Honda RTL 360
In early 1985 Belgium’s three times World Trials Champion for Honda, Eddy Lejeune, was stood in the queue at the arrivals area of Brussels International Airport. Apart from his Honda Racing Corporation jacket he looked like any other person excitedly waiting for a loved one to appear. However, in his case it was the arrival of the most radically developed four-stroke trials machine the world had seen since the Sammy Miller developed machine that Rob Shepherd took to the first four-stroke World round win in Finland and British Championship title for Honda back in 1977.
Eddy Lejeune had arrived in the World Trials Championship way back in 1979 when he scored his first world points for Honda. He would eventually inherit the superb Honda trials machines from Rob Shepherd and duly served his apprenticeship in the tough World Championship before taking the first of three consecutive World titles starting in 1982.
The 360cc twin-shock machine he was riding had reached the ‘peak’ of its development but Honda were well aware of the move to the single rear shock, more commonly known as the mono-shock trials machines, as they witnessed Yamaha’s revolutionary TY machine steal the show in late 1983.
During 1984 he had seen the new ideas Honda in Japan were trying and was told that for the 1985 season he would have a brand new machine uniquely tailored to suit their number one rider. In August the Honda trials development rider and Japanese Champion, Mazaya Yamamoto, arrived at Lejuene’s Belgium home with the pre-production single shock Honda RTL 250cc.
Eddy and the Lejeune brothers, Jean-Marie and younger brother Eric, all tested the machine with Yamamoto taking notes on the machine’s performance.
On the 2nd September Yamamoto made the machine’s debut at the Finish World round watched by Honda’s HRC president, Mr Aika, and he came home in a very creditable sixth position and straight into the points. His only concern was the machines lack of power for the tough hazards.
At the next round he proved the result was no fluke as he came home in the points again in fourteenth place in Sweden witnessed once again by Aika.
In October Eddy Lejeune visited the Honda Racing Corporation headquarters in Japan where he observed the start of the process of producing the new single shock production RTL 250cc and the work the engineers had carried out on the new 360cc model which would be built exclusively for the Belgium rider to defend his title on in 1985. He was so impressed with the on-going development and dedication from the Japanese engineers that he signed to the company for a further three years. Honda also committed themselves to more support to the other Lejeune brothers so they could aid Eddy in his championship campaign.
It was noted that the Fantic team had tried some under-handed tactics in attempting to help their number one rider, Frenchman Thierry Michaud, take the World Championship title from Lejeune in 1984.
In early 1985 some more exciting news took the trials world by storm when Britain’s Steve Saunders signed a contract with Honda UK to ride the production RTL 250cc, which was launched at the Dirt Bike Show in late 1984, in the World Championship with some assistance from the HRC headquarters in Japan.
In late 1984 Saunders had had a quick ride on Mazaya Yamamoto’s development Honda after the last World round and decided this was the machine for him and moved from the British built Armstrong two-stroke Hiro powered machine. Initially he rode the TLR Honda before making a stunning UK debut when he won the opening round of the British Championship, the Colmore trial, on his single shock 250cc RTL.
Housed in the new steel square tubed frame was a completely redesigned power plant with an engine capacity of 360cc, although it still retained the same bore and stroke, camshaft and carburettor from the 1984 World Championship winning twin-shock machine.
The height of the engine was still a problem as was the engine ‘mass’ of the four-stroke but the engine was now 10 lbs lighter in weight and narrower and shorter, this having been achieved by the use of newly cast magnesium cases. The gearbox shared some components, including the gear selector mechanism from the 125cc CR motocross engine.
The aluminium gear change lever was also mounted very high on the engine and the kick-start shaft was also manufactured from the same material. It also featured a Pro-Link single shock rear suspension set-up attached to an aluminium swinging arm, which allowed for three way adjustment; compression and damping on the separate oil reservoir and spring load adjustment on the Showa manufactured shock absorber.
The machine was fitted with aluminium front fork bottoms with increased slider diameter, moving from 35 mm to 37 mm. Lejeune was informed that magnesium fork bottoms would be supplied to compliment the similarly manufactured fork yokes to trim even more weight. The drum brake wheels would be fitted with the latest rubber from Michelin.
When first seen the machine looked distinctly like the production 250cc RTL but on closer inspection was nothing like it. With limited room around the machine many parts looked like after fitments as the designers simply ran out of space and in some people’s opinion it looked like the ugliest trials machine ever built, such was its radical looks.
Eddy spent hours practising and setting up the machine at his Dison base in Belgium, aware that his attack on his fourth World crown in 1985 since starting with Honda seven seasons ago would be the toughest yet.
All the major factories and Fantic in particular knew they had to move from the old twin-shock rear suspension system to the single shock type and they too abandoned their old design for the new one.
WTC – GBR Eddy had to push on in the closing stages after machine problems.
At the opening World round in Spain, Michaud came out fighting to take the win but the biggest surprise was Britain’s Steve Saunders in second place on the production RTL in front of Lejeune.
On his home ground in Belgium Lejeune took the win which restored his confidence but Michaud was on a role, winning five of the six opening World rounds. The truth is that the new Lejeune machine had proved very troublesome. Lejeune recently told Trial Magazine that he once tried five different frames over the course of a day in one training session.
In the early rounds the coating on the cylinder barrel was giving problems and at the British round the gearbox caused problems, resulting in a mid-trial strip down to alleviate the issues, which were only resolved by some quick handiwork from his Belgium mechanic, Andre Simens, which kept Lejeune in the event. The engine was mechanically quite noisy and it was obvious the handling was difficult.
Many problems had come to light in the heat of World Championship competition and it was obvious that the machine had needed more development before the season started.
It was soon identified that trying to fit the big 360cc engine into a smaller frame was not as practical as first thought as it left no room for anything else. The rear suspension would not perform as they wanted it to as the shock absorber was too short and difficult to adjust. The chain line was not correct which also hindered the rear suspensions performance. The oil sump capacity was not sufficient and when more was added the engine would not ‘rev’ above 5,000 rpm. The crankcases were so tight around the crankshaft that the oil acted as a hydraulic brake at high revs.
A new engine was supplied incorporating the modifications both he and his mechanic had suggested and he gallantly fought back with a win in round seven in Austria with more updated parts fitted to the 360cc, but the damage in the early rounds had made a huge ‘dint’ in his championship aspirations.
No World Championship
Saunders also received new parts for his 250cc RTL and soon came to the front as a serious challenger for wins which he duly took at the season end in Germany as Michaud was crowned World Champion on the Fantic. The truth is that in his first year on the semi-works Honda, Saunders had a fantastic season which was so different than the year Lejeune had. In reality, Eddy had performed miracles on the under developed 360cc to win two rounds in a series that Michaud had taken by storm.
For the last two rounds of the series, knowing his World Championship aspirations were over, the Belgium rider reverted to a machine very similar to the one Saunders was riding which was a production RTL 250cc fitted with upgraded parts from the Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) in Japan. In their first year of production the 250cc RTL machines proved excellent machines and it was decided to park up the prototype 360cc and concentrate on making the 250cc into a World Championship winner.
Despite its failure to win the World title much had been learnt in the difficult season with the RTL360S. For 1986 a two man Rothmans sponsored team, which included both Lejeune and Saunders, would compete for World Championship honours on factory prepared RTL 270cc machines which would incorporate many of the new ideas which were the product of the prototype Honda RTL360S.
At the opening WTC round in Spain 2nd If you look close enough you can seethe hand fabricated rear silencerEddy Lejeune
WTC - Spain: The picture shows howsteep the hazards were. WTC - Eddy concentrates in the Spanish sun.The machine was an on-going evolution.
WTC – France – The worst result of the season 6thWTC – Belgium – The machines first win.WTC - GBR – Merthyr Tydfil 2nd
WTC – Finland - With mechanic AndreSimens on the left in Finland WTC – Despite making many changes the machine would not win the championship.WTC – The crowds were keen to see Eddy on the Honda.
The machine with its seat and tank cover removed.Some of the engineers and team personnel involved with the RTL project.At the end of the year the production RTL 250cc was launched with Eddy Lejeune and Steve Saunders in attendance.