1966 Honda CB450K0 “Red Dragon”
Engine: 444cc air-cooled DOHC parallel twin, 70mm x 57.8mm bore and stroke, 43hp @ 8,500rpm (est.)
Top speed: 102mph (period test)
Transmission: 4-speed, chain final drive
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.2gal (15.9ltr)/40-45mpg (est.)
Price then/now: $1,000 (approx.)/$3,500-$11,000
While the mythical dragon may have been rooted in early discoveries of fossilized dinosaur bones, today the image of the dragon is a popular subject in many cultures where it appears in many forms and colors, but symbolically sharing common attributes.
In the pantheon of animal imagery originating in the East, the dragon is seen as the master of all primal elements, capable of breathing both fire and ice as well as foreseeing future events and often symbolic of powerful rulers. All the above could also be ascribed to a particular motorcycle, the Honda Red Dragon. But is it myth, or reality?
1965 Honda ad photo
The story of the “Red Dragon” begins sometime in the early 1960s when Honda’s star was rising not only over Japan, but casting its corporate light worldwide, its milestone motorcycles setting new standards for quality and dependability as well as marketing savvy.
As spotlighted a half century ago in early industry icon Floyd Clymer’s 1965 book A Treasury of Motorcycles of the World, the advent of the new Honda CB450 was heralded as “a machine that riders and dealers of both lightweight and large machines have been anxiously awaiting. It is Honda’s largest model. It is the first effort by a major lightweight manufacturer to branch out from the ‘fun’ riding field into the realm of serious high-speed motorcycling. Although the engine is smaller than others in the ‘big bike’ class, its status is enhanced by the fact that it has double overhead camshafts, an extremely efficient valve gear design. It is a relatively heavy bike, still unusually agile. Outstanding features include the electric starter, 12-volt electrical system, and rubber-mounted twin carburetors. The 450 also features an extremely large gasoline tank (4.2 gallons). Claimed top speed is 112mph.”
1966 U.K. ad
While Honda had bestowed somewhat catchy names to previous models such as Cub, Benly, Super Hawk and Dream, the original designation for the new machine was simply CB450. In the general parlance the first crop of black 450s are referred to as the Black Bomber, perhaps due to the bomb-like shape of the gas tank. Others speculate that the moniker Black Bomber was attributed to British dealers who came up with the name. It also seems Honda painted the U.S. bikes black because they thought it the color most appealing to Yanks. Case in point, the popularity of the 1950s Triumph Thunderbird, originally factory-painted blue then re-painted black and called the Blackbird for the U.S. market after a blacked-out T-bird was ridden by “Johnny” in the Marlon Brando flick The Wild One.
A March 1966 feature on the bike appearing in the British magazine Motor Cycle extolled its praises, including its 14.6-second quarter-mile performance, opening with, “The Honda CB450 is a searing, potent piece of machinery that can hold its own with almost any model in production today, irrespective of size.” It went on to say the bike had been clocked at 100mph at 9,200rpm, but was also “happy to pobble at 4,000rpm in top gear.” The article goes on to add, “At 95mph it is the smoothest power unit imaginable, and the twin exhausts keep you in mind of a well-tuned four on the TT course.” It points out the available “basic colour scheme is black and silver.”
So here begins the rub … or should we say, the red, and the trail thereof, tracking down the provenance of the Red Dragon, a Honda as rare as the mythical creature’s teeth.
“See the Fabulous CB450 Dragon” — So proclaimed a 1966 British magazine advertisement. When a friend brought the magazine to Honda aficionado Shannon Sweeney’s attention, it provided another piece of the name game puzzle. In the ad the name “Dragon” is attached to the CB450 designation, and perhaps because dragons are frequently portrayed as red, it may link the birth of the name to CB450s dressed in red. (Not to be confused with the Honda CL350 Flying Dragon Paint Set that appeared later in 1972, the swirling ink/psychedelic colors intended to enhance 1972-1973 CL350 and CL450 Scramblers.)
The early incarnation of the KO CB450 with its distinctive gas tank lasted only for 1965-1967, at which point Honda deemed it necessary to provide an “updated” new look via the K1. While some joke that the name “Black Bomber” had a secondary connotation, as in “sales bombed,” the public was not particularly drawn to its design and subsequently Honda was not happy with the sales figures. An estimated 29,000 units sold might have been considered healthy enough back in the day, however.
Fast forward a half century and enter Shannon Sweeney’s one-man enterprise, SS Classics in Venice, California. Shannon specializes in 1960s and 1970s Japanese bikes, including restoration work and building specials like café racers and street trackers. Shannon’s Red Dragon saga began with the bike pictured here. “All told it was about an 8-year deal, because when I originally got the bike, I thought it was a standard Black Bomber. Then I discovered that the paint was originally red, so I started the search to determine if it actually came in that color from the factory. I found that the lineup of 1966 Honda bikes came in four colors — black, white, blue and red — but the 450 came only in black for the U.S. market. That’s when the whole mystery started for me. I had to prove that the Red Dragon actually existed.”
