The Honda CB750 Four: Classic for the Masses

The more things change, the more they stay the same
By Landon Hall
July/August 2006

The Honda CB750 KO.
Photo by Richard Backus
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Honda CB750 K0
Years produced:
1969-1970
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 67hp
Top speed: 123mph  (period test)
Engine type: 736cc overhead cam, air-cooled inline four
Weight (wet): 227kg (499lb)
Price then: $1,495
Price now: $12,500-$20,000 (sandcast), $5,000-$8,000 (diecast)
MPG: 34.3mpg (period test, average)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 1969, throngs of motorcyclists clamored to see and ride Honda’s newest creation: the four-cylinder, single overhead cam Honda CB750 Four. It was unlike anything Honda had produced for the public, and frightfully similar to their race bikes, with the first mass-production in-line four-cylinder engine. It was the first Superbike, and more than 35 years later it makes for a great classic ride. Today, motorcyclists and collectors alike are snatching up original and restored early-production Honda CB750 motorcycles due to their limited numbers and their place in history, pushing sale and auction prices for these classic motorcycles sky-high.

Some 15 years ago, that wasn’t the case. When Dale Keesecker, owner of the Candy Blue-Green 1969 Honda CB750 K0 you see here, decided he wanted to restore one for his collection of two-wheeled machines, both the bikes and most replacement parts were readily available, and prices were fairly reasonable.

Editor-in-Chief Richard Backus and I had the chance to drive out to north-central Kansas not long ago to visit Dale and his 750. As the proud owner of a 1976 CB750 K6 I’ve been working on for just over a year, it was a trip I’d been looking forward to.

As we walked around Dale’s bike, ogling the perfect condition of pieces such as the emblems, gauges, exhaust system and more, answers to questions of origin started to have a broken-record effect. What isn’t original on the bike (albeit meticulously cleaned and polished) is NOS — new old stock. These are factory made replacement parts, most of which are identical to the original ones they replace. And while it isn’t a miracle to find NOS parts for some machines, the market has been picked very clean for early Honda CB750 pieces in recent years, as the value of these beauties has risen.

But that wasn’t the case back when Keesecker and his mechanic restored this beauty: Keesecker and his CB were ahead of the curve. It’s not an uncommon story. These 750s were ahead of the curve before they ever hit showroom floors.

Though Honda is a well-known and well-respected manufacturer of motorcycles, automobiles and more today, that wasn’t the case in the mid-1950s. In fact, it wasn’t until 1959 that Honda decided to expand into the United States. And though they were already the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world at the time, selling hundreds of thousands of lightweight motorcycles around the globe, there were obstacles that would have to be overcome to make expanding into the U.S. profitable.

The first challenge was changing the bad image many people in America held of motorcycling. The second was changing the low opinion of the quality of Japanese products held by many Americans. Both images were changed with a little persistence, a lot of public relations and lots of advertising. The fact that Honda made good, dependable, practical machines was another obvious key. By 1963, Honda had exported 150,000 motorcycles into the states.

But as much as Americans loved the little Japanese bikes they were buying and riding all over the U.S., they wanted more. More displacement. More power. More features. By 1965, Honda’s engineers had cooked up the 444cc double overhead cam Honda CB450, which featured large drum brakes, electric start, and a four-speed transmission. It was closer to what the American rider was looking for, but they still wanted more.

The Tokyo Show in October of 1968 was where the world finally got to see Honda’s response to its customers’ desires. Although some motorcycle industry pundits had figured Honda’s new offering of the day would be a twin, it turned out to be a transverse, in-line, 736cc single overhead cam four cylinder, and one that beared more than skin-deep resemblance to the factory’s 500cc GP competition motorcycle. The company went for a SOHC design to make the engine more compact, and the central location of the single camshaft made it possible to design low-profile cam covers, which aided the engine’s location in the frame. It was one of the first production road machines with a transverse, in-line four-cylinder setup.

Another surprise ingredient Honda threw into the mix was the first hydraulic, single-disc front brake on a production motorcycle. At the time of the CB750 premiere in the January 1969 issue of Cycle World, the magazine had only tested two other bikes that featured similar hydraulically operated brakes; a Dunstall 750 and a Rickman Triumph Metisse, and they lauded praise on the design. "In each case," they said, "the unit proved markedly superior to the cable-operated drum brakes and [were] far smoother in operation. Presumably, the Honda version will offer similar benefits." Later tests proved the merits of the new system, which, for its day, offered a surprising amount of stopping power with good feel.

But aside from the single cam and single front disc brake, it seemed as though the blessings came in fours - as in four cylinders, four carburetors and four racing-style megaphone exhaust pipes.

The CB750 became an immediate success as soon as it went on sale. Although the bike had its critics (who mostly focused on its unusually high weight for the time and the handling changes that went with weight), testers and customers alike raved over the electric start, oil-tight reliability, great brakes and the power and cruising ability the big engine provided.

