For most of us, Honda’s racing history begins with their 1959 incursion at the Isle of Man, where they swept the 125 class and carted off the team award. But that effort was as a result of a planning process that began many years earlier, and involved a series of prototypes, one-offs, and hand-built team machines for the factory’s test and race riders to thrash. One of these motorcycles was the model designated the C71Z – a machine so rare that Honda itself does not have one in its mighty Collection Hall at Motegi. That’s because there is only one in existence, and that lives in Holland, in the vast collection assembled by the founder and boss of Consolidated Motor Spares (CMS) – the world’s largest independent supplier of parts for Japanese bikes – Mike Buttinger.
Buttinger has never shied away from a challenge. He bought his first ‘restoration project’ (a Honda C310) at the age of 11 and rebuilt it to use as daily transport, but that was just the start. “I was on holiday with my mum in Crete,” he recalls, “and had rented a Honda C50 to take on a road trip for the day. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw another C50 in a ravine. I risked my life and made the descent to where the bike was. Miraculously, I got it out in bits and pieces, and was able to take it home (to Holland) and to sell the parts.”
Just how Mike came to own this particular motorcycle is a fascinating story in itself, because the C71Z pre-dates the formation of Honda’s racing department. A handful of these motorcycles were put together using the company’s new twin-cylinder single overhead camshaft engine. The aim was to contest the second running of the Mount Asama Volcano Races in 1957 (the first held in 1955 and the last of three in 1959) over the course of 19.2 km, which was composed of volcanic ash and crushed rock and completely unsealed. The venue was also extensively used as a test facility by several other Japanese firms apart from Honda. Three of the new models, which were also known as the RC71, were entered for the 1957 races, shod with knobby tyres in deference to the track’s rugged surface, and carrying extensive rear mudguards made from hand-beaten alloy sheet, each one displaying the rider’s name in large Japanese characters.
So where did this C71Z come from, considering the Honda Motor Company has never been able to find one? Towards the end of 1957, Bill Parmelee from Connecticut, whose father had established a BSA dealership, was loaned one of three C71 road bikes that had been sent to USA for evaluation. At this point, Honda had yet to set up a dealer network, and Bill would soon become one of the first Honda dealers appointed. Bill liked the C71 enough to write to Honda in Japan to enquire whether a racing version would be available. However Honda contacted him a few weeks later to advise that they could not deliver a new machine, and could instead send a refurbished used model. At the time, the factory’s efforts were directed towards their new four-cylinder RC160 250s and the old C71Z was considered obsolete. The motorcycle arrived in USA in January 1958 and was promptly entered for the Sportsman 250 race at the Daytona Airfield track (part of the week-long festival that culminated in the 200 Mile race on Daytona Beach) – an event for which it was technically ineligible since it was not a model generally available to the public. However the entry was accepted and Bill rode to third place, despite falling off when the footrest dug in on a corner – hardly surprising considering he weighed over 90kg and the bike had originally been set up for a jockey-sized Japanese rider. This was the first time a Honda had been road raced in USA.
Parmelee and several other riders raced the Honda for the next two years until it was sold in September 1960 to Phil Montague for US$350.00. After a few races and a few crashes, including an accident when Montague was towing a trailer containing the bike and fell asleep at the wheel, damaging the front forks, he pulled it apart and stored it in boxes. Then in 1967 he sold it, or rather, swapped it for a leather settee! The new owner did precisely nothing with the bike until he died in 2006, at which point Montague managed to acquire the Honda from the estate and took it back home. It took a few more years for Montague to realise that he would never get around to restoring (or even reassembling) the Honda, so in 2009 it was sold to Drew Ehehalt, an enthusiast from Tampa, Florida for the nominal sum of one dollar. Ehehalt did manage to partially reassemble the C71Z, but in 2013 accepted an offer for it from CMS. That’s where the monumental task of the total restoration began in Holland.
