One Sunday morning in the summer of 1977, I was sitting in my living room in Madison, Wisconsin, reading the paper and scanning the motorcycle classifieds, as usual. One item that caught my eye that day was an ad for a 1964 Honda 50, a C100 step-through model, for a mere $100.
Hmm…a slow motorcycle, yes, but a bona fide classic. The little bike that started it all.
Introduced to this country in 1959 as the Super Cub, it took America by storm and enabled you to “Meet the Nicest People on a Honda”— instead of duking it out with Marlon Brando or Lee Marvin. Unbreakable, good-looking, leakproof, nicely finished, and capable of an almost unheard of 200 mpg, it was everything almost all other motorcycles at time were not.
The small Hondas were suddenly everywhere. Even The Steve Allen Show opened with a shot of Steve himself riding one to work—in a suit and tie, no less. And there was no oil on his pants or shoes. The bikes were inexpensive too, starting at $245, or $275 if you wanted the optional electric start, and came with an automatic clutch, three-speed foot-shift transmission, and an advertised top speed of 45 mph, which Honda promised the bike would achieve “with never a murmur of protest.” That sounded a lot better than “while screaming its tiny heart out.”
I didn’t really need two-wheeled transportation at the time. I had a Norton 850 Commando and a Honda CB400F in the garage, but I coughed up the $100 and bought the Honda 50 anyway. In addition to being admittedly charmed by this inexpensive little gem, I had an ulterior motive.
Although working full-time as a foreign-car mechanic in Madison, I’d just sold my first-ever freelance touring story to Editor Allan Girdler at Cycle World and was already thinking about a follow-up.
I thus conceived the brilliant idea of taking the Honda 50 on a sort of mini odyssey, something befitting its modest top speed and thimble-like displacement. I discussed it with my fellow car mechanic, John Oakey, who was an avid bicycle racer and said he wouldn’t mind riding along with me—on his Stella 10-speed racing bicycle.
Sounded like fun. We could do an efficiency comparison between a pedal bike and one of the fuel-sipping champions of the 20th century.
We needed a destination, of course. Something that sounded monumental—but wasn’t—so we picked Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa, only 150 miles away, just across the Mississippi River. Yes, Pikes Peak. Not quite as impressive as the one in Colorado but named after the same guy. Zebulon Pike was a young Army officer and explorer, who in 1805 noticed an impressively high bluff (994-foot elevation) with a commanding view of the Mississippi River and suggested to the government that it might make a good site for a fort. The Army demurred, but the bluff still bears his name.
Young Zebulon went off and found an even taller Pikes Peak in Colorado a year later, but John and I decided the Iowa version would be just right for a Honda 50 and a bicycle. It was 1,000 miles closer and 12,985 feet lower than the one out West.
It turned out to be a great trip, though a lot easier for me than for John. The rugged hill country of southwestern Wisconsin required every ounce of his stamina. And he needed a lot more food than I did. The Honda, of course, did more work than either of us, carrying me and all our camping gear.
For shelter, I brought along a Sears pup tent from my childhood that I’d dubbed “Big Pink,” in honor of Bob Dylan and the Band. Once red, it had faded with age into sort of a queasy Pepto-Bismol pink. The tent was also about as rainproof as mosquito netting, but luckily it didn’t rain on our trip. We spent four days on the road before riding triumphantly back into Madison to surprisingly restrained fanfare.
In quick summary, the trip covered 303 miles, and the Honda consumed 1.8 gallons of gas at a cost of $1.13, for an average of 168.3 mpg, and used no oil. John ate $4 worth of granola bars that I did not consume, not to mention a peach, a banana, and three apples. Hands-down, the cheapest motorcycle trip I ever took. And the most efficient, in an era beset by successive fuel crises and high gas prices. Fast-forward to 2020. I’m 72, my wife, Barb, and I are living in the country south of Madison, and I’m mostly retired. John Oakey is 73, retired and living in Madison with his wife, Alice. He still rides bicycles regularly and rediscovered motorcycling just last year. He bought himself a new Honda CB300R, and we go riding about twice a week, stopping at scenic county parks for Clif Bar lunches. Life is good, and motorcycling has been a salvation in this very odd year, albeit with a beautiful summer, which is rapidly coming to a close.
Then, a few weeks ago, the phone rang. It was Cycle World Editor-in-Chief Mark Hoyer, asking if I would like to do an update on the 1977 Pikes Peak story using a new Honda Super Cub. It looks nearly identical to the old one, but now displaces 125cc. It also has a fourspeed transmission, fuel injection, front-wheel ABS, and a telescopic fork. Mark suggested my buddy John might like to go along on the trip—riding a modern ebike.
Frankly, this was a great-minds-think-alike moment of psychic convergence.
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