On vintage Hondas

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Over at Slate, Tim Wu writes about the appeal of vintage (60s and 70s) Hondas:
To the faithful, among whom I count myself, the Hondas made in the 1960s and '70s are objects of mystic beauty, each a mechanical Helen of Troy. Look at the photo above, and you'll see what I mean. In the 1960s, Honda sought to capture and improve on the spirit of the English motorcycles of the day, and rarely has East met West with more pleasing consequences. The Japanese take on British motorbike aesthetics is, to my mind, a cross of cultures unrivaled since Italians began mixing tomatoes with Chinese noodles.

The machine looks ready to go. It is full of derring-do. It has plenty of shiny bits. It speaks of a controlled power that stops short of aggression. The vintage Hondas are, in the lingo, "naked"--you can see everything that makes them run. The pistons, less mighty than faithful, chug away. The chain snakes, and oil and gas drip here and there.

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If the vintage Hondas are so great and so popular, why did Honda stop making them? I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that tragedy struck in the 1980s (as with many things aesthetic). The bikes got fat. The flat back sank, like a worn-out horse. Most of today's Honda motorcycles are, effectively, two-wheeled SUVs: obese creatures, covered with too much plastic. The kick-start is long gone--and what's the fun in a motorcycle that starts every time?

As it happens, I used to own a very similar bike: a 1980 Honda CM-400T. The primary difference between this bike and those of a few years earlier is an electric start and that the seat isn't entirely flat. I did plenty of miles on the CM-400 and then rode a 1984 Honda CB700SC (Nighthawk S) for over 10 years. I've also spent a fair bit of time on two more modern bikes borrowed from a friend: a KTM Duke 650 single and a 1998 CBR900 RR. With that as background I can say with some confidence that my CM-400T was a POS and I strongly suspect that the same applies to the bikes that Wu is raving about in his piece. Certainly, my Nighthawk S was a far better bike, more powerful, better handling, lower maintenance (shaft drive), more comfortable, better looking, etc. I will admit that the CBR900RR feels a beefy and overpowered, but it's fantastically responsive, if a little terrifying. So, no, I don't think it's really accurate to say that the 70s and 80s bikes were better.

It's certainly true that modern sportbikes are plastic covered, but it's not like you can't get a bike with an aesthetic pretty similar to those vintage bikes. Indeed, the Honda CB250 Nighthawk is fairly like the 400-class bikes of years past, both in aesthetics (though the back isn't as flat) and in power: it's a 234cc parallel twin instead of 400cc, but with more modern technology you get up to 20 HP (the CB350 developed 24 HP). This is pretty much a better bike in every dimension.

As far as I can tell, the major argument that Wu has to offer for older bikes is nostalgia and unreliability. I suppose there is a certain charm here if you think of a motorcycle as a toy instead of a form of transportation. On the other hand, if you want a bike that isn't covered in plastic, rides well, and needs a ton of maintenance, Ducati has got you covered.

1 Comments

Actually, the sportbikes aren't two-wheeled SUVs, they are two-wheeled F1 cars that are designed to last.

The power, performance, and handling of a modern sportbike is so amazing that it would be unimaginable a decade ago, let alone three decades ago.

And actually, part of the reason why Honda did so well is they weren't like the british bikes in reliability. A honda, you push the starter and it turns over. It doesn't leak oil. OTOH, the 60s and 70s british bikes don't leak oil, they just mark their territory.

Anyway, honda still does retro, they just know they don't sell in the US.

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