The Honda RC51 became a legend here on the Isle of Man after Joey Dunlop rode it to his 24th TT win in 2000 – at 48 he was supposed to be too old to drag a heavy superbike 6 times around the worlds toughest road circuit, let alone actually win on it.
So when Kurt mentioned that of all the bikes he’d owned it was the Nicky Hayden Honda RC51 that had been his favourite, I was more than a little keen to hear his personal thoughts on the machine.….
“You can’t out-engineer Honda.”
That was the advice I was given as a 16-year-old kid getting ready to buy his first serious motorcycle.
I was riding US route 129 at the time (affectionately known as “The Tail Of The Dragon” by those who have had the pleasure of buying high-octane gas at Deal’s Gap or a set of tires at Wheeler’s Performance) on a hand-me-down 2008 KLR 650 (thanks, Dad), and dreaming of spending my life savings on a bike I could learn to drag a knee on like the pros through that eleven-mile stretch of beautiful, ridiculous turns as soon as I had the means to do so.
Ultimately this led me to buy a 2004 Honda CBR600RR, which was a phenomenal motorcycle right up until a pretty gnarly hit-and-run accident sent me and my candy blue Honda flipping end-over-in into a ditch, but that advice stuck with me for a long time, and I can’t think of a better example of what the Honda factory engineers can do when they put their minds to it than the RC51.
The Honda RC51 (a.k.a. VTR1000 a.k.a. RVT1000R) was the one I was always drooling over but knew I wasn’t ready for yet.
It was the “funky looking Honda” parked next to all the Fireblades that always got the nod from all the hardcore sportbike guys.
I wanted that damn thing for so long.
And I finally got one, as a slightly more well-adjusted adult in 2011. I put over 50,000 miles on that bike in the six years I owned it, and learned a lot about them in the process.
Honda RC51 History
The story of the Honda RC51 starts back in 1988 with the introduction of World Superbike Racing and the new set of rules that came along with it.
Up until that time, Honda had been dominant in Superbike racing, winning every AMA Superbike title for four straight seasons. AMA regulations required all bikes to be based on production models and limited displacement to 750cc’s, which positioned Honda’s best-of-both-worlds V-4 Interceptors so far ahead of the pack they often took up the entire podium.
However in 1988, the introduction of World Superbike racing changed everything.
The new rules for World Superbike also required production-based homologations, but limited both the weights and displacements of competing machines based on their engine configurations.
The dominant four-cylinder machines were limited to 750cc as before, but three-cylinder bikes were allowed up to 900cc, and two-cylinder machines were granted a full 1000cc to keep things competitive.
Honda rose to the challenge with their trademark V4 configuration, producing the now infamous RC30 VFR750R and taking the first two titles in 1988 and 1989, but it wasn’t long before Ducati learned to lean into its displacement advantage and started dominating on the world stage.
As the Ducatis grew in size and power from the 851 to the venerable 916, racing legends like Carl Fogarty kept stacking up the wins, taking eight championships in the ten years that followed.
Even Honda’s own redesigned RC45, a crown jewel of engineering and one of the rarest racing machines ever sold to the public, was only able to take a single title from Ducati in 1997.
Only 50 RC45s were imported into the US, and retailed for $27,000, which is expensive now (about $48,000 in today’s money) but back in 1994 it was unheard of, especially for a Honda.
The reigning Ducati 916 of the time, by comparison, could be had for just $14,500.
Many shared the belief that the World Superbike rules were meant to favor Ducati’s designs intentionally, but racing fans still couldn’t get enough of the high-speed action, leading Honda to fear that their reputation was at stake.
The engineers at Honda decided to take it personally (remember, Superbike racing still had full factory support at the time), and did what they’d been known to do in the past: Beat the winners at their own game (See: When Honda did Harley: 1983 Honda RS750 – AMA Motorcycle Hall Of Fame).
Enter the 999cc V-Twin Honda RC51 in 2000.
