Posted On 29 Apr 2024
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This entry is part 24 of 29 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#28


Honda arrived in Australia very quietly in very, very small numbers, to be followed almost at once by that bunch of quiet but determined Japanese who – I was later to learn – visited every suburban motorcycle shop in Sydney to deliver their pile of colour brochures and thus create interest before we were finally advised of the marque’s quiet arrival in Sydney.

I have been advised that there had been a delivery of similar brochures in the State of Queensland, however it was Bennett and Wood, the New South Wales BSA/Sunbeam distributors, who were the first people in the world to import Honda motorcycles.

It was an odd marketing ploy by the Japanese but was certainly effective. The trio of short Orientals who announced Honda’s very recent arrival uttered not a whimper when they arrived unannounced and handed me a bunch of colour brochures, and they said even less when they quickly departed. That non-existent whimper,we were not to know, took a little time to become a rumble, before it developed into a full-blown bang.

It has been said that the first stage of interest is confusion, and the second stage of interest is curiosity; both of which, and in particular the former, the Honda advance men had well and truly generated.

What were these bikes all about anyway; who were distributing them; what did they look like in the flesh; were we ever going to see the things; was it all a figment of one’s overly fertile imagination; were the Honda reps likely to be heard from again – in fact did the machines which looked so exciting really exist? These were questions we all asked ourselves and each other, but we had no idea where to turn for the answers.

For a start nothing had yet been heard from any of the major motorcycle importers about these new machines, which was no surprise because the whole industry was in a world-wide slump and the sudden appearance of a brand new name would seem to be a case of too little/too late. Almost everything on two wheels was made in England at the time, and in small quantities at that, while Moto Guzzi was seen in single-digit numbers and the two German entrants, Zundapp and BMW, were both on the brink of bankruptcy.

It’s hard to believe today, but the arrival of the Japanese aroused some curiosity, but not much else, for they were initially referred to (and, I have to say, with some accuracy at the time) as ‘Jap Crap.’ If the British motorcycle industry was in its death-throes, how could the late entry of a brand-new marque from Japan be of any help at all? Exciting though these new models appeared on paper, they could hardly make an impact on a failing industry, could they?

How wrong that assumption would be, for Honda was to save an industry almost, as it were, on the lip of the gurgler, with many great and famous marques either gone or feeling the cold draft of approaching doom at the back of their collective necks.

As we have noted, most people assume the little step-thru was the first Honda machine to appear, but it was in fact the C70 250 twin, virtually identical to the machines in the brochure – but minus the electric starter – which first appeared in Australia.

The C71 models had starter motors fitted and they were accompanied by the C77 orphans, the 305cc over-bored machines which, unhappily, were in the no-mans-land of a higher registration bracket. The bikes were accompanied in their crates by small packets of colour brochures, because, strange though it sounds, there was some sort of import ban on colour brochures at the time.

According to my brother, who worked for Bennett and Wood at the time, in late 1957 a bright blue Honda stood on the showroom floor opposite his spare parts counter, and it bore a tag with the legend “To the Biggest Motorbike Shop in Sydney” attached to its handlebars.

It had, so he said, done the rounds of just about every store in Sydney and had been returned with thanks but little else. It appeared that Bennett and Wood, perhaps out of desperation, had decided to become the new marque’s distributor and they ordered a few of the machines ‘on spec’ to see how they fared.

The company ordered twelve of the new Hondas and another twelve were ordered shortly thereafter. Bennett and Wood then became more serious and placed more substantial orders for the new Japanese machines, even as demand for the British BSA motorcycles they had imported for years continued to wane.

Our local Ryde Lions Club decided to hold a Motor Show in 1958 as a fund raiser on a large, vacant block near the Ryde shopping centre and had erected several large marquees to house the various vehicles they had hoped to entice. They were rewarded by the full support of all the local car dealers and the one motorcycle dealer in the area… which was, of course, Ryde Motorcycles.

I recall riding a small 175cc four stroke Moto Guzzi ‘Lodola’ to our display at the show, which also held a couple of scooters, including a 200cc two-stroke Zundapp ‘Bella’, a fairly large scooter with 12-inch wheels, telescopic forks and quite punchy performance; a new Tiger 110 Triumph;

The International we still had in the showroom; a single-cylinder 600cc ohv Norton; a 200cc James commuter, one or two more I cannot remember… and just one brand-new, bright red, 1958 C71 Honda Dream.

