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Common Tread

2019 Honda Monkey first ride review

Oct 02, 2018

If you’re looking to save time, I can deliver the Monkey review in a few scant words: Grom with retro clothes.

Normally, a four-word summary like that isn’t fair, but that really is the Monkey. Honda took the proven Honda Grom (which has sold 40,000 units since its introduction!), turned it into a dual-shock bike and made it look 45 years old. It’s a great little motorcycle for a lot of people, which I’ll tell you about in a moment, but I think there is one flaw that might be the undoing of the Monkey. In order to understand my rather bold charge, though, you need to understand the history of the monkey bike (little “m”) in America.

When Honda rolled the dice

Hondas first came to American shores in 1959 in the form of a 50 cc four-stroke scooter. Honda stepped it up in 1964. The company bought advertising time on the Academy Awards broadcast to the tune of $300,000. (That’s $2.4 million in “today” money, to give you an idea of the magnitude of this gamble.) They coupled with an American advertising firm to make motorcycles seem more accessible and the “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” campaign is still famous. 

Grom wheelie
Let's get the important review questions out of the way: yes, it will wheelie. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Imagine, if you will, how many scooters had to sell to cover the cost of those ads. Not just the gross sales, mind you, consider the net. (According to Honda, it represented the revenue of about 1,200 50s.) The potential reach, though, was probably tantalizing. The Academy Awards were the equivalent of the Super Bowl at the time, raking in about three quarters of all TV viewers.

Nowadays, Honda may be regarded as staid and conservative. But this? This strikes me as casino-level investment. The first two spots in the video below are precisely how Honda served up its wares.

Kihachiro Kawashima, the general manager of American Honda at that time, said, “When I heard they wanted $300,000, I had serious reason to pause and think about it. But Fujisawa [Takeo Fujisawa was Honda’s senior managing director of Honda Motor at the time] had always told me that great opportunities weren't so easy to come by. So, I decided to go for it. ‘Let's do it,' I said. But to be honest, I was pretty nervous."

Big gambles, however, come with big payouts. Honda’s friendly, colorful ad had quite an appeal. Honda describes the results thusly: “The response was simply overwhelming, and people everywhere were clamoring to start their own Honda dealerships. Moreover, large corporations across the U.S. began to inundate American Honda with inquiries concerning tie-ups, including such requests as, 'We would love to use the Honda 50 as a product in our sales-promotion campaign.'

"The Honda 50 had truly succeeded in its appeal to the American public. More than simply another motorcycle, it was seen as a casual vehicle for daily activities, and as such was an entirely new consumer value.”

Rise of the Monkey

In the mid 1960s, that 50 cc engine was stuffed into a much smaller chassis. (Big motor, little bike. This reminded me of my minibike project.) Why? It was developed for a ride in the Tama Tech Amusement Park, which featured motorized attractions.

That bike earned the moniker “monkey bike,” so christened due to the slightly ridiculous position full-size riders assume when riding it. (This is reduced a bit on the slightly-larger-than-the-original modern Monkey.) They were introduced to Europe and Asia in the early 1960s, but did not hit our country until a few years later, when the familiar shape of the Honda Trails and Z-bikes firmly etched themselves into American motorcycling history.

The story today

Now we come to the new 2019 Monkey. Most of you know the Grom, introduced in 2013. (“Grom” or “grommet” is slang for a young surfer.) That bike is a small, practical motorcycle, with all the basic controls of a real bike scaled down into a sturdy, easy-to-maintain package. Unsurprisingly, Honda riffed on the trend of retro-everything that we’re still in the midst of, and the Monkey is the result.

The engine
Where the magic happens. Man, I love this thing. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The new Monkey has 12-inch wheels, 125 cc, four speeds, two shocks, and one whole bunch of fun. This bike is either 232 or 236 pounds (ABS models are heavier), comes in two colors, and is generally basic. This is a motorcycle that sells almost on its lack of performance. When I was assigned a trip to Santa Catalina Island to test it, I was all smiles. A fat guy on a little bike is fun and funny.

The Monkey

I’ll spare you any monkey or Catalina Wine Mixer puns. Shooting you straight, here’s my take on things: The Monkey is small, slow, undersprung for me (but probably undersprung for almost all adults who do not possess my heft), and none of it matters. They’re hilarious. They’re also wildly similar to a Grom. I think the seat is a touch more comfortable, and the handlebars feel a little bit narrower. How do I know this?

Grom wheeee
Wheeeee! Photo by Kevin Wing.