The events that followed quickly became legend, but here’s an abbreviated list of the key points:
Honda RC51 Achievements
On The Racetrack:
- 2000: The RC51 takes the World Superbike title during its first year under Colin Edwards
- 2000: Joey Dunlop takes the Isle of Man TT win on a factory-backed Honda RC51
- 2000: Suzuka 8 Hour Championship winner (Tohru Ukawa and Daijiro Katoh)
- 2001: Suzuka 8 Hour Championship winner (Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards)
- 2002: Second World Superbike Championship under Colin Edwards
- 2002: AMA Superbike Championship under Nicky Hayden
- 2002: Daytona 200 Championship winner under Nicky Hayden
- 2002: Suzuka 8 Hour Championship winner (Daijiro Katoh and Colin Edwards)
- 2003: Suzuka 8 Hour Championship winner (Yukio Nukumi and Manabu Kamada)
- 2003: Daytona 200 Championship winner under Miguel Duhamel
Off The Racetrack:
September 14, 2004: Samuel Tilley is clocked by aircraft traveling at 205.11 mph on a 2003 RC51 SP2, and is promptly issued the world record for the highest speed ever recorded on public roads by Minnesota Highway Patrol.
That one is up for debate, but regardless, the RC51 was absolutely dominant.
To add insult to Ducati’s injured pride, Honda’s secret weapon debuted on showroom floors in 2000 at just $9,999.
Prices increased in subsequent years as improvements were made and the RC51’s racing celebrity continued to grow, but even in its final year of production, the 2006 RC51 was still a bargain at $11,999.
Honda had made their point putting the Ducatisti in their place, and although they continued to produce the RC51 after the 2002 World Superbike season, they shifted their factory racing support fully into MotoGP and the development of the RC211V.
The new GP bike would go on to dominate in its own right, winning three world championships and topping the podium in more than half of the races it entered in its five-year run.
Honda RC51 Performance
The Honda RC51 is known for being on the heavy side, but also easily modified to be lighter. A little trimming, a set of good mufflers, and a lithium-ion battery bring the RC down around 470 pounds wet.
Of course, when you’re talking about a race bike with a following this loyal, there are always going to be owners who spare no expense in the pursuit of “lighter, faster”, like a 430lb example that emerged in 2018. Talk about commitment.
That being said, many owners feel the bike’s heavy frame is part of what lends it such an incredibly composed demeanor when cornering.
RC51’s can demand a little extra muscle from the rider through the curves, but pushing the bike around becomes part of the joy of riding it after a few miles and also makes them incredibly stable at speed to the point that a steering damper isn’t required to ride the bike fast.
From the factory the SP2 produced a modest 118 ponies, but it’s fairly easy to squeeze extra power out of such an over-built machine.
With a few simple modifications like free-flowing exhausts, a Power Commander, and some “adjustments” to the factory intake and ECU settings, the RC51 flirts with 130 horses and remains more-or-less street legal.
The Honda RC51 also received the full benefit of factory-backed and racing-focused engineering, and came with a remarkable assortment of premium features for such a low price point.
Gear-driven cams are notoriously expensive to manufacture, but came standard on the $10,000 RC51 and have proven to be more reliable than your grandfather’s Rolex. Their sound at idle is as unique as the exhaust note, which sounds more like a muscle car with a big cam than a motorcycle. That’s a good thing, trust me.
A hydraulic clutch is also fitted from the factory, and is one of the smoothest I’ve used to date. Shifting is flawless, and I don’t recall ever missing a gear or getting a false neutral in all the years I rode my RC, which seems to be the consensus opinion in the RC51 owner’s community.
Engine braking is phenomenal, and you can pretty much run an entire canyon road in a single gear without touching a brake lever thanks to the mountain of torque present from 5,000 RPM all the way up to redline at 9-10,000 RPM depending on who you’re asking.
The RC51 was never intended to be a straight line missile, but it was no slouch on the drag strip either, clocking a 3.31 second 0-60 and running a quarter-mile in about 10.5 seconds.
The fully adjustable suspension was advanced for its time, and will serve you well for quite a while, but many riders will opt to upgrade to linear spring rates and an aftermarket rear link to further improve the bike’s manners in tight corners.
Buying an Honda RC51 Today
The bulldog styling of the RC51 was snubbed when it came out, but it has become a unique and appreciated silhouette thanks to the bike’s well-known racing history and increasing rarity.
The muscular look continues to garner more and more appreciation with age, whereas many of the inline-four bikes of the period including Honda’s own 929 and subsequent 954 Fireblade are looking more retro than retro-cool.
All RC51s are great bikes, but the SP2 model released in 2002 came with a list of improvements (detailed below) that made it both more civilized and more powerful. Asking prices of the SP1 and SP2 models are pretty much identical, so unless you just want the original model for a specific reason, most buyers will be shopping for an SP2.
