1968 Honda CL450
Claimed power: 45hp @ 9,000rpm
Top speed: 105.74mph (period test)
Engine: 444cc air-cooled DOHC parallel twin, 70mm x 57.8mm bore and stroke, 9:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 401lb (182kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 2.4gal (9ltr)/45-55mpg (est.)
Price then/now: $1,035/$3,000-$7,000
Forty years ago, a Honda 450 was easy to find. Thousands were built for people who wanted to get to school or work. They were well made and sold for a reasonable price to people who, as often as not, didn’t keep up the maintenance schedule. Most were used, abused and put away wet. Today, what was once a common bike is becoming a rarity.
This story starts with an email written by Mark Dickey in Tennessee to Don Stockett of Vintage Motorcycle Rescue in California. “Mark was looking for a mint 1968 Honda CL450 to purchase, and his intent was to ride it,” Don says. “He said he wasn’t a collector. His only other motorcycle was a mint condition 1967 Triumph Bonneville that he kept in his kitchen because it was too pristine to be ridden. He was just looking for a really nice bike he could ride.” Don knew finding one — especially a “really nice one” — would be difficult.
Honda started exporting motorcycles to the United States in 1959. After a rocky start, sales took off, especially after the “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” advertising campaign. Yoshiro Harada, in charge of the development of the 450, is quoted in Honda’s official history as saying, “In 1960 the U.S. market for large motorcycles was approximately 60,000 units annually. Of these, most were imports from British makers. The Japanese market was comparatively much smaller, with monthly sales of several hundred units. But through our understanding of the situation we decided to develop a 450cc bike, specifically a mass-production model, that could be sold in the U.S. as well as Japan.”
The British manufacturers were coasting on their success, distributing as much of their profits to shareholders as possible and not upgrading their factories. In contrast, Honda had put its profits into a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Suzuka, Japan. Up and running in 1960, the new factory could turn out highly developed motorcycles at reasonable cost. Quality control — apparently of little interest to the British companies — was a byword in Japan. For some reason, the British believed that their Japanese counterparts had no interest in building large capacity motorcycles. They were wrong.
In 1964, the British industry received a shock when a visiting journalist discovered a mid-sized twin undergoing tests on the Suzuka track. Honda’s CB450, aka the Black Bomber, appeared in the U.S. in August 1965. Power came from a 444cc dual overhead cam parallel twin, making it the first mass-produced dual overhead cam motorcycle. Running 8.5:1 compression with a 180-degree crankshaft, Honda claimed 43 horsepower at the crankshaft and a top speed of 98mph.
Unhappy British factory managers took some comfort in the not-so-great handling, the somewhat strange gear ratios, the less than optimal styling and the less than adequate rear shocks. Although comparatively expensive at about $1,000 (a 1966 Triumph T120R was $1,309), the new CB450 sold anyway, although not in the huge numbers that Honda had anticipated. Even so, it was fast (100mph top speed), had good brakes, started on a button and did not leak oil. To riders looking to get to school or work and have a little fun on weekends, the lack of handling was trumped by excellent reliability.
Offroading was very popular in Sixties America, and bikes that at least looked like they could do some cow trailing sold well. In 1967, Honda offered a kit with high pipes and braced handlebars to transform the Black Bomber into a cow trailer. The kits sold, and the first factory-produced CLs, with a more stylish tank and the high pipes and offroad handlebars, were in showrooms in February 1968.
Where the Bomber came only in basic black, the CL offered a choice of candy red, candy blue or silver. A reworked transmission boasted five (better spaced) speeds and compression increased to 9:1. In line with its cow-trailing abilities, torque increased to 29ft/lb at 7,000rpm while output increased slightly to 45 horsepower at 9,000rpm. Separate tachometer and speedometer units replaced the Bomber’s strange-looking single instrument cluster, and the CL was 12 pounds lighter than the Bomber and had more ground clearance.
Cycle World published a review of the CL and its road-going sister, the CB450K1, in its May 1968 issue and was impressed: “These are motorcycles that exude visual appeal, a revitalized large bore image, and exhibit what well-considered engineering can do to evolve a distinctly improved product.” The testers liked the 32mm Keihin constant velocity carburetors for their smooth power delivery, the improved electric starter, and the 8-inch twin-leading-shoe front brake. Niggles were few. One of the CL’s exhaust heat shields vibrated loose during testing, and the speedometer was more than a little optimistic: An indicated 70mph was actually 62.41mph.
When the Honda CB750 came out in 1969, the 450 became Honda’s junior big bike. The styling was revised to mimic the CB750, but otherwise model development mostly ceased. The CB450 got a front disc brake in 1970, but since Honda was unsure about discs offroad the CL stuck with its effective twin-leading-shoe drum.
By 1974, its last year, the 450 was showing its age, but still doing well what it had been built to do in the Sixties: Get people to their destination, with a little fun and a minimum of fuss.
As Cycle said in its April 1974 test of the CB450 K7, “For the people who want to tour at posted speed limits and don’t intend to get brave and frisky on winding roads, the 450 is fine. Not the best, but fine … a reliable motorcycle that delivers excellent transportation and has the added capability of leisurely touring. A lot of bikes should be lucky enough to have a niche that broad.”
Honda bumped the CB450’s engine to 500cc in 1975 for the CB500T, but finally discontinued the model in 1977. That was almost 40 years ago, and as time went by, the large numbers of CLs on the road began to diminish; even the strongest, most reliable motorcycle can only put up with so much abuse and neglect. A few years ago, however, interest in Honda CB450s and CL450s started to rise. It started with retro rockers making café bikes out of CB350s, which sparked interest in restoring stock 350s. That in turn sparked interest in the 350’s older sister, the 450, all of which led to Mark Dickey writing emails to Don Stockett’s restoration facility in California.
