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Post Thoughts on British, Japanese Motorcycles
Created by John Eipper on 02/10/13 5:13 AM

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Thoughts on British, Japanese Motorcycles (Cameron Sawyer, Russia, 02/10/13 5:13 am)

A couple of trivial corrections to Henry Levin's interesting post on British motorcycles (21 January), just for the record:

1. Indian was not a British marque, but an American one. Most of its production was accounted for by the large V-twin Chief, and the smaller (750cc) V-twin Scout. I actually owned a 1929 Scout for some time, bought as a basket case which sadly I never managed to get running. Indian went bankrupt and ceased production in 1953.

2. I don't think many people who rode them would call the early Japanese motorcycles "tinny toy bikes." They were high quality from the very start and immediately created a sensation. I actually owned and rode and worked on (and fell off of) a very good selection of the early Hondas, from a CA-50 (the most produced motor vehicle of all times) to a CL90, to a 150 Dream, to a CB350, a CB360, to one of the iconic CB750s, and spent plenty of saddle time on friends' Hondas like the 305 Dream, CB500, SL175, CB125, a CL350, a 900 Bol d'Or, and I can hardly remember what else. When I started riding in 1970, Hondas already dominated the market, and they were a hit in the US from the first year of their importation, 1959.

Actually, in a way, Honda created the modern motorcycle market in the US--in 1959, motorcycles had a negative public image and sales in the US were only 60,000 per annum. Honda entered the market with an advertising campaign based on the slogan "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda," in order to underline the idea that motorcycles could be a fun and efficient mode of transport for people other than Hell's Angels--they sought to open the motorcycle market to a different demographic. By 1963 (source: http://www.pipeline.com/~randyo/Honda%20History.htm ) Honda alone was selling 150,000 units a year in the US, compared to the entire US market of 60,000 per annum in 1958.

I had friends with Norton Commanders and Triumph Bonnevilles. I was a pretty good motorcycle mechanic and my father had an excellently equipped workshop, so I spent a great deal of time helping my friends keep their bikes running. Compared to even the earliest Hondas, those bikes were as if from a different century. They were crude, primitive, poorly engineered, poorly made, made of bad materials (lots of pot metal and bakelite which would disintegrate from the incredible vibration these machines produced), which slung oil all over the place--they couldn't even design or execute a decent crankcase seal. I won't mention the electrics, as we have already shared plenty of Lucas jokes. They were in fact simply shoddy goods foisted upon their poor buyers by arrogant and stupid manufacturers who simply lacked any discipline from competition, until the Japanese came along and rightfully put these firms in their graves.

That English people are capable of producing high-quality manufactured goods is exemplified by another motorcycle--the Vincent Black Shadow. I had another friend with one of these. It was old-fashioned for its time, and quirky, but superbly built, by hand, like old Rolls Royces, and superbly engineered. It did not leak oil and ran like a top. It was wonderful to ride. It never broke down so I rarely worked on it, but he did let me ride it from time to time.

The Triumph Bonnevilles of the time remind me of the old Soviet joke about Soviet buses:

A Japanese delegation visits a Soviet bus factory. A factory representative proudly shows the Japanese a new bus right off the production line, and drives them around in it. A representative of the workers collective is standing by as they come back. The Japanese run up to him, shake his hand, and exclaim "Bravo! Why, you made it yourself in your spare time, didn't you?"

JE comments: I always enjoy talking motorcycles with Cameron Sawyer. Vincent Black Shadows are now probably the most coveted model on the vintage market. In mint condition they can sell for over $100,000.

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