In 2014, Mike Buttinger was instrumental in helping to set up a partnership between Marnix Deibert and Sebas van de Broek with the specific purpose of specialising in the restoration of Honda motorcycles and cars with historical significance. Marnix, an engineer, looks after the technical side while Sebas’ specialty is to ensure the authenticity, including finishing processes, is strictly maintained. As the engine was derived from the C71 Dream 250, a small number of stock parts were interchangeable, but the vast majority of components are unique to the C71Z.
To make things even tougher, there are very few images available for the C71Z racers, but gradually a folio of grainy old photos was assembled and the team was able to work out what parts were missing and what they originally looked like. Foremost among these were the front and rear mudguards, the small nose fairing, and the fuel tank – all in hand-beaten aluminium. The top section of the tank was able to be salvaged but the bottom was beyond repair and had to be replaced, and a new holding strap made. The decal on the tank, which had to be hand made, depicts the “Honda Speed Club” which preceded the Racing Service Centre (RSC) and finally the Honda Racing Corporation (HRC). The original rubber tank mounts had perished and new ones had to be made. Other parts that had to be made from scratch included the gear lever, brake pedal and footrests which were recreated using photographs as reference, while new hubs and rims were made to exactly match the originals. The correct fabric for the seat was sourced and mated to the original base.
The engine had been roughly put together by the last American owner, but was incomplete and quite worn out. Some parts came from CMS stock but many others had to be sourced or made to the original specifications. At some stage the original Keihin carburettor had been replaced with an Amal, but after an exhaustive search, the correct carb was found. When the engine was finished, and before the final cosmetic work on the chassis, it was installed in the frame and fitted with dummy exhaust pipes so it could be started and all the various functions checked over. Happily, the motor fired up immediately and was soon ticking over sweetly. This accomplished, the bike was disassembled again to allow the frame, forks, swinging arm and various brackets to be enamelled in the original dark blue. The exhaust pipes and megaphones were also made, along with the swooping clip-on handlebars and original pattern clutch and brake levers.
Now things were nearing completion and the finishing touches could be added. As CMS is a major sponsor of the LCR MotoGP team, their rider Cal Crutchlow’s number 35 was used, and his name painted in Japanese characters on the seat cowling, just as was done for the original Asama riders. Mike Buttinger had set the deadline for the C71Z to be ready for showing at the Dutch GP at Assen in June 2017, and after three years hard work, it was. The unveiling was attended by officials from the Honda Racing Corporation, LCR and members of the international media. In his speech Mike Buttinger said, “I very clearly remember the call I received from by friend Bill Silver in California ‘Mike, I think I found you something interesting’. At the time I had several projects under way from the Asama races and tried to gather as much information as possible. While studying all the details about the early Japanese Volcano races I did notice some very exotic Hondas. I did not dare dream about finding one. The particular C71Z we have restored comes with an incredible story about how the bike ended up in the USA and when Bill told me he found one I just could not believe it. Being the enthusiast I am, I jumped on the project and seven years later, here is the stunning result. When I purchased the bike in 2010 it was a heap of parts on a pallet. It was incomplete and the parts that were present were mostly damaged. It was a big challenge, to say the least.”
The C71Z is believed to be the oldest authentic Honda works racer in existence – a piece of history now complete and running, thanks to the foresight and persistence of an extremely dedicated group in Holland.
Specifications – Honda C71Z
Engine: Twin cylinder, 360º crankshaft, single overhead camshaft, 2 valves per cylinder.
Bore x stroke: 54mm x 54mm
Transmission: 4-speed, wet multiplate clutch, rear 525 drive chain.
Carburettor: Keihin 22mm.
Lubrication: Dry sump
Ignition: 6v total loss, points.
Frame: Single backbone, engine stressed member.
Front suspension: Leading link with hydraulic damper. 175mm travel
Rear suspension: Swinging arm, 175mm travel
Tyres: Front: 2.75 x 18, Rear: 3.00 x 18
Brakes: Front; twin leading shoe drum Rear; Single leading shoe drum
Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: CMSNL and Compass Island.