(first posted 6/16/2015) 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m not much one for bikes, but that’s a great first picture with your Custom Cruiser in the background! The bike and car were made at the same time and the vintage filter makes it come together very nicely!
I wish that I could say that photo composition skills were responsible. I just happened to park the Olds there to get a close look at the randomly spotted moped with minimal walking, hastily took a few photos that may have had an odd color filter setting, and weeks later figured out what the Hobbit was and decided to write about it using the only three photos that I had.
Love it! I’ve repeatedly thought about getting a SuperCub (Passport in the US) just for riding around the neighborhood or picking one of the kids up from school. But then I always get fitness-shamed by the “cyclists” around here and don’t do it. One day, Alice, one day!
I don’t think I was ever aware of the Hobbit. The SuperCub and the Express, sure, and I was a teenager when the Honda Aero scooter made a huge splash, followed by the unlamented Gyro 3-wheeler and then the Elite which survives to this day. The time to buy any of these is now, when gas prices are very low. Prices seem to spike along with gas prices, for good reason I suppose. There are probably untold thousands of these languishing in garages and barns, many with less than 4-digit mileages on them and when found, often available for much less than what a decent bicycle costs.
Thinking about this got me all excited, so I looked on Craigslist and found a local Honda Hobbit, looks like new!
“Alice one day” what? What does Alice have to do with anything?
Mel’s Diner is my best guess.
Actually, you young whippersnappers, the reference comes from an early 50’s TV show, “The Honeymooners” a comedy about A struggling Bus Driver (Ralph Cramden, played by Jackie Gleason) who hates being poor and is always dreaming, his long suffering wife (Alice, played by Audrey Meadows), his neighbor and best friend(Ed Norton, played by Art Carney, a sewer worker.
Ralph is always dreaming, and Alice is always bringing him back to earth. Whenever Alice makes Ralph upset, he threatens to punch her, muttering with clenched fist:
“One of these days, Alice; one of these days…Pow! Straight to the moon!”
Of course, it’s obvious that Ralph would never do it….
In the context of the original comment here, it suggests that Jim would really, really love to have a Hobbit, but he knows it’s never actually going to happen.
Here is a randomly picked picked Honeymooners show (which may or may not contain that tag line as it wasn’t used in every show). It runs 30 minutes, but I think you’ll like it- hey, it’s not like you were actually going to get any work done anyhow, right?
I have thought about picking up a Super Cub/Passport for years, especially after seeing so many in Vietnam. I figured that even if I didn’t ride it, it would make a good living room display. In December I found one locally that had been restored and used as a display at a motorcycle dealer for several years, but ended up not buying it, and I am still kind of regretting it.
A big reason why these went away was stricter laws basically requiring motorcycle rules to apply to these. When they were treated as bicycles they were popular with teenagers.
I’ve always liked mopeds. I would think they’d be easier to ride, and therefore, safer to ride, than larger motorcycles.
Honda builds a two-stroke! Heresy!!
I lived through the moped mania, and curiously, these Hondas seemed to be rather rare at the time. The French Peugeot and Motobecane and the Austrian Puch seemed to take the lion’s share of the market. Perhaps because these came right on the heels of the big 10-speed boom, and they were sold more like bikes than motorcycles? I wonder how Schwinn would have done re-badging a moped to sell.
I had almost forgotten that Honda built and sold these.
I actually had a very in-depth experience with a Peugeot moped just before the boom started, in 1972, when there were non of these in the US. One of the fellow performers in the experimental theater company I was in had bought one when the company was performing in Paris earlier in the year, and shipped it back to Iowa. But he couldn’t get it licensed, as it lacked a brake light. Back then in France, moped drivers just used hand signals like bicycle riders. But the Iowa DMV wouldn’t let him register it without it.
So I rigged up a cheap solution. Bought a 6v lantern battery that was stowed in the saddle bag, bought a suitable brake light switch at a motorcycle shop (Honda, I think), and wired it up to a rear light that I bought somewhere; maybe for a trailer or such.
