H O N D A    i n  J A P A N

Observations on Honda motorcycles in Japan

by Rick Darke

all images on this website (C) rick darke

It’s mid-morning on December 5th, 2003 and I’m walking the narrow streets of a rural village in the mountains north of Kyoto with my wife Melinda and our Japanese friend Shigeto. From the bottom of the village, a familiar staccato grows stronger until the postal delivery driver finally turns onto our street, passing us on a bright red Honda step-through barely changed in design from the first models a half century ago.  The day before, as we weaved through downtown Kyoto’s rush-hour traffic, Honda cycles of all sizes passed within inches of our windows. Chevrolet may be the heartbeat of America, but in Japan that honor belongs to two-wheeled Hondas.

The morning mail arrives by Honda in rural Kita village in Miyama-cho, Japan,
which is internationally reknowned for its surviving wealth of thatch-roofed traditional houses.

     My work with plants and landscapes has taken me to Japan many times since 1985. Although Honda history has never been my main purpose, each trip has provided opportunities to learn more about the background of motorcycles I’ve ridden since high school.  I started with a 1964 Honda CA100 50cc step-through and graduated to 160’s, 305’s, and finally the 175’s, 350’s and 450’s which were my sole transportation in college days.  Chrome and candy colors, spoked wheels and spring breezes, and the comraderie of other enthusiasts are all part of the satisfaction of collecting and restoring these vintage machines, but I also find a lot of pleasure in understanding how Honda motorcycles fit into the linked history of Japan and the U.S.   

      It is surprising to me that no significant book about Soichiro Honda (the name is pronounced “sōh ee-chee-dōh”) has yet been written.  A true giant in 20th Century international industry, Honda’s founder was apparently too interested in having fun with his inventions to be bothered with arranging for the type of official biography so traditional among his peers.  The nearest thing I’ve found is Masajiro Ikeda’s 1993 book Soichiro Honda: The Endless Racer.  Translated from Japanese by Kazunori Nozawa, this small paperback is a bit quirky but is well worth reading for the insight it provides into Honda’s character.  A man of exceptional vision, creativity and stamina, Honda retained a youthful, infectious enthusiasm throughout his life as described in multiple recollections by Nozawa and and others who knew him personally.  Though hard-drinking, hard-driving and meticulous about his machinery, his gregarious nature and approachability earned him virtually universal respect and admiration among employees.  A well-travelled man with a broad understanding of culture and commerce, he was savvy enough to understand that “Benly”, which in Japanese means “convenient”, had the familiar ring of “Bentley” an automobile marque that was then well-known internationally for fine machinery. 

             Convenience, quality, and efficiency continue to be major factors in the popularity of Honda motorcycles in modern-day Japan.  In addition to the ubiquitous step-though types still favored for daily commuting, Benly models in various sizes from 50cc to 125cc are the standard for many business purposes. They’re encountered nearly everywhere, on sidewalks and street corners, with front or rear baskets or luggage racks appended.  I’ve always liked the lines of the full-fendered, toaster-tanked Benlys, and in December I stopped more than once to admire Benly CD125T’s sitting outside local “koban” (police stations) and wished there was a convenient way to take one home with me.

In police use in Kyoto, this Benly CD125T sports chrome tank panels and classic lines.

One of the personal highlights of my most recent Japan trip was the chance to visit Honda’s Collection Hall in Tochigi, a couple of hours north from Tokyo.  Although it is possible to get there by a combination of train and bus, the schedules are infrequent and somewhat inconvenient for foreign travellers with limited time.  When my friend Norio Ueda suggested that he and his wife could take us there by car I jumped at the chance.  Norio lives in a western Tokyo suburb, and although he is now enjoying a successful second career in landscape design, he first spent more than 30 years with Honda, both in Japan and in southern California.  Automobiles were the focus of his later years, but when he joined Honda in 1968 he was involved with motorcycle research and development, and played a small role in the original CB750 project.

      The Honda Collection Hall (visit the English-language website, http://world.honda.com/collection-hall/ ) is part of a huge corporate complex, generally referred to as Twin Ring Motegi, which includes multiple speedways, road and dirt tracks, a hotel, and other tourist facilities.  The official museum of Honda Motor Co., Ltd. the Collection Hall stunningly presents and interprets over 350 restored motorcycles, automobiles, power products and racing machines.  Most of these are Hondas, but to the company’s credit, the collection also includes well-chosen examples of historic competitors’ machines including NSU, Yamaha, and Kawasaki.

     Due to time constraints we breezed past the speedways, and with the uniquely high-pitched whine of multi-cylinder Honda racers permeating the outside air, we entered the grand entrance of the Honda Collection Hall.  Constructed of glass and stone and stainless steel, the enormous two-towered building is a fitting and memorable display space for machine design. The vast main lobby immediately hits you with a mix of historic racing and production motorcycles and cars, all meticulously restored both cosmetically and mechanically.  Special exhibits and a shop brimming with literature are off to the sides.  Although it was hard to decide where to turn first, we headed for the second floor of the south tower, which is devoted to production motorcycles.

      At home in the States in August, I often attend the White Rose meet in Jefferson, Pennsylvania where Robin Markey’s fabulously original D-type Dream can usually be seen.  Even this experience hardly prepared me for the sweep of Honda history on display on the second floor.  Arranged roughly in chronological order, beginning with the first post-WWII motorized bicycle conversions, are hundreds of vintage Hondas.

            Most accounts of the Honda company’s origins tell the story of how Soichiro Honda adapted WWII surplus engines, originally designed to power army transmitters, for use on common bicycles - but I’d never actually seen one.  Now, the real thing was right in front of me, representing the crude but important beginnings of the Honda legacy.  I began comparing sequential models, beginning with Honda’s Model A of 1947, the first production engine of Honda design, also intended for fitting to commecially available bicycles.

