It was the tone, more than the words, that sounded a bit deflating. As I recently finished work on a 1970 Honda CL350, my wife, Alexa, asked, “Do you think it will run?”
I believe I subconsciously heard the word “really” in the question, as in, “Do you really think it will run?” But she hadn’t said that. Perhaps my insecurity was speaking. This was, after all, my first real teardown of an old motorcycle and the fact that it ran – sort of — when I bought it more than two years ago meant little in the aftermath of my efforts at wrenching and reconditioning.
As I poured fuel through a funnel and into the tank it occurred to me that this poor thing, which our son had named Jasper, might never run again.
Jasper’s relationship with us began on a more positive note in March, 2017. Winter was winding down and I was looking for a fun project that wouldn’t take too long, like getting a ratty, neglected bike back on the road by summer. As I perused Craigslist one evening Alexa noticed the telltale widening of eyes. I might have gasped, too.
“Find something?” she asked while walking over to join me at the kitchen table. I had. Here was a decades-old classic – a mainstay of Honda’s motorcycle business in its formative years from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. More people might recall the larger, four-cylinder CB750 that went on sale as a 1969 model and is more glamorous and valued as a collectible today. But the Japanese company sold far more bikes from its family of 350cc twins. Most of those were standard-styled CB350s but its siblings, the CL350 scrambler and SL350 enduro models also sold well. The CL, however, is the most sought-after version today, its high-mounted double-barrel exhaust pipes and braced handle bars solidly in vogue with bike fanatics and casual glancers alike.
The seller was asking a seemingly low $1,000 for this antique, which looked fetching in photos, resplendent in “candy sapphire blue.” And the bike was local—just two miles away. I drove over the following morning, cash in hand, ready to pounce on a rare opportunity.
Of course the bike had problems. The seller had parked it near the road so as I drove to the curb I could see the front brake cable was hanging free, not connected to the drum. The rear wheel was short a few spokes, the rims were rusty, the seat torn. The tires might have been originals from 1970. Like the handlebar grips, foot-peg pads and other rubber parts, they appeared ready to turn to dust.
Still, a few spare parts and a bead-blaster would fix these shortcomings, right? At least no one had tried to “café” the bike (a new verb!) or turn it into a bobber, tracker or chopper. This was an honest old machine, its frame intact, stock parts attached and mostly functioning.
Soon we settled on $900, and after convincing myself the Honda was capable of a short jaunt, I rode it home. What could go wrong in two miles?
Once we got rolling, the first thing I noticed was a lack of rearview mirrors. Somehow I overlooked that glaring deficiency during the pre-purchase inspection but now it had my full attention. I really missed those mirrors. Riding in traffic was frightening without them. The good news was that the bike ran, shifted and handled fairly well – in line with the seller’s description. He told me it was rideable but not exactly roadworthy, and that it needed “some love.” All true, no sugar-coating.
I cruised straight into the garage and almost immediately began the slow, careful process of disassembly, which revealed just how much love the bike needed. Small mammals, insects and arachnids had called it home over the years, filling hidden spaces in its frame, around its engine and transmission, and under the seat with nests, food stashes and too many carcasses to count. The horn didn’t work because it was caked with a hard adobe-like compound. It appears mud-dauber wasps had taken up residence inside.
The front brake drum wasn’t just disconnected from the brake lever. It was empty — no brake shoes or springs inside. The turn signals and other electrical bits were iffy and a mold garden had sprouted within the disintegrating foam seat cushion. Of course such snags were not surprising after decades of inactivity and neglect (the bike’s most recent registration sticker was from 1991). Nor were they show-stoppers.
The seller had said he anticipated seeing me in a month or two, riding past his house on the beautifully restored bike, inspiring regret. Let’s make that two years and change, and call it resuscitation instead of a restoration because the bike maintains the worn-in look of a nearly 50-year-old durable good. But it is cleaner and shinier than before, and truly roadworthy thanks to roughly $1,000 in new parts. That isn’t a bad deal considering the Honda’s condition when I brought it home and, especially, the pleasure it has brought me since then.
One might expect that riding the vintage gem now, turning heads and collecting compliments almost everywhere I go, would be an absolute joy. It is. But the most precious time I spent with the bike unfolded as I surveyed dozens of parts scattered on the garage floor around its bare, matte-black frame, which sat elevated on wood blocks for months as I tried to recall exactly which nuts and bolts went where. No matter how meticulously you label them, those things get mixed up.
The prolonged renewal turned out to be a blessing. I worked on Jasper only when I had an hour or more to spend, and almost always looked forward to those greasy stints in the garage. I got to know every page of the service manual, so seemingly odd procedures eventually began to make sense. Numerous online tutorials helped me avoid mistakes.
By the time the bike was ready for a test-ride I had tuned it well enough that it started on the second kick (kick-starting is so much more satisfying than using the electric starter). The engine’s sudden roar was startling and seemed remarkably loud inside the garage. It also instantly justified the time I spent on the project.
Now that I’m riding the old Honda almost every day – more often than I ever expected – I don’t worry so much about it conking out and stranding me far afield. If something goes wrong I think I will be able to get it going again, at least well enough to limp home. As a result of the added confidence I am taking longer, more interesting rides including 100-mile loops from northern New Jersey into southern New York and Eastern Pennsylvania. I avoid highways, in part because there is more to see on the backroads but also because Jasper doesn’t really like speeds above 60 miles an hour. Of course we have gone faster, but at Interstate pace the little engine screams and its characteristic parallel-twin vibration becomes painfully evident, giving it the feel of something about to fly apart. The tachometer might show a redline of 10,500 revs but I would not venture anywhere near that neighborhood today.
Cruising on quiet, curvy roads in the 30 to 50 mph range is a better formula for good times on the CL350. At those speeds the engine pulls strongly and the bike moves ahead with a satisfying surge when I twist the throttle. The rumbling exhaust pleases my ears. Wheels roll smoothly. Tires, impossibly narrow by modern standards, grip confidently.
The overall experience of riding an old bike like this is raw, even primitive compared with today’s liquid-cooled, fuel-injected and electronically adjustable models. Jasper’s cable-operated drum brakes don’t seem to share any technology with the latest antilock hydraulic discs and digital traction control that have become de rigueur on newer machines. But the intense feedback I receive, characterizing the contours of nearly every bump, crack, seam and undulation in the road, gives me goosebumps I do not feel on, say, my ‘93 Ducati, itself an antique. Brand-new bikes seem downright sanitized next to Jasper.
People who dream about riding motorcycles that are simple enough for the average owner to maintain and repair — and who long for a more engaging, tactile ride — should consider the vintage route. Twin-cylinder Hondas from 1965 through the 1970s are especially good candidates because they are robust, come in great colors and enjoy a healthy supply of spare parts and technical support.
But other brands including Yamaha, Suzuki and Harley-Davidson also benefit from the aid of clubs, online communities and aftermarket parts makers who focus on older bikes. Finding parts for less-popular makes and models (Laverda RGS 1000, anyone?) may be difficult but is rarely impossible if you are patient and appreciate a challenge.
Most machines from the era before electronic ignition are worth keeping on the road and worthy of your contribution to that cause. Try to think of each one as a collection of teachable moments, ready to reveal interesting perspectives on personal transport, design, engineering, culture and ourselves.
Now, how about a Hodaka?