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

Musings on Honda's 50th Anniversary in America

By Randall Washington (aka Randakk)

Randall Washington

Honda changed my life.  I mean that quite literally.  If there were no
Honda in America, there would be no persona known as "Randakk." For that I am sincerely grateful.  That I am able to earn a living immersed in such fabulous machinery is quite a blessing.

When I first began to formulate my thoughts for this ramble, I naturally thought of Honda's considerable accomplishments in advertising.  After all, my "real" career was in the field of sales and marketing.   Honda burst onto the U.S. scene with its seminal ad campaign: "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda."  Advertising types still talk about that iconic campaign. Suddenly, motorcycles were simultaneously cool, safe, and accessible to the masses. You can't hope to pull off a trifecta like that many times in an advertising career!

Yet, my passion for Hondas is really more mechanically based.  As a youngster, I spent many vacations on the beaches of North and South Carolina.  I remember once at Myrtle Beach a hapless fellow managed to run his rental Honda 50 into the swimming pool of our motel!  My friends and I helped him fish it out of the deep end.  Miraculously, after it dripped for five minutes and the rider steeled his frayed nerves, it fired on the first kick, burped a pint or two of water, and off it went!  That was my first lesson in the superiority of Honda engineering. Variants of that model are known around the world as the Honda "Super Cub." More than 60 million have been built, and it's still in production and available just about everywhere . . . except America. More the pity, because I would buy a new one today in a heartbeat if I could!

In addition to the famous Honda Cub, there are three Honda models that really speak to me, each of which demonstrates wildly different aspects of Honda's engineering prowess.

The CX500 and Variants:
Build a better Moto Guzzi? Honda's transverse "V" was an outstanding design, better than the Moto Guzzi in every aspect (other than aesthetics). Honda got it right then lost interest.  Many (including me) regret that Honda didn't continue this line. Well cared for examples will last forever! 500 and 650 Turbo versions were quite advanced and still highly prized by knowledgeable riders.

Features of the original CX500 included water cooling, four-valve heads, shaft drive, tubeless tires, and electronic ignition in a superior low maintenance package that was very rider-friendly.

The CX500 and its cousins are terrific bikes, even by modern standards. They are rugged little beasts that are loved by a large enthusiast base. I've owned one of these (a GL500 “SilverWing”) and like them a lot. Somewhat less sexy than a Ducati 916, their pedestrian looks are offset by legendary reliability. These have long been favored by couriers who need a trusty bike that handles well for urban warfare. But after proving that it could build a better transverse twin than Moto Guzzi, Honda moved on to other pursuits.

CBX:
The CBX is an example of Honda engineering and design showing off in glorious fashion.  The first impression of this motorcycle was certainly dramatic, since it is hard to ignore six cylinders, six carbs, 24 valves, and an unforgettable howling exhaust!

I consider the CBX to be the world’s “largest small bike.”  Many aspects are rather delicate (e.g. the 35mm fork tubes on the early twin shock models). This should be no real surprise, since the CBX was created by Shoichiro Irimajiri’s team in direct homage to Honda’s legendary yet diminutive six cylinder GP bikes, which dominated the highest levels of professional road racing in the sixties. Amazingly, clever internal details permitted a short-stroke engine design that was only two inches wider than a CB750 engine.

I’m known mainly as a “carb” guy, and I consider CBX carbs to be exquisite works of industrial art. They are stunning and truly amazing examples of very intricate die casting.  I also like to “futz” with the carburetion on my bikes in the elusive pursuit of fuel metering perfection, and I find the carburetion on the CBX to be one of Honda’s finest accomplishments.  I find nothing significant that I care to improve on Honda’s carburetion for the CBX. It’s linear, accurate, and immediately responsive.

On the CBX, small clever details abound. For example, Honda splayed the intake runners cast onto the cylinder head inboard (to the rear) by 10 degrees for greater rider knee clearance. Then, they compensated for the differential intact lengths and the small mixture effects this created by clever jiggering of the air box internals.  There is a “jackshaft” behind the cylinders that drives the alternator on the left side. Honda was so concerned about the potential for excess inertial loads that this arrangement might create that it devised a “clutch” of sorts to drive the alternator. In addition to being a mechanical oddity, it’s also the source of some rather amazing noises.

I own a later “Pro-Link” CBX, and it’s my favorite bike for long, leisurely rides. There’s not much torque by modern standards, but it’s smooth, comfortable and handles well for its vintage, given the upgrades Honda added to later models (notably 39mm forks, revised steering geometry, and a longer wheelbase.). In the true spirit of its GP heritage, it’s a rev-happy demon that really wakes up at higher rpms.