It worked just fine, and the DMV accepted it. As repayment for my services, I got to ride it from time to time, and it was a fun little bike. Used to take it for rides out in the country; I’m thinking it went more than 20mph; more like 25 or 30.
I was riding my Belgian ten-speed at the time, and the two of us rode around together like a pair of bikers. It kept me in shape trying to keep up with him, especially on longer and hillier rides.
BTW, mopeds from the 70s are very hip among a certain crowd. There’s a couple of them in Eugene, one that’s been hopped up with an aftermarket expansion chamber exhaust. In Portland, one can see them more readily, in the hipper parts of town.
I can remember back in the early 70’s when Honda brought out its first two-stroke motocross bike. They were forced to, because they’re four stroke engines couldn’t put out enough power to be competitive, and this was the days before they were talking equivalency formulas (125 two stroke equals a 250 four stroke, etc.).
We have a couple of customers who keep these, and their Yamaha equivalents on the street. The mechanics always get a grin to see them one the street, so are usually pretty liberal with the advice, and the occasional turn of the wrench when they can get off a customer’s bike for a moment.
Of course; I forgot about the two-stroke dirt bikes. Weren’t they called “Elsinore”?
Speaking of Peugeot, I have a grey market 104 moped in blue (everything is in French) I’m guessing it was supposed to be sold in canada, possibly Quebec or Montreal, but it ended up in Missouri. It’s rough, but I may fix it one day. My brother has a Honda Express Na50.
I had a ’78 Honda Hobbit, aka PA50-I. Mine had the red frame and fenders. It ran for about 2,100 miles, at which point it became a bloody burden. I bought it as a new ‘left-over,’ for $400. It really needed a new carburetor, which was more than $500. Apparently, this was a pretty common problem with the Belgian-made Hondas. Since there was no internet in the early ’80s, and I knew very little about working on 2 stroke engines at the time, the Hobbit became a long-term fixture in my parents’ basement. I sold it while I was visiting them in 2007.
Only the first PA50s had Hobbit on the tank. When the Type-II came out with 2 hp in 1979 or so, Hobbit was dropped and they were labeled as PA50s. They also dropped the two tone paint and switched the swing arm color to black. I wish they really were Asian, as they probably would have been better than what the Belgians produced. I also never saw one with automatic oil injection. Mine had a measuring cup in the bottom of the gas cap. The procedure was to fill the tank and then pour in a measured amount of oil and then shake the moped forward and back on its center stand. Not very automatic.
Ah; so these were built in Europe, for the Europeans. Makes sense.
Honda’s very big on taking bikes that are homologated for Europe and bringing them over to the US to see if they can sell a few more units. Usually they’re a pretty abysmal failure on the showroom floor.
Google “Big Ruckus” for a prime example. We had our one for two years without a bite – I think I was the only person who had even a slight desire to own one.
The Ruckus seems quite popular, at least where I live. I can see why the 250cc Big Ruckus would not be popular, though — not many American motorcycle riders would want to be seen on a scooter.
If I knew that Honda built these, I had forgotten about them. By the time Mopeds became big in the midwest, I had my drivers license, so I didn’t care about them.
Mopeds still are seen in my city driven by those who live under extended drivers license suspensions because you do not have to be licensed to ride them.
Guess some states still are pretty permissive with these. California requires over 16 and motorcycle license for any of these, except a stand up scooter which still requires a car driver’s license. I had a friend who got a “drunk driving” arrest on a 10 speed in the late 70’s in California. He also had a big mouth which resulted in the cops “accidently” smashing his foot in the squad car’s door. Broke a lot of bones.
Yep. Mopeds, along with smaller displacement scooters, are colloquially known as “liquor cycles” in some locales because one does not need a driver’s license for one with an engine under a certain size, a limited top speed, or both. So for folks who have received a DUI (or reckless driving or other major citation) and have lost they’re license, one of these is preferable to walking.
