the expansion chamber.
As he worked out the ratios of the cones which comprised the expansion chamber, his engines got faster and eventually he found Grand Prix winning speed. When he defected in the early sixties, his knowledge went with him and it resulted in the spreading of the technology to initially Suzuki, then all other Japanese manufacturers.
The Honda 125 four-stroke racing machinery that was developed to combat the two-stroke engines beginning to come out of Japan from Suzuki, Yamaha and later Kawasaki, is one of the most remarkable series of machinery ever created.
In 1962, Honda 125cc RC145 racers had filled the first four places in the world title, but in the knowledge that Kaaden's technology had gone to Suzuki and that the competing bikes were likely to get much faster in 1963, it set about building a much faster machine.
For 1963 it adopted a four-cylinder in-line layout with 35 by 32 mm (bore x stroke) – measure that out on your ruler and you'll understand how small the components must have been.
Though the bike made more horsepower, Hugh Anderson on the Suzuki two-stroke won the world title, with Honda-mounted Luigi Taveri and Jim Redman a distant second and third.
In 1964 Taveri used a redeveloped version of the four-cylinder to take back the title with five wins, and Jim Redman finished second in the points race.
For 1965, Honda began the 125 season with the four-cylinder engine but the two-strokes, in particular, the Suzuki RT 64 twin was much faster again. Honda was not to win a race during the entire season, even though it fielded a much improved four cylinder bike midway.
It was the last race of 1965, the Japanese Grand Prix, that caused the sensation when Honda rolled the astonishing RC148 five-cylinder machine onto the grid.
If it's possible to term an engineering exercise as heroic, the Honda RC148 was a truly heroic feat. Faced with seemingly overwhelming progress by the two-strokes, Honda had taken the lessons it had learned in building twin-cylinder 50cc engines and built an engine that was effectively two and a half 50cc engines.
This produced a bike capable of running 135mph in a straight line, though an eight speed gearbox was fitted so that the riders could keep the engine spinning in the 1000rpm powerband, which ran from 21,000rpm to 22,000rpm.
Each of the five pistons swept a volume of 25cc – each piston was the size of a thimble, each valve the size of a very small screw – the engines were assembled with tweezers.
The Honda RC149 racing bike of 1966 produced 34 hp and weighed just 85 kg dry. It was built before computer aided anything was available to the designers at Honda, and stands as one of the most remarkable achievements of an over-achieving company.
Though Taveri retired from the 1965 Japanese Grand Prix whilst in the lead (due to an engine leaking oil), the bike was to win five races the following year and take the 125 title – a feat that in context, might well be Honda's finest hour.
Though the new MSX-based replica might only produce 10 hp, it incorporates much of the same outside-the-square thinking that has made Honda so successful.
It weighs just 101.7 kg, including a battery, lights, mirrors, seat padding, digital instruments, hydraulic discs, far more sophisticated everything, (except for the horsepower and gearbox) and it is road legal in almost every jurisdiction in Asia.
Its engine is very strong and has sweet power deliver and uses miniscule amounts of gas thanks to a very advanced fuel injection system.
There's one significant difference between the MSX125 and almost all other roadgoing motorcycles.
It is very small, in every dimension.
The Monkey bike was a heap of fun because of its compact dimensions and weight, but the MSX is road registerable – it might be the size of a Monkey bike, but it's a full motorcycle, only smaller. The riding position doesn't require tucking elbows inside your knees. Somehow, Honda has translated the smaller dimensions into a sensible riding position and in so doing, created the ideal road bike for urban environments.
Whereas the Buell delivers its usability with a big fat V-twin, the MSX motor spins hard with a very sweet power delivery – Honda's fuel injection has been under development for more than three decades and the PGM-F1 system is now so advanced on its small motorcycles that it offers a very rideable, honest, clean-revving powerplant, perfectly suited when it has very little weight to push around.
With an honest, hard-pulling motor, smaller dimensions and light weight, the MSX hence delivers more agility and control than are on offer in any full sized motorcycle, yet the rider ergonomics aren't much different.
Its also more appropriately proportioned for people under 180 cm in height – the vast majority of Asian males and essentially all females.
In short, the MSX is a significant new class of motorcycle more suited to Asian environments, and perhaps with a significant role to play in personal mobility in the future ... and the race replica is perhaps the ultimate urban pocket rocket.