The Promised Land — Part Four

Most folks that know me, even the ones that know me well, don’t know that I still have a Honda.

Much as I wish it was one of their thoroughbred racing machines – like the exqusite RC30 – this one is a far humbler machine.

Its a 160 cc SOHC Two valve single, and run flat out it’s good for a little under 7 hp.

When my little HRZ216 is WFO, I try to imagine that I’m running the Honda RC166 250/6 with its signature shreik, or the RC30’s gear driven cam whine.

But no matter how hard I try, I just can’t.

***

When someone tells you they have a Vincent, the mere thought of it is enough to send chills up your spine.

The Vincent, Stevenage.

The immortal. The legend. Richard Thompson’s Black Lightning and Red Molly, the Red-Haired Girl.

Hunter Thompson’s half reverent and half looney characterizations of The Black Shadow — equal parts myth and bollocks.

Marty Dickerson roaming the land wiping up drag races with his Rapide in every town. Rolly Free in his bathing suit, forever in flight on the Black Lighning at Bonneville.

Just say “Vincent” and at very least, the mind conjures up something like this.

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But nothing like this.

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But yet.

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It is.

Look at it, for god’s sake. It has to be the most singularly beautiful and well designed/well made lawn mower you’ve ever seen in your life.

The cutter deck is made from 2 aluminium castings. The front and rear axels ride on swingarms that are also cast alloy. Look at the precious tiny Amal carb.

The handle is a large diameter tube that doubles as the fuel tank.

Again, Eric Buell to the courtesy phone, Eric Buell, courtesy phone.

Does your Briggs and Stratton have a cast aluminum crankcase with radial cooling fins?

Didn’t think so.

***

What a cast aluminum gem of a yardwork machine like this tells me is that Motorcycles have always been a lousy business proposition.

The historic metaphorical roadside of our sport is littered with the corpses of the many Design and Engineering Geniuses that could not figure out how to sell enough of their most excellent creations to make a freaking profit.

I understand the variables of business — R&D, materials cost, labor cost, tooling. I understand that one needs to have full control of those variables to compute a price at which the products can be sold to make money. Sometimes customers just don’t show up.

But to have built something as elegant, innovative and fully realized as the Vincent Rapide, and then to have found oneself trying to sell lawnmowers trying to broaden one’s market feels a lot like Bob Dylan having to play kid’s birthday parties to make rent.

The mower was not the only such attempt to break into new markets to save the company. Vincent actually demonstrated more innovative thinking when they developed the Amanda water scooter — one of the first recongnizable personal watercraft.

Again, it was elegant and precient in that it created a design that was decades ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it was also a few less decades ahead of really understanding exactly how fiberglas worked. Issues with heat management inside the Amanda’s hull had a bad habit of compromising the Amanda’s hydrodynamic integrity.

Neither lawnmowers nor personal watercraft could save The Vincent.

To make money selling motorcycles didn’t require that one created a performance at all costs, stout engined, smooth running, long-legged, high speed luxury jewel of a motorcycle.

It meant exactly the opposite, in fact.

***

It really is the Lesson of Henry Ford.

That lesson nearly wiped the entire motorcycle industry off of the industrialized western world.

And the lesson is to make money selling motor vehicles, one needs to use the least expensive materials that are feasible, to drive every possible efficiency into production, and sell the vehicle for the lowest possible price, so that every one that wants one can afford one.

In the case of cars, that meant a Model T Ford. It had just enough motor to make the thing go, and very little else.

In the case of motorcycles, that meant thinking small. And thinking about lots and lots and lots of those small motorcycles.

***

There are lots of ways to get to small and cheap.

In the 1920s, it meant things like the Johnson Motor Wheel, which you could order as a kit made to add to your bicycle, for $97.50 out of the back of Boy’s Life Magazine.

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The Motorwheel is a fairly sophisticated thing for a simple bicycle clip on engine. The opposed twin 2-stroke is pretty heavy power by clip-on standards, most of which are singles. The rear wheel drive with its chain and sprung cush drive is also pretty trick.

The whole setup worked pretty well, and they sold a fair number of them, until they ran smack into the actual titular Henry Ford of Henry Ford’s Lesson. When the motorwheel cost a hundred dollars (plus a bicycle) and a Model T sold for three hundred, sales kinda fell off the table.

Not easily discouraged, and fairly imgainative sorts, the Johnson Brothers slapped a lower drive unit and a propeller on the Motorwheel’s twin, and they were instant leaders in the outboard boat motor business.

In the basement of the Barber, outside the restoration shop entrance, is a collection of roughly a dozen Johnson Outboard Motors of similar vintage. When I visited, I remember remarking to myself that there seemed to be few limits to George Barber’s internal combustion enthusiasms. I didn’t realize, until I researched this story, that those Johnson Outboards — with their shining brass fittings — were two, four and six cylinder configurations of that same Motorwheel twin clyinder engine.

I didn’t know it then, but those outboards were just the rest of the Motorwheel story.

***

The Johnson Brothers were far from the only people who tried to rule the world by putting engines on bicycles. A few years and one world war later, the same idea occurred to the Marx Brothers.

“That’s the most rediculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

<Knocks ash off of cigar>

Not so fast, Captain Spaulding.

Ok, so maybe it didn’t occur to all the Marx Brothers, but it did occur to one Herbert Marx, known better as Zeppo.

Most folks older than a certain theshold age know Zeppo Marx, the corny satiric ‘Straight Man’ of the Marx Brothers comendy team. What most folks don’t know is that Herbert was an engineer, and when he tired of being the least funny Marx Brother and the butt of their many jokes, he started an engineering company called Marman Products.

Zeppo figured he could do better than working a gig where his brothers had named him after a monkey.