 In 1946, before he officially founded Honda, Soichido Honda sold engines such as this one,
rebuilt and adapted from WWII surplus military transmitting equipment

A 1952 Cub F stood nearby, its brilliant red, streamlined engine case contrasting with its frisbee-like white tank.  Also fitted to a bicycle frames, the Cub F greatly contributed to Honda’s growing reputation, and was innovatively marketed through a Japan-wide sales network of bicycle shops.

A 1952 Cub F with the classic red engine and white tank stands in front of other early models
including a row of Dreams and Benlys.

A 1949 D-type Dream in pristine restored condition represents the Honda company’s first true production motorcycle. 
Painted a rich burgundy-red with white pinstripes, the D’s engine is a 2-stroke design.  

The 1951 Dream E represents Honda’s first first 4-stroke overhead valve production motorcycle. The museum’s
interpretive label explains that this engine proved its durability and reliability in trial runs crossing the steep
Hakone mountains in the rain. The Dream E’s little 146cc seems impossibly simple and modest compared to
modern-day Hondas, but it was a critically important step in the development of many Dreams yet to come.

    I’ve chased a few Dreams on Ebay, with limited success. Most were reminders of the well-worn but still dependable CA160 and 305cc CA77 that were my main transportation for a time in high school and college years.  Undoubtably convenient, these full-bodied machines were hardly flashy, and I can recall looking with longing at other riders on sportier CB models.  So, while visiting in the Honda Collection Hall nearly 30 years later, it was a small revelation to find that
the CB lineage dates to the 125cc CB92 of 1959, which looks a lot like….a Dream.

Agressively sporty despite its pressed-steel frame, the 125ccBenly CB92 of 1959
was the first of Honda’s long line of CB Super Sports models.

     The Collection Hall displays a like-new example of this first Honda Super Sport to carry the CB appellation. While the bobbed rear fender, slender front fender, and angular tank make a speedy impression, the frame and forks are the same ample pressed steel types typical of docile CA’s.  Still, the sporty attitude of this taut little machine is immensely appealing.

More curious than beautiful is the CS92 Benly Sport, with fat Dream-type fenders but dramatic upswept pipes,
one on each side.

      For Vintage Honda fans looking to find familiar favorites from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, there are plenty in evidence.  I couldn’t resist asking my friend Norio Ueda to pose by a mint condition candy-red CB750 Four, since he’d been involved with Honda R&D when this model was in development.  One minor disappointment for me was the absence of one of my favorites: the CB450K1 of 1968. The Honda collection rotates to some extent, and although it includes the K1 it wasn’t on display during my visit. The CB450K1 is the first 5-speed 450 Super Sport and the last of Honda’s USA export 450 models with the classic chrome-sided “toaster tank”.  The K1’s production run included the “10-millionth Honda”, and a commemorative photo in the company’s dealer newsletter, The Honda Herald, shows Soichiro Honda astride the historic machine.  In lieu of the CB450K1 I found myself intrigued by a 1968 Dream CB250.   This 250cc toaster-tanked Japanese domestic model has the vertical SOHC engine design that was introduced to USA buyers in 325cc-version with the candy-colored painted-tank CB/CL350 models of 1968.

The 1968 Japan domestic model Dream CB250

      I’ve had a long interest in industrial design, and have always been willing to argue that the machinery of transportation, especially including motorcycles, often deserves the status of fine art.  When The Art of the Motorcycle opened in 1998 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, many of the City’s more conservative art critics were outraged that motorcycles had invaded their domain. To their dismay, the show to this day remains among the Guggenheim’s best-ever-attended.  I was fortunate to catch the show in New York, and was particularly drawn to the dramatically open design of the earliest motorcycles. I’ve never warmed to bikes covered in sheets of plastic, which I suppose is one reason why I’ve stayed with vintage machines.  Judging from a March 31, 2004 article in USA Today’s Money section, the trend is turning back to exposed mechanics.  Titled “Sales Pop a Wheelie as Motorcycles Get Naked” , the piece reveals that sales of “naked bikes” stripped of plastic fairings increased more than 100% between 1998 and 2002.  Although fairings on modern production sports bikes evolved directly from racers, the earliest racers in the Honda Collection Hall reminded me of how exquisitely artful purely purposeful, unadorned machinery can be. 

            Racers occupy the entire third floor of the South Wing at Tochigi, and they are breathtakingly beautiful. The first that caught my eye was the RC71 of 1958.  In simple silver and dark blue, it sports a true tubular frame but the CS71-based engine still serves as a structural member, as in Honda’s full production models of the day.

This hand-built RC71 racer competed in the 1958 Mt. Asama Clubman Race. The engine was little changed from
the regular production CS71 SOHC engine.

The RC160 of 1959 was Honda’s first dual overhead-cam 4-cylinder 250cc road racer.  Raced in successfully in
in 1959, this precurser to the better-known RC161 is the beginning of a line of 4-cylinder DOHC 250cc racers
that eventually proved dominant. In 1962, Honda’s DOHC 250cc RC163 won all nine races in the World Championship
series. Honda was still winning in 1966, with the DOHC 250cc RC166 winning 10 out of 10 World Championship races.

In addition to individually handcrafted machines such as the RC71, the Collection Hall displays most of the CR-type, limited production racers in displacements from 50cc to 125cc.  Of all the racers, the RC160 of 1959 is perhaps the most distinct. The first of Honda’s 4-cylinder 250cc road racers, it is as sophisticated as any motorcycle manufactured today, and is eloquent testimony to the dream of Soichiro Honda, the Endless Racer.

(adapted from Honda at Home by Rick Darke originally published in the magazine of the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club, North America)