In typical fashion, Honda dropped the CBX due to sluggish sales when new, only to see it be “rediscovered” later by adoring enthusiasts. The exhaust note alone makes this a must have for any collector. It’s still not yet a “buyer’s market,” but thankfully, CBX values have declined a bit from the irrational values of 2008, courtesy of the current worldwide economic meltdown.

GL1000:
The GL1000 was the model that launched and propelled my business. Needless to say, I consider the GL1000 a very special motorcycle. If you own a Honda GL1000 - congratulations!  It is one of the best motorcycle designs ever. I'm biased of course, but the well-regarded folks at the Guggenheim Museum selected the original Honda GL1000 as one of the featured machines in the wildly popular Art of the Motorcycle exhibition series.

In fact, I will flatly say that the GL1000 is the best motorcycle design ever, and thousands of my customers would agree entirely with that bold statement.

Introduced in 1975, the Honda GL 1000 was a stunning technical achievement. The original, unfaired Gold Wing was the world's biggest, heaviest, and second fastest bike available at the time (only the mighty Kawasaki Z1 was swifter). Novel features included a liquid-cooled flat four engine, belt-driven overhead cams, shaft drive, triple disk brakes, under-seat fuel tank, counter-rotating alternator, two oil pumps, "floating" piston pins, faux top shelter “tank” and detachable back-up kick-start arm, to mention a few. Honda used the GL1000 to showcase its considerable engineering prowess and put other motorcycle marques on notice that it was a force to be reckoned with. It was the result of first-ever heavy collaboration between Honda's motorcycle and automotive engineering teams.

Incredibly, the original prototype featured a pancake 6 cylinder which was heavily influenced by contemporary Porsche designs. The prototype even included a distributor ignition system, but late in the development cycle Honda settled on a flat four design. Even so, the engine is very automobile-like, which is not surprising given the influence of the automotive engineers working on the project.

In addition to its prodigious power, the original Wing was especially smooth, comfortable, and reliable.  The clever packaging resulted in a high degree of mass centralization that made the GL1000 easy to handle despite its heft.  The large 19-inch front wheel combined with wide, flattish bars yielded an almost dirt bike like handling character. Alas, Honda decided to put "ape hanger" bars on these bikes beginning with the '76 LTD, which diminished the sporting flavor somewhat.

Other technical novelties included the so-called Reserve Lighting Unit. This was a very clever device that was engineered to accommodate anticipated safety regs that never materialized. It compensates for a failed low beam headlight or taillight filament by switching to the high beam headlight or stop lamp filament (at reduced voltage).  It provides a useful safety feature. Collectors always check to see that GL1000s have this device in place and that it is in operation.

If you've ever cracked into a GL1000 engine, you would be very impressed with how robust and "overbuilt" the internals are. Few folks get this beautiful view as engine rebuilding on Gold Wings is very uncommon. I should add that my own supercharged GL1000 has essentially stock engine internals and has been subjected to intense thrashing without complaint.

Eventually, Honda found a large market by morphing the Gold Wing into the fully dressed luxo-behemoths you can buy today.  Many (including me) feel the original “naked” GL was never surpassed by later Gold Wing models.  Thirty plus years after introduction, the riding experience for many is unsurpassed.  

I really am a Honda guy—even my lawn mower is a Honda—but I freaked out a few folks recently.  Dennis Parrish is an ace vintage road racer whom I am privileged to sponsor.  Mainly he campaigns a stable of slick DOHC-4 Hondas, but he also has a rogue Kawasaki Z1 in the mix.  Folks were shocked to hear of my involvement with that Kawasaki. I appreciate good designs wherever they originate, even from Kawasaki. But for me, no other motorcycle company has created as many different and superior designs as Honda, and legions of rabid enthusiasts seem to agree with me.

About the author:

Randall Washington is an entrepreneur, web-merchant, and video producer. He is founder and owner of Randakk's Cycle Shakk LLC, an international provider of restoration resources for vintage Honda motorcycles.  Washington is a consultant to the motorcycle industry and a speaker at motorcycle industry trade events. He conducts an annual international rally for vintage motorcycle enthusiasts. He has been featured in various books and magazine articles about vintage Hondas, and sponsors of motorcycle racing teams. 

To contact Randall Washington, click randakk@hotmail.com.  To access his Randakk's Cycle Shakk web site, click here.