Can you remember 1965? It was the year the Beatles performed the first stadium concert in the history of music, and Tom and Jerry made their debut. Cigarette advertising was banned on British TV, the Sound of Music premiered and Churchill was buried.
But it was also the year Honda first came to the UK – meaning it’s now celebrating 50 years of selling, er, things here.
Why ‘things’? Well, although you may think of Honda as being that company that makes the Jazz (your nan’s pride and joy, right?), it also makes record-breaking hot hatches, trusty all-terrain vehicles and even lawnmowers. So, for its 50th birthday party, Honda got together a load of its things and we went along to try them out.
Honda Civic Type R
We’ve already spent a lot of time in the new Civic Type R, but there’s nothing quite like a soaking-wet race track for showing off just how capable it is. With 310hp going through the front wheels, there is only so much its systems can do to prevent torque steer if you chuck it into a greasy corner with too much throttle. But lift off at that moment and enjoy the Type R’s adjustability. It’ll go properly sideways very easily, while depressing your right foot brings it nicely back into line and makes you feel like Gordon Shedden.
That’s until you have a passenger ride with Gordon Shedden. Which we did. The Scot, crowned British Touring Car Champion for the second time just a few weeks ago, manages to hold a conversation while teasing the Type R with the handbrake and showing just how far that adjustability extends when you’re one of the country’s handiest drivers.
You could say the Honda Civic Type R ‘handles like a go kart’, but we won’t. Not only because it’s a lazy cliche, but also because, on a wet track, you could say it handles better than a go kart.
Honda let us loose on a tight, twisty track in one of its karts – only it was very, very damp. With little more than four wheels, a seat and an engine, it’s very easy to find yourself understeering towards a tyre wall and wishing you had the Civic Type R’s clever electronics to make you look more skillful than you actually are.
Still, engage your brain and learn how to extract the best out of the karts (stamp on the brakes until the back end starts to swing around and then drift, yo) and you’ll have an awful lot of fun in them – if not achieve a particularly good lap time.
Honda offers free training with the sale of all its new all-terrain vehicles. You may scoff but if you’ve never ridden one before, it’s definitely worth it. Rik Mayall and Ozzie Osborne both diced with death following serious quad bike accidents – and they were both experienced riders.
But that’s enough of the scary stuff. Hammering around the off-road site at Silverstone (we stayed away from the circuit on the ATVs…), you can have an absolute blast at relatively low speeds. It takes a little bit of getting used to – the hand throttle, for example – and they don’t turn quite like a go kart. But for farmers and those who need to tackle tough terrain, there really is little else that comes close.
Honda holds the world record for the fastest ever lawn mower – bagged last year with its 109hp Mean Mower, capable of 130mph. That thing is nuts – created with input from Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden, it boasts a high-carbon steel chassis and a 2.0-litre engine from a Honda VTR Firestorm.
We weren’t allowed to drive that at Silverstone (something about health and safety), but we did get a go on a more down-to-earth (common or garden?) mower. The only complication here is that the accelerator is operated using the left-hand pedal, with reverse on the right and a brake in the middle. Yup, we promptly reversed it into a fence.
Still, in keeping with a theme that’s starting to become clear, it’s amazing how much fun it’s possible to have in something many regard as little more than a tool. Seriously, if you’ve got an acre or two, invest in one of these.
And finally, Honda let us loose on a motorbike. We say ‘let us loose’, but a lack of motorbike licence meant we were restricted to a pillion ride. However, it still made for an exciting experience for someone who has never been on a bike before. It’s not as scary as you may expect – pootling through the countryside is pleasurable even at a gentle pace.
The Honda VFR1200F we ‘rode’ is powered by a 170hp V4 engine, combined with a dual-clutch transmission that provided almost-imperceptible gearchanges.