After putting out the word about the bike, Shannon found himself the recipient of plenty of advice. Most people suggested that Honda never made a red one, but Shannon knew something no one else was pointing out. “I’d had a 450 Black Bomber and also a white one in police trim, and I had documentation. The absolute, definitive proof that Honda produced a Red Dragon is found in the factory parts manual that showed every part in every color available for the 450; white for the police version, standard black, and there it was … scarlet, aka red. Eventually I found four Red Dragons, as far as I know all 1966 productions. Now it could be, depending on what part of the year, early or late, they might have been considered a 1965 or 1967,” Shannon says.
Shannon located two Red Dragons in Canada, and then a number of people in the vintage bike community who rallied to his efforts responded by saying there were some of the rare red beasts still prowling around Europe. “I don’t know the exact number produced. From what I can gather Honda didn’t keep a record of their production as it was near the end of the line merging with the introduction of redesigned 450s. It seems someone decided to paint some of the Black Bombers red for sale in the U.K. market, where riders were more familiar with red being the sporty color as seen on bikes like Ducati and Moto Guzzi. This color variation could have been an effort to pump up sales, and some Red Dragons then made it to Canada, a U.K. commonwealth nation, and then a few eventually migrating down to the U.S., including this one I found in Indiana. As far as I know, Red Dragons were not sold by dealers here.”
A bit of unusual evidence appeared one day when Bill “Mr. Honda” Silver, noted authority on vintage Hondas, informed Shannon about a vintage LP record album by jazz great Maynard Ferguson, showing the trumpeter astride a mint-looking Red Dragon. The 1966 recording was titled Ridin’ High and included a song called Meet a Cheetah, which seems appropriate considering the choice of cover design. In small print on the back of the album were some telltale facts relating to the unearthing of the Red Dragon’s roots in North America. The original photo on the cover is credited to Bently’s Cycle & Sports located in Montreal, Quebec: The Canadian connection was established.
Red Dragon restoration
In September 2013, after completing his research effort and authenticating the Red Dragon as the real deal, Shannon launched into the restoration. While many of the original pieces were in place, the hunt for information had entailed some serious legwork. In the process, he found a can of original Honda factory scarlet paint with matching parts catalog numbers. He computer color matched it with a current DuPont color to repaint the bike.
While Shannon handled most of the restoration himself, he did have some help. This included polishing and chroming by Stutzman Plating and Supreme Plating, both located in Los Angeles, California. The top end of the Red Dragon’s 444cc double overhead cam engine was rebuilt by a friend, a retired mechanical engineer.
“I wanted to keep the bike as original as possible rather than absolutely perfect looking,” Shannon says. That included retaining the original wiring harness, tachometer cable, side covers, headlight, taillight, and instrument cluster and gas tank. GTL Advantage in North Hollywood, California, sealed the inside of the tank. The rubber knee grips are miraculously the originals, and the tank badges are high-quality aftermarket pieces. Shannon sourced the correct spokes (the nipples differing with the various Honda rims) from a supplier in Japan while the D.I.D. rims are re-chromed originals. The tires are Duros, which came closest to the bike’s original tread design. The hubs were rebuilt and polished, with new brake shoes installed.
When asked if there were any hiccups, Shannon chuckles and says, “In order to mount the front wheel, I had to make my own tool. After following the original Honda factory Bomber assembly manual, I found that only after the front wheel is placed in the forks can the front axle then be tightened. The manual actually says you have to grind down a 23mm wrench on either side to make it fit, which I did.”
Checking over the Red Dragon’s appointment, the factory issue “Elephant” horn is original and correct, while Shannon points out that the one-piece pipes may be a 1967 part, as there’s speculation that 1966 pipes were a two-piece design. He is still looking for the correct speedometer in kilometers per hour since the Red Dragons were produced for U.K. sales. The early Fuji speedo on his bike, which Shannon completely rebuilt with the odometer numbers rolled back to zero, is in miles per hour. (Note: While Japanese domestic Black Bomber 450s featured turn signals, the U.S. imports did not.)
The original seat pan was used, and the seat was re-upholstered by Hai at South Bay Upholstery in Hermosa Beach, California, based on an original seat Shannon used as a template. The original seat buckle and rivets were re-chromed, and while a Honda signature logo always appeared on the rear of the seat, he decided not to add it, at least not yet. “I like the fact that there’s nothing identifying the bike as Honda at first glance, so it causes people to say, ‘Hey, what is that?’ and then look closer,” Shannon says.
The Red Dragon is a meticulous restoration, and Shannon is careful to point out any non-stock pieces. “I went for the lower profile Honda bars because I thought they look better with the bike than the higher bars. And there’s some extra polish I added to a couple of the original brass accents, the nut on the petcock and another one of the front of the speedo drive,” Shannon says.
Summing up the Red Dragon’s resurrection, Shannon says, “This is how I pieced the story together. No doubt there will be emails, which I welcome, adding information. It’s fun to uncover some of the history surrounding a bike after some 50 years, separating the myth, and finding and identifying a real Red Dragon. It has been well worth the effort.” MC