Honda CB350 – Getting a Bit Nostalgic
Five years ago, a little, old Honda became part of motorsports history—and took me along for the ride!
Some folks don’t understand how anybody can get nostalgic or sentimental about things like a song, a place or a machine. Well, the truth of it is, it’s probably not the thing itself but what it represents; what memories it evokes for a person. I get that and when it comes to a certain old motorcycle, well, I’m gettin’ sentimental.
Five years ago this month, October 2014, the American Motorcyclist Association posted on its website the results of the AMA-sanctioned Land Speed Grand Championship at the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials held at the Bonneville International Speedway in August near Wendover, UT.
In that posting, for the first time in my life, I saw my name listed among national champions. My name was among the AMA’s national speed record holders from that event. It was the first time I ever had “national” in any context associated with my name.
In February 2015, the AMA National number 1 plate, medallion and certificate that signifies that record arrived in the mail and became symbols of some unforgettable days on the salt.
Those days were spent and that record was set with a forty-year-old motorcycle. It was an auction-rescued 1974 Honda CB350F. With faded paint, rotted exhaust pipes, burned electrics and a lot of other problems, the little Honda was a far cry from anybody’s idea of a potential land speed record-holder when I got it.
Still, I got it for $600 at the auction and it was a dream bike of my high school days. It was the only four-cylinder motorcycle I thought I’d be able to afford when it was new, being much less expensive and intimidating than the mighty Honda CB750. Fact is, I never could afford either one of them back then.
The CB350F was not considered a speed merchant even when new. Honda didn’t build that nifty little four-cylinder mill for gut-wrenching power and white-knuckle speed. No, the objective was rock-ribbed reliability and unmatched smoothness at any engine speed. To this day, the bike starts easily and is a blast to ride. Those things and the fact that it would be one of the few four-cylinder 350cc bikes on the market were the goals.
Back in the day, Honda marketing materials claimed 34 hp @ 9,500 rpm for the 350F—based on a new engine tested at or near sea level under ideal atmospheric conditions, no doubt. Fast forward to 2014 and my vintage example newly fitted with OEM equivalent pipes acquired from David Silver Spares and fresh tune-up produced 26.03 hp at 9,500 rpm on Bill Whisenant’s dyno at Motorcycle Performance.
So, fixing up that old Honda for a run at a speed record was probably a questionable choice for anybody who knows something about old motorcycles. Running in the Production Classic division, the bike not only could not be modified to boost its speed, but it was just plain old. On the plus side, the same could be said of any other bikes in the class.
Which brings up the next factor making setting a record with that old Honda unlikely; the old rider. At that event in 2014, I turned 59 years of age on the Salt Flats. It was my fourth time competing in land speed racing at Bonneville—which was the sum total of all my motorcycle competition experience.
All those things aside, the little old Honda screamed down the salt with that tach needle right up at the 10,000 rpm redline—not once but in its first appearance on the salt in 2010 when it set the 350cc Production class record only to lose it a few days later and again in 2014 when it set the record in the 350cc Production Classic division, which still stands at 80.102 mph.
But my affinity for the little black bike isn’t only because of those memorable days. Riding it takes me back to those days in 1974 when I wanted one in the worst way, but never could afford it. Instead, I bought a new 1974 Honda CL200. Its stance and feel were very similar to the CB350F, though the performance wasn’t.
Physically, the CL200 was a reasonable and cheaper facsimile of the CB350F I wanted, right down to what I call the “awful waffle” handgrips that would leave your un-gloved hands with lines indented in the flesh. If anybody thought those things were comfortable, I can’t see how, but my CB350F has the originals still in place. Since I always wear gloves when I ride these days, I haven’t changed them—if only for sentimental reasons.
The CB350F has not had an easy life. It was a one-owner bike when I got it—at the estate auction of its only owner, so overall, it probably was well-maintained at least most of its years. But that doesn’t explain the bizarre effort to put a jumper wire around the burned-out voltage regulator, leading to the damage I found—five wires with the insulation melted off—in the wiring loom when I started trying to sort out the electrical problems the bike had.
Fortunately, I already had a 1972 CB350F sitting in my shed that I decided was too far gone to fix up. It had intact wiring including the parts of the wiring loom I could transplant and a functional voltage regulator. Once the wiring was straightened out, a complete tune-up was necessary and then all four rotted out exhaust pipes had to be dealt with. The tires were shot, chain and sprockets had to be replaced and to top it all off, I got the crazy notion to take it to Bonneville! Stupid, right?
Somehow, I managed to get it all done, but I could not find new old stock (NOS) OEM pipes to replace the pipes, at the time nobody made exact OEM spec four-into-four replicas and the AMA rules would not allow the old pipes to be welded to repair the rust holes. So, the bike’s first appearance at Bonneville in 2010 was made with the old pipes patched with muffler putty and pipe wrap.
By 2014, I was able to get factory spec replacement pipes I sourced from David Silver Spares approved for competition after a backfire tore two of the old original pipes open to an irreparable degree. In the end, the little patched-up Honda howled down the salt for a record.
The four-cylinder engine that powered it to that record is a descendent of the fabulous Honda GP racing bike engines of the 1960s. They included such exotic mills as a five-cylinder 125cc, four-cylinder 500cc, six-cylinder 250 and 350cc race bikes that gave Honda dozens of GP race victories and 16 World Championships between 1961 and 1967 when Honda withdrew from fielding a factory racing team in that generation of GP road racing.
The engine is, of course, a real point of interest. Small displacement four-cylinder bikes of that vintage are becoming less and less common. But the 350 has other features not common in most modern bikes.
For example, a feature no longer available on most street bikes is an actual “off” position for the light switch up on the bar. After a slew of state requirements called for “always on” head and taillights on motorcycles in the late seventies, the “off” position generally went away. Not a big deal, but being able to switch the lights off to reduce battery drain during cold-weather starting does seem to help. Of course, if the electric starter doesn’t spin, there’s still a kick starter, too.
Other little details include a helmet hook to lock your helmet on the bike by just unlocking the seat and raising it. Also under the seat is easy access to the air cleaner, and a nifty tray that has room enough for the factory-supplied tool kit, owner’s manual and insurance and registration documents.
From a convenience standpoint, the only downer is the location of the ignition key switch. It is under the front of the fuel tank. Again, not a big deal, but you quickly find it’s easiest to put the key in the ignition before you get aboard.
Maybe nothing is more endearing with this old bike than the sound. With its highly-effective stock mufflers in place, it idles with a low warble that you can have a conversation over without raising your voice. But out on the road if you wind it up near the 10,000 rpm redline, there is the faint echo of the sensational 350 six that carried Jim Redman and Mike Hailwood to some of those world championships. The technology transfer from race track to street bike is pretty clear, even though those early street fours were SOHC and the GP bikes were DOHC designs.
That little black bike has just finished its 45th summer and is still going strong. Whenever I ride it these days, it does more than just get me where I’m going; like a two-wheel time machine, it takes me back.
For a look back on the 2014 Bonneville event, see:
- Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials 2014—Diary of a New Record Holder
- 1974 Honda CB350F Bonneville Speed Record Holder—Rebuild Diary
And for the book on all four trips to Bonneville with old motorcycles, see: