Honda’s street-scrambler CL350 twin was never officially imported into the UK, so that makes it an exotic head-turner wherever it’s parked, says John Nutting
Words: John Nutting
Pics: Gary D Chapman
Like many a country pub, The Kentish Horse in Markbeech has its weekly bikers’ evening and in the summer months it attracts an eclectic range of machines, from old British twins and two-stroke crotch rockets to big adventure bikes and modern classics. Conversations range from the previous weekend’s GP to a long-distance trial. In short, there’s something for everyone…
But when this Honda CL350 street-scrambler turned up the first time, every head was turned. The latest addition to a local accountant’s collection, it stood out with its bright tank graphics and lavish chrome-plated exhaust system. It looked decidedly alien, yet familiar. I had to have a go, and Mark, as we’ll call him because he wants to remain anonymous, was happy to let me ride it for a week.
In the UK, street-scramblers might now be commonplace, what with Triumph offering their modern twins with off-road aspirational looks, heavily promoted in the latest Bond film, and Ducati even adopting the Scrambler brand for its smaller air-cooled V-twins, but they were once rarities from the far-off west coast of America.
Here, scrambling was a muddy weekend pursuit in the 1950s and 1960s, the off-road racing predecessor of moto-cross and the bikes – scramblers – benefitted from being fitted with bash-plates and upswept exhaust pipes.
In the US, desert racing was all the rage with British BSA, Matchless, Norton and Triumph twins getting the same treatment, and even being listed as official models.
This trend hadn’t escaped the notice of Honda’s bosses, who since 1959 had been shipping 50cc Cubs to the US. The trouble was that in the US, motorcycles were associated with outlaw gangs, a notion that had been reinforced by the image of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, a film that although released in 1953 still carried a malignant message almost a decade later. Honda’s smart move was to not even refer to motorcycles in its advertising, promoting its ‘Nifty Fifty’ Cub by saying that, ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’.
A bigger 250cc twin, the C71 tourer, arrived in 1960 with the more sporty-looking Super Dream CB72 arriving for the 1962 model year, which in the UK was in time to capitalise on the factory’s racing success at the Isle of Man TT with victories in the 125cc and 250cc classes. In America, sports styling took its cue from off-road use, so Honda launched the 250cc CL72 which differed in more than just the upswept exhaust system. The CB72’s engine, a high-revving all-alloy overhead-camshaft 180-degree parallel twin, was unchanged except for the lack of a starter motor. The front brake was smaller, as was the fuel tank and matching dual seat. Tyres were semi-knobblies, which implied that this was a street-scrambler, just as happy being ridden to the local soda fountain as on dirt roads.
Two sales managers at American Honda thought the CL72 was better than that, so they hatched a stunt in which two of the bikes were raced by Dave Ekins (brother of famous stunt rider Bud, who was pals with Steve McQueen, even doing the famous ‘The Great Escape’ jump) and Bill Robertson Jnr., along the almost 1000-mile length of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico, from Tijuana to La Paz. Despite getting lost for six hours, stopping for fuel (supplied by two light aircraft), and suffering crashes that damaged one machine enough to leave it on one cylinder, they completed the distance in around 40 hours.
That success, which Honda promoted heavily, caught the imagination of riders and the CL72, priced at just $690, sold in tens of thousands, with even more sold of the bigger 305cc CL77 launched in 1965 (see side story). The Baja race went on to become a yearly institution. Spurred on, Honda launched scrambler-style versions of its other machines: a 90cc single, and 125, 160, 175, 350 and 450 twins. More serious XL models appeared from the early 1970s, but by then the Japanese factories were making proper dirt bikes to compete with European offerings and the first scrambler phase burned itself out.
The CL350 featured here is a K5 version dating from 1972. South London-based and 1970s bike collector Sam said he bought it from a seller in Utah over eBay a few years ago “simply for its looks”. But Sam found it “a bit small and too slow” for his stature and mentioning this to another Kettle Club member in Kent – our Mark – and sold it on two years ago.
It is powered by Honda’s updated twin-cylinder engine introduced in 1968, which was also used on the CB250 and CB350 models sold in the UK. Completely redesigned, the engine was a mirror image of the first twins. These used a primary drive chain on the left-hand side, but the new engine had primary drive gears on the right with the final drive chain on the left. In between was the five-speed gearbox, a ratio up on the old model. The built-up crankshaft was similar though, spinning on roller and ball bearings, the big ends at 180 degrees giving that typical off-beat warbling exhaust note. Actual capacity of the more upright cylinders was 325cc from bore and stroke dimensions of 64 x 50.6mm: it’s an overbored 250.
Like earlier models, the engine had two valves per cylinder operated by an overhead camshaft, chain driven from the centre of the crankshaft. At first, the chain was controlled by an oil-pressure activated tensioner, but its unreliability led to a conventional spring-tensioned version being used soon after. Ignition was triggered by conventional contact breakers operated by the left-hand end of the camshaft. Twin 28mm CV Mikuni carburettors metered the fuel, while a paper element filtered the air-intake.
While the tubular steel frame and suspension were essentially the same, features on the CL350 that differed from the CB models included a larger diameter 19-inch front wheel, initially with a smaller drum brake; a smaller nine-litre fuel tank with a matching dual seat; a wider braced handlebar; lower gearing; more knobbly tyres; abbreviated chrome-plated mudguards; and, of course, the stylish exhaust system with the pipes sweeping along the left side to a single silencer.
