A freight container full of bantamweight motorcycles, circa 1950s, provides valuable insight to the thinking of the Great Man himself, Soichiro Honda.
Rusting in Pieces
It was late in 1957 that Vancouver motorcycle dealer Trev Deeley placed his initial order with the Honda Motor Company of Tokyo, Japan, making him the first Honda distributor in North America. According to Deeley’s biographer Frank Hilliard, Trev spotted a motorcycle magazine story about a US serviceman who had returned home with a 250cc Honda Dream. Deeley then supposedly wrote to Soichiro Honda himself, expressing interest in the company’s motorcycles. His idea was not well received by his father and grandfather, Fred Deeley Jr. and Sr., who still called the shots. The company had made its money selling British and American bikes, and the idea of buying from their WWII adversaries of just 12 years before was anathema.
When a sample 250 Dream arrived at the Deeley showrooms in November 1957, Trev was so impressed, he determined that, even if he had to leave the family business and start up on his own, he would become the Honda importer for western Canada.
The first Hondas Deeley imported were the 250 and 305cc Dreams, the sporty 125cc Benly Twin and the C100 Cub. The meteoric rise of the Honda brand is well-documented, and the Deeley distributorship lasted 10 years. In 1967, a few Yamahas joined the Hondas in Deeley’s showroom, prompting an imperative from Honda to cease and desist. Ultimatums never sat well with Deeley, so he dumped Honda instead. The Yamaha relationship lasted until 1974 when Deeley jumped ship again, this time to the struggling Harley-Davidson — perhaps his shrewdest move of all, and whole other story.
EQUALLY SHREWD IS HAWAIIAN motorcycle collector Chip Perry. He seems to have a nose for the next Big Thing. It was in his Maui “garage” (a 40-foot freight container) that I discovered the Douglas Ninety Plus featured in Vintage Hall in March 2008. So on a recent visit to the Valley Isle, I dropped in on Chip to see what was new. Or old.
Chip led me out to his shed in which lurked four motorcycles, all from the same maker: Honda. First out was a CB92 Benly Super Sports from the very early 1960s. First produced in 1959, the CB92 was the whizz-bang technological marvel of its time. The 44 by 41mm SOHC parallel Twin made 15 hp at 10,500 rpm at a time when a conventional 350cc British bike made barely that. It featured electric start, a twin leading shoe front brake, four speed transmission and would top 130 kilometres per hour.
Traditional-minded buyers were put off by the flimsy-looking pressed-steel frame, front fork and swingarm. The Benly also used Honda’s leading-link front suspension. But if buyers could get beyond the unconventional look, they were rewarded with sparkling performance. The CB92 shared its engine dimensions and more than a little DNA with the DOHC RC142 race bike that competed in Honda’s first outing on the Isle of Man in 1959. Honda won the team prize in the 125cc race that year, finishing sixth, seventh, eighth and eleventh.
Each to his own, I guess, but Chip is the kind of collector who never restores bikes. He seems to like them just the way they are, including their patina, or, in the case of some of his bikes, in their advanced state of decay. So the CB92 in his shed, a well-used Japanese market bike that Chip bought on eBay, will remain in its slightly grungy condition, showing the wear and tear of years on the road.
Another case in point is the barn-fresh model JC57 Benly that next emerges from the shed. First launched in 1955 with an Earles-type front fork, the JC has a 125cc single-cylinder OHV engine making around seven horsepower. For 1957, Honda’s leading-link setup replaced the Earles. If the later CB92 Benly is all about performance, the JC57’s selling points are style, comfort and build quality.
Bearing rather more than a passing resemblance to the
contemporary NSU Max, the Benly incorporates the same swooping lines and confident styling as its German counterpart — perhaps not surprising given Soichiro Honda’s visit to the NSU factory in 1954.
Chip has two of these, one in a rather more rustic state than the other. But in spite of their condition, they ooze class. The quality of the fittings is impressive: like the cast alloy end caps for the fully-enclosed chainguard; the swoop of the front fender, like a gladiator’s helmet; and the elegant headlamp shroud. These are all indications of product design that goes beyond the basics, and makes its contemporary competitor, the BSA Bantam, look like an oxcart. Finally Chip’s crown jewel emerges, a 250cc Dream SA. Launched in 1955, the SA was the first Honda to win the Mount Fuji hillclimb race, and also placed second in the important Asama 250cc race that same year. Based on a pressed-steel backbone like the Benly, the Dream’s 246cc four-stroke single engineused an overhead camshaft and produced more than 10 hp, driving through a four-speed transmission, and weighed just 171 kilograms.
Honda fans get very touchy when you suggest the early Dream and Benly were copied from the Neckarsulm designs, but the resemblance is unmistakable, especially the frame and seat. And like the NSU Max, the Dream has the integrated look of a bike designed as one, not an assembly of parts.
The Hondas of the 1950s provide a fascinating insight into the thinking of the Great Man in the days before the motorcycles from Big Red became ubiquitous. And they’re becoming quite numerous at vintage bike events, which is surprising given that they would all have been imported from Japan in recent years. Chip Perry’s Hondas will never win a concours, but they’re still quite beautiful.
– Robert Smith, May 2010 (issue #261)