An Account from Memory
My Time at the Honda Store
A lot of what I have to offer here can cause two diametrically opposed reactions. Assuming rather egotistically there’s any reaction at all. One reaction should be indignation that such things are actually admitted, and the other can be understood as a compliment to the manufacturer. We weren’t perfect at that little Honda store, but the product almost was.
For the years of 1971 through 1973 as summer employment I found the most absolutely perfect position that someone of my predilection could imagine. I loved motorcycles, and although motorcycles meant a lot of things, and brands, to me, being in a small town in north Alabama meant that motorcycles mostly meant Honda. There were the occasional American and European bikes around, but they were way out there size and money-wise and beyond the ken of our small and financially destitute circle.
So, anyway, I waltzed into the lawn mower cum Honda Shop one day, early summer 1971, looking to buy gaskets for my younger brother’s CL90. While paying for the gaskets I asked if there might be a possibility of employment at that fine institution. The parts lady suggested probably not, but that I should present the question to the stout fellow standing over there smoking the cigar, a.k.a. the owner.
Said owner said, “Nah, we’re full up, but what do you have in mind?”
I responded that I was going to college at the University of Alabama down in Tuscaloosa. That’s all he needed to know; I was hired on the spot and foisted off onto one of his satellite shops much nearer my home. One must understand the significance of college/university loyalties in The South to understand why where I was attending school made a difference. Had I said,”Auburn” for example, things wouldn’t have been the same. No reflection, insinuation, allegation, or endorsement meant toward either college here, it just so happens the owner was a typical rabid fan/alumnus.
The first day the head mechanic gave me a set of metric sockets which I own to this day, a few open/closed end wrenches, showed me my booth (my very own!) with a CL70 already sitting there in the middle.
“What am I supposed to do to this?” I inquired.
“It won’t run,” he said.
Turns out it had no compression to speak of, in retrospect not an entirely unimaginable situation for a OHC 70, and needed an upper end rebuild. The work took me about two days, and I got it right, but not before lots of questions and contained trepidation. I was really worried that I couldn’t work on just any bike that came in there, and that they would find that out, and that I would have to go back to work in the Bush Hog assembly plant I had worked for the summer before. We had established book rates for jobs like the CL70 one, and the “book” time to rebuild the top end of a horizontal OHC single was about 2.0 hours or so, I think (please, save your letters) and I had taken two days. Call it the beginning of a steep learning curve. Now, to beat my own drum a bit, by the end of my tenure I could rebuild the top end of a 350 twin - we sold a lot of ‘em, and a lot of ‘em were abused - in 45 minutes less than “Book” time. It’s all about time and experience.
Another model often submitted for our magic was the vertical single cylinder, OHC, 100cc bikes; SL, CL, and CB varieties. The one major and recurring problem with these bikes was that the cam rode directly in the aluminum alloy head. You see, if the oil was allowed to go too low, or never changed, or both, eventually the cam would wallow in the soft aluminum, further reducing oil pressure, and making ignition timing a very iffy proposition since the points cam was attached directly to the end of the camshaft. We had literally boxes of 100 heads with the exact same failure. Conversely, these failures never manifested themselves in the bikes with meticulous owners.
Apparently, the 450cc models were a kind of break point, i.e., some 450s and smaller were sold in much greater numbers to a significantly less careful customer base. These were the folks who just wanted the sorry thang to run, and not be bothered with the rest of it, including proper maintenance. A properly tuned and maintained 350 twin could run back and forth across the country until the operator died of old age. But mostly, they were just blasted about the countryside WFO, dipsticks be damned. Other 450s and larger bikes, the 500s and 750s, were bought by riders oriented to the machines as motorcyclists. And it must be said as well that the very capacity of the larger machines meant that wide open was usually a bit too fast for most situations. Therefore, we mostly repaired the little stuff.
The little satellite shop was in a town with a population of twenty to thirty thousand, although the surrounding countryside was, and is for that matter, fairly densely populated all the way up into Tennessee. There was no lack of customers in the years I worked there, indeed, we couldn’t keep up. On a typical Saturday we would sell one CB750, two 450s, three to four CB350s and a variety of smaller stuff like CB/CL 100s, Z50s, CT70s, and so forth. Saturdays we put new bikes together in the limited spare time we could find between new and recently sold bike servicings. There was no time for engine rebuilds, tuneups and such on Saturdays.
We kept no dry bikes on the showroom floor; they were wet, charged, and ready to go so the customer bought the very bike he sat on and chose. Any little problems, ranging anywhere from tiny insignificant scratches in the clear coat to potentially bad engines were included in the price. And the manager of the shop sold every bike at American Honda’s suggested retail. I mention that because often prospective customers would come in and inform us of Hondas selling for discounted prices over at Joe’s Lawn and Garden or whatever in the next town. Our manager didn’t care, he had the area and saw no need to compete with remote dealers, and didn’t. The prospective customer usually became a fully committed one anyway, grumbling the whole time right up until we stuck him or her in the seat of the new ride, at which point the frowns turned to smiles.
