Santa Catalina Island is just 20 miles off the coast of California, but when it comes to transportation it might as well be a different world. While cars seem to cover every square inch of Los Angeles, they’re a precious commodity in Catalina – there’s a 20 year waiting list for residents of the island to bring a private vehicle over. For non-residents, it’s just about impossible to get access to a car, and the consolation prize is renting a golf cart. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Catalina a couple of times in the past, and I was always limited to exploring where my two feet could take me to. So when Honda said they were turning Catalina into the “Isle of Monkey” for a day and asked if I wanted to come ride their newest bike on an island that almost never allows this sort of thing, you know that my affirmative response was delivered very quickly. Turns out, a place with speed limits that never exceed 25 miles per hour is an excellent location to ride a 125cc motorcycle!
What I don’t like:
Photos by Kevin Wing
…but the “Nicest People” campaign has always been the highlight, arguably peaking with TV ads during the 1964 Oscars. Honda snagged some commercials and in the process became the first foreign company to sponsor the Academy Awards. Because of the popularity of the awards show, the ad was seen by approximately 70% of television viewers in America, and it was a powerful tool in spreading the word of the nifty fifty.
The Monkey actually started in 1961 as a ride at the Tama Tech amusement park, a former venture owned by a Honda subsidiary that was all about promoting the “joys of driving”. The name came from the fact that riders looked like monkeys on the diminutive machines, but the bikes were so popular that Honda created a production version in 1964. Japan and Europe got to play with it first, but American riders got their chance in 1968 with a model designated the Z50A. While it was called the Monkey in other markets, the little Honda was called the Mini Trail in the US, and that’s the bike you surely think of when you see the 2019 Monkey.
The Z50A continued on until 1979 when it became the dirt-focused Z50R, losing lights and any potential for street legality in the process. In 1988, Honda brought over 3,058 examples of the ZB50 (a street-legal sister of the Z50R) to North America. It lasted for just one year before Honda decided it cost too much to make. They’re hard to find nowadays and I’ve only featured two on this site: this used example had an asking price of $3,500. In 1999, American Honda replaced the Z-series with the XR50R, and that marked the end of the Monkey-that-wasn’t-named-the-Monkey in the US.
Fast forward a few years and it’s a different small bike that catches Honda off-guard. The Ruckus is a 50cc scooter that was built to be practical and tough, but it took off as a popular base for customization in a way that no one predicted. That culture shift within small bikes that made it easy for Honda to decide to bring the MSX125 over as the Grom in 2013, and it basically created a new market segment in America of 50cc-125cc street bikes that weren’t scooters. Over the years, Honda has sold nearly 40,000 Groms. Those are great sales numbers nowadays, but it’s also a reminder of what the glory days used to be: consider that Honda sold 50,000 examples of the Z50A in the debut year of 1968 alone!
I have always enjoyed my time on a Grom, and Honda calls the Monkey “an extension of the Grom platform”. In this case, “extension” = “retro makeover”, but what does that entail?
The obvious changes are cosmetic, and they’re almost universally excellent. There are styling touches from the Z50 just about everywhere: the “Old Wing” logos and paint scheme on the tank, circular mirrors, tall handlebars, exhaust shield, Honda logo on the rear of the thick seat, dual shocks – I could go on and on here. I think there are two misses, one of which is the black airbox. Due to my limited time with the bike I wasn’t able to determine exactly what is inside the giant box of plastic but I assume it’s leftovers from the Grom platform that they could not clean up for cheap – I will investigate deeper once I get more than an afternoon with the bike. The other bummer is the taillight, which is out of place. It’s pulled from the Grom because the much-better-looking taillight that the rest of the world gets doesn’t meet DOT regulations. At least that’s an easy fix…the airbox won’t be.
The styling is an obvious improvement in my eyes, but the finish is improved as well. The Grom gets by with lots of plastic and a black frame, while the Monkey gets a metal tank and chrome fenders, plus the frame, swingarm, and shocks are color-matched to your two paint choices of Pearl Nebula Red or Banana Yellow.
Other than that, it’s basically a Grom, so you get the same 124.9cc air-cooled thumper with the same 4-speed transmission. While the internals are identical, the Monkey gets a fancier crankcase cover which includes an oil level sight glass. Both bikes share 31mm forks with 3.9″ of travel. The Monkey gets dual rear shocks, both with the same 4.1″ of travel found on the Grom’s monoshock.
