Centerstand – May 2024 – Commentary: Still Not Saddle Sore

Centerstand - May 2024 - Honda CB350F
One of my all-time favorite motorcycling images—aboard my 1974 Honda CB350F at the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials in 2014. The bike was 40 years old, and I turned 59 during the event. My kid’s dream of earning an AMA National Number 1 came true. (Photograph by Jacci Shauger)

Fifty years ago, I was standing in the showroom of Ave’s Sport Shop in Hurley, Wisconsin. I was goggle-eyed over the new Honda motorcycles that were being filtered into the display area, alongside the 1973 model Ski-Doo snowmobiles left over from the winter’s inventory.

Like the other cash-poor gawkers, I lingered long by the mighty CB750K4 that dominated the sales floor. The four-cylinder CB500 was there, too. Both of them were way out of my price range. But there was hope, too. There was also a CB350F1. Lower, lighter, and, best of all, cheaper than the other inline-fours, it was a poor man’s superbike. Introduced in 1972, when I was just beginning my senior year in high school, it was what seemed at least a reasonable reach for me, and it became a dream bike. But it was not to be, at least not then.

Centerstand - may 2024 - Gary Ilminen - Honda CL200T
Fifty years ago, my sister Cheryl’s Kodak Instamatic preserved this grainy image of me at 19 with my brand-new 1974 Honda CL200T. It was the first of 24 motorcycles I’d own over the coming years.

Later that spring, I set aside my dreams of superbike glory and bought my first real motorcycle at Ave’s. It was a beautifully finished blue and cream-colored 1974 Honda CL200T. It was more affordable and whisper-quiet, but it seemed down on power compared to a buddy’s older CL175. No matter. That summer, I was off and riding with Gordon Lightfoot laying down the soundtrack in my mind.

After only two years of riding, I parted company with the CL200T, trading it in on a brand new 1976 Honda CJ360T—a bigger and much better motorcycle. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one disenchanted with the CL200T; Honda dropped the model after only one year, and kept the CB just two more years.

I have many happy memories of those relatively carefree years with that CJ360T. But I also experienced just about my worst, most poorly thought-out long ride on it.

Centerstand - May 2024 - Gary Ilminen on a Honda CJ360
In 1976, aboard my new Honda CJ360—a step up from the CL200T. My riding gear was a worn leather jacket, snowmobile gloves, roughed-up jeans, and cowboy boots. I was in Heaven.

It was really cool to have purchased both of those motorcycles from two-time world champion of snowmobile racing, Hurley’s own Steve Ave. Steve knew how to go fast on just about anything. Ave isn’t the only World Champion racer I have met over the years.

I met Ski-Doo factory race driver Yvon Duhamel at the Ironwood Snowmobile Olympus. He had won the snowmobile racing world title in 1970, and set a snowmobile land speed record of over 124 mph two years later. When I met him, Duhamel was well-known as a world-class professional motorcycle roadracer for the Kawasaki factory racing team.

It was an inauspicious encounter, standing next to him at the track men’s room urinals. Nonetheless, he smiled from under his Fu Manchu mustache when I said, “Bonne chance!”

In the 50 years since that first Honda, I’ve owned 24 motorcycles and ridden umpteen more, some in the line of duty for Ultimate Motorcycling. There have been SOHC twins and fours, DOHC inline fours, two-strokes, four-strokes, air-cooled, air-/oil-cooled, liquid-cooled, V-twins, V4s, chain, belt, and shaft final drives, carbureted, fuel injected—you name it. Today, I have trimmed the inventory to 13—eight Hondas, two Yamahas, two Harleys, and one Triumph. Vintages range from 1973 to 2015. Amazingly, all run and ride.

You might wonder, after all these years, what has proven to be my favorite motorcycle? Based on years of devoted ownership, that title goes to my 1981 Yamaha XJ750RH Seca. I’ve had two identical examples of those great bikes with ownership of the two overlapping. All told, I’ve had at least one Seca for 41 of 43 years since the model came on the market, and I still have one to this day!

No slave to warm weather, the Seca is a willing runner even in Wisconsin's less than bike-friendly winter conditions.

On the white-knuckle side, my 2002 Yamaha VMax is at the top. Modified by Motorcycle Performance in Madison, Wisconsin, but still street legal, the big Yamaha has red-shift acceleration, vision-blurring top speed, and surprisingly good handling with a lowered saddle, frame, and fork braces.

