Editor’s Note: As historians, we often do a disservice to history. In an effort to find meaningful connections between “big events,” we make sweeping generalizations and sometimes lose significant detail. For example, we all know that Honda came to America with a little step-through motorcycle and the claim that “you meet the nicest people on a Honda.” The catch-phrase caught on, sales boomed, Honda introduced the mighty Four, Dick Mann won Daytona, and the British factories closed their doors. End of story. Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. Off-road racing legend Dave Ekins tells us how American Honda found its way in the all-important U.S. off-road market when success was neither simple nor assured.
At the time Honda Motor Company of Japan (HMC) decided to set up a motorcycle importing business in the United States, Yamahas were already being imported by American distributor Frank Cooper. BMWs were imported by Butler & Smith of New Jersey, Triumph was distributed in the western states by Johnson Motors. There were also privately-owned eastern and western distributors for BSA, and the list went on through a host of Italian and German made machinery, all brought in by U.S based independent businessmen. HMC calculated correctly they could do a better job themselves, so Honda eased into the U.S. market on a small scale with a company-owned distributorship, testing the waters much like sticking your big toe in the tub to see if it’s too hot or too cold. After Honda proved their point, other makers followed HMC’s lead. Even Sweden’s Husqvarna had a small distributing company near San Diego in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Honda proved the job is best done by company owned distributors and everyone else followed, learning it is just easier to communicate direct, without a middle guy. You could say Honda Motor Company showed their competition the way toward success and riches in the U.S. marketplace.
Incorporated in 1948, Honda Motor Company entered the U.S. just eleven years later, early in 1959 as American Honda Motor Company; or “AHM.” It had taken only ten years for Honda Motor Company to get a solid hold on their home and nearby markets by offering highly efficient, small displacement four-stroke transportation bikes into the Asian economies (already smoking up their villages with two-strokes), desperately in need of inexpensive personal transportation. All Hondas were of engine/gearbox unit construction, allowing the engine oil to lubricate the gearbox, primary, and clutch; which eases maintenance. The same oil does everything, unlike machines from Europe which required different lubricants for each cavity. Also, Honda’s popular 50cc bikes were highly efficient and featured an automatic clutch, which made it easy for anyone to learn to ride
I first saw a Honda motorcycle at the legendary Big Bear Hare and Hound in January, 1959. Alan D’Alo (the magneto guy) had imported the bike, an experimental small production CL 70 scrambles/cross country racer with tubular frame, 19-inch wheels, Earles-type leading link fork, and a domestic “rotary” gearbox. With such a gearbox, you shifted down for first, down for second, down for third, down for fourth, down for neutral, down for first again. Get it? This positive neutral idea is great for stop light to stop light riding in crowded cities; but not for cross country races such as the world-famous 150-mile-long Big Bear. Imagine being in fourth gear, flat out, and shifting for fifth only to hit neutral, then stabbing again to get a gear and you find first!!! Oops…
These little twins dominated the 125 and 175cc class in local scrambles races for nearly a year until Southern California’s AMA District 37 referee outlawed the CB95s (after a 1-2-3-4 State Championship sweep) because the 150cc CB95s were not for sale in the United States; only the CB92 was. AHM pointed out that the available CA95 (street bike) head and cylinder would bolt straight on a CB92, making it a CB95. But the rebuttal was denied and the die was cast. Honda was not going to be allowed easy access to the American off-road market. Shortly thereafter, Montessa and Bultaco from Spain appeared with sophisticated 175cc two-stroke engines in an off-road chassis, and the four-stroke Hondas went to the back of the pack.
By 1961, HMC had upgraded the prototype 250 Scrambler with a CB72 Super Hawk engine; twin carburetors, no outside oil tank, and telescopic forks. AHM loaned me one of these prototypes. It was painted red, like all their “specials.” They still needed work, but this was a new beginning, and I started racing “The Red Rat” in local events, winning a few 250cc scrambles and motocross races where the terrain was favorable for the heavier, more powerful Honda. On the starting lines would be Greeves, Maicos, and Jawas; all special purpose lightweight two-stroke motocross bikes from Europe, so winning was not a given. HMC was anxious to have the CL72 available for their U.S. dealers, so with a third try they took the toolbox out of the gas tank (good), traded the nifty little motocross saddle for a large dual passenger type, and bolted on passenger foot rests. AHM thought a two-passenger option was a viable idea. Then they stuffed horsepower-robbing plugs into the exhaust pipes so these little screamers wouldn’t rattle the glass out of nearby houses. AHM now had a racy looking high-pipe street bike to add to their sales brochure; and it was their most expensive model yet.
The CL introduction was tied to HMC’s first U.S. dealer trip to Japan in November, 1961. HMC invited the top 40 U.S. Honda dealers to an all-expense-paid factory tour and sight seeing trip (another first in the industry). AHM’s sales manager, Jack McCormack, asked me to join them because I had been racing the prototype. Jack didn’t mention anything about testing a new CL, so my riding gear stayed home. I was 29 years old with nine years off-road racing behind me. In other words, I was “over the hill.” Midway through the ten-day tour the dealers went to a new test facility still in development called “TamaTech.” After borrowing a helmet and gloves from one of their test riders, I rode the bike around a fresh scrambles course, wearing business clothes, including a necktie. During the excursion, I was surprised to see several guys out there attempting to keep up, and not all the bikes were four-strokes. Many were two-cycle machines.
McCormack and I then had a meeting with the CL project managers to discuss potential changes. It turned out that HMC didn’t think any changes were necessary because I was several seconds faster than anyone else on the track, and they were tooled up for production! I was told, “Few Japanese riders get around this track in less than two minutes. You were a minute, fifty-four seconds.” Still, McCormack and I did help settle one important question. HMC wanted to offer both Type 1 and Type 2 models. The Type 1 had a 180o crankshaft; the Type 2 had a 360o crank. I preferred the Type 1 with its 10 percent more horsepower and better traction. AHM management wanted only the 360o crank Type 2 because it sounded more like the best-selling British twins. McCormack didn’t want both choices because of marketing costs. As a result, only Type 1s were sent to the United States, thanks to a brilliant decision by the homeland powers to choose performance over sound. I had raced both, and the Type 1 worked better. It was also the same engine used in the hot selling CB72 Super Hawk, and one engine type would reduce in-house spares and inventory costs.
AHM’s marketing idea was to get a lot of product to their dealers because they had a huge production capability with three modern factories to draw from. Although the off-road segment was a readily accessible sales avenue in the United States, they realized this was only a small portion of the potential U.S. market. AHM’s Wilshire Boulevard advertising firm, GB&D, created the slogan, “You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda.” They then purchased a full-page advertisement in Life Magazine -- America’s best selling, most-read household weekly -- which successfully bypassed the leather jacket image. In order to fill the unexpected demand, small-displacement Hondas were being sold in gas stations and hardware stores; anyplace where they could be purchased seven days a week, 12 hours a day. The old forty hour a week motorcycle shop was on its way out (except for Harley-Davidson) as Honda’s bikes became very popular among “the nicest people.” Incidentally, look around today and you will see brand new pocket bikes and motor scooters made in China for sale in gas stations and used car lots. Is history repeating itself?