The Honda RA272 is a legend. It brought Old Man Soichiro his first Formula One trophy in 1965, only three years after his company began building cars. It is such a revered car that the company rarely even shows it in Japan. That’s why we were surprised as anyone to see it in Detroit.
If we had to guess, we’d say the No. 11 RA272 is the most valuable car in Honda’s vast collection, period. It’s so priceless, Honda rarely even brings it out in Japan. Sure, it’ll trot out the RA271 for the Tokyo Motor Show or the RA300 for the Goodwood Festival of Speed, but risking damage by shipping the car halfway around the world only to be crowded against by journalists falling over themselves to get a picture of a woman on a UniCub would be a huge gamble.
Was it a gamble Honda would be willing to take? We asked Honda PR man Simon Branney if the RA272 in Detroit was the original. “No, it’s a replica,” he confirmed. Case closed, right? We proceeded to take some photos.
A few minutes later, Branney came back and told us that in fact he was wrong and that “It’s the real one.”
“Are you kidding?” we asked.
“No. It’s the real one,” he repeated, “Apparently they shipped the real one here by mistake.”
“Are you kidding?” This went back and forth about three more times.
Time to do a little digging. One clue was the lack of a red Honda emblem on its nose. The RA271 had one, and the cars that came after it had one. But further Googling revealed that some old photos of the RA272 had the emblem, some didn’t. Sometimes both came from photos that purported to be from the same race. Oops.
For comparison, here’s the Honda RA272 at the Honda Collection Hall in Japan. We took this photo way back in 2003, so forgive the potato-quality image. We can see no difference, but now we’re down the rabbithole of “Wait, what if that was a replica too?”
Real or not, it is an incredible machine. It’s also devoid of all but the most rudimentary of safety equipment. The driver’s seat is not much more than a cushion plopped into a metal canoe. You lie almost flat in it, and the gear shift linkage is completely exposed, running through the cockpit into the rear-mounted transmission. That’s an instant rib breaker in case of a side-impact accident.
It’s no coincidence that their first Grand Prix winner was being shown just as Honda is getting back into Formula 1 again. For 2015, Honda is replacing Mercedes as McLaren’s engine supplier in an effort to reprise the dominance of the sport that Honda-McLaren demonstrated in the late 1980s. In any case, it’s worth going to Cobo Hall to check out the car, just to get a sense of its rawness and sheer mechanical simplicity. Even if it wasn’t real, it was hands down the coolest thing we saw at the Detroit Auto Show.