Motorcycle Classics: Honda 350 Family – The Most Popular Bike Ever

(first posted 9/9/2012)    In 1968, a year before coming out with the CB750, Honda introduced the bike that would become America’s all-time best-seller. The CB350 sold over 300,000 bikes during its five-year run, and as far as I can determine, no bike since has touched those sales numbers. An important contributing factor to that record was that it was offered in street bike, scrambler, and on/off road versions: Whatever you wanted to do, one of these bikes was ready and willing to take it on. This picture is of the CB350, which was the most popular variant, but, at least in my opinion, not the best one.

I don’t know of any races that this bike won, but winning races wasn’t its reason for being. Its mission was to provide reliable transportation while entertaining its rider. Well, it surely entertained this one.  Let me explain…

I became acquainted with the Honda 350 in 1971. I was in Vietnamese-language school at Fort Bliss, in El Paso. Before I left Maryland for Texas, I sold my bike and bought a truck, which I intended to fill up with a dirt bike once I got there. I dropped by Yamaha and Kawasaki dealers, but the bikes that caught my attention lived at Honda. Honda had just introduced this little jewel (SL175) of a four-stroke twin.

I knew this bike wasn’t quite as good off-road as the two-stroke singles. However, I was certain that any bike I owned was going to get a lot of use both on- and off-road. I took the seat of the 350 and… bummer. For this bike I needed longer legs. Next I tried the 175 and found it a perfect fit. A couple of times around the block was enough to convince me it had all the motor I needed. I had learned the beauty of compromise: It was a twin of the bike above. I put about 6,000 (mostly off-road) miles on my bike during the 35 weeks I spent learning Vietnamese.

So what’s a 175 anecdote doing in an article about the 350, you ask. Read on. Anyway, I had a good buddy who was also in my Vietnamese class. I am certain that each of us was the one that the other’s parents had warned him about. We will call him Tom. Actually, his name was Walter but his Japanese wife couldn’t pronounce it without great difficulty. Tom wanted a bike and he had longer legs than I (then again, so does your kid sister).

Anyway, Tom loved the 350. This bike is identical to his. We made our choices for different reasons, but both of us were happy with our bikes and besides, there really wasn’t much his could do that mine couldn’t. Sure, his bike accelerated faster on the highway, but there were things only mine could do thanks to its lighter weight.  We covered a lot of miles on those bikes, most of them in the desert.  Both bikes were five-speed twins with dual carbs. His pulled 36 horsepower, versus 20 for mine.

This bike is the street scrambler. Frankly, I never could see any reason to have one. It’s a street bike with upswept pipes riding on tires with more aggressive tread. If you’re taking one off-road, you had better not challenge it much. The pipes keep it from being hung on smaller stuff, and a skidplate (fit your own) would make it a little more versatile. It was better on the street than the SL models, but much worse in the dirt. Pretty worthless, in my opinion, but it sold well.

Just to show that they could do it again, Honda came out with the CL175. I can’t remember anyone who owned one, but someone, somewhere must have.

Pure street, though. If you were headed off-road, you’d best take along a friend with a rope. A classmate of mine proved so in the desert.

Some of the men in my class were Navy Seals. One of them owned a CB175 like this. If I recall correctly, he rode it home to Virginia from Texas after school ended, and then from Virginia to California. His only problem during the trip occurred in Mississippi. He’d parked outside a local bar and the ground wouldn’t hold the kickstand. The bike fell over, cracking the case on a rock while he was inside. He made the repair with J-B Weld and continued the trip.

Actually, that repair is the only part of this story I know to be true. There had been no J-B Weld on the bike in Texas, but in California, there it was. You probably had to know him. Sometimes a brain is not a sailor’s highest-functioning body part, although this one was pretty cool.

I hurt myself only once, and the bike was stolen only once. Yes, those two events are connected. I was in the desert, doing my best Evel Knievel impersonation. (In the interest of full disclosure, this is not actually me.) I approached a dune, looked it over, and then went back to build up enough speed to jump it. When I reached the top I saw a large pit that on the other side, one I couldn’t clear. At that point I learned some things I could only have imagined before: When you bottom out, chances are you will bend handlebars before wheels; You can get a bike out of a pit, even with a stiff leg, if it will run; Good liquor makes bad pain tolerable; and finally, you can ride a considerable distance while standing on an unbending leg–if you must.

Under the heading of things to be grateful for, the hole hadn’t been a latrine. I couldn’t ride for a spell and the bike was parked outside the barracks. One night someone took it. The MP’s recovered it and the insurance fixed it.  Honda didn’t have a stock wheel so I was given one off a CL.

At the time I had a larger rear sprocket put on the bike. That reduced my top speed but made the bike much more desert-ready. There were a group of us who fooled around in the desert and the gearing made my bike as bad there as some twice its size. Let’s not talk about the highway.

There’s one more story I have to relate. My friend Tom decided his bike would make a good cruiser. After graduation from language school, I was on leave in Kansas and Tom in Arizona. He decided to come visit me before we went to California. Wanted to see the museum in Dodge City, if I remember correctly. The SL350 was geared too low to make a good highway bike. It vibrated quite a bit and his header pipe broke. It was pretty loud by the time he got to Kansas.

No problem, you say–throw it in the back of the truck and go. Good idea, but by this time I’d decided that going to Vietnam made it a good idea to have a disposable vehicle. I had sold my truck and bought a ’61 VW.  I did have a trailer hitch (which, looking back, was a costly mistake). We went to a welding shop that welded a pipe the size of his axle to the top of a trailer ball. It looked a little bit like this. The pipe was long enough that we pulled the wheel, bolted the forks to the pipe, and then attached tie-downs to the bumper. The bike went back to Arizona and on to California behind my little bug. I kept its front wheel in my back seat during the entire trip.

Well, enough sea stories. Honda sleeved the 350 down to a 250 for sale in England, ostensibly to keep the cost of rider permits and insurance in a lower bracket. You must read the badges to tell them apart.

In 1974, the 350 was replaced by the totally different 360, which stuck around until 1976.

However, the real replacement for the CB350 was the CB350-4, which was coordinated with the four- cylinder 500’s and 750’s. The SL175 was replaced by the XL175, a single-cylinder bike that was better suited for the dirt. It became the basis for a whole family of XL thumpers.

President Nixon thought better of sending me to Vietnam (for a third time). After 35 weeks of language school, and about another six in amphibious school, he gave my job to a Vietnamese. I wound up in Panama, where I was able to ride a number of bikes and continue living. This picture is of one of the locks in the Panama Canal. For four years I drove past the Pacific locks; all it taught me is that quite often, it is indeed unwise to volunteer for most things.