Kick-Starter Kick-Off 2019

Four of the bikes I have in my shed have kick-start levers on them. Up until recently, I had five, including a 1977 Triumph Bonneville 750 Silver Jubilee.

The cheeky British tried to use the fact that the Silver Jubilee didn’t even have an electric starter as a sales point, referring to the kick-start-only situation by saying the bike features “traditional manual start.”

Kickstarting the 1976 Honda CJ360T
Prodding the ’76 Honda CJ360T to life isn’t as risky as it is with some bigger bikes, but good high-top boots and proper technique are still good ideas

Anybody who actually believes kick-starting a vintage British twin is a “feature” to be treasured as a “tradition” hasn’t tried to do it the first time in the spring when the bike has sat nearly all winter, sometimes in subzero temps in an unheated garage. It is traditional in much the same way that being flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails is.

That Bonneville had a 360-degree crank (meaning both pistons rise and fall together), so it took a pretty hefty push to kick over, even with its relatively mild 7.9:1 compression ratio. And, when it decided to kick back, it could deliver a pretty good whack.

I know what you’re thinking: “You should always just put in new plugs before any such first-start attempt or spin out the plugs and heat them up with a grill lighter or to spray ether into the cylinders or carbs.” Been there, done that—with variable success.

The 1977 Triumph Bonneville Silver Jubilee
The 1977 Triumph Bonneville Silver Jubilee is a striking classic bike but with its “traditional manual start” only, cold starting could put one to the test.

These days, the only bike I own that has the kick-start-only “feature” is a 1976 Honda CJ360T. All the other 360s Honda made in that line-up had electric start and a kick-start lever. I always wondered if keeping the kick-starter on bikes equipped with electric starters might be some kind of tacit admission that maybe their electric starters weren’t all that great. Or maybe the manufacturers actually bought into that “traditional manual start” schtick.

On the other hand, one of my long-time riding buddies had a brand new CB360 and rode it for a number of trouble-free years; I don’t recall he ever used the kick starter. Indeed, Ultimate Motorcycling’s Editor-in-Chief, Don Williams had a Honda CB360 back in the day and he probably never had to use the kick-starter, either, unless he just plain felt like it.

Well, spring has finally sprung here in Wisconsin. Unlike most winters in recent years, this winter was so cold and with so much snow, I didn’t roll the ol’ 360 out of its spot in the back of the shed to fire it up a few times during the periodic warmer days. Nope, this winter was a bummer—really cold, nasty with lots of snow. So, the 360 basically spent the entire winter tethered to a battery tender, unmoved, unkicked.

Hondas with kickstart
These four old Hondas in my shed have kick starters—but only the CJ360 has no electric start option. (L-R) 1974 CB350F, 1981 CM400A, 1973 CB500K2, 1976 CJ360T.

So, when the temps finally reached the mid-forties a while back, it was time to give the 360 a warm-up. Being of relatively small displacement and with 9.3:1 compression ratio, the CJ doesn’t require a huge effort to kick it over. Nor does it kick back very often; but when it does, it comes as quite a surprise.

If a start is attempted wearing low-top shoes with no distinct heel to lock into the lever, getting careless with the technique can result in the foot slipping off the pedal and the lever kicking back up and into the calf muscle. Mild-mannered or not, that can still sting, so I just gear up and wear riding boots, even if I’m just going to kick it over for a short run around the block.

Knowing it sat for so long, even with the battery tender on it, I figured it might be more challenging than usual to get the CJ going. I was right—big-time. I figured the thing might take as many as ten or fifteen kicks, not including the three or four I do with the ignition and choke off just to pump a little oil up into the valve train and top end. Exactly how many kicks it actually took to get the thing fired up, I can’t say. I guess I really didn’t want to know. Put it this way, by the time it did finally start, the baselayer under my riding jacket was soaked with sweat and the next day my leg was as sore as if I a ran a five-mile relay leg of the Paavo Nurmi Marathon—with my right leg only.

Kick start lever CB350F
The 1974 Honda CB350F has both electric and kick start. Its four-cylinder engine is easy to kick over—but I still usually use the button.

That was about two weeks ago. Now, with temps in about the same range, I pulled out the CJ for a little ride to sort of kick off the season and as you may expect, starting it was much easier without as much dead time and cold air as the first try. A little ride around town sure felt good and that light, nimble little CJ is still as much fun to ride as it was when I got one brand new in 1976.

Now, I’m not complaining about having to kick start this or any bike. Nobody is forcing me to have one. I’m merely pointing out that the addition of electric start to motorcycles was a darn good idea. Especially in the spring. But, I still think they ought to keep putting kickstart levers on bikes even if the bike has electric start. You know, just in case…