I used to see mopeds a lot more in the 80’s, before scooters became cool. But one still sees them every so often. The dominant manufacturer of the later models seems to be Tomos, who I’ve never heard of except on many many mopeds.
Back in 1984 my father had promised me a Honda CG 125 if I succeed in the technical school exams. I passed all right but I’ve GOT A “Alpina” instead. I wasn’t very happy at first, but any way.. that was my very first motorized vehicle.
There is a ’78 Yamaha QT 50 in my garage. There was a Puch, same Vintage in that same garage a number of years ago.
My dad commuted for decades by bike and moped. His first moped was a NSU Quickly, the second a Hercules MK 4. This one I received when he acquired his first car at the age of 50 years.
Mopeds and scooters have become quite popular in recent years, obviously driven again by high gasoline prices.
Keeping a moped of the 70’s in good shape can be challenging. They typically have 6V electric systems and spare bulbs are rare and expensive. The Yamaha QT 50 is a project because the brake drums are worn too much. Replacing them means re-lacing the wheels because the drums are integral to the hubs. Flea-bay to the rescue!
I do not remember real mopeds(with pedals) being very popular where I was. But other kinds of motorized two wheelers where hugely popular. First was the basic Honda Cub and variations. Later came the Honda Express and the Yamaha QT50 and similar pedal-less mopeds. Then came the scooter craze in the 80s…mostly Hondas, but I think I remember there were a few Yamahas.
And then suddenly it all vanished. It seems like it was roughly 1986/87 when they all just disappeared. Kids even seemed to stop riding bicycles. In fact, not long after that the kids themselves almost seemed to disappear.
I lived in a Memphis suburb from ’79-’82, and I remember being jealous of the kids in my neighborhood who rode these…although in retrospect, my Schwinn MAG Scrambler was pretty damn sweet.
I wonder ih Honda had to pay royalties to Tolkien for using the name “Hobbit”.
My father sold Mobylette mopeds from his auto accesory store in the 1960s and 70s, as I recall. They were briefly popular among teens who did not need a license in NY State. The bikes themselves were really not that well made; the two-stroke engines also were not especially dependable. I recall “test driving” a few, and was not impressed!
I just bought a nice 1980 C70 Passport with 2600 miles. It’s a hoot, and the 3-speed manual with automatic clutch makes it quite a bit faster than a moped.
I’m jealous. There are several for sale in my area, I’m strongly considering taking a look.
Those Passports are nice (missed one for sale at a yard sale in Ashland, unfortunately I was on the way to my wedding), and you can still get the mechanical parts for them. Bodywork, well . . . . .
What made the Passport faster was the engine. They had either a 70cc or a 90cc motor. Mopeds had 49cc motors.
Once you turned 16, you could hit the road with a moped. Legally. Of course there was a very clear line between boys and girls. This CC’s Honda was obviously for girls, while the Honda SS50 below was for boys.
Zündapp was considered as the Mercedes among (boys) mopeds, I’m talking seventies and eighties. Kreidler was another well-regarded name back then.
A classmate had a 50 cc Yamaha that could do close to 100 km/h. Completely illegal of course. You can imagine that horrible accidents, involving mopeds, happened all the time.
I lived in the Netherlands in 1984, but didn’t have a moped. SS50s were incredibly popular at my school in Hilversum. I think they were out of production by then though, as most people with new brommers were buying MB5s and MT5s. I rode a modified MT5 that would do at least 90 kmh. The cops used to come to the school and use a probe to measure bore and stroke of the bikes through the spark plug hole.
I was at high school in the early eighties, so this sounds all too familiar…
Brommer, or bromfiets, is indeed the correct name for a moped. Hard to translate.
Hummer / Humming bicycle ??
I just thought it came from the noise motors make, brum, brum…
Yes, the generic term was sound-related.
