1985 Honda CG 125 Story Behind a Practical Commuter Bike

Its said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and it’s so unquestionably true in the world of motorcycles. Almost every manufacturer has borrowed, plagiarised or downright stolen ideas from their competitors. It’s no secret that Mr Honda was strongly influenced by Italian and German machinery. However, it would take almost a quarter of a century before Honda paid homage to the small but ruthlessly efficient push rod engined Mondial racers. It’s said Soichiro Honda was so taken with the small Mondial engines he tried to buy one. The owning Boselli and Drusiani families gave him one and he used the bike as his benchmark for the company’s earlier machines. Grasp that Mondials were handmade yet Hondas were mass produced and you see just how high Soichiro set his standards. It wasn’t until 1975 that Honda finally had the market opportunity to properly repay Mondial’s gift; the humble CG125 is based around a handcrafted racing engine!

THE BIKE The very fact that the CG125 ran from 1975 through to 2008 is a fair testament to the bike’s design ethos, yet the reason for its inception has little to do with sentiment; the bike exists from purely commercial justifications. By the early 1970s Honda motorcycle sales peaked in what we’d disrespectfully term ‘third world countries’ and then rather alarmingly, began to tail off. Contrary to what was being seen and experienced in more affluent countries, Hondas were breaking down and wearing out under seriously adverse conditions. Worse still. Honda was losing sales to its rivals thanks to the inherent simplicity of the two-stroke engines fitted to Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha single cylinder workhorses. If supplied with fuel and two-stroke oil, little stopped these smokey, smelly, go everywhere, do anything pit ponies. It was a metaphorical gauntlet hurled down at the corporate feet of Honda and something needed doing. and quickly.

In 1974 Honda sent Takeshi Inagaki (in charge of creating motorcycles for developing countries). and Einosuke Miyachi (responsible for motorcycle design) to various developing countries in South East Asia, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It’s fair to say the two men were dumbstruck by the levels of abuse meted out to small motorcycles; they’d seen nothing like it before. Small families all on one motorcycle, livestock transported on racks and pillion seats, sub 125cc motorcycles used to tow carts or even burdened with sidecars. This was all new to Honda’s top men. As if that wasn’t bad enough, these brutalised machines received little, if any maintenance. Chains weren’t lubricated or adjusted. paper air filters were never replaced and engine oil was worked to death, and beyond, as a matter of course.

    It didn’t take Inagaki and Miyachi long to come up with a list of must-haves that would be vital for any machine that would survive in such an arduous conditions. Back in Japan the findings of the trip were presented to the board of directors at Honda’s R&D Centre. Almost overnight Tadashi Kume, the centre’s managing director, sketched out the basis of what would become the power unit of the CG125. Eschewing two-strokes because of their inherent messiness and the fact that, at that point, corporately Honda wanted nothing to do with strokers, the engine would have to be a four-stroke. Honda had already made millions of similar singles yet the key was in layout of the power unit and the method chosen to operate its valves. Against normal Honda practice the motor would use push rods and not a cam chain. Although OHV motors typically produce less power than OHC motors, this would be an advantage to Honda, which was looking for reliability, not performance. The master stroke was a pair of helical gears to run a single cam which in turn operated both push rods and then both the inlet and exhaust valve.

Two engine capacities (110cc and 125cc) were specified for different potential markets along with two chassis designs. A pressed steel frame was chosen for markets where the bike would be exported as single preassembled unit, but where import taxes were high on fully built machines a tubular frame was offered in knock-down kit form. Acknowledging the overt loads the bikes would ultimately see, Honda offered a flat-topped tank on which a child could sit! Keen to ensure the bike would be easily serviced a washable foam air filter was chosen, just one of a raft of CG specific features aimed at making the machine easy to maintain. And to prove this very point at the bike’s launch in Thailand in December 1974 local mechanics were encouraged to strip the engines, inspect and then rebuild them with no prior knowledge or manual. Amazingly it was found these back street bike shop spanner guys could strip the top end of the CG’s motor and reassemble it in just 20 minutes. And of course the Honda’s new little darling obviously started first kick. Honda had nailed it! So good was the basic design that the bike was also the first model to roll off the production line in Manaus, Brazil when Honda opened a production plant in South America in the mid-1970s. Such was the appeal of the machine that licenced plants in Turkey and Pakistan would also, latterly, turn out localised versions of the bike. The CG125 was truly a global success.


