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Built to commemorate Honda's 50th anniversary, Honda Collection Hall is a great excuse to head for the hills this winter. Marish Mackowiak takes a look.

From lawnmowers to racing cars, Honda Collection Hall has it all. Located in the massive Twin Ring motor sports complex in the small town of Motegi in Tochigi Prefecture, this impressive museum makes it easy for anyone to track Honda's illustrious history, with multilingual pamphlets and English descriptions of the exhibits.

Honda's massive edifice consists of two giant three level wings connected by a soaring atrium. The entrance foyer is particularly monumental, with a pair of racing bikes from 1954 mounted on a circular sculpture-like display stand. One of them is a 1954 Honda R125, the first domestically produced machine to compete overseas. It was carefully reconstructed from parts found in Brazil. On the sculpture's flip side is an Agusta, entered in the same 1954 Brazil International Race as the Honda.

In the same area is the 1924 Curtiss Special, a 160km/h racer powered by a testosterone-busting 8237cc aircraft engine and built by Honda founder Soichiro Honda when he was an assistant working for another company. One of the Bugattis that inspired Honda when he saw them at the Tama River Speedway in 1936 stands next to the Curtiss.

You can spot this 1966 Honda RAZ73 F1 on the first floor
You can spot this 1966 Honda RAZ73 F1 on the first floor

Special exhibition highlight
To the right, in the North Tower, is the Third Special Exhibition of racing bikes and cars, detailing "The Dreams, The Spirit, The Technology"of Honda motor sports. It traces Honda's progress from a maker who bought a 1956 125cc Mondial (also displayed) to study world-class technology, to a company that would quickly lead design trends itself. During the '50s and '60s, Honda's engines grew in complexity from two to five and even six cylinders. In 1954, the ambitious automotive company announced that they would compete in the prestigious Isle of Man motorcycle race. Their first attempt, in 1959, earned them the team prize for durability. Outright victory eluded them until 1961, when Honda trounced the opposition by taking the top five positions in the 125cc and 250cc classes. In 1966, Honda won all five classes after also entering a 500cc bike. In all, 24 bikes are displayed, including those ridden by Barry Sheene and Mike Hailwood. It's amazing that 500cc bikes dating back to the '70s were able to achieve speeds of up to 280km/h. The smallest bike is a 50cc Honda RC115, winner of five out of seven rounds in the 1965 World Championship series.

There are also a couple of Formula 1 racers and the superficially similar Indy open-wheelers. One of the most famous cars is Ayrton Senna's 1988 McLaren Honda, which dominated the 1988 F1 series, winning fifteen out of sixteen GPs. The performance of these cars is awesome, achieving 300km/h top speeds from 1500cc twin turbo engines mounted in cars weighing less than 600kg. The Indy cars are similar, but with 2650cc single turbo engines.

A sleek 1956 Mondial is on show
A sleek 1956 Mondial is on show

Honda was the first Japanese manufacturer to compete in Indy car racing, and their inaugural entry, raced at Surfer's Paradise in 1994, is on show. A sound effects booth gives some indication of the noise all these machines make, although their real life scream is generally a lot louder.

A museum shop, reading room and cafe are also on the ground floor. Step outside to visit the Restoration Room or watch test runs on a mini circuit. Upstairs there's the futuristic Honda Dream solar car, the frugal 50cc Honda Mileage Marathon Car and the phallic Honda Hawk world speed record holder. The Mileage Marathon car achieved a record 2269km/liter in 1988, while the Hawk reached 464.4km/h in Bonneville, Utah in 1971.

The second floor features more racing motorbikes and general bike history. The oldest is a 1902 198cc Singer, while the Spartan 1916 Autoped was the world's first scooter, with an engine mounted on the front wheel but no seat. A "who's who"of motorcycling includes Ariel, Sunbeam, Norton, Matchless and Moto Guzzi. Amongst the Honda exhibits are the winners of the 1982 and 1989 Paris-Dakar rallies. Over a hundred bikes are featured.

Alongside, in the North Tower, more than thirty cars stand as testimony to Honda's dominance over four-wheel motor sports. Aussies will be proud of cars driven by racing legend Jack Brabham, including one F2 open wheeler that won all consecutive races in Europe in 1966. Another vehicle won Honda's first F1 Grand Prix in Mexico in 1965.

The top level (North Tower) features a very disparate array of Honda products. The range extends from utilitarian generators and lawnmowers to landmark cars such as the 1972 Civic and its 1974 RS ("Road Smiling?) version. At the other end of the spectrum, there's a Ferrari boasting 280ps NS-X-R and scooters galore. Videos show old Honda TV ads.

Across the foyer on the third level of the North Tower is the production bike section, including machines such as the 1992 NR, which remain technologically stunning. The NR was the first production bike to feature oval pistons and used titanium, carbon fiber and other exotic technology. A 1988 Gold Wing GL 1500 is the biggest bike. It's the only one fitted with a reverse gear.

Getting there
The worst aspect of Honda Collection Hall is that it's over 100km from Tokyo. Getting there by car or bike is one of the best ways, enabling you to take in rural scenery and the fabulous Twin Ring complex. Simply take the Joban Expressway, get off at Mito and follow the signs to Motegi. Parking costs JY1000. Using the Shinkansen, head for Utsunomiya, from where it's another 90 minutes by bus.

Honda's rise in many ways reflects the vigorous energy and lust for technological leadership that characterized Japan's industrial growth in the postwar era. Whether you're a history buff or just plain car or bike crazy, Honda Collection Hall is a must see.

Honda Collection Hall Hours: 9:30am-5:30pm (weekends and holidays), 10:30am-5:30pm (weekdays) Adm free. Tel: 0285-64-0341.

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