One of our salesmen at the store had a tricked out Honda Ruckus that had the engine rather liberally “breathed upon”. One day he comes into work with a speeding ticket and a bit of legal trouble as a Henrico County deputy had picked him up on radar doing 45 in a 45 zone – and the scooter was only legal for 35.
Yep, only in Virginia. Local cops using radar on scooter riders. Gotta make the revenue.
To soup-up a 50 cc Zündapp, Kreidler, Honda or Yamaha. It was by far the most popular hobby of the circa 15 to 18 year old handyman….
Of course that happened in Virginia, and OF COURSE it happened in Henrico. I refuse to set wheel or foot in that state again, if I can help it.
These will never really come back because they’ve been replaced by real 50cc scooters, and the Chinese versions are as inexpensive as a new one of these, made in Japan, would be.
In Virginia, you’ve got two classes of two wheelers: Mopeds are limited to 49cc (or is that 50cc?) engines and a top speed of 35mph. A helmet is required, but motorcycle endorsement is not. Or, for that matter, a driver’s license; but you must carry a photo ID on your person while operating the scooter. Anything bigger and faster than that is legally considered a motorcycle, and demands the proper endorsement on your license.
It does put one in the odd position where you can get your motorcycle learner’s permit, buy a Yamaha Zuma 125 or Honda PCX 150 scooter, ride it for a while and then take the simple DMV test once your comfortable with the bike.
Once you’ve passed said test, you’re now legal to buy and ride a Honda CBR10000RR or Yamaha YZF-R1M. (And you wonder why I advocate for the British form of graduated licensing.)
I have a 2003 Honda Metropolitan (35mph version) at home and it’s a nice ride for a beer run to the local grocery store (5 miles each way). Its powerful enough to hold a steady 30-35 even on the hilly road I live on. Once I move next week, I’m picking up a new Zuma 125 for daily commuting and the wife gets the Metropolitan.
I had almost forgotten about those. In the US the later Honda Express “noped” which had footpegs instead of pedals was far more common. Most of the 70s mopeds I remember were Puch and Motobecane, with the occasional front wheel drive Velosolex.
timely article considering the weather.I have a 1983 Honda express which is slightly different in that there are no pedals. with regard to the disappearance of mopeds from the US market there is the fact that very few street motorcycles below 125cc are for sale in the US at all.The pedals are really nothing more than a starting mechanism for the most part-any attempt to travel far on pedals alone would make walking a lot more attractive.Incidentally the Honda 2stroke is not impressive compared to earlier 1960s and 70s era 50cc bikes with regard to power.My son in law is in fact doing a lot of small bike restoration for those low milage bikes left in sheds-its a great hobby and provides useful local transportation.Some MBA will figure out the gas price/small motorcycle demand curve someday and the market for this type of vehicle could revive
Growing up from around the time mopeds had their popularity to their fall from favor(around early 70’s to later 80’s), I can actually say they were fun lil scoots.
My younger brother, owned a dark blue 84 Puch moped. That thing was quick.
The ridicule of owning a moped was the downfall of them. Kinda reminds me of that joke about them, that I can’t seem to forget.
“What do a moped and a fat girl have in common?… They’re both fun to ride, till a friend sees you on one.” Lol
Not my joke, so please don’t shoot the messenger. 🙂
Say what ??
Now, that, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to ride. Ha!
Honda 50s and Sprees were thick on the ground in Iowa in the late 80s and early 90s. Sometime around 1993, they became DEEPLY uncool, and sort of disappeared. I was shocked when Yamaha Zumas and Honda Ruckuses started showing up on the University of Iowa campus in the early 2000s, with no apparent stigma. Of course, this may have been a response to the abysmal parking situation in that town. There was a brisk trade in old UJMs for the same reason—I went that route, but the simplicity and reliability of a scooter probably would have better served my needs.
True mopeds like the Hobbit and Puch were always rare in these parts (Iowa). I agree with several comments above that they seem to have caught on with the hipster set, a phenomenon I first noticed in Ann Arbor around 2008. Then again, that town is a haven for eclectic vehicles and owners.
