This is the motorcycle that set the template for all modern Japanese bikes to come. It was Honda’s first serious run at the British big twins, which had dominated the sports bike sector since the early 1950s. Although the Super Hawk had only 305 cc versus the 500 and 650 ccs of the Brits, it gave them a run for their money. And with Honda’s firs production tube frame, that applied to the curves as well as the straights.
And when it came to reliability and durability, there was no contest; the Honda left them in the oil-soaked weeds.
I’ve written up its predecessor, the Honda Dream 300, and the evolution of Honda’s twins that led to it, so I’m not going to repeat that. These pressed steel frame bikes were a revelation in their own right, given their excellent performance and reliability. But sport bikes they were not.
That changed in 1961, when the CB77 arrived, having benefited tremendously from Honda’s outstanding GP successes. The steel tube frame was the key component, and it used the engine as a fully-integrated structural member, with the front down tube attached to the cylinder head.
The 305 cc OHC twin looked similar to the Dream’s, but it now sported a 180 degree crank, which favored high revs, and smoother running at those engine speeds. Power was now 28 hp @9,000 rpm, and performance was stellar for that small of a displacement bike: the 1/4 mile in 16. 8 seconds @ 83 mph. And its top speed was solidly in excess of 100 mph, with Cycle World timing one at 104.6 mph (168.3 km/h) average speed in a two-way top speed run.
That may not have quite been in Triumph Bonneville territory, but it was certainly competitive with the single-carb 650s and the 500s.
It was also capable of long-distance touring, as memorialized in Robert Pirsig’s book “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance”, a book I gobbled up the minute it came out, having been very intrigued by its title. It turned out to be wee bit denser and challenging than my 21 year-old self was was expecting. It was the first philosophical book I ever read, having been put off a bit my father’s classical philosophy interest.
Being based on a motorcycle trip to California and back he took with his son and two friends who rode a BMW 600 and his reflections on machinery and its maintenance made it infinitely more appealing–and undoubtedly more accessible to me–Than Aristotle or Plato at the time.
The protagonist of Zen attempts to resolve the conflicts between “classic” values that create machinery like the motorcycle, and “romantic” values like the beauty of a country road. He discovers all values find their root in what Pirsig called Quality:
“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”
Quality certainly does exist in the realms of machinery, and it’s easy enough to quantify based on how much maintenance is required to keep it running, or how little oil it drips on the garage floor. The Honda CB77 exuded quality, and continued to set standards for Hondas to come. And its basic features were the template for all Japanese bikes to come.
In 1965, Honda upped the ante with its CB450, a totally new engine design with DOHC and making 45 hp. Somewhat curiously, the 450 didn’t meet Honda’s sales expectations. The 450 came out rather heavy, actually a bit more than the Triumph 650. In terms of reliability and such, there was again no comparison. Honda came to realize that in order to succeed in the big bike market, it would have to offer something definitively overwhelming, not just merely competitive.
That of course resulted in the 1969 CB750 four, which effectively marked the end of the British sport bike era.
Meanwhile, the CB300 Super Hawk was replaced in 1968 by the CB350/350 family, which went on to become the most popular motorcycle of its time.
Honda CB750: The First Modern Superbike L. Wilcox
Honda 350: The Most Popular Bike Ever L. Wilcox