The new CL72s appeared in dealerships in1962, shortly after Bill Robertson and I rode two first-production bikes a thousand miles in the first ever non-stop race against the clock in Mexico from Tijuana to LaPaz, Baja California. It took us 39 hours and 56 nightmarish minutes, establishing a record that stood until 1967. Now Honda Motor Company had the foundation for an effective advertising campaign that promised durability and reliability for all Honda models. Today, Baja has become a famous off-road playground, thanks to this early excursion south of the border initiated by American Honda Motor Company.
After retrieving my Baja bike, I began racing it in local cross-country events. I was upgrading the CL constantly to keep it competitive, and in one particular winning streak I finished first in the 250 class and third overall in six consecutive races. Typically, there would be between 100 and 200 motorcycles starting at one time. Most entries were British-built scramblers of 500cc or more in displacement, so forcing a 250 to even the bottom of the podium was respectable in this competitive crowd. Then in 1964, the CL72s reliability took me to the District 37 Enduro Championship, the only time a “baby bike” ever won that “Grand Prize.” This caused some problems for the “establishment,” so AMA District 37 decided to place 250cc and smaller displacement bikes in a class of their own, leaving the greater enduro award exclusively to larger motorcycles. Major forces behind the sport imported and sold open-displacement motorcycles, so big splashes by little competitors were not welcome. And, the other brands were figuring out that the Japanese motorcycle industry just might be a threat in the future. This was also about the time when Cliff Coleman, Steve McQueen, and my brother Bud and I were the United States Vase Team at the ISDT in Erfurt, East Germany in 1964. We picked up our bought-and-paid-for Triumph motorcycles at the factory in Coventry, England; but only after they used the opportunity to express their displeasure with me for racing Japanese motorcycles in the States. Yes, even the English had become aware of Honda Motor Company.
Sales were brisk, so many performance parts were developed and offered for the CL Hondas. Webco, a well-known aftermarket source at the time, offered a complete 350 kit for the 250. I used Webco’s road racing cam and valve springs, which allowed the engine to spin freely past 10,000 rpm. I never bored my 250s because both combustion chambers and valves were sized for a 125 single. I also used the stock carburetors. However, I did lace on an 18-inch Dunlop rim, increased fork travel, used Girling shocks, Reynolds chain, and swapped the internal gear ratios around to get off-road spacing instead of the progressive road racing ratios the CLs came with. The bike was fast, reliable, and bulletproof under rough off-road conditions, even though it carried a battery for ignition.
American Honda Motor Company sold roughly 89,000 CL72s and 77s (305cc) from 1962 through 1968. After that, sales succumbed to faster and lighter machines from other manufacturers. Yamaha’s DT1, a 250cc two-stroke single which some U.S. journalist called the first Japanese dirt bike (even though it also came with lights and battery), appeared in 1968, the same year that Larry Berquist teamed with Gary Preston to win the second NORRA-sanctioned Baja 1000 overall. They raced an all new 5-speed CL350 equipped with Koni shocks, prepared by Bill Bell -- Mike Bell’s father -- from Long Beach Honda. This was a “clean sheet” design, and Larry told me later in LaPaz that the twin never stopped pulling and didn’t miss a beat. Honda Motor Company then turned their resources towards conquering the world of road racing, so little attention was given to further off-road development. After all, they were destined to become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, and dirt bikes turned out to be only an “interesting detour” at that time.
By 1967, the European two-strokes and a motocross craze had reached the United States, but it took another five years before HMC refocused on the world of dirt bikes. Then, in typical Honda fashion, HMC went into off-road and motocross racing big time. Motocross had become professional, the AMA wisely got involved, and dirt would no longer be a dead-end endeavor as it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It took nearly ten years for American Honda Motor Company to establish itself as a major force in the U.S. with the introduction of the Elsinore line of two-stroke dirt bikes and the brilliant CB750 Four roadster. It wasn’t easy. Honda and the other Japanese motorcycle manufacturers had a lot of body blocks thrown their way by the established “Big Three” already doing business in America, yet Honda won the battle simply by making a better product with dedicated people paying attention to details.
Epilogue: The first American Honda dealers who went to Japan previewed a Honda 600cc automobile and a small, fat-tired, three-wheeled “monkey bike.” It was a glimpse and forecast of what was to become the most successful motorcycle, ATV, and automobile building and racing dynasty, with world championships won in everything Honda cared to contest. Those dealers had no idea of what they were becoming a part of when they climbed aboard that JAL Jetliner at LAX in November, 1961.
All graphics provided by Dave Ekins
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