Honda CL72/77 Scrambler 1962-‘65 - CLASSICS REMEMBERED

Street scramblers are not new!

Today motocross is big business even though they say 70% of MXers sold never set wheel to track. The name is self-explanatory – “moto” is what the French call motorcycles, and “cross” is short for cross-country.

But before Edison Dye, the FIM, AMA, and others created MX, there was scrambling. A scrambles race was laps around a rough dirt circuit with twists and ups and downs plus a jump or two. One weekend in the early 1960s New England riders began arriving at what they'd been told was to be a scrambles race, to be greeted by a farmer, chugging up on his tractor."

“Uh, where’s the track?” asked the riders.

“You tell me”, said the farmer. “I’ll put it wherever you want.”

The new sport spread fast because that’s all you needed – a bit of land for a track and a bit more for parking and paddock. Spectator protection? A few feet of faded red snowfence handles it. The word ‘scrambling’ soon became synonymous with bike and rider, flying over a jump. Action. Excitement. Manly doins.

Honda therefore in 1962-'65 helped themselves to this powerful image, creating the CL (off-road) version of their CB72 250 180-degree street twin with high pipes, universal tires on 19" wheels, and the company's first steel-tube loop frame. I well remember the special "futta-futta" idle of those twins, so very different from Triumphs and BSAs.

My memory of those high pipes is strong, for one night I borrowed a friend’s CB77 (its 60-mm bore gave it 305-cc) with CL high pipes on it. Rounding the big turn at Soldier’s Field at what seemed to me then an elevated speed, the woman on the seat behind me began leaping and twisting; a bare calf had come into contact with a part of one pipe not protected by the perforated heat shield. We somehow remained upright, but I learned that I’d rather not carry a passenger, and she learned that an orange Marimekko dress is not motorcycling wear.

The CL was not a scrambler – it was a solidly constructed streetbike of the kind that made Honda the world’s preemininent motorcycle manufacturer. That solidity, backed by modern manufacturing and Honda’s 2500-hour life-cycle test, persuaded the world that you would definitely get where you were going on a Honda.

Peter Egan put it more eloquently, noting that the phrase, "He's out there somewhere, on a Triumph" suggests survival against all odds. But to say, "He's out there somewhere on a Honda" was anticlimax (He'll be here, and on time.).

Honda 305 Scrambler magazine layout
Honda 305 Scrambler (CL77) Road Test from the Dec 1965 issue of Cycle WorldCycle World

Weight was the feature that defined CLs as streetbikes. I’ve found CL numbers all the way from 315-lb to 352. In 1962 Bud Ekins and a Honda dealer rode two “early production” CLs from Tijuana to La Paz (Baja). This makes me remember a night in the early ‘70s when I was admitted to one of California’s great custom frame shops where they were TIG-welding stock-appearing but much lighter-than-stock chassis for some corporate publicity splash. The tubing was all thin-wall Cr-Mo and so were the pressings for things like engine mounts, gussets, key-switch brackets, &c – all formed from 4130 sheet in factory dies. They had boxes of all this stuff. Every maker had its “prep shop” (do you suppose they still do in the present oh-so-correct era?) in which lack-luster stockers were turned into something rather better before being turned over to moto journalists for searching magazine review.

We humans are tricky. Back in the days of the Mobil Economy Run, officials seeking cars for the run found all the car dealerships near their HQ saturated with “specials” factory-equipped with tiny carburetors and tall rear-end ratios. This is the origin of all those stories about your uncle whose new car mysteriously got 30-mpg when everyone else with the same model was getting 18. Finally Economy Run officials took to driving hundreds of miles to find and buy actual stock automobiles for their contest.

Honda 305 Scrambler magazine layout
Honda 305 Scrambler (CL77) Road Test from the Dec 1965 issue of Cycle WorldCycle World

Meanwhile, competitive scrambling was taking a very different direction – toward lightweight two-strokes. After Maico and Husqvarna had struck the first blows in the late 1950s, here came Greeves with a 237-lb bare-bones creation with Villiers engine and rubber-in-torsion suspension, carrying Dave Bickers to European 250 titles in 1960 and '61. Two stand-out features of these bikes were their cast aluminum I-beam steering-head-cum-downtube and their BAP-BAP-PA-BAP open-ended oval blooey pipe exhaust. Loud and harsh.

Such two-strokes also asserted themselves in the realm of desert racing, often edging out “desert sleds” with more than double their displacement. The lighter the bike, the more vitality the rider has left at the end. Apocryphal stories of elemental force Gunnar Draugs, sprinting through hub-deep muddy MX sections carrying his bike over his head can’t be true.

To understand where the 54 x 54-mm = 247.3-cc CL250 stood, with its 24-hp @ 9000, subtract the weight of the Greeves MDS (237-lb) from the average of the four different CL weights I found (328-lb) to get a difference of 91 pounds. Now imagine duct-taping 91 pounds of iron bar-bell weights to your 25-hp Greeves MDS. Unh, as the comic book rendering has it.

In the spring of 1963, as at last I was about to survive college, I had a toe on the path not taken in the form of changing a shift pawl in a friend’s square-barrel Greeves with unloved Villiers gearbox.

Performance wasn’t the point of the Honda CLs. The point was to have a bike that tapped into that exciting ready-for-anything scrambles image.

Today’s street scramblers also bring their riders a fresh kind of freedom; these are bikes which prescribe nothing. What you wear, where you go, and how you ride are up to you. I see the street scramblers as a healthy antidote to the previous refraction of motorcycling into strictly separate, don’t-talk-to-me identities – sportbike, sport-tour, adventure, cruiser. Leave your enduro dry-suit, your air-bag GP leathers, your lick-em-and-stick-‘em tattoos at home and just be yourself.