Here’s where it gets a little interesting, at least to any of my readers here who happened to be customers of that shop - and I’m sure there were probably others like it - back then. Normal procedure following assembly of a new bike included a test or checkout ride, generally done on an isolated two mile long stretch of country road directly behind the shop. The checkout rides were supposed to insure the new bike was ready for delivery to the customer, as noted above. Somehow though, I believe our bikes, especially those of the higher performance ranges, were more thoroughly “Checked out” than American Honda may have intended. For me, a CB750 needed to leave a black streak of rubber a certain distance in first, with as small as possible a gap to the streak left by second, which needed to be at least five to six feet long. They just weren’t right otherwise. Of course, sometimes I had to test them two or three times to get an acceptable average. One of my more prominent memories is of one of my fellow mechanics doing his test of a CB750. He left the shop laying the rubber stripe, slapped the rear brake just enough to provide a rear slide through 90º to orient himself to the road with the front wheel cocked into the slide direction, then proceeded to fully test the motorcycle’s rubber laying abilities in the normal manner without ever putting a foot down. The rest of us felt it was a commendable performance.
Someone brought in a Yamaha DT-1 for a new rear tire, which naturally had to be tested for trail-worthiness once the tire was installed. Taking the bike to the other end of the two mile straight, where we had found a very convenient off-road area left behind by road building efforts, I managed to find myself with too much speed going into a corner and ran off the path into a ditch, tweaking the front end. Now, thinking back on it, it makes me cringe that I would take such liberties with a customer’s bike, but at the time it just didn’t seem important. Fortunately, that time I was able to loosen the triple tree bolts and straighten everything up.
The very first Elsinore to arrive at the shop was a CR250. Being the first modern two-stroke to be delivered into our eagerly awaiting hands, it was quite a novelty and got a lot of attention. We couldn’t get it to run, though. Finally, the Honda regional rep showed up and armed with bulletins and manuals helped me to rearrange the timing and so forth back to factory specs. He did so with an amused demeanor, not choosing to admonish me for having changed everything to a completely out of whack state in my naive attempts to make it go. Having finally gotten it fired up, I proceeded to test ride the new bike across the parking lot with the rep attentively standing by. At the time, the actual understanding of power band characteristics of highly strung two-strokes was still a bit out of reach to me. My previous experience was mostly with my old Allstate MoPed, and a hour or two aboard enduros like the DT-1 or plodders like the Allstate twingle I had ridden in high school. I killed the engine twice before I really wound it up and dumped the clutch just a bit too quickly. The CR stood on its back wheel while arcing across the asphalt parking lot, tearing the rear fender in the process. I stood yet where the event had begun, observing the burbling, finally dying bike lying on its side with my hands on my hips, mouth agape.
I glanced at the Honda rep and he said, “Kinda pipey, isn’t it?” with a smile on his face.
“What?” I said, in my usual clairvoyant manner.
Later, I was to sample the dubious pleasures of a roomate’s Kawasaki H1, precipitating a series of events that taught me about two-stroke power curves in a way nothing else could.
For lunch at the Honda shop we would select a bike apiece and go the local fast food chain store, eat in five or ten minutes, then ride to a park on the lake and get a little stoned. We would ride back to the shop then, put the Deep Purple “Machine Head” cassette in the deck, fast fwd to “Smoke on the Water,” turn it up to 10 and go to work on our unsuspecting Honda patients. Imagine getting away with that now, or admitting it, anyway. It was the early seventies, things were looser then; it was the beginning of the end of the much bally-hooed age of innocence for yours truly.
A few years ago, when I first began to see that people seemed to be finding a lot of nice stuff in old closed Honda shops I tried to call my own little old Honda store, with visions of NOS Super Hawk and Dream tank badges, mufflers, and seats floating in my head. Many of these items were still there on the dusty back shelves when I last ventured through the parts room in 1973. But that little shop had been long closed, a victim of the dramatic drop in motorcycle sales seen across America after the wonder sales years of those innocent early seventies. And What A Time It Was.
Some of the above seems to be conflicting, i.e., my complaining about the lack of maintenance by my customers while apparently abusing the very machines they bought and used. I can’t defend the abuse. I can only say that one of those old Hondas with the right amount of oil in the engine - or tank in the case of the CB750 - almost couldn’t be broken.
I tore down a 350 twin one afternoon that had just been ridden in. “Making a racket,” rider said.
One cylinder was fine, when I looked down into the other I saw a smooth silver ball of about 15mm in diameter lying in the dished in top of the piston. The entire chamber was peened and shiny and the head of the exhaust valve was missing. At that point I started to become aware, something that only grew over the years, of the extraordinary engineering and execution of design incorporated into those fine old machines.
So hopefully American Honda won’t come looking for me if this obscure work should ever come to their notice. After all I’ve been telling this story now for years and there’s got to be some kind of statute of limitations that should take care of me in that respect. I don’t smoke dope or abuse Hondas anymore, unless riding my fat ass on one of my stepthru pushrod 50s could be considered such, but I certainly remember how it was, most of it anyway, and regret amazingly little of it. Thanks for your attention.