The cult of the vintage Honda.

Passions and the people who pursue them.
Oct. 7 2009 9:38 AM

The Cult of the Vintage Honda

A time machine on two wheels.

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The ride is the definition of sporting, yet the sheer durability of the bike is also oddly affecting. There is something touching about a machine that runs in 2009 as it did in 1973. It is like a time machine on two wheels. Today, there are very few things in our lives that last that long, with the exception of Danish furniture and blood relations. As with any treasured possession, you reach a point where durability begins to feel something more like loyalty. One is reminded of an aged yet still sporting dog who does what he can to fetch your morning paper.

If the vintage Hondas are so great and so popular, why did Honda stop making them? I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that tragedy struck in the 1980s (as with many things aesthetic). The bikes got fat. The flat back sank, like a worn-out horse. Most of today's Honda motorcycles are, effectively, two-wheeled SUVs: obese creatures, covered with too much plastic. The kick-start is long gone—and what's the fun in a motorcycle that starts every time?

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I will admit that some drawbacks attend to owning a vintage Honda. As I said, these motorcycles may feel fast, but they are not for men or women interested in actual performance. My CB350 (manufactured in 1971) has a total of 24 horsepower, which does exceed a golf cart, but not by a lot. I am satisfied if I can outrace a Vespa. Reaching highway speeds can seem something of a small miracle, rather like when an aged relative manages 10 minutes of normal conversation.

And as you've probably already guessed, a bike like this breaks down with some frequency. If your life or character calls for predictability, get yourself a Toyota Camry. But, strangely enough, the breakdowns are part of the ties that bind. The very unpredictability of a vintage Honda is part of what makes it so inspiring to those of a spiritual inclination. The truest devotees of vintage Hondas, like the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,find life's true meaning in the breakdowns.

As I see it, people get bored of anything truly predictable, as many of my married friends will attest. (The trick is to find a slightly unpredictable spouse.) Everyone thinks they want safety and security, but the things we really love are just a little unreliable. Owning a motorcycle that occasionally fails to start can add a suspense to one's morning that most coffee machines cannot match.

The final drawback of the vintage Honda is that there's no hope of acquiring a tougher image by riding one. If you've ever ridden a Harley-Davidson, you know that the moment you start the engine you become an agent of chaos. You are at liberty to terrorize small towns, set off car alarms, and grimace at children. In contrast, the vintage Honda is not scary so much as earnest, more John Lennon than Black Sabbath. Moreover, given their tendency not to start on the first kick, you're more likely to be an object of pity than a source of fear.

No, the vintage Honda appeals not to the ego but the pleasure centers—as an object of bliss, not of might. Or, as a Honda ad from the 1970s put it:

A refreshing breeze in your face
A smooth road
A softly purring four-stroke engine between your legs
Newly green scenery slipping swiftly past
Leaning lazily right and left through a series of gentle curves …
This is as near heaven on earth as we mortals are allowed.

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