I tested the roadster CB350 in late 1972 for the weekly ‘Motor Cycle’ and reported that it was ‘a gem of a motor cycle’, even better than the ‘first-class’ CB250 because of the wider spread of power, capable of cruising at more than 75mph, and had the potential to reach almost 100mph flat out. In the day, Honda’s four-stroke twins were regarded as the mature option, compared with the more feisty Yamaha and Suzuki two-strokes. Honda’s scrambler versions weren’t available in the UK. Was that a missed opportunity for the importers?
Viewing the bike outside the Kentish Arms, the CL350 certainly looked more of an exciting option, its red-and-white tank and flashy pipes cutting a dash that would have been in contrast with the sober metallic paint of the CB. It even looked good now, which is why I was eager to get going.
In Honda fashion of the time, the ignition switch is under the left-hand side of the tank. The choke lever is also on the left, mounted on the carb. The engine fired up willingly, settling into the familiar off-beat warble that most Hondas had at the time (yes, I know some of the earlier ones were 360-degree engines). Relaxing into the seat, the wide handlebar and controls were also familiar, and snicking into bottom gear to ease away, I was flashed back in time.
With a claimed 32bhp at 9500rpm, the engine pulled well with an easy-going beat that on crowded modern roads was more than adequate to keep up with traffic. The high hand grips and low pegs also suited this style of riding and I began to wonder if there was any need for anything more sophisticated for day-to-day riding now. With a tanked-up weight of about 180kg and lots of leverage at the handlebars, the CL350 is also easy to flick about through the turns and in traffic. Suspension felt more soft and forgiving than the roadster. I took the bike down some tracks with loose gravel and reckoned that with the chunky Cheng Shin tyres fitted that was about the limit of the CL’s off-road potential.
On open roads, the CL was happy to cruise at 60mph but you wouldn’t want to spend much time at that speed, because with the lower gearing the engine was buzzing hard enough for the vibration to be annoying. I checked back on my CB350 report from almost 50 years ago and, sure enough, I said that the engine was smooth for a parallel twin, though there was ‘some vibration from 4500 to 7000rpm’. We were more forgiving in those days. Certainly, the CL350 would have been smoother than the typical 650cc British twin.
After its introduction, the CL350 was later fitted with the same, larger, 180mm twin-leading-shoe drum brake as the CB models, and the K5 came thus equipped. It needs careful setting up and this one also liked to be warmed up before responding quickly to the lever. The rear brake performed just right. Development of Honda’s twins continued in 1974 with redesigned six-speed gearboxes and revised valve gear. The bigger version was now a 360, but apart from the exhaust system, the US-model CL360 was less of a scrambler. By then Honda was offering the more off-road orientated OHC single-cylinder XL250 and XL350 models that did come to Europe, and would spawn a range of really potent dirt bikes.
But for the commute or occasional club run the CL350 scrambler is a great partner, so long as you keep away from fast dual carriageways, and a fine mount for showing off on summer evenings.
Although so-called street-scramblers based mostly on British bikes had been made popular in the US, it took Honda’s brash approach to marketing to bring them into the mainstream.
And nothing was more brash in 1962 than racing two of the new CL72 250cc twins down the 1000 miles of the Baja California peninsula in less than two days (see main story). Sales of the CL72 took off immediately. The 305cc CL77 launched in 1965 was even more popular. Neither was imported into the UK, so if you want the style you’ll have to get one that’s been brought in from North America.
One fine example was acquired three years ago by Gerald Davison, the former director of Honda’s UK operations. In the 1970s, Gerald created the Honda Britain racing team and set up HIRCO, which eventually became Honda Racing Corporation, and masterminded the factory’s return to GP racing in 1979. At 79 and retired in the Isle of Wight, he still loves bikes, but while he runs a Triumph 660, prefers a less aggressive riding stance when riding with local members of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club.
The CL77 is a 1966 model. “I wanted a bike that was not too large or difficult to start,” Gerald says. “I thought it needed to be an iconic Honda from the company’s early years. The CL has a very good riding position and I like the 19-inch wheels and the loud exhaust note. It looked good in the advert, but it had been very poorly assembled so I have spent the past three years sorting it out. I bought it from a dealer, but due to my physical condition at the time I relied on their description and an inspection by someone who had worked for me at Honda UK! I managed to locate quite a few NOS parts but they are getting very scarce and as a result, very expensive. I recently needed a new sealed beam unit and it would have cost me almost £400 from the US and there would be no guarantee that the filaments would have survived the journey.”
Another of the biggest problems was with the carburettors. “They were distorted and the float chambers wouldn’t seat. A NOS bare body appeared in the US that would have cost about £1000 landed here and still with the risk of 60 years on-the-shelf corrosion!” Careful fettling has cured the issue. I recently rebuild the top half of the engine with NOS parts: valves, oversize pistons and rebore, and it now runs fine,” says Gerald. “Having no electric starter isn’t a problem as it usually starts first kick.”
The latest job is to have the wheels rebuilt with the original profile rims by local specialist Ian Saxcoburg at B-Spoke.