The Cadillac Honda As Published in the Oct/November 2020 VJMC Magazine
It was the summer of 1966. I had just finished my summer job working at a YMCA camp whose nearby acreage would in a few years be transformed into the well-known theme park King’s Island at the edge of Cincinnati, Ohio. I had only one more year to go in high school and a then a solid plan to attend nearby Miami University. Summer was great: I was 17, had a driver’s license, and my parents had a 1962 Valiant that they allowed me pretty much free reign to drive where I wanted to go. In retrospect that was a pretty good life. However, my parents were strictly against my having a motorcycle. “You will just go out there and really hurt yourself,” Dad would say. Mom said, “Why do you want one? You have a perfectly good car to drive!” This was quite frustrating for me as some of the cooler kids had small Japanese motorcycles. I had ridden a few of them, and I really had the bug to get one.
One positive thing occurred in my motorcycle quest. My next door neighbor Carolyn was going steady with a great classmate of mine named Jimmy. He had a shiny new black Honda Super 90, and when he came to see Carolyn, he parked it out front. He was a happy-go-lucky guy, and often let me take it out for spins—if I would fill up the gas tank. He was there often, and he usually stayed a LONG time! Can you remember those days riding a little Japanese bike? Have you ever noticed that so many of their gas tanks had lots of little tiny scratches along the top? The reason: As you were flying down a country road, you would just lie flat on the gas tank. You pull that throttle to the stops. The scratches came from your buttons and jacket zippers as you moved forward to peek at the speedometer. It would creep up 59, 60, 61, maybe 62, going with a tail wind. WOW! My own personal Land Speed Record for a Super 90 in Miami County, Ohio!
My mother’s Aunt Marie had a cabin on a small lake near Cadillac, Michigan, and she invited us to come to stay a few days. Mom and Dad thought it was a great idea. However, my brother and I absolutely did NOT want to go. The word was out from our cousins that 70+ year-old Aunt Marie had a history of making whoever came to visit them take a hike to the top of the huge sand dune that the area was famous for. How could we hope to escape such a tradition? How boring, could you get: an eight-hour drive with Mom, Dad and my 14-year-old younger brother, then, after being brow beaten into Marie’s hiking tradition, sitting around playing tonk with a bunch of geezers? We reasoned with Dad: we are old enough to take care of ourselves, just go and have a great time without us. Right! So off we drove to the north.
It was very long drive. However, the cabin was very nice and we had a lot of room. Aunt Marie and her husband were cordial hosts. However, it was pretty much what I thought. The “hike” took place soon after we got there—at least we got it out of the way! Marie and her husband were also big on small stakes card playing, a 5-cent bet limit, not so much about the money but to put some small element of excitement into the game.
What to do? What to do? As fate would have it, in their small local paper for sale ads, I found the answer: “For Sale Honda Motorcycle $175, with a local address but no phone number.” Hmm, I didn’t have that much with me but I could have put it together if I was at home. Without making a big deal out of it, I inquired about the address to Uncle Ernie showing him the newspaper. He said it wasn’t far. So the next morning, I asked Dad if my brother and I could take a spin in the car just to get out of the cabin. Surprisingly he said ok, but not to wander too far. Today, because of GPS, we think nothing of the possible difficulty in finding an unknown place. However, I am sure it wasn’t that easy to actually find the place on those unpaved Michigan roads. Did we have to stop and ask directions a couple of times? I just don‘t remember. However we did find the small, remote farm house and parked. We went up to the door, knocked and an “older” lady (she was probably only 40 years old) came to the door. We asked about the motorcycle and she said it was her son’s and that he was off to the Army. She said her husband was at work and she really didn’t know anything about it except that her son had told her to sell it and send him the money. She told us it was out in the barn, and we could feel free to go and look at it.