I made sure to ride a Grom the weekend before I left. That was easy because my kiddo, Stinky, has a Grom. That’s his current street machine. “Stink, I need to borrow that Grom so I can compare it for this Monkey launch.” (Stinky likes the Monkey, too. He was following along with RevZilla’s involvement on this closer than normal.)

“Dad, I need to go see Harry.”

“Then take your car.”

“You grounded me from my car.” (I also grounded him from his motorcycle, but did not explicitly say as much, but now seemed like a poor time to argue that point.)

“Great. Now you’re grounded from your Grom and ungrounded from your car. Give me the keys.” Laughing, he turned them over. I did exactly what I expected I would do: rode it normally for a mile, then started doing wheelies and skids and all the stupid things one would expect a grown-up idiot man to do on a pint-sized motorcycle.

Grom crossed up
If you ain't slidin', you ain't ridin! The little Monkey encourages play. Photo by Kevin Wing.

I repeated this course of action on Santa Catalina Island.

This situation bears examination. There are many motorcycles that cross generations and rider types, but the Monkey is nearly universal in its ability to do so. It’s also benign enough that even non-riders flock to it. I couldn’t even add up all the times I was approached by friendly strangers who wanted to talk about the Monkey during my time with one.

Grom crash
Not my proudest moment. I lost a wheelie. However, the private road, dirt, and small displacement made this nine-mile-an-hour "crash" about as safe as it could be. Motorcycling has inherent danger, but a bike like the Monkey lets rookies and vets explore limits with a pretty large safety cushion. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Most bikes aim to be starter bikes or adventure bikes or race machines or something specific enough that not everyone is drawn in by it. The Monkey somehow transcends that. My son was not afraid to get on his Grom after he acquired his permit, and he has built his skill on the bike. I have had a ball on it, too, testing my boundaries and the boundaries of the machine in a way that’s considerably safer than by using a “beginner bike” that could displace a quarter of a liter and weigh nearly twice as much. And my own mom is interested in the Monkey — a mild-mannered Baby Boomer whose transportation tastes run to conservative sedans.

The Monkey is “cuter” than the Grom, and simply looks friendlier from all the anecdotal evidence I have collected. It is not aimed at someone looking for the edgier styling of the Grom. It’s supposed to be adorable, and it is. (When you turn on the ignition, the zeroes on the dash blink at you, and then the dash “smiles” and then morphs into an informational speedo.)

Red bike
Old Fat Dad outweighs the Monkey just as I do the Grom, but the machine doesn't care, nor do I. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Stinky (110 pounds) has gotten his Grom up to 61 mph. Fat Dad (285 pounds) can touch 50 on a Monkey. I could easily take it into town for errands, and squeeze it into some tight spaces. It can do almost anything a larger bike can do short of highway work — but that’s not the goal of the bike.

One thing I think really hurts the Monkey is its lack of passenger accommodations. This is a straight-up solo bike. Especially for a young rider who might like to take a skinny sweetheart along, this is not good. However, I think Honda expects that buyer to buy a Grom, and the Monkey to go to another rider who has a few bikes and wants to relive his childhood — an assumption I don’t necessarily think is correct. At the very least, they could have included the chrome package rack Honda reps told me was on the way as an accessory. That would have been a fair trade.

Incidentally, tires are cheapy Vee rubber skins that actually work fine on a machine with such little power. This was a great place for Honda to save some money. I like the tires, even though they are not a “performance” tire in any sense of the word.

Why a Monkey costs $3,999 (or $4,199 with ABS)

Some say the Monkey is expensive for what it was. I vehemently disagree. In fact, I think it’s a red herring. So let’s get it out of the way, then I’ll get into the Monkey’s real problem.

The bespoke exhaust. Not a bad rendition compared to an old Trail 70, eh? Photo by Lemmy.

A Grom is $3,349, and I don’t hear many people complaining about that. The Monkey received metal fenders, a metal fuel tank, dual shocks and a different swingarm, and a few other changes, like a new engine side cover, exhaust, headlight, and a different dash. (I think I actually prefer the Grom dash.) 

Look, it's a little face! Tell me this isn't adorable. Photo by Lemmy.

Is it worth another five hundred bones? Well, I don’t think I could transform a Grom into a Monkey for that kind of money. Sure, Honda can, but they need to make a few bucks, too. I don’t begrudge them that.

Oh yeah, springs are color-matched, too. 2019 Honda Monkey. Photo by Kevin Wing.

So, in my estimation, this is easy. The Monkey costs this much because it has to. Take Exhibit A, a Honda Rebel. This is an electric-start, single-cylinder, retro-y motorcycle short on frills, designed to be an entry-level learner bike. Dual discs, optional ABS, alloy wheels, solo seat… all for $4,449. It offers only a larger engine and liquid cooling compared to the Monkey. Now does the Monkey seem expensive? Maybe the Monkey costs what it should, and the Rebel is expensive.