     The bike’s strength is its innate simplicity allied to a level of quality control that only the likes of Honda was able to master at the time. In many ways the CG’s motor was not a million miles removed from the likes of Ariel’s Pixie engine or that of the BSA Beagle. All three run the same basic architecture in that an overhead valve push rod motor is used. However, the Honda’s power unit was designed and built by a company that had a true empathy for small four-stroke engines; sadly the senior management at both Selly Oak and Armoury Road simply saw tiddlers as a way to make a few extra quid as cheaply as possible. The Honda was designed as a single entity with external providers engaged in the design and build process from the project’s onset. The likes of Mikuni, Hitachi etc were charged with supplying reliable, fit-for-purpose, electrical components at sensible prices. There was no cheese paring on quality going on here; Honda had known from the late 1950s that shoddy, cheap, electrics were the nemesis of anymotorcycle regardless of size, capacity or intended market. Over the three decades that saw some 10 million models made globally, the CG125 ran through a number of iterations.

The earliest examples had very similar styling to contemporary CB125s and you’d probably have to look twice to differentiate the two. Moving on just a few years the bike got its own unique identity with a more rounded tank and larger side panels. As befits a commuter bike the front suspension ran shrouded fork legs which protected the hard chrome stanchions and their fork seals. And of course the chain was encased on one of Honda’s typically ruthlessly effective pressed steel chain cases. A note to the wise here… if you need to remove said chain case, take numerous pictures of how each piece is mounted and how the two halves fit to each other. If you don’t, the reassembly process can go on for a remarkably long time!

    Over the years the CG’s styling was gradually changed and updated. As a half-way house, post millennial examples appeared with the side panels revised with an upstand to their front aspects to meet with a similarly revised tank that now had lower rear scallops that blended in with the new panels. The bike also received a tail piece which incorporated the rear light thereby doing away with the rear chrome mudguard at the same time as the front one. By 2004 the CG125 looked little like the original design with swooping and curvaceous bodywork more akin to that of a MotoGP bike than a humble commuter. Alongside the revised cosmetics the bike would variously acquire 12 volt electrics circa 1985, CDI ignition replacing the original points and coil system in 1989, an electric starter was fitted in 2004 along with a disc brake. It was selling directly against Yamaha’s French-produced YBR125 and visually had been showing its age. Yet despite all of this and much more. the CG125’s days were numbered. It was a machine designed in the 1970s for emerging markets and no one had even envisaged issues such as climate change and exhaust emission levels. In the UK Honda had to axe the bike and replace it with the fuel injected CGR125F which passed the Euro 3 emissions requirements. Elsewhere, in Brazil where the bike still remained incredibly popular the engine was redesigned to run an overhead cam top end.


    This provided the humble CG with a stay of execution as its minuscule noxious outputs ducked under  the local environmental requirements. So with more than 30 years of production and importation in to the UK you’d think there would be a raft of CG125s out there for sale, but sadly that’s not the case. Many were bought and used by organisations running CBT training and despite the bike’s legendary reputation there are only so many times you can hurl a 125 learner machine down the road before such treatment takes its toll. Also it’s worth remembering that the earliest of the genre sold in droves to the ‘old boys’ who still rode a motorcycle to work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These riders used their CGs as basic transport and assigned little in the way of iconic status to their machines and only occasionally cleaned them. Many a CG rotted away thanks to winter salt etc.

So why might anyone want a CG125 here in 2018? Well for starters if you want a true period classic leaner machine and don’t have an empathy for two-strokes then your options are somewhat limited. Other period Hondas arguably offer more dynamic, aesthetically prettier and/ or technically more sophisticated machines, but here’s the rub… they are likely ‘o be
substantially more expensive to buy as runners and significantly more difficult to restore if acquired in project format. The CG125 is an incredibly well thought-out motorcycle and about as bomb proof as any motorcycle can be. Stupidly easy to ride, a doddle to maintain and not overtly complex to restore or rebuild they are an ideal entry to the world of modern, rideable, classics. They’re pretty much the perfect, first time restoration project, while for those of advancing years they’re light enough to manhandle. And now the best part… the classic scene really hasn’t cottoned on to the CG in a great way. Yes the odd one comes up now and again supposedly converted to a café racer for silly money, but on the whole you can still pick up a viable CG125 for less than a grand, and that has to be a bargain in the current market. Go on, treat yourself while the bikes are still out there: they won’t be this cheap for long!!

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