Mark was going to ride the 1967 Triumph he had bought, but then decided the bike was “too perfect,” that riding it would ruin it. He decided he wanted a Honda, but something older and bigger than the 1971 CB175 he had as a teenager. “The 1968 CL450 scrambler fit the bill perfectly,” Mark says. Emails went back and forth between Tennessee and California. “I told him [Mark] that 1968 Honda CL450s in mint or even very good condition were extremely rare,” Don explains, adding that in the two years previous he’d been to a dozen vintage motorcycle shows, and hadn’t seen a CL450 K1 at any of them.
Don decided that the most realistic way to find a restorable CL450 K1 was eBay, so he started checking on a regular basis. Honda CLs occasionally showed up in rough condition or worse, but finally, a promising bike turned up 200 miles south of Don’s shop in Folsom, California.
Don and mechanic Geoff Sprague went to look at the machine. The bike had been partially restored about 10 years ago, but it was filthy from wind-blown dust, the forks needed rebuilding and most of the cycle parts needed attention, but the engine ran well with no major leaks. Don told Mark not to buy the CL, that fixing all the little things it needed would add up to much more than the bike was worth. Mark bid on it anyway, won the auction, and then asked Don to restore it.
Don and Geoff took most of the Honda apart, but left the engine in the frame. “We sprayed the frame with the engine in place,” Don says. “We also cleaned the engine and polished out the side covers as they were originally.” One engine mount was broken, but Geoff was able to repair it.
Don likes to restore bikes to the condition in which they rolled out of the factory. In 1968, no factory plated mufflers with mirror-like chrome or finished a tank with paint deep enough to swim in. Since most present-day paint and chrome shops’ work is to custom car show standards, getting the right classic look takes a great deal of careful communication. Chrome shops generally offer high luster “show chrome,” which looks nothing like what was available on new CLs. “Street Chrome,” which is the cheaper grade, is closer, but still better than stock. “Mr. Honda used ‘tool chrome,’ directly plated on the steel,” Don says.
Another issue was the seat. Reproduction seat covers do not match the original, so, when a bike comes in with an original seat cover, saving the cover is a priority. Mark’s bike had an original seat cover in good condition, except for the Honda logo, which had faded badly. The foam padding, however, was dead.
“Honda used special red foam, which is not available,” Don says, adding that what is available “doesn’t have the Honda red foam density. Instead, we carefully take the cover off and fill out the existing seat, using the densest available white foam. It’s difficult work — the vinyl seat cover shows every imperfection. Geoff hates doing it.” The seat now feels stock, and, with a very carefully applied stencil, looks stock down to the correct silver Honda logo on the back.
Original electrical parts often malfunction, and many owners depart from strict originality in favor of easy starting and smooth idling. Mark installed a Probe Engineering ignition and Dyna minicoils. “It makes for greater safety and reliability on the road. With these modern upgrades the engine now idles steady and runs great flat out,” he says.
Since Mark wanted to ride the bike, original tires were not an option, so he went with a set of Dunlop K70s. They look right and handle well. Vintage Motorcycle Rescue rides all their restored bikes 100 miles before letting them go, and Don was very happy when he came back from the first test ride.
“It’s a very torquey bike with a nice throaty exhaust. It’s a pleasure to ride. I wanted to keep it. I actually thought about getting a CL450 for myself, but parts are very difficult to get. We had to get new air cleaners from Australia.” So with some regret, Don shipped the bike to Mark in Tennessee.
When Mark picked up the bike, he had only seen pictures from before he took delivery. He was understandably thrilled, and he’s been riding it ever since.
“I exercise the CL450 by riding the rolling hills and valleys on blue sky days near my home in Tennessee. I rarely ride more than 30-35 miles on an outing, which often includes a trip to the local Starbucks. I don’t know the history of this motorcycle, but when I’m riding it, I often reflect on the past owners and wonder about the many journeys the big scrambler had taken them on.”
Riding the CL is enjoyable and relaxing. “The ergonomics of the motorcycle suit my 5-foot 8-inch, 167-pound frame and preferred upright riding style to a tee. The seat height and handlebar position is perfect, making the scrambler a thrill to take through tight or sweeping curves,” Mark says. “Don and Jeff did a lot of work on the front end and rear suspension to make the bike a smooth and safe rider. It’s surprisingly nimble for its weight and shifts very smoothly through all five gears. My comfortable cruising speed is 55mph. The drum brakes (with new shoes) are good, but not exceptional.”
Mark says he likes to look at his Honda, as well as ride it. “I really appreciate the design of the ’68 CL450, from the upward curved front fender stays and white piping on the pebble-grain seat to the rounded corners on the taillight. The upswept chrome header pipes leading into a beautifully designed muffler with double exhaust tips make the motorcycle quite a head-turner. In my opinion, the design of the fuel tank with its round badges is the epitome of a true classic Honda. I marvel at the dual overhead cam engine — an amazingly designed power plant with a brutish rumble.
“I consider it a privilege to be the custodian of this relatively rare motorcycle, and frequently look for ways to improve the appearance and performance while maintaining originality. I recently added De Carbon rear shock decals and replaced the reproduction fuel tank badges with original engraved wing plastic badges. I also replaced the horn, both mirrors and the rear foot peg assemblies with new-old-stock parts. This bike will be an enjoyable rider for years to come.” MC
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