Dean Adams Paul Dean Dave Despain
Tosh Konya Dick Lepley Steve McMinn
Mark Mederski Bill Silver Randall Washington

The Honda CL72

By Mark Mederski

Mark Mederski

Marketing experts tell us that a large part of anyone’s vehicle buying decision has to do with appearance.  Honda Runes, Ducati Monsters, and Confederate Cycles all having a following, so it’s not hard to imagine what Honda designers were thinking when they sketched an off-road machine with their late-1950s-derived 250 OHC twin. The Brits and Europeans had already given us versions of their street singles and twins in off-road trim that had little more concession to their function than raised fenders, up pipes, skid plates, and perhaps a braced handlebar. In some ways, when Honda developed their first somewhat serious off-road motorcycle, they went all of them one better. The CL72 carries a range of features and details that add up to a machine that was not only good looking, but made a decent dirt tracker and cross country machine. Dave Ekins demonstrated this in his 1961 Baja run on an apparent prototype of the Honda CL72.

Honda’s sloping cylinder, overhead cam, and ball and roller bearings throughout the engine were about four years old when designers decided to use them in an off-road machine. The Type 1 CL72 was powered by a detuned version of the 247cc CB72 (250 Hawk) engine. A torquier cam, lower compression, and the elimination of the electric starter all served the intended use. In some markets there was even a Type 2 version with a 360 degree crankshaft and special gear ratios. A nicely designed, fairly light, lugged loop frame with a skid plate was the central structure, and was very different from Honda’s contemporary pressed steel designs. Up until the 1960s, Honda employed primarily tubular and pressed steel leading link forks, but about 1961 went to telescopic designs on some models, including the sporty CB72 Hawk. The similar Scrambler forks with four inches of travel were fitted with rubber gaiters, just as the Brits would have done. Trick little wire clamps held the gaiters in place.

Made through about 1965 in red, black, and medium blue, with silver tanks and air cleaner covers, the first Scramblers are the most interesting. The 1962 and 1963 models (serial numbers prefixed CL72110XXXX) had trick bits like fine-thread hollow axles and sand cast hubs with bigger double-butted spokes, plus classic polished alloy fenders on only the very earliest machines. Other nice details included odd cross hatched, or knurled grips with the Honda name in raised letters—a rare find today—and several points on the control cables pre-drilled for safety wire on their chrome adjusters, with delicate wire detents on the adjusters near the lever perches.  All CL72s have 40-spoke steel flanged rims designed around typical European alloy counterparts from Akront or Borrani. The rear wheel is set up such that the wheel can be removed without the sprocket; the entire final drive remains attached to the swing arm, which is an unexpected useful detail.  Note the handsome castings at the tips of the light swing arm that hold the rear axle and drilled adjusters, chain guard and shocks.  Folding foot pegs were stock, but collectors still come across fixed peg setups leading us to believe these were a “factory” Honda racing part along with the alloy fuel tank with flip cap,  a special short racing seat and an odd little metal rear fender extension.  

Given the machine’s bulk, the rear fender mount thankfully doubled as a very useful grab rail, something still missing from many off-road machines today. Then there’s the cool chain guard and yet more evidence that early production machines had more manufacturing time spent on them.  Here we see stylish louvers on the side of the chain guard, and little finned reverse scoops at the rear.  First the fins went away around 1964, then the side louvers, leaving us with a clunky piece that could serve as a belt guard on a lawn mower. These early chain guards, front fenders and braces are the holy grail of CL72 restorers. The chain guards are rare because  they shattered from vibration, and the fenders and braces were often subject to crash damage, or perhaps removed because chopped fenders were cool.

Okay, I have left out the most important part: the exhaust system. The Honda designers must have had a chance to look at a late 50s BSA Spitfire Scrambler when they were attending the Isle of Man in 1959. The CL72 system nicely mimics its snaking, up-the-left-side design.  But Honda’s unit is actually tighter, more graceful in design, and better tucked in with somewhat useful heat shields.  In the showroom these bikes usually had an ungainly spark arrestor hung off the end of the pipes, but most were slipped off and replaced with a pair of Snuff-or-Nots.  The sound is now over 40 years old to me, but I still believe there are few better-sounding engines than a 180 degree twin wrung into the red zone.  The CL72 didn’t have a tach, but the cams and straight pipes served as a sort of rev-limiter, so late on a quiet warm summer night. . . well you get the picture.  Twenty-four horsepower never sounded so good.  The CL72 would barely run 80 mph, though its brothers, the Hawk and Super Hawk, would run out to nearly 100 mph if you had a tail wind and a lot of patience.  For top end, those baloney mufflers on the Hawk actually worked whereas the scrambler pipes were for low-down torque only.

Sometime around 1965 the CL72 made way for a 305cc CL77, now fondly referred to as the “305 Scrambler.”  These machines were sold in much greater numbers and have a stronger following even though they lack almost every interesting detail mentioned above.  It’s almost as if Honda came to grips with the fact that the CL72 not really a good enduro or scrambles bike, cut manufacturing expense, and moved to making it a good sounding street bike with saucy up pipes and a great sound.  And as for design decision based on looks, the last CL77s were made in 1967 came with candy apple paint and chromed steel fenders, and even silver piping on the seat.  Gone were the alloy bits, the hollow axles, the fixed final drive, and most of the interesting features.  And as for that ugly spark arrestor, by then you had to get your hacksaw because some governing body decided it should be welded on.

Opinions vary as to which was the best machine Honda made in the mid-sixties. Some opinions are clouded by the experiences these motorcycles brought to their young riders. But I have my mind made up, and it’s only about hardware and sound.  The neurons have been locked in that mode since 1964 when I first laid eyes on a Honda 250 Scrambler, as we called them back then.  I wish it not to be a storied burial, mine, but I’d like to permanently rest beside a CL72, six feet and 250ccs under.  But that would be too cruel to these rather soulful machines that thrilled so many of us in our teens. When I further sense my mortality, or need to pay for assisted living, maybe I’ll put the Scrambler into a vintage bike auction and watch it go to some Gen X or Y kid who is into good retro noise.  Who knows how these machines will be regarded in 25 or 50 years.  Perhaps this 125-year internal combustion era we are in will seem a fluke, and such machines will be smelted into electric motor parts, but I hope not.  I still believe that a motorcycle that makes you grin is a good thing.

About the author:
Mark Mederski has served as AMA Vice President for Marketing where he doubled the Association’s membership.  Later he was recruited by the AMA Board to manage the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum, drawing from ten years in exhibition design at Ohio Historical Society.  He left the Museum in the spring of 2009 to pursue a long-held mission of serving the motorcycle collector community. He offers a range of consultations including organizational enhancements to bike and ephemera collections along with help in display fixtures. Mederski is also a collector with about 20 motorcycles from the 1960s. 

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