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.

Motorcycle. Click image to expand.

Newborn birds, emerging from the egg, are said to bond with the first thing they see. And so it is with motorcycles. Whatever you ride first imprints itself on the cerebral cortex, never to be supplanted. In my case, it was a 1970s Honda, now considered vintage, and in that summer began a love that has never waned.

The impression came one day in my late teens when my cousin taught me how to ride. Out of a shack that passed for a garage he wheeled a dusty old machine with the word Honda visible on the tank. He started it with a few vigorous kicks, indicated the throttle and clutch, and mentioned something about brakes. I managed to kick it into gear and hit the throttle, sending a stray dog running for his life.

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In that moment, it dawned on me: I had found one of earth's highest pleasures.

I am far from alone in my affections. There are vintage Hondas everywhere, seemingly more than any other old motorcycle, with the possible exception of Harley-Davidsons. In San Francisco, a shop called Charlie's Place is dedicated solely to the repair of these aging vehicles, most now well into their 30s or 40s. You might think repairing just one type of motorcycle would be thin business, but Charlie gets more work than he can handle, and you bother the man at your peril.

To the faithful, among whom I count myself, the Hondas made in the 1960s and '70s are objects of mystic beauty, each a mechanical Helen of Troy. Look at the photo above, and you'll see what I mean. In the 1960s, Honda sought to capture and improve on the spirit of the English motorcycles of the day, and rarely has East met West with more pleasing consequences. The Japanese take on British motorbike aesthetics is, to my mind, a cross of cultures unrivaled since Italians began mixing tomatoes with Chinese noodles.

The machine looks ready to go. It is full of derring-do. It has plenty of shiny bits. It speaks of a controlled power that stops short of aggression. The vintage Hondas are, in the lingo, "naked"—you can see everything that makes them run. The pistons, less mighty than faithful, chug away. The chain snakes, and oil and gas drip here and there.

Unlike the motorcycles of today, the vintage Honda is the right size: slim, svelte even. There is none of that pumped-up look that is the aesthetic curse of the last several decades. Myself, I don't get it, but some scholar will one day explain why today everything from cars to cameras has begun to resemble Mark McGwire at the height of his steroid intake.

Gazing upon the machine produces a visual euphoria not often felt beyond an alpine summit or the world's greatest art museums. But how is it to ride? In a word, great. The engine revs high and loud, the motorcycle equivalent of the roadster. If tuned right, the engine beats with a sound akin to a helicopter's rotors—thuck, thuck, thuck, thuck.

Driving is fun, feels fast, and makes plenty of noise, though it is really more about the illusion of speed than its actuality. Sometimes, roaring around town, I glance at the speedometer and am surprised to find that what feels close to the speed of sound is more like 35 miles per hour.