There are additional differences when it comes to the dimensions, but everything is slight.
The Grom weighs 229 pounds (add 5 for ABS), while the Monkey weighs 231.5 (add 4 for ABS)
The Grom’s seat height is 30″, the Monkey’s is 30.6″.
The Grom’s wheelbase is 47.2″, the Monkey’s is 45.5″.
The Grom has a 1.45 gallon gas tank, the Monkey’s tank is 1.5 gallons (0.5 gallon reserve). Officially, the Grom gets 134 miles per gallon. Honda has not disclosed the Monkey’s MPG yet but I think it’s a fair assumption that the number would be quite similar.
I’ll spare you more of the trivial numbers – my point is simply that while there are little changes here and there, if you’ve ridden a Grom you should know what to expect with its newer and prettier sister.
The brakes are the same between models, but they pack some fancy technology. In fact, there’s a few examples bits of modern technology in the Monkey that belie the old-school styling.
Other notable tech details include full LED lighting and what Honda calls an “answer back” system: press a button on the key and the Monkey’s lights will flash to make it easier to find in dark parking lots (or if you just want to scare someone nearby). There’s also a LCD gauge cluster with speedometer, odometer, two trip meters, and a fuel gauge. The SEL button lets you switch between the odometer and two trip meters. The SET button lets you reset the trip meters. I wish they would have blended both functions into one button (press to switch, hold to reset) and then hid that single button somewhere else. The current plastic housing looks like an ugly tumor on the otherwise lovely gauge.
The party piece of the gauges is the startup animation, which looks like eyes blinking (or winking?) at you:
Riding the Monkey
There aren’t many roads to explore in Avalon (the only incorporated city in Catalina), and the speed limit varies between just 15 and 25 miles per hour. Combine that with a group of friends who were all goofing around, chatting with each other in open face helmets, and going around tourists in slow rental golf carts and it’s the one of the few places where a Monkey can feel like more than you need from a performance standpoint. The fueling is smooth and while there’s a little more play in the clutch lever than I would like, it’s a cinch to ride. Front brake feel is fine but the rear brake lever requires too much effort before it results in any sort of deceleration. Stomp on the rear brake and the rear wheel will eventually lock up.
Gear changes are smooth, it was easy to find neutral, and the gear ratios are just about perfect. Getting moving in 1st gear requires minimal clutch slippage to start smoothly and you can stay in that gear until 28 miles per hour. There’s no tachometer on the Monkey, and there doesn’t need to be one. Considering the drivetrain has been pulled from the Grom, the non-indicated redline should be 9,250 rpm.
For a little bike, the ergonomics are fantastic. It’s easily the most comfortable bike in this category thanks to the fat seat and tall handlebars that make you sit upright with posture that would make a finishing school teacher proud. My 6’2″ frame felt cramped unless I shifted my butt towards the back of the seat – I won’t be strapping any cargo nets on the back any time soon.
Near the end of the day, Honda let us loose on the island to explore as we wished. Most people wisely stuck with photographer Kevin Wing to make sure they got excellent shots of themselves. I decided to ditch and see what else I could find, and I was joined by Ryan Adams of Motorcycle.com and Kevin Dunn of Steady Garage.
I like the current generation of minibikes but I can’t say I know much about the customization scene, which is why it was fascinating to learn from Kevin about the eye-watering amounts of money owners are spending on modifying their bikes. Look closely at the Grom below – it’s got a CB300 motor in it, which means that it now puts out approximately 30 horsepower instead of the original single digit number!
The mods might not be for everyone, but it’s wonderful to see that level of passion for two-wheelers. With the Monkey’s emphasis on style, I presume it will see less cosmetic modifications from future owners than the Grom does (except for the brake light, which has to go). On the performance side, however, just about everything that’s currently available for the Grom can be bolted on to the Monkey. For example, even though the Monkey won’t be available until October 1st, Yoshimura already has an exhaust system for it.
The gigantic aftermarket presence for these little bikes means that Honda isn’t troubling themselves too much with options on their end. The only factory accessory will be a rear rack.