The new Japanese motorcycle was delivered to the shop in one of Bennett and Wood’s Harley-Davidson bun trucks and it looked fantastic, with its full equipment levels, gleaming paint and chrome finish and smooth engine mouldings: but I have to confess we still looked at it with some suspicion. So did the outfit’s rider, who told me that this was the first one of that small batch of ‘these new Jap things’ to ever leave Bennett and Wood.

To make the most of the new, unproven machine, the C71 Honda was allocated pride of place on a raised plinth at the Lions Motor Show and I enjoyed immensely the startled looks of the passing peasantry as I plied the electric starter motor to fire the little engine up and then, as an unwarranted encore, to turn the blinkers on and off ad nauseam. The bike created a great deal of interest and, to our surprise and delight, I sold several of them, almost on the spot, as a result! I had no idea of the price of the new machine, and in fact didn’t even know if it was for sale but there were people eager to place a Ten Pound holding deposit on them, so we were happy to accept the money – and the order – and to clean the mess up afterwards. Happily, there was no mess to clean up!

I cannot make this claim, for I imagine the facts cannot be proven, but it could well be that the C71 Honda machines for which I took the six (6) Ten Pound holding deposits may have been the first of their type to be sold – and personally registered – anywhere outside of Japan.

In order to more closely examine the design of the unusual, pressed-metal, box-section spine frame on that little 250 twin we had on display, we removed the Honda fuel tank when the Motor Show was over, only to be horrified at the roughly-hewn, hand-beaten underside of the tank where it cleared the top frame section. We were then aghast at the legend, “C.C.Wakefield CASTROL” which could just be seen gleaming under the thin coat of paint which covered the underneath of the component. (N.B: Over the years many people have tried to assure me that this is a well-known urban myth. Let me attempt to assure the doubters that I removed the tank on that very first Honda C71 myself and saw its underside with my own eyes.) Was this, I thought at the time, a pre-production prototype which slipped away un-noticed from the factory, or could this rare and brand new marque, we wondered aloud, be using crate-loads of old Castrol oil tins in the manufacture of the base of its well-sculpted fuel tanks, and, if so, what horrors were we to find inside the unit construction engine/gearbox? We were to find out shortly thereafter! Those Ten pound deposits were by then looking a bit like they might be sadly refunded, and in very short order.

Great though these new machines looked, the welding on many frame pressings and pipe-tube ends, the latter simply flattened out, instead of being scarped – or ‘fish-mouthed’ – to provide a neat fit against other tubing, left a great deal to be desired. True, the ends of the round-section, flattened tubing were well disguised by thick coats of black, baked-enamel, but I have often heard these rough finishes described as `toothpaste’ welding, or, more indelicately, `bird shit’, either of which were an accurate description of some very grim work indeed.

It has to be said that those early Honda engines would idle like well-oiled Swiss watches, but there were some cynics who suggested you could hear them wearing out, for the overhead cam drive chain and valve gear were noisy.

In head-on view, the 250cc C71 Honda ‘Dream’ was pyramid-shaped, the ultra wide crankcases having the fat mufflers sweeping outboard of them with footrest hangers, rear brake pedal and centre stand arm outboard of that. Allied to this were tiny, 16-inch wheels, which allowed minimal cornering clearance.

Just as well, I have to say, because the highly-polished and rock-hard Japanese tyres fitted to the first batches of machines had about the same grip on dry road surfaces as an ice-block, and were downright lethal in the wet.

Furthermore, there were tramlines everywhere in Sydney in the late fifties, and they added their considerable danger to the equation.

You couldn’t corner quickly on those early Honda machines even if you wanted to, but you could pull into a gutter and use its left muffler as if it were a prop-stand – in fact, if the bike was cranked over a few degrees from the vertical when you were riding it the mufflers would dig into the road surface with great enthusiasm and ease the wheels off the ground, with entirely predictable consequences!

To make matters worse, the suspension system, though comfortable enough, imbued the bikes with a feeling akin to riding a horse at high speed as the machines would rock back and forth with abandon, the springs contained within leading-link forks on the front and oblong-shaped shocks on the rear seemingly bereft of any form of effective damping.