Through the years
Though there were a variety of small changes made over time, most were small. First-year color choices included Candy Blue-Green, Candy Gold or Candy Ruby Red. The first CB750's had engine cases with a wrinkly finish, a result of the use of sand castings used to make the alloy engine cases. Partway through the run of CB750 motorcycles, a switch was made from using the sandcast cases to cases formed with more traditional methods. The reason for the switch was the brittleness of the sandcast cases. Very powerfull for its day, the first CB750 was harder on the drive chains than many bikes before it, and without proper maintenance, the chains would break. When they did, they often flew forward and broke parts of the engine case. forcing owners to replace them with the new cases, which were of later design. This is one of the many reasons a true, original sandcast CB750 K0 is fairly rare. There are also a variety of very minute changes within the production K0 models, including the mounting of the horn switch from the left side of the handlebar to the right somewhere within the production run. Roughly 7,414 sandcast CB750s were manufactured.

The run of the CB750 K0 continued until September 21, 1970, when the CB750 K1 was introduced. The K1 wore smaller side covers that missing the cosmetic slots seen on the K0. The lone mechanical change was the implementation of a two-cable throttle system in place of the 4-into-4 design used on the K0. The new design worked by having one cable pull the throttles open while the other pulled them closed.

It wasn't until March of 1972 that the CB750 K2 was released, and changes were few. Until this point, the headlight housing had matched the paint color, but for 1972 it came in black only. The fork leg uppers also changed from being color-keyed to chrome. Paint choices were Candy Gold, Brier Brown Metallic and Flake Sunrise Orange. A different taillight was used, along with larger side reflectors on the front forks.

For 1973, the CB750 K3 version was introduced. The fuel tank striping was now black with white and gold accents. Paint options consisted of Flake Sunrise Orange, Candy Buchhus Olive, and Maxim Brown Metallic. These were the only changes made to the K3. The 1974 K4 model brought wider white stripes on the fuel tank graphics. Sunrise Orange was available again, and it was joined by Freedom Green Metallic and Boss Maroon Metallic. The 1975 K5 sported darker green instrument faces, and the speedometer now read in increments of 10 instead of 20. Planet Blue Metallic and Flake Apricot Red were the paint color choices. The 1976 K6 featured lighter green faces on the instruments, and was available only in Candy Antares Red.

While the CB750 continued on for 1977 and 1978 without major mechanical changes, the appearance of the bike changed just enough that while the lineage is obvious, these models don't command the same prices or desirability of the K0 through K6 models. Major changes included a more slab-sided fuel tank and side covers, along with the lack of heat shields on the exhaust pipes and the addition of a stepped seat. A new dual overhead cam, 16-valve 749cc engine was introduced for 1979, and it powered teh 1979 CB750 K, officially bringing an end to the 10-year run of SOHC CB750s.

More than 35 years after its debut, the original CB750 has been eclipsed in terms of performance, but it's still adored by riders around the globe for its accessibility, usablity, reliablity and the fact that despite all the other choices out there for motorcyclists today, the bike is still classically cool. As I said, the more things change ... MC 

Read more about the other motorcycles mentioned in this article:
Dale Keesecker's Vincent Specials 
Honda CB450: The Black Bomber 

 


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Post a comment below.

 

Reckless73
12/14/2010 12:45:59 PM
Hi there! Mr. Carter's vote for the Trident (ignoring BSA's Rocket 3) as 'first' Superbike is misplaced. He cites racing figures, some incorrectly, while this is about street bikes. The Norton Commando was introduced at the Sept., '67 Earl's Court show & was on sale prior to the introduction of the Trident. The Commando won the Motorcycle News 'Machine of the Year' readers poll 5 years in succession from '68 to '72. In Cycle magazine's March, '70 'Big Seven Superbike Comparison Test' the Commando posted the best 1/4 mile time (12.69), 2nd best exit speed to the Triumph, 3rd best circuit speed & was 3rd lightest (only the Suzuki & Kawasaki 500 2 strokes being lighter). Anyone honest who has ridden both a Commando & Trident will admit the Commando out-pulls the Triumph, whips it on top end & its handling is legendary. The CB750 was a technological marvel & altered forever what were acceptable features of a big bike. However, as a rider, it was a mediocre motorcycle at best. It was neither quicker nor faster than the competition nor did it handle nearly as well. It was a nice, smooth commuter/tourer, but hardly the 1st Superbike.

Tim Carter
12/10/2010 5:46:45 PM
Dear Sirs, The Triumph Trident was the first modern multi-cylinder motorcycle ever produced and is considered the "First" Superbike of that era,not the CB 750,for these reasons. The Trident would hit the market in late 1968 and the CB 750 would not hit the market until early 1969. The Trident was the first production racer ever to break over the 100 mph mark and the Trident known as "Slippery Sam" would go on to win the Isle of Man five consecutive years in a row, 1971-1975, a feat that still stands unbroken in the record books, even today. While the CB 750 was very dependable,reliable, high tech,cheaper and oil tight as opposed to their British counterparts,there was a trade off,however,the CB 750 was very top heavy and unbalanced for its weight,making handling poor,at very best. I'm surprised that you never mention these facts in any of your articles,they are well known established facts.


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