The Honda Ruckus has taken off in a big way just about everywhere. Price is good, it’ll do the legal top of 35 readily and in about all conditions, and they’re easily modifiable to get illegal performance out of them. We sell them quite regularly, and they really didn’t have much competition until the Yamaha Zuma showed up. Nowadays, those two are the real choice if you want a moped class vehicle with quality (unlike most of the Chinese stuff). The Metropolitan (traditional Vespa style) and Vino scooters are still around but don’t sell nearly as well to college guys.
Summer of 2017, SiriusXM did a temporary channel of all Beach Boys music. Which I proceeded to drive my wife nuts over (she’s a country redneck 21 years younger than me), in both my car and my GL1800 Gold Wing when we went riding.
Hauling ass on the Wing on I-95 doing about 80-85, the Beach Boys cover of this song came on the stereo. Took me back to my high school days listening to the original on AM 1230 WCRO and dreaming about owning a Honda.
If anyone had dared to tell me how it would have all come together 52 years later . . . .
I had a Spree when I was 16.
One day I ditched school and rode along the Indiana Dunes Lakeshore, over 25 miles, from Gary to Michigan City. Right next to the water. When an occasional rock wall or barrier popped up I simply picked it up and carried it over. It was fun.
They would do about 32 mph, but when I removed the oil line strainer, It would do 35 with an occasional misfire. It would increase the oil in the mix and would about double the 2-cycle oil usage. Anything for that extra 3mph you know.
BTW, it was more of a girl magnet than when I got a car.
I remember the Japanese Invasion of smaller motorcycles and mopeds of the early to mid 1960’s. A lot of motorcycle riders (of my generation) got their start on two wheels during that time. The first bike I rode was a ’65 C110 four speed Honda 50 scrambler. With five horsepower and a top speed of 40-45 mph. My Dad had bought this bike a few years earlier and I had ridden it illegally for a couple of years in parking lots. The bike was quite marginal when actually ridden on the street. I endured a lot of motorist’s anger when I ventured onto larger city streets. I quickly obtained a larger 160cc Honda which with 15 horsepower and 70 mph. speed was much better suited to City use and even occasional freeway hops.
Maybe in Asia or Europe these mopeds could mix it up with the hordes of bicycles, in urban America they were just death traps. A couple of years back one of my co workers
(135 lbs.dripping wet) had been riding a 50cc Ruckus and a frustrated motorist rear ended him because he was driving so slowly. With modern technology, small motorcycles and scooters of 100-200 cc’s should be able to exceed 75 mph. and still achieve over 100 mpg.
I think that anyone that is operating motor vehicle on public streets should be licensed and trained how to operate these vehicles. Turning untrained riders loose is a recipe for disaster.
I bought a brand new Motobecane Mobylette about 1976 when I needed reliable transportation for my 6 mile commute. It was yellow with the long seat and rear footpegs, and the leg shields that made it look like it had elephant ears.
Photo courtesy of Moped Army is not my bike, but I wish I had it again.
It was perfect for what I needed. It got about 80 MPG, held just over a gallon of premix, did 30-35 MPH on a level road and no headwinds. The variable drive system was bulletproof, it never left me stranded, and I never once had to true the wheels, even though I ended up putting over 8000 miles on it. I gave it to a guy after the engine seized from non-use about 1984, and I may very well have seen it at the main office the local landfill, rescued by some county employee a couple of years later after that.
For those familiar with the San Jose California area, it could climb out of Saratoga up Big Basin Way to the Santa Cruz Mountain summit, proceed up Skyline to Page mill Road in Palo Alto, then back down the El Camino and home in about 3 hours. I did that one winter night and it never skipped a beat. Good times until I replaced it with a new KH400 triple, but that’s another story.
These had disappeared from the Honda catalog by 1981. Looking at it makes me wistful for a XL100 or CT110, but the roads are unfriendly to anything that slow now
Might want to get rid of a good one that runs .