Normally, I don’t swoon for loud pipes, but the VMax came with UFO four-into-two upswepts that will curl your hair when you wring that throttle. I avoid doing it in residential areas and in hospital zones. My carbon fiber VMax is the real deal when an adrenaline pump is called for.

When horsepower and refinement are called for together, the 1984 Honda V65 Sabre I’ve had since 2011 is a great option. Like the VMax, the Sabre can bring it when you want it, and, even though they both have V4s, they have distinctly different personalities. The Sabre is the best Interstate machine I’ve ever ridden.

Poor man’s superbikes—a 1984 Honda Magna V30 (DOHC V4) (left) and a 1974 Honda CB350F (SOHC inline-four). Back in street trim, their Bonneville land-speed racing days are over. However, those days on the Salt Flats were unforgettable.

When you’ve had a motorcycle that has been part of important milestones in your life and is associated with fond memories, you can’t help but develop some degree of attachment to it. While it may sound a little irrational to have an emotional attachment to any machine, it’s not so much an attachment to the machine as to the memories of events and people it evokes.

On that score, nothing comes close to my 1974 Honda CB350F. Not only is the bike that high school kid’s dream bike I mentioned, but it has reached 50 years of service. Ten years ago carried me to an American Motorcyclist Association land speed record, which still stands!

When I acquired the CB350F at an estate auction in 2010, it had many problems to solve just to make it a reliable rider. It was even more unlikely that it would ever become my fantasy race bike, let alone reach the record books—but it did. Ridden in competition at the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats in 2010 and 2014, “unforgettable” is the only term that applies.

Close behind that little black Honda is another one, just ten years newer. My 1984 Honda V30 Magna is high on my list of all-time favorite memory-makers. Though I never set a record with the Magna, I did ride it in competition at Bonneville in 2009 and 2012. Acquired as a non-running lump, it carried me to 104.536 mph! The story of all those trips to Bonneville with both old bikes is told in my book, The Unlikely 1.

All that said, I guess UM Editor Don Williams said it best: “My favorite motorcycle is the one I’m on.”

At present, I’m working on yet another old bike to take a crack at a record at Bonneville—a 1973 Honda CB500K2. I’ve been tinkering with the thing for several years now. As with nearly everything in life, there are a lot of factors affecting this. So, we’ll see if my fifth trip to Bonneville ever happens.

All the Bonneville adventures came about thanks to two great friends: the late Bill Whisenant, long-time motorcycle racer, builder, tuner, and founder of Motorcycle Performance in Madison, and Jim Haraughty, also a racer, builder, and founder of Team MS Racing. Both of them were land speed racing veterans.

A lot of things have changed in motorcycle design and riding gear since I started riding. Finicky carburetors have been replaced by electronic fuel injection. Spark plug fouling battery and coil ignition systems with breaker points have been ousted by high-energy electronic ignition. Lock and fade-prone internal expanding drum brakes have been replaced by powerful disc brakes and ABS.

All that said, several of my bikes are old enough to be fitted with all that old, original-style equipment. Having used that old stuff for so many years, I’m accustomed to it, and, believe it or not, it doesn’t seem all that bad. Still, I keep my points file handy just the same.

My battered armor-less leather jacket, snowmobile gloves, and $19 gold metalflake plastic helmet have long ago been replaced by real, purpose-built motorcycle riding gear. I do still have some old riding buddies hangin’ around, though.

2023 Slimey Crud Café Racer Run: Icon Gear

Dean Massoglia and I came up together from our bicycle and minibike riding days. Tony Fransen goes back about 40 years with Dean and I, though not motorcycling the whole time. To this day, we often get together for the Slimey Crud Run.

Don Williams and I have each spent 50+ years behind bars—handlebars, that is. He and I even started out on similar bikes, each of us having owned one of Honda’s ’70s-era 360cc parallel twins.

Editor Don Williams in the 1970s on his Honda CB360T at Big Bear Lake in California. (Photograph by Chuck Williams)

Looking ahead, having worked in healthcare as a registered nurse and EMT/Paramedic and having seen how suddenly a person’s health and other aspects of daily life can change, and capabilities we take for granted can be diminished or lost, I don’t assume the freedom of the road is guaranteed indefinitely. For that reason, my plan is to do what I can while I can, and be thankful for every good day.

I’m just glad I can say after 50 years in the saddle, I’m still not saddle sore.