Mini Bike Madness: The Honda Z50
There are some ideas that are simply too good to not pursue, and the Honda Z series of motorcycles is exactly that.
Originally created for Japanese amusement park Tama Tech, a park that was owned by none other than Honda themselves. Yes, that's right, Honda owned an amusement park that featured motorsports-focused rides and attractions, and the Z50 was a result of an attraction at that park!
This diminutive little trail bike was designed to be a bunch of fun, and completely portable. With fold-down handlebars, and a diminutive frame; the Honda Z50 could fit in the trunk of your car, or be easily transported in an RV.
So, did this amusement park ride turn into a worldwide sensation? Let's dig in to find out more.
After World War II, America became more and more infatuated with motorcycle culture. Early on, intrepid entrepreneurs were taking basic frames and adding in noisy, cheap lawn mower engines. These unique creations were known as mini bikes, and up until the mid-1960s were nothing more than a super fun toy for kids.
Honda debuted their mini bike at Tama Tech in 1961, and people went nuts for these things! To the surprise of Honda, it was not only children that enjoyed riding the mini bikes, but it was also adults as well. Management and Honda decided to put this diminutive motorcycle into production and it debuted in 1964 as the Z100. By 1969, it landed in the United States as the Z50A.
Minibikes were all the rage in the late 1960s, but just like earlier on, most of these bikes were just lawn mower engines strapped to basic frames. What made the Z50 so different was the level of detail and engineering that went into this small motorcycle. Those who know Honda well would never imagine a poorly engineered bike to come from the famous brand, and the Z50 was no exception.
It was an unabashed hit.
Due to the diminutive frame on the Honda Z50, adult riders needed to hunch over with their arms stretched out in front of them to successfully ride this unique little bike. This is where the Z50 got its nickname "Monkey Bike", and it became an iconic nickname that just stuck. You may also know the Z50 by it’s other nickname, the Gorilla Bike, which for all intents and purposes sounds just a little more tough.
To retain portability, Z50 utilized full down handlebars, so designed so that the entire bike could be thrown in the trunk of an average car or be easily stowed in the storage area of an RV. The frame was rigid and extremely strong, but it was a teeth rattler off-road because it only offered limited wheel travel on the front suspension. Later models would include a front suspension fork, and a dual shock rear suspension to boot. Brakes were a simple expanding drum design.
The engine was a 49cc, overhead cam air-cooled 4-stroke single that produced maybe three horsepower. Most of the Z50s utilized the centrifugal clutch, with a three-speed manual shift lever. Let me tell you, there wasn’t many lawnmower powered mini bikes out there with the three-speed semi-auto gearbox on them! In future years, a standard three or four-speed manual with traditionally operated manual clutch were available to those looking for a good time.
Models and Generations
A version of the Z50 is sold today (the aptly named Monkey) marking a nearly 50 year heritage of awesome little mini bikes sold in the United States. Throughout the years, the Z50 through changes to make it more competitive, and more fun for generations upon generations of riders.
Honda's original line of Z series bikes was known as a Z50A, which we're sold from 1969 to 1978. These were soft trail riders, that were more for recreation than any sort of competition, even though riders regularly upgraded their Monkey Bikes with bigger Honda engines, better transmissions and bigger sets of tires. In fact, one of the biggest allures of the Z50A was the ability to upgrade and customize the little guy into a sleeper that could run hard.
From 1979 on, the Honda Z50A became the Honda Z50R, and turned more towards competition style design than pure leisure. This model would go on to live in Honda’s lineup for a staggering 20 years before eventually reaching its demise in 1999. In this time, power didn’t really change much, but the rest of the bike looked drastically different.
Here's some of the highlights across the long history of the Z50:
1972: Honda replaced the rigid rear end with a motorcycle type swingarm suspension, and dual rear shocks. Change also came to the fuel tank, brake pedal and fenders.
1973: introduction of the legendary "mini trail" designation, and along with additional colors and factory options.
1979: Big changes came to the Z50 in the form of a completely redesigned fuel tank, better seats, and BMX style handlebars. This made the Z50 more capable, and more fun to drive in the dirt. This model became known as the Z50R
1988: Point ignition changed over to CDI ignition, and the release of the street legal Z50R hits the streets.
1996: A slew of new fuel tank designs, colors and additional factory options hit the Z50 for the last time.
Honda stopped selling the Z50 series due to poor demand and ever tightening emissions requirements on the tiny, one cylinder Gorilla bike. Sure, you can buy a minibike made in someones garage, but it won’t have near the charisma or the pedigree of the Z50 and for that reason alone, you need to do yourself a favor and find one of these old gems and take it for a spin.
Pack it up in the trunk of your car, stick in the cargo area of your RV, or throw it in the bed of your truck! Whatever you do, just get out there and enjoy yourself on this incredible little machine.