Honda revives the monkey bike
Around the time that Mick Jagger was declaring his monkey-ness on the classic 1969 Rolling Stones album, Let it Bleed, Honda released a range of circus-sized motorcycles that would kick-start a new custom bike trend.
The Z-series mini-bikes were compact enough to be ridden by a chimpanzee, and Honda encouraged the simian imagery with model names like Monkey and Ape.
Instead of fading into history gracefully, these bikes have been kept alive by customisers who relished the opening of a new avenue for their creativity and the opportunity to do something different instead of the usual choppers and cafe racers.
Now Honda has decided to get into the action again and build a new "monkey bike" for the 21st Century. Enter the new MSX125, due to go on sale in Japan in April, before selected markets.
The MSX125 is a modern-day "monkey bike" in everything but name. It's perhaps a little disappointing that a more primal tag wasn't given to the newest little Honda, as the nomenclature contributed much to the appeal of the original Z-bikes. Being seen on one enabled the rider to make the same declaration as Jagger's on a city street: "Well, I am just a monkey man I'm glad you are a monkey woman, too." Somehow "I ride a MSX125" doesn't make the same statement, or carry the same suggestive call to mate.
Fortunately, the MSX125 has all the other ingredients of a bona fide two-wheeled primate. There's a horizontal single-cylinder air-cooled engine driving a four-speed gearbox, beefy inverted front forks, fat tyres, and Nissin disc brakes to arrest the momentum of either 12-inch wheel.
With a hand-operated clutch instead of the centrifugal auto-clutch of the original Zeds, you can safely bet that a MSX125 will be wheel-standing away from the traffic lights on your next visit to Tokyo, London or Paris. Previously, mono-wheeling stunts on monkey machines could be initiated by rider strength and dramatic bodyweight shifts only. Spiky-haired freestylers are going to welcome the MSX as a fine stunt-riding tool.
But what will "monkey bike" aficionados make of the new Honda? They've soldiered on for decades turning pre-punk-era minibikes into expensive works of art as part of a global cult.
Dealerships and magazines dedicated to custom minibikes can be found in the US, Japan and Europe, and the comment on various web forums suggests these people can't wait to get their hands on the new Honda. They'll quickly reduce to the MSX125 to a small pile of bits in the garage, discard about 50 per cent and fabricate new replacement components or buy expensive custom parts from Takegawa, an acknowledged monkey bike specialist.
For British monkey bike enthusiast, Andrew Mitchell, transforming his Z100 into a special that resembles a shrunken Honda CB1100R superbike took years and the project cost him around NZ$30,000. His minibike now sports a 124cc high-compression Takegawa engine complete with dual overhead cams and a four-valve head. Top speed? About 140kmh.
"They might be little machines but they have big bike build quality," Mitchell told British weekly Motor Cycle News, in 2010.
"So they're not too bad at high speed, they handle it pretty well."
The same MCN feature highlighted the plight of a custom monkey bike owner who had to keep the spiralling costs of his obsession hidden from his wife. He'd keep an expensive new swingarm stashed in his garage for months then pretend to discover it during a clean-up.
Another Brit, Mark Clarke, has built 15 custom monkey bikes so far, including a chopper. "When I build a new one I want it to be different to the last one," he said.
Clarke is no doubt itching to get his hands on the new MSX125. Building a new monkey bike was perhaps a no-brainer for Honda, after successfully trialling the concept with a limited run of 1000 40th anniversary models of the monkey in 2007, which were all quickly snapped up. Perhaps bell-bottom trousers will undergo a similar revival next.