Kickstand Classic: Honda Hobbit — From a Tiny, Vanished Race of Motorbikes

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Well known as the titular small human-like race of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, made even more famous by Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations, Hobbits lent their name to a far less known small motorcycle-like Honda: a moped imported into the U.S. from 1978 to 1983.  With mopeds extinct in the U.S. for many years since their 1970s heyday, a moped sighting is a rare event, and the sighting of this Honda Hobbit was cause for a look back at this vanished model and class of vehicle.

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Photo from www.bikebandit.com

The moped — a motorbike combining both motor and pedal drive — was actually the format of many of the earliest motorcycles, including the first models from Harley-Davidson and Triumph.  This 1903 Harley-Davidson from the company’s first year shows clearly the use of both pedals with chain drive and a gasoline motor with leather belt drive, a configuration that lasted into the 1910s in both Harley-Davidsons and Triumphs.  The pedals were for both propulsion and starting the engine.  With this first Harley-Davidson weighing only 185 pounds, pedal power was a useful addition to the primitive 24.74 cubic inch F-head single cylinder engine.

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Pedals disappeared from motorcycles by the end of the 1910s as they became more powerful and faster, but motorbikes combining pedal and motor power continued, especially in Europe.  The most successful was the VeloSolex, produced by France’s Solex, best known for its carburetors.  Introduced in 1946, it lasted in production in France for over four decades until 1988.  Even then, copies continued in Hungary and China, and Solex revived production in France in 2005, recently adding electric powered models to keep up with the times.  The original engine mounted to the front fork was a 45cc two-stroke single producing only 0.5 horsepower, capable of moving the bike’s mere 68 pounds at up to 17 mph, with final drive by a friction roller turning the front wheel.  With more than 8 million sold from 1946 to 1988, it became the second most popular motorbike in history, trailing only the incomparable Honda Super Cub.

With so many of these motorbikes in use for so many years, the VeloSolex naturally became a two-wheeled national icon in France comparable to the Vespa in Italy.  As a result, you do not have to use your imagination to see Brigitte Bardot riding one, as she did in the 1970 film “Les Novices.”

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In the United States, mopeds were rare until the 1970s energy crisis prompted a surge of interest in these gas-sippers that were capable of up to 200 miles per gallon.  Imported mopeds such as the Motobecane Mobylette from France (shown) and domestic machines from AMF became popular during the 1970s and early 1980s.  Interest in mopeds plummeted as gas prices fell during the 1980s, however, and mopeds disappeared from the market before the end of the decade.  As a result, unless you are old enough to remember the 1970s and 1980s from personal experience, you are unlikely to have seen a moped in use on a public street in the United States.

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The Honda Hobbit was the U.S. version of the Honda PA50 moped produced from 1976 to 1991, marketed as the Honda Camino in Europe.  It was part of a broad lineup of highly fuel-efficient two-wheelers that Honda brought to the U.S. during the late 1970s, which included the Super Cub that dated back to 1958, expanded from 50cc to 70cc and called the C70 by the 1970s; the Express scooter, introduced in 1977; and the Hobbit moped, introduced in 1978.  With its steel tube frame in a low step-through layout, and a horizontal air-cooled single cylinder engine displacing 50cc, it had a general resemblance to the Super Cub, but with a two stroke engine and pedals.

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As it had done with the Super Cub, Honda used some unusual engineering to make the Camino/Hobbit easier for novices to ride.  Early Caminos could come with a single speed transmission with an automatic clutch, continuing Honda’s use of an automatic clutch in the Super Cub to allow one-handed operation.  The Hobbit was introduced in 1978 with a “Honda V-Matic” continuously variable transmission (shown) that again offered clutch-less automatic operation.  Later model years had a “Hondamatic” two speed transmission, a semi-automatic with torque converter and manual gear selection.  It was derived from the Hondamatics used in larger motorcycles, starting with the 750cc CB750A in 1976 and the 400c CB400A in 1978.  To relieve the rider of the responsibility to pre-mix two stroke oil and gasoline, the Hobbit also had an automatic oiling system with an oil pump that did the job for the rider.

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Clever engineering and beginner-friendliness could not make up for unsuitability for the market, however, and the Hobbit and other mopeds soon became irrelevant in the U.S. during the 1980s.  To meet the definition of moped in various states, the Hobbit and other mopeds had limited engine displacements and top speeds, with the Hobbit coming in two versions, one limited to 20 mph and the other to 30 mph, with the difference conveniently indicated by a specific paint color for each version.  Motor vehicles that slow were badly suited to driving conditions in much of the U.S., aside from inside major cities, where high crime rates during the 1970s and 1980s probably deterred many from leaving the safety of their cars.  It did not help that mopeds were objects of ridicule for many.  Having been a teenager during the 1980s, I remember many jokes about mopeds and the people who rode them, most of which should not be repeated here because they almost certainly would offend someone.  The Hobbit and other mopeds disappeared unmourned from the U.S. market during the early 1980s.

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The demise of mopeds in the U.S. over 30 years ago and lack of current interest in them made encountering this Honda Hobbit in a suburban shopping center parking lot a remarkable experience.  Mopeds did not make a comeback during the period of rising gas prices during the 2000s, with the market instead focusing on hybrid cars, with some interest in scooters and electric powered bicycles.  In this case, however, someone went to the trouble of putting what looks like an excellent original condition moped back on the road.  My guess is that this Hobbit spent many years forgotten in a corner of a garage or shed after the novelty of it wore off in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and the current owner recently had its simple mechanicals revived and put it back on the road.  I cannot say that I want one, but I certainly respect the act of riding this over three decade old machine, in traffic that must constantly threaten to run over it.