Freed from Honda’s supervision, Kevin, Ryan, and I picked up the pace to see what the bike felt like when riding with gusto. The Monkey maintained its high comfort level, but the suspension is way too soft for my 190 pounds. Even at a stop, I can get the rear shocks to bottom out just by bouncing hard on the back of the seat. When cornering aggressively, the rear half of the bike gives up and reluctantly gets dragged vaguely in the direction of the front tire like a petulant child being pulled by a frustrated parent. This is my one true gripe about the Monkey. At the relaxed pace we were guided at during the morning, it was fine. It might also be sufficient at speed for someone who weighs 100 pounds, but most riders that get to enjoy the plump seat will not be that size.
Considering the Monkey’s pedigree of being a trail bike, I felt obligated to ride on a little bit of dirt. I don’t think the average owner is going to go out of their way to climb hills, but when we saw a hill we had to give it a shot. The thick seat acts as a second suspension and helps soak up the bumps. On a smooth, flat trail, you’d have no problem cruising to your heart’s content though the lack of power means hills like this require momentum and patience.
Again, this is probably outside the scope of what the typical Monkey will be asked to do, but it’s a playful bike and it makes me want to explore and goof around. The biggest problem with potential dirt excursions is the ground clearance but you could slap some Maxxis M6024 knobbies on the Monkey and genuinely do the easy portions of LA-Barstow-Vegas at a slow pace if you wanted.
Despite my complaint about the rear suspension, this bike is an absolute a treat to putt around on (don’t worry, I won’t say “more fun than a barrel of monkeys”). In many ways, the Monkey/Grom relationship reminds me of the Kawasaki Z900RS/Z900 or the Husqvarna 701 Vitpilen/KTM 690 Duke – the Monkey isn’t $600 better than the Grom in an objective sense, but it sure is $600 cooler.
Hang around bikes long enough and you’ll probably have some stereotypes about owners. Take a moment to imagine the rider of a BMW GS, a Honda Gold Wing, any literbike race rep, or just about any Harley. You came up with those visuals pretty quickly, right? But what does a Monkey owner look like? Maybe you’ve got an answer, but I couldn’t come up with one before I got to ride the bike. At the launch, Jon Seidel (Assistant Manager, Powersports Communications) said that the Grom appealed to all kinds of owners ranging from 16-80 years old. He wasn’t exaggerating (or Honda managed to bribe all the residents of Catalina), because we only spent 6 hours riding in a town of just 3,800 people but we had a mind-boggling number of interactions with people ranging from smiles to shouts. Old guys came up to the group, wanting to share that they used to have one while reminiscing about the good old days. Multiple middle aged gentlemen asked how they could buy a Banana Yellow example that very day. An 18-year old guy with his girlfriend stopped in his tracks on a street corner to yell, “Is that the new Honda? They’re so fucking cool!”
So, what does a Monkey owner look like? I still don’t know for sure, but I do know that a small part of the answer will be yours truly. I’m not really sure how I can endorse a bike more than by spending my own money on it, but I’m going to buy one for Vy, and constantly ride it myself.
Vy is 5’1″, which made it tough to find a bike she felt comfortable and confident on (this was before the Grom was introduced in 2013). We looked at all kinds of options, but she rejected almost all of my suggestions (such as the TW200) because she thought they were too ugly. When I sent her a link to a 1968 S90 on Craigslist, she immediately fell in love:
Though it’s a beautiful bike, there are obvious disadvantages to using a drum brake, kickstart only motorcycle with 50 years of wear and tear to teach someone with. When I got a Grom to review, I had Vy try it out and it was clear that she appreciated the electric starter, modern brakes, and tighter action of the throttle and clutch. For what it’s worth, she’s also tried the Z125 and she prefers the Grom (as do I). I’ve been looking for an excuse to get Vy on a newer bike so she feels more comfortable while riding, and if the Benelli 135 (I promise I’m still working on that review for you) had ABS, I would have bought that for her.
But the Monkey features everything she loved about the Grom and it gets rid of the thing she hated – the modern styling cues of insectoid robots. I feel confident that this bike will be just like our S90 and last for decades, and I’m reassured that it has ABS because I’m hypocritical and have no problem with riding like an idiot and doing wheelies but I worry dreadfully about her safety when she’s riding herself. It looks like the search for Vy’s next bike is officially over, and I can’t wait to ride the S90 alongside my best friend while she putts around on her new Monkey.
