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Honda CB350: Getting the Old Bike Back

Nearly 40 years have passed since Allan attended the University of Saskatchewan and bought a candy-orange CB350 as a graduation gift to himself.  But time, distance and life separated him from the classic Honda. But now it’s back—thanks to the detective work of a persistent restorer.

Time travel is supposedly the stuff of science fiction. But as I slipped the cover off his old motorcycle on a Victoria morning in September 2009, Allan might have thought himself back in Saskatoon in 1973, once again at Hub City Honda Ltd. taking delivery of his brand-new, candy-orange Honda CB350.

Back then, Allan was a farm boy from Saskatchewan attending university in Saskatoon. After graduating, this bike was one of the first things he bought for himself. He’d always wanted a bike and thought, if not now, then when? He was single with school behind him, and the responsibilities of marriage, three sons, and running a business still lay years ahead.

Well-equipped for the era, and attractively priced at about $770 US, the CB350 Twin was a popular choice that secured a place in the annals of bikedom by becoming the top-selling model in American history (and presumably in Canada as well). During its six-year production run from 1968 to 1973, 300,000 units were sold in the US. When sales of the CL (scrambler) and SL (enduro) variants are included, the number climbs to 626,000. Add to that, sales in Canada and the rest of the world. It was hugely popular. 

This is perhaps surprising for a bike that in most ways was eclipsed by its competitors. But the key to the CB350’s primacy was that it did so many things well enough that it outshone its competitors as an all-rounder, and became a sales phenomenon. Its legacy was inevitable: “If you didn’t own one, you knew someone who did.”

And, like Allan, I was someone who did. In the mid-70s in Ottawa I had a 1972 model and can attest that they were a fun bike, and capable as well. Indeed, I have proof. One late summer evening my girlfriend (now wife) and I set off to go camping after I’d finished my shift slinging suds at the Carleton University student pub. My trusty 350 carried the two of us, tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses, stove, cooking stuff, dishes, food, clothes and, of course, a 24 of beer. 

Allan eventually sold his bike and, like mine, it might then have vanished forever. But his was spared this fate when Iain Rowan, the buyer, unwittingly placed a time capsule onboard. Probably for no particular reason, he stuffed an old transfer slip into the owner manual’s pouch under the seat. This link to the past then remained unseen for the next 22 years. It survived two more owners, moves to Spiritwood and Chitek Lake (both northwest of Saskatoon), and a migration to Victoria. And it was then, in April 2003, that the slip resurfaced as the bike transferred into my possession. It was with my finding it that this story really began.

IN THE WORLD OF OLD BIKES IT’S something of the Holy Grail to speak with earlier owners, and the holiest of holies is to find the original owner.  Knowing their tales from yesteryear adds a human element to the hobby, and makes restoring and owning an old bike all the more satisfying. With this in mind, something like the thrill of the hunt took hold.

Both the dealer sticker on the rear fender, and Rowan’s slip dated 1987, placed the bike in Saskatchewan. This span of 14 years seemed ominous, and I worried that the bike might well have changed hands earlier. 

In the case of my CB350, both the previous owner and I sold it after three years. This was common for smaller bikes as guys would upsize, or hang up the keys for all the usual reasons. Still, I hoped that perhaps the seller on Rowan’s slip might be the original owner, and had held onto the bike all that time.

With only a surname to go on—not Smith, thankfully—I did eventually track down Allan. My out-of-the-blue phone call ended with a shared laugh at Allan’s joke that maybe I should sell him his bike back so he could have a midlife crisis on it. It was a good story, even had it ended there. Probably it should have. After all, I wasn’t thinking of selling it, and Allan was only joking around about buying it. Apparently though his quip planted the seed of repatriation in us both.

MEANWHILE, THE CB350 NEEDED some TLC. How much though was a quandary. It was too good to leave as a daily rider, and yet also too good to make into just a show bike. There were only 6,785 miles on the original rubber, and the motor showed no leaks. In addition to the light use (an average of just 226 miles per year) the dry prairie air had helped preserve most things nicely. The chrome in particular was remarkable: unpitted and shiny right down to the spoke nipples. This bike was a survivor and I couldn’t bring myself to lose that character. So the frame and motor paint were left untouched. 

The only major beautifying I did was to have the tired looking fuel tank and side covers repaired and repainted; replace the torn seat with a new one; and find some original mufflers (as rare as hen’s teeth). Otherwise it was a frame-up cleaning and refurbishment that merged patina with new. The end result was stunning—the bike won second place in the Vintage Metric class at a Victoria bike show in May 2009. 

As a courtesy, I sent Allan a few pictures of the CB350 from the show. The email address I had for him was six years old, so I was a bit surprised to get a reply at all. Still more so that Allan again mentioned buying it, this time seriously. It was perfect timing.  Neither of us had been ready for it to change hands in 2003; now we were.  Even getting the bike back to Saskatchewan wasn’t an issue—Allan was driving a van to Victoria in September anyway, to move his son into UVIC.

The reunion of man and machine Sept. 3 was all I could have hoped for.  Although now just a privileged bystander, I was nearly as excited as Allan. Though he had considered buying the bigger CB450 in 1973, what satisfaction it was to watch him now pore over his old bike, pointing to this and that, sharing memories with his son Sheldon. And in a really nice touch, his wife back in Saskatoon became part of things as well.  Sheldon held his cell phone next to the motor as it ticked over, saying, “Hey Mom, listen to this, it’s Dad’s old bike running in Victoria!”

Witnessing the rest of the reunion back on the prairies would have been fun—Allan says that Angus McDonald, who sold him the bike at Hub City Honda, was looking forward to seeing it again. Even before he got back Allan was already building new memories with his old bike. In Grand Forks, BC on the first night of his drive home he didn’t want to leave his baby unattended, so he rolled out a sleeping bag beside the bike in the van. All of which makes me wonder:  Has anyone out there seen My old Honda CB350? It was green then. 

By Terry Snowden, Canadian Biker  #257


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