Motorcycle Memoir

Motorcycle Memoir | 1st Ride was the Worst - Even 40 years later!

A couple of years ago, I wrote about acquiring a motorcycle that had a lot of great memories for me – a 1976 Honda CJ360T. I still have that little Honda, and as it passes the milestone of its fourth decade, I thought it might be fun to recall that first CJ360T and how it got its rather inauspicious start.

I took delivery of that gleaming 1976 Honda CJ360T in early April from Ave’s Sport Shop, the Honda dealer in Hurley, Wis. Early April in Hurley is considered late snowmobile season, and they still had Ski-doo snowmobiles on the showroom floor at the time.

That first weekend of the month promised to be uncharacteristically clear, calm and sunny. So desperate was I to have my new ride down in southern Wisconsin, where I had my new job in the Engineering Department of Wick Homes, that I hatched a daring plan for that time of year: I would ride the bike from Hurley, where there was still snow on the ground in the shady spots, to my new home town of Mazomanie. It was a six-hour ride in those days when only a fraction of it was divided four-lane highway.

To folks outside the snow belt, that probably doesn’t sound like a very radical plan; to those who live in it, well, it sounds a little desperate, indeed. Weather in April can be worse than winter in the upper Midwest, particularly when the plan is riding a motorcycle for hours.

Honda CJ360T brand new
My sister took this shot with her Instamatic shortly before I left on what turned out to be the worst ride I ever took on that little Honda 40 years ago.

The temperature the morning of departure was 28 degrees F. That should nothing to hardy northern types like me who are accustomed to riding snowmobiles for hours in subzero temperatures. Well, sort of. The wind chill factor at highway speed virtually unabated for six hours is considerably more chilling than the occasional bursts to near highway speed one got on a snowmobile trail back in those days.

Using the traditional wind chill formula in use in 1976, a speed of 55 mph at 28 degrees F results in wind chill of about 8 degrees above zero—at 65 mph, the wind chill falls to about 6 degrees F above zero. In each case, the National Weather Service points out that frostbite can occur in 30 minutes to exposed skin. Comforting.

Unlike our 1969 Ski-doo Olympique snowmobile that had a big hood offering some protection, the Honda would have me out in the wind, without so much as a handlebar windshield. A wise person would have considered these facts before taking the ride. A truly wise person would have put off the entire thing till warmer weather.

My plan: countermeasures. I decided I’d bundle up. Geared up for the ride, I had wool socks inside my cowboy boots; jeans that were inside my insulated snowmobile bib overalls; two turtleneck sweaters inside my snowmobile jacket; my high-dollar Ski-doo Blizzard snowmobile gloves;  and a knit balaclava inside my Bell Star full-face helmet.

I was attired much more warmly than I usually was for a night out on the snowmobile trail. Besides, it would have to warm up with all that sunshine as I headed south. And it did—all the way up to 32 degrees F by the time the ride finally ended.

I left Hurley around 10 a.m. in dazzling sunshine. At my first gas stop about two hours later, I was only mildly hypothermic. I could still work the clutch and brake levers, if somewhat slowly, so I felt things were almost OK. Only about four hours to go.

“Pretty chilly to be out on the bike, eh?” a guy asked me at the gas pump.

“Mmph,” I uttered, finding my upper lip had frozen to the balaclava I had over my mouth.

The guy smiled, shook his head and walked away. I almost reconsidered the whole thing, but decided to not be a weenie and pushed on.

In the remaining hours in the saddle, I began to experience a strange sense of relaxation, resignation, somnolence, euphoria, and wonder—I guess I wondered most about how it could stay so cold with so much sunshine. The rest of the sensations I now know to be symptoms of hypothermia. By the time I reached Mazomanie, I had a hard time working the levers and even moving my legs to get the sidestand down was a slow process.

Honda CJ360T restored
The sleek gas tank with locking lid over the cap, smooth pleat-free seat upswept at the rear and slick rear cowling made for a lean look.

The not-so-remote possibility of sun-melted snow putting water on the pavement that promptly re-freezes into zero-control zones had never even crossed my mind. Of course, my numb body probably wouldn’t have felt the pain of impact—not till later, anyway. But, I was young then and none of that mattered. I’d have my new Honda to ride all summer; that’s all that mattered.

Looking back on it, even all these years later, that very first ride turned out to be the only really bad ride I ever had on the CJ360. It was the worst, in fact.

From then on and for the next eight years, the little CJ took me all over southwestern Wisconsin; to the soaring farmlands and oak forests of the Uplands, along the geographically perplexing Lower Wisconsin Riverway, across the broad oak savannas and among the soaring sandstone formations of the Driftless Area. It made several trips all the way north to Hurley and back, but all were in much warmer weather.

Light, nimble and stripped to the bare necessities, the CJ360T was surprisingly capable, even though it lacked an electric starter, center stand, six speed transmission, disc brake, fancy paint, chrome, and dual mufflers. Indeed, those omissions made the bike more affordable and lighter than the CB and CL 360 variants.

Stripped down as it was, it did offer some features not found on the other 360s. The cowling at the rear of the seat that doubles as a tool box was unique to the CJ. It lent a racy touch to the bike and merged nicely with the ducktail on back of the non-pleated seat. The long, sleek tank lacked plasti-chrome badges but it did have a locking door over the filler cap.

The two-into-one exhaust system also looked pretty cool and mimicked the look of the four-into-one system on the CB750F. Just don’t throw it into a hard right-hander too deeply or that big muffler may kiss the pavement, kick out the rear wheel and low-side you, as it did me that first summer. No harm done; lesson learned.

The double-leading shoe front brake worked fine for such a light bike; disc brake not required. The five speed transmission instead of six simply made getting to top cog a little quicker. The lack of chrome meant less glare from the sun and decals for tank badges, well, who cares about that stuff anyway? The bike in its basic glory had personality; even a hint of high-performance attitude.

I sold that first CJ after eight happy years and in time, I regretted letting it go. I even started keeping an eye out for another one. In July, 2004, I thought I had found one; it was a ’76 CJ360T just like my original, but in very rough shape. Much as I wanted one, I decided to pass.

Finally, In May 2009, I found one for sale only about 20 miles from my house in near-showroom condition! I checked it out and, even though cost a little more than my first one did new, I finally had a CJ360T again. Now 40 years old, it’s not my daily rider, but it’s still fun to ride around on the back roads. When it’s above freezing.

Honda CJ360T Photo Gallery