I don’t believe that, you know. The reality, of course, is that making a smaller motorcycle doesn’t really reduce costs. Yes, there is a little less steel in the chassis and a little less aluminum in the wheels and a little less rubber in the tires, but a smaller piston and smaller rings, and a different bore size isn’t really cheaper. This problem has hounded manufacturers since the days of flatheads — riders feel lower-performance bikes should cost less in spite of the fact that the costs to produce them are uncomfortably close to their more powerful brethren.

Put it to you this way: Other than a used bike, what the hell else are your options for that kind of money?

The problem (and the fix)

The problem is me. I am (as I often am) the problem here.

I saw Rennie from Cycle News on the launch, and Abhi from Bike-urious. Oh, and Jensen from Asphalt & Rubber, and Kanishka from RideApart.

They’re the problem, too. If you read Common Tread, you prob’ly read at least one or two of those other pubs, too. In fact, you likely knew all about the Monkey and what it was, and didn’t drop by to hear me tell you that the IMU in the Monkey (I know, right? It’s to keep stoppies at bay.) is the same one in a certain Honda literbike. You already know that it’s basically what I told you it is: A Grom dressed up as a hipster.

An aircraft-style filler is decidedly modern, but I imagine this is a parts-bin piece and a screw-on probably would be expensive to make emissions-compliant. 2019 Honda Monkey. Photo by Lemmy.

Yet all of us were invited to this launch. To tell you, presumably, about a bike you are probably about as well versed in as we are, even if you haven’t ridden it. If you wanted one, you already set about looking into it, and if you didn’t, it wasn’t for lack of knowledge.

Most people asking me about the Monkey on Catalina were non-motorcyclists, with a few former and casual current bike people tossed in. Honda’s Jon Seidel mentioned Honda’s raging success story in the 1960s that I expanded on a bit for you in the introduction of this article, and yet I felt like I was the only one who saw the ridiculous irony in telling a bunch of industry-entrenched writers about this bold effort that Honda made lo these many years ago to deepen their ranks, and then, when the stakes are so high for the industry at this precise moment, playing it safe.

Where was Sports Afield? Or Wired? Or Good Housekeeping? Why would Honda waste money on having Common Tread to Catalina when I probably cannot sell you guys a single one of these bikes that you would not have ordinarily bought without my commentary? The Monkey’s fatal flaw right now has nothing to do with the motorcycle. This bike could single-handedly change the industry with some real advertising muscle thrown behind it. Hell, Harley-Davidson should be writing a check to Maxim — to advertise the Monkey.

My mom should not have learnt of this bike through me. It should not be assumed that the p-pegs can be “forgotten” because the purchaser is likely to be a graying Boomer. We are probably coming to the end of motorcycling history where a simple, rugged air-cooled bike still has a place in the world. This bike is fun, sturdy, and affordable. It’s probably about the safest way to enter motorcycling I could think of. (I put my own kid on this bike’s brother, remember?) Honda should have enough advertising fuel to launch this baby into orbit.

Honda can still fix this, happily, and I hope they do. I hope it’s soon. For the sake of my job, my industry, my hobby, and the thing that gets me out of bed when many other things will not, I sincerely pray that a full-scale advertising assault is in the works. I want Japanese execs to suspect I have an inside contact. I want them to wonder how I knew about their plan to purchase a few Super Bowl spots for this motorcycle and reinvigorate this lackluster North American market.

This little Monkey has the potential to be the biggest bike in the world. Or Honda could play it safe and watch the American motorcycle market dwindle further into irrelevance. If they want to prove me wrong, I'm available on February 3, 2019. Nothing would make me happier than to see a 55-year-old playbook opened back up this season.

2019 Honda Monkey
Price (MSRP) $3,999/$4,199 with ABS
Engine type Air-cooled four-stroke single cylinder
Displacement 124.9 cc
Bore x stroke 52.4 mm x 57.9 mm
Compression ratio 9.3:1
Transmission Four-speed
Front suspension 31 mm inverted fork; 3.9 inches travel
Rear suspension Twin shock; 4.1 inches travel
Front brake Single 220 mm hydraulic disc
Rear brake Single 190 mm hydraulic disc
Tires front/rear 120/80-12,130/80-12
Steering head angle 25 degrees
Wheelbase 45.5 inches
Seat height 30.6 inches
Tank capacity 1.5 gallons (including 0.5-gallon reserve)
Wet weight 231.5 pounds (Includes all standard equipment, required fluids and full tank of fuel—ready to ride)