With all of that said, Vy obviously has different requirements than the average motorcyclist. She’s on the small side and she never plans on going on the freeway. So if she wasn’t in the picture, would I still buy one? If I didn’t have the S90, yes. Just like the Grom or Z125, the Monkey doesn’t make much sense on paper. I’m sure Honda never thought it made sense as a production vehicle when they created it as an amusement park ride nearly 6 decades ago. But there’s something infectiously fun about the little bikes, and there’s a reason why the ride became so popular that it evolved into an actual motorcycle. I think it’s because it’s impossible to take yourself seriously on them.
“The Monkey and Super Cub are brand ambassadors.”Bill Savino, Manager - Two Wheel Market/Product Planning at American Honda
The average non-motorcyclist in America still thinks there are two types of motorcycles – Harleys and sportbikes. Think back to your stereotypes of those riders. Are they aggressive? Covered in leather? Pounding out decibels of volume from speakers or aftermarket exhausts? Constantly scowling because they’re trying to be more badass or faster than you? You and I know that there’s more to our motorcycling compatriots, but this is sadly what a lot of the car drivers next to you on the road see. It sure isn’t what they’ll see when you’re on a Monkey. This new Honda is just simple fun, and I have to stress that the fun factor increases exponentially when you’re with a friend on a similar bike.
I don’t know if you still meet the nicest people on a Honda. But you’ll probably find the happiest people on a Monkey. The 2019 Honda Monkey will be available in dealers on October 1st. Bring a friend and go find out if they’re as much fun as I say they are.
Check out the 2019 Honda Monkey!
Mark was the first of a few people to ask why there aren’t folding handlebars.
I asked a Honda representative if they considered adding folding handlebars at any point during product development and he believed (though not with 100% certainty) that it never came up. The original had folding handlebars to help it fit into small spots like the trunk of a car. While this looks like the 60s Monkey/Mini Trail, the new bike is significantly larger. In addition, the original Mini Trail weighed 108 pounds. The new Monkey is over twice that, and most people are not going to be able to pick it up so storage spots are going to be limited to the same places most small bikes go – back of a camper, bed of a pickup truck, etc. Making the handlebars fold would help with the nostalgia factor but it wouldn’t make the overall package compact enough to be worth the increase in cost, if I had to guess.
I asked Honda if their promotional photos included a comparison of old and new, but they didn’t have anything like that to share. Thankfully, the folks at Webike (through the Japanese site Young Machine) have got you covered. Click here for more side by side shots.
Mark also asked what the top speed is.
Unfortunately, because we were on Catalina there wasn’t a place I could find out for myself. I don’t have an answer for you just yet but my slightly educated guess would be in the low 50s.
RM had a whole bunch of questions:
Why only two colors?
It’s what American Honda decided would sell. Honda UK is importing the same two colors plus Pearl Shining Black. I believe Japan gets 4 colors but my Japanese isn’t good enough to find the correct link for you. American Honda believes that they’re going to sell slightly more reds than yellows, and they expect that 20% of the red models will have the optional ABS. Remember that yellow bikes won’t come with ABS in the US, even though I got a picture of a yellow bike with ABS in my promotional images.
Next year can you get a different color?
It’s theoretically possible but I could not get a confirmation from anyone at Honda about this.
Is it made in Japan?
[UPDATE}: I apologize, I originally answered this incorrectly. The correct answer: the Monkey, like the Grom, is made in Thailand.
Which is faster, the Monkey or the Grom?
Not sure yet, but I’d guess the Grom is BARELY faster just due to the slight difference in weight. It wouldn’t be noticeable, really.
There were several questions about the airbox, or as RM called it, the “black plastic ugliness”.
I briefly mentioned this up above but I wasn’t able to take a peek in there myself. If you’ll permit to me link to the Japanese site Young Machine again, here’s examples 1/2 and example 3 of customs that have the plastic pulled off. It’s not as pretty as a carb just hanging in the air, but do you think it’s better than having the plastic surround? I’m sure some owners will detab the frame and try to hide the wiring loom somehow.
Larry Guerriero asked why the Monkey (and Super Cub) won’t be coming to Canada.
This is my fault – I forgot to ask while I was at the event. I’ve sent the question over to Honda reps but I haven’t heard back yet. I will let you know as soon as I get an answer!