Marman Products, established right in the middle of Southern California’s Aerospace manufacturing hub, had two major products. The first was the Marman clamp, a seemingly simple but ingenious clamp that would eventually find uses in everything from aircraft intakes — especially super and turbocharged ones — to being used to secure the Atomic Bombs that were dropped on Japan — to becoming the tool for anything NASA built that had to come apart on command.

marman clamp

In all liklihood, you have one of these things somewhere on your motorcycle. The examples used by NASA are a little more interesting, from an engineering perspective, as they updated Zeppo’s original design — which used either a standard nut or thumbscrew ‘wingnut’ to secure them — to what NASA called a ‘Pyrotechnic Actuator’.

Mere non-NASA mortals would refer to that as, more simply, an exploding bolt.

If, like me, as a kid you watched every televised NASA spaceflight, you saw these pyro activated Marman clamps drop the fuel and oxidizer lines from every space vehicle on launch, and allow every booster stage and space vehicle to separate after engine burn-out.

That humble, but exacting clamp design allowed Marman Products to become Aeroquip, one of the largest hydraulic and pressurized system vendors in in the world, and allowed Herbert Marx to retire to Palm Springs with a net worth many times more than all the other Marx Brothers combined.

Clamps, while interestering, are not why you and I are here, though.

Being that Marman products was operating in the exact center of the aeronautical design and manufacturing universe of Southern California, we have to assume that at some point, Herbert Marx was shown a US Army Air Corps target drone. That target drone had, as the Johnson Motorwheel did, an opposed twin 2 stroke motor.

There was, I surmise, the sound of a relay closing, the spinning of cerebral gears, a phone call to Schwinn Bicycle of Chicago Illinois, and then this.

“Ding!”

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PeeWee Herman’s ride has nothing on this.

Power, compared to the Johnson, was markedly up — 3.5 hp to the Johnson’s 1. The Marman has a nice springer front suspension — which was common to the bicycles of the time — and a cable operated drum front brake, which was not common but undoubtedly necessary. The headlamp looks to be automotive spec and the Chrome Tank with ‘Shooting Star’ logo would be a nice touch on any motorcycle of any vintage.

Like the Johnson, the Marman was also sold as a kit to be added to the user’s own bicycle. Schwinn did design and sell a bicycle — the MP97, as seen in this example — specifically for this conversion, which could be done and sold complete by any Schwinn dealer.

***

Now clamping motors on bicycles is hardly a unique idea — it had been happening in one form or another since the first internal combustion motors.

But when the same idea concurrently occurred to someone on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, it was the first pitch in what was going to turn into a whole new ball game.

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The idea of appropriating war materials and turning them into motorbikes was again repeated. In the case of the Marman, it was a drone aero target motor. In the case of the Honda Cub D, it was an engine from a Tohatsu generator set that was intended to power combat communications gear. Other examples of military gear turned Motorbike abound — the original Lambretta and Vespa scooters were also found object bikes — the powerplants were made from the internal combustion starter motors for large aircraft, and the choice of those scooter’s signature small, fat tires was driven through re-use of tail landing gear wheels from fighter planes.

Different fighting forces leave different things lying around after wars, and bikers will turn them all into something to ride.

***

After selling more than 15,000 of the little mopeds into the destroyed economy and infrastructure of post-war Japan, Sochiro Honda and his partners decided they could do better. They’d been experiencing customer complaints that root caused to issues with the bicycles — bearing failures, stability, brakes — over which they had absolutely no control. The only way out of frustrated customers was to design a frame and suspension that was meant from the start to be a true motorcycle.

And so they did.

And like all Version 1.0s, the Honda Dream Model D was not quite 100% when it was released to the public. The frame and suspension, which borrowed heavily from the design of pre-war BMW single cylinder motorcycles, used pressed steel stampings for structure with a plunger rear suspension. The Dream Model D was powered by a 98cc two stroke, which was noisy and down on required power. It offended Sochiro Honda’s engineering sensibilities — he once characterized the Model D motor as looking “as though it’s been cut from a bamboo tube with holes drilled. ”

Honda assigned Kiyoshi Kawashima, an engineer from the Hammamatsu manufacturing plant, to design a 150 cc 4 stroke single. The Engineer tested the resulting mule on the Hakone Pass, which was more or less the steepest and longest incline in all of Japan.

As the Test mule was able to pull up to peak power in the taller of its two available gears, Kawashima began to think that this was going to work out. The Engineer was also glad that this day would see pouring rain, so that he had some extra safety margin in the cooling departrment with this unproven engine. The little single even managed to run away from the pre-war Buick that carried Mr. Honda and his Marketing Guy, one Mr. Fujisawa. Upon reaching the top of the grade with no siezures and still delivering peak power, Mr. Honda was hugged by his drenched wet Test Rider/Engineer.

Embarrassed apologies were offered for soaking down Mr. Honda, but they had a winner.

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Really, all of the ingredients of the modern Honda motorcycle were all present.

Firstly, 4 stroke power. Then, robust, simple designs that made high power per displacement and were inexpensive to manufacture and purchase. These were well designed, well manufactured, oil tight and, by the standards of the time, supremely reliable motorcycles.

Behind that Second Dream, there were 60 Million Cub singles — the highest volume single motor vehicle ever made — and millions more 125 singles and 175 cc singles and twins.

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Honda continued to blaze trails with their 305s, 360s, 450 twins, 500s and eventually the 750/4.

In the hands of Sochiro Honda, motorcycles went from being a ‘lousy business proposition’ to being the world’s largest producer of Internal Combustion engines by volume — rationalizing low cost production had allowed the company to prosper beyond imagining.

Honda even made my HRZ216.

Only the lawnmowers weren’t built to save the company.

There were made because 4 stroke Honda power was powering the world.

 

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