The Cult of the Vintage Honda

A time machine on two wheels.

Newborn birds, emerging from the egg, are said to bond with the first thing they see. And so it is with motorcycles. Whatever you ride first imprints itself on the cerebral cortex, never to be supplanted. In my case, it was a 1970s Honda, now considered vintage, and in that summer began a love that has never waned.

The impression came one day in my late teens when my cousin taught me how to ride. Out of a shack that passed for a garage he wheeled a dusty old machine with the word Honda visible on the tank. He started it with a few vigorous kicks, indicated the throttle and clutch, and mentioned something about brakes. I managed to kick it into gear and hit the throttle, sending a stray dog running for his life.

In that moment, it dawned on me: I had found one of earth’s highest pleasures.

I am far from alone in my affections. There are vintage Hondas everywhere, seemingly more than any other old motorcycle, with the possible exception of Harley-Davidsons. In San Francisco, a shop called Charlie’s Place is dedicated solely to the repair of these aging vehicles, most now well into their 30s or 40s. You might think repairing just one type of motorcycle would be thin business, but Charlie gets more work than he can handle, and you bother the man at your peril.

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.

Unlike the motorcycles of today, the vintage Honda is the right size: slim, svelte even. There is none of that pumped-up look that is the aesthetic curse of the last several decades. Myself, I don’t get it, but some scholar will one day explain why today everything from cars to cameras has begun to resemble Mark McGwire at the height of his steroid intake.

Gazing upon the machine produces a visual euphoria not often felt beyond an alpine summit or the world’s greatest art museums. But how is it to ride? In a word, great. The engine revs high and loud, the motorcycle equivalent of the roadster. If tuned right, the engine beats with a sound akin to a helicopter’s rotors—thuck, thuck, thuck, thuck.

Driving is fun, feels fast, and makes plenty of noise, though it is really more about the illusion of speed than its actuality. Sometimes, roaring around town, I glance at the speedometer and am surprised to find that what feels close to the speed of sound is more like 35 miles per hour.

The ride is the definition of sporting, yet the sheer durability of the bike is also oddly affecting. There is something touching about a machine that runs in 2009 as it did in 1973. It is like a time machine on two wheels. Today, there are very few things in our lives that last that long, with the exception of Danish furniture and blood relations. As with any treasured possession, you reach a point where durability begins to feel something more like loyalty. One is reminded of an aged yet still sporting dog who does what he can to fetch your morning paper.

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?

I will admit that some drawbacks attend to owning a vintage Honda. As I said, these motorcycles may feel fast, but they are not for men or women interested in actual performance. My CB350 (manufactured in 1971) has a total of 24 horsepower, which does exceed a golf cart, but not by a lot. I am satisfied if I can outrace a Vespa. Reaching highway speeds can seem something of a small miracle, rather like when an aged relative manages 10 minutes of normal conversation.

And as you’ve probably already guessed, a bike like this breaks down with some frequency. If your life or character calls for predictability, get yourself a Toyota Camry. But, strangely enough, the breakdowns are part of the ties that bind. The very unpredictability of a vintage Honda is part of what makes it so inspiring to those of a spiritual inclination. The truest devotees of vintage Hondas, like the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,find life’s true meaning in the breakdowns.

As I see it, people get bored of anything truly predictable, as many of my married friends will attest. (The trick is to find a slightly unpredictable spouse.) Everyone thinks they want safety and security, but the things we really love are just a little unreliable. Owning a motorcycle that occasionally fails to start can add a suspense to one’s morning that most coffee machines cannot match.

The final drawback of the vintage Honda is that there’s no hope of acquiring a tougher image by riding one. If you’ve ever ridden a Harley-Davidson, you know that the moment you start the engine you become an agent of chaos. You are at liberty to terrorize small towns, set off car alarms, and grimace at children. In contrast, the vintage Honda is not scary so much as earnest, more John Lennon than Black Sabbath. Moreover, given their tendency not to start on the first kick, you’re more likely to be an object of pity than a source of fear.

No, the vintage Honda appeals not to the ego but the pleasure centers—as an object of bliss, not of might. Or, as a Honda ad from the 1970s put it:

A refreshing breeze in your face
A smooth road
A softly purring four-stroke engine between your legs
Newly green scenery slipping swiftly past
Leaning lazily right and left through a series of gentle curves …
This is as near heaven on earth as we mortals are allowed.