Speaking of asking prices, good-looking, low-mileage RC51s are currently going for anywhere between $6,500 and $12,000.
There’s a wide variation on prices both from private owners and dealerships, which is probably being inflated by the fact that no one actually wants to get rid of an Honda RC51 after they’ve owned one, so you may be at the seller’s whim concerning the actual value of their motorcycle.
The one exception, which we’ll circle back around to below, is for a 2004 model, the “Nicky Hayden Special Edition” which has become the ultimate collector RC51, and has only become more coveted since the racing legend tragically passed in 2017.
I don’t expect to see another well-kept 2004 Hayden RC51 sell for anything under $10,000 again, and would be happy to spend that myself if the opportunity arose.
There are certain well-appreciated upgrades known between Honda RC51 enthusiasts like Ohlins suspension, Sato Racing exhausts, and Dan Kyle suspension links that can justifiably increase the value of a bike you intend to ride, but won’t be a value-added bonus for anyone shopping for a stock collector bike.
SP1 to SP2 Improvements
Improvements From The SP1 to SP2 (According To The Original Press Release)
- -Larger 62mm fuel-injectors with 12 hole shower heads for improved fueling
- -Updated injection and ignition mapping
- -Improved cylinder heads and exhaust ports
- -Increased to 128 peak horsepower
- -Steeper 23.5 degree head angle for sharper handling (this was the steepest ever produced by Honda at the time)
- -Lighter and stronger forged engine hangers replace die cast components of SP1
- -16mm longer forged aluminum swingarm 1.9 pounds lighter and more rigid than SP1
- -Lighter rear shock with integrated reservoir
- -Lighter front fork
- -Lighter wheels front and rear
- -Upgraded lighter brake calipers
- -All together the SP2 is 11 pounds lighter
- -Upgraded windscreen shape taken from Colin Edwards WSB winning bike
- -2004 models only received a striking brushed aluminum frame and swingarm
Restoring an RC51
Restoring an RC51 can get expensive quick.
Trust me, I had to “restore” my 2004 twice.
Finding OEM replacement fairings for these bikes was expensive in 2014.
It was even more expensive in 2017.
In 2021, you’ll be lucky if you can even find undamaged OEM plastics, and if you do, they’re going to come at a premium to say the least.
Add to that the fact that the plastics themselves got updates in appearance every year or two, and you’ll find the pickings are even slimmer on the second-hand market for your chosen year model.
Aside from the painted bits, however, there’s a wealth of new and used OEM replacement parts available online from radiators to wheels and everything in-between.
Brand new stock bits are on the expensive side, but there are some great deals on gently used parts if you’re willing to shop around between eBay and enthusiast forums like RC51forums.com.
Is an original RC51 a good investment?
In 2011, I spent $4,000 on an exceptionally clean 2004 RC51 with just over 4,000 miles on the clock.
In 2017, I sold that same 2004 RC51, with 56,000 miles, a sad set of half-melted eBay fairings, a dented gas tank, and a clutch cover held together with JB Weld for $3,800.
So yes, I believe they hold their value even better than your average Honda.
As I said before, if I were in a position to drop $10,000 on that same bike I’d bought in 2004, I wouldn’t think twice about it.
And I’d put another worry-free 50,000 miles on it too.
I wouldn’t sell it this time around, but I’m confident that if I kept it off the ground I would have no problem turning a profit on it in short order if push came to shove.
I don’t think I’ve ever “missed” a bike like I miss that Honda RC51, and I hear the exact same sentiment from every other previous owner I’ve ever spoken with. We never should have sold them.
These bikes are well-loved and often well-ridden. Their owners are fiercely loyal, and who can blame them?
Unfortunately, I believe the Honda RC51 is on its way to becoming too rich for my blood, and will only get richer with time. Should I win the lottery in my lifetime, another RC51 SP2 will be the FIRST thing I run out and buy. Probably the second thing, too.
But, if you’re RC-curious, and happen across a clean one under $6,500, you’re not going to regret buying it. Seriously, go buy one while you still can.
And if you can keep it out from under the guardrails in Azusa canyon, which was always my problem, chances are you’re going to get a lot more for it if fate should ever force you to sell it down the road.