It wasn’t really a farm barn as much as a big old out building, no animals, just a lawn tractor and some equipment and a lot of dust. There it was in the corner with a tarp covering part of it, but I could easily make out the high chrome exhaust. It was a silver Honda CL160! Pulling off the cover, we found that it was dusty but looked really good. We were in luck; the key was in the ignition! Wow, this would be a step-up from Jimmy’s Super 90, and since I was quite familiar with its operation, the 160 couldn’t be a lot different. Procedure: when it hasn’t been running, pull up the choke lever about half way, turn up the key and kick it! And you kick it a lot until it starts. Nothing. Hmm…let’s see if it has gas in it? Yes, there is gas. Let’s kick some more—no good.
Wanting to examine it further, we pulled it out a bit into better light and gave it a closer look. I had really never worked on anything mechanical; however, when I spotted the other side that had been up against the wall, I noticed that the spark plug wire was just hanging loose. Oh my, the plug’s porcelain was broken in half, one end was in the plug cap, the other still in the cylinder. That was one big hint for me that it probably wasn’t going to start. Sh_t! What to do? I remembered my dad changing the spark plug in our lawn mower, so maybe we should try that. Fortunately I found the tool kit complete with a plug wrench. I was able to get the plug out just fine. Dad had said that sometimes you just have to “clear it out,” so I took the other plug out and kicked it through a few times. Unfortunately there wasn’t an extra spark plug in the kit, or on the nearby workbench. We went back up to the house and asked the woman if there might be an extra spark plug around, but she just laughed and said she wouldn’t know a spark plug if it landed in her lap. I asked where he had purchased the bike, and she said there was a Honda dealer in the nearby town. She told us how to get there and we took off hoping for a new plug and some advice. With a little traveling trial and error, we found the small Honda dealership and its part counter. We told him the situation and he sold two plugs just to be safe. When asked for other advice he simply said, make sure the key is on, that it has gas in the tank, and that the petcock lever is pointing straight up and down.
Buoyed by our purchase and sage advice, we hurried back to the farm house worrying that someone would be scarfing up this gem of a buy up before we could get back there! Luckily no other cars were in the driveway, so we informed the Mom that we were going to try to get it running with the new spark plugs. I screwed the new spark plugs in, and then noticed that the little lever he told us about was turned to the side. Hmm, so I turned it so it was up and down. Then we start kicking again. This time we could get the engine to “sput” a little. What a great sign, but it wouldn’t start.
Then I remembered my friend whose Dad had an ancient Zundapp motorcycle that he parked in his old barn. We could only get it started (sometimes) by three guys pushing it and the rider letting out the clutch. I also remembered that getting it rolling down a hill made it easier. Well they had a gravel type road with a small downgrade back behind the barn. We pushed the motorcycle out there, remembering the need to kick it up to an easier gear. I got on and my brother pushed it going downhill. I let out the clutch at the bottom… and it absolutely roared to life! I remembered one more vital step from the Zundapp experience—give it gas and don’t let it die! So I rode that Honda right down the hill as far as that road went to a fence line and then turned around and rode back. Then I did that again gleefully about four times. What a marvelous machine! My brother had never been on a motorcycle, so he didn’t muck things up by trying it. Taking it back to the barn, I shut it off. Wondering if our luck would hold, I tried to kick start it again, and it fired right up! I was sure that this would be the deal of a lifetime if we could just pull it off with my parents. We went back to the house, told her of our success and that we would be back really soon with the money.
Well, to make this long story shorter, nothing I could do would persuade my dad to advance me the money. My parents continued to be stridently against my riding those dangerous things. Plus how in the world were we going to get it eight hours back to Ohio? I even tried to appeal to Uncle Ernie who was a successful business man by telling him how much money we could earn on the deal, and that surely a successful business man could figure out a way to get that Honda back to Ohio.
Over the years, I have often wondered who was that lucky guy who must have eventually benefitted from our primitive mechanical work in Michigan that day. Even though it would be well into my college years before I finally figured out a way to buy a used canary yellow 1969 CL125A and still live in harmony with my parents, I would never forget the “Cadillac Honda.” That experience demonstrated that I could actually get an old bike running. That basic mechanical proclivity eventually gave me more than a few busted knuckles and an intimate knowledge of NGK spark plug heat range numbers. It would also eventually spawn my ecommerce motorcycle parts website where I often sell the parts and give advice to get that “old Honda in the barn” running.