If you applied the front brake hard enough, the front-end would dive onto full bump and then patter about almost uncontrollably. It took several years before the Japanese learned how to make a halfway decent tyre, a shock absorber which employed any form of efficient damping, or a rear drive chain which lasted more than a couple of months.

True, the new Honda looked great and went acceptably well, but could have been a disaster to own for more than a few months, for it was an odd machine to ride.

The Dream – or Nightmare, as almost everybody called it – had a couple of extra tricks up its sleeve to trap the unwary. First of all, it had a gear change brochures, the bike was good for some 45mph and around 130 miles per gallon of fuel – that’s in the old money,of course – but I never had any reason to doubt the figures, then or now. It was also, according to the cute Japanese screed, “Quick like a squirrel”.

I remember hearing of two very large employees of Bennett and Wood, who decided to put the first step-thru to the ultimate test by riding the device from a standing start at the bottom of the steep Went worth Avenue hill to Bennett’s assembly area and showroom at the top of the hill.

The rider was a certain Ken Pickering, the pillion passenger an uncertain Russ Burling, the latter quite sure he would have to abandon the little Honda while the machine was still in first gear. Burling had suggested he would have to jump off the little step-thru as soon as second gear was selected.

So the daunting duo took off, giggling like a pair of pre-pubescent schoolgirls, only for them to be amazed to discover the bike actually pulled away fairly smartly from rest and even accepted the change into second gear. The road flattened out a little halfway up the climb at Hunt Street, whereupon Pickering optimistically selected top (third) gear and the bike picked up a little more pace. Just a little, be it understood, but remember it was pulling two very, very large people (and itself!) up a steep hill, from a standing start, and with only a tiny 50cc overhead valve engine to power it!

The duo then turned into the layback and attacked the even steeper ramp to the second-floor assembly area of Bennett and Woods’ building, which it successfully climbed, the tyres almost as fl at as pancakes, the wheel rims almost scraping the road. The Honda Cub needed second gear at the start, and then into first at the very top of the steep ramp to the assembly area, but its performance – I have been assured by brother Don, who was there to witness it – was greeted with stunned looks and slack jaws at every turn.

Clearly, with just one person aboard, and hopefully a trim nurse at that, the bike’s performance would be quit acceptable, and so the step-thru was thrust into a market-place it was later to dominate.

Honda, from such humble beginnings, has been here to stay since April, 1958, when the first machines trickled into Australia, the country which unquestionably saw the beginning of the re-birth of motorcycling world-wide.

It might support my argument that Honda placed the whole world back onto two wheels, just as almost every other motorcycle manufacturer on earth was on the slippery-slide to oblivion.

The company’s saviour, that trail blazing step-thru, which arrived later in 1958, has changed little over the years,and is now manufactured in some 20 countries outside Japan. Australian posties have been using a variant of the little runabout – a close relation to the motorcycle-like 110cc overhead camshaft Trail Cub, but with more weather protection – since the early ‘70s and there seems to be no likely replacement.

With sales figures creeping up above that astonishing 60,000,000 in the intervening years, the funny little step thru has made, and secured, a niche for itself as a most amazing little machine,which has proved to be at once ultra reliable and almost bullet-proof. It is far and away the most popular motorcycle ever made, whether we purists like it or not, and is in fact the most popular motor vehicle ever made!

There are some of the “Nicest People” along with some very odd characters riding these little things on the back roads and market places of Vietnam and many other Asian countries, just as you are likely to find similar characters in this country.

Is there yet another variant of that remarkable little bike in the breeze, do you think; a twenty-first century step-thru, perhaps? The enormous number of new Honda machines of all capacities, shapes and sizes shows no sign of abating, and Honda has embraced the ‘new’ scooter craze with some enthusiasm, so something far beyond the norm may again be seen in the marketplace.

Could there be, let’s say, an enclosed, car-type two-wheeler on the drawing boards with gyroscopic stabilizer and hub-centre steering? Could there be a levitating no-wheeler? When it comes to innovation, Honda has done it all before, with the first eye-popping C71 motorcycle in 1958, and then the ground-breaking little commuter which arrived a just a few months later, to then become so monumentally successful. Honda may well do it all over again,perhaps to place the whole world upon no wheels at all?

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