Motorcycle Classics

Memory Maker: 1968 Honda CL350K1

A low-mile, original 1968 Honda CL350K1 twin that had sat for nearly 50 years is revived for its owner in the hospital.

Engine: 325cc air-cooled SOHC parallel twin, 64mm x 50.6mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression ratio, 33hp @ 9,500rpm
Top speed: 102mph (period test)
Carburetion: Two 32mm Keihin CV
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Single downtube cradle/52in (1,321mm)
Suspension: Telescopic fork front, dual shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes: 6.3in (160mm) TLS drum front, 5.3in (135mm) SLS drum rear
Tires: 3 x 19in front, 3.5 x 18in rear
Weight (dry):345.4lb (157kg)
Seat height: 31.3in (795mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 2.4gal (9ltr)/50mpg (est.)
Price then (1968)/now: $700/$700-$2,500

In February 1968, Honda released two versions of its new overhead cam 350cc twin – the scrambler-styled CL and the CB road bike – and they immediately started selling in large numbers. Estimates vary, but it’s believed that around 650,000 Honda 350s were sold worldwide during the six years that all variants of the model were in production. Decades later, an amazing number have survived, even after being put away wet – or being left out on the street and not put away at all.

The key to the 350’s reliability and longevity was over-engineering. In 1968, Cycle magazine took its test 350 to a shop in Pennsylvania for a teardown, and the editors were duly impressed by the engine’s four huge crankshaft main bearings, bearing supports and its massive flywheels, details that minimized vibration. The single overhead camshaft itself weighed 3 pounds, Cycle deeming it “a paragon of strength.”

Back in 1968, most motorcycles needed frequent attention to run well. The Honda 350, on the other hand, was designed for easy maintenance, enhancing the probability that owners would actually make the effort to keep their bike in top running condition. Contemporary reports noted the easy-to-adjust valves, the quick-disconnects dotting the electrical system, and the reliable carburetors. Many contemporary bikes of equivalent displacement were equipped with only the most basic equipment, but the Honda had turn signals, a push-button starter backed up with a kickstarter, and a reasonably effective double-leading-shoe drum front brake.

Testers were impressed by the little bike’s performance. The scrambler-styled CL350 pulled from 3,000rpm and would rev to 9,500rpm, thanks to progressively wound valve springs and a carefully engineered induction tract. The road version, the CB350, would rev to 10,500rpm. A “small” bike with a 5-speed gearbox was also newsworthy in the late Sixties, a time when many two-wheelers were still limited to a 4-speed transmission, and testers noted the smooth clutch and easy-to-shift transmission. The handling of Japanese-built motorcycles, including this Honda, was not the best in this era, and testers noted that the 350 “steered somewhat ponderously.” Yet contemporary riders gladly took reliability, easy starting and oil-tight cases over great handling, and the 350 sold like hotcakes.

The 350 Hondas were built until 1974, when Honda announced the CB360 and CL360 models. Between the introduction of the 350s in 1968 and the last year of production in 1973, Honda’s mid-sized twin introduced many folks to the wonderful world of motorcycles, creating a host of memories in the process.

Kelly Ford’s CL350

One of the people with fond memories of the Honda 350 is Kelly Ford, who was lucky enough to be born into a motorcycling family. “When I was 6 years old, I woke up on my birthday and heard a motorcycle start in the driveway. I ran out, and there was my father with my birthday present, a Honda 50. It was love at first sight.” After outgrowing the Honda 50, Kelly had a CL350, a bike that introduced some unique experiences. “I was riding around the dirt lanes between farmers’ fields with my cousin on the back,” Kelly remembers, “and this dog started chasing us. Well, the dog ran in front of me and I hit him and went over the handlebars. The bike was still upright and my cousin grabbed the bars and rode the bike into a ditch. He tipped over into the grass. The forks were messed up, but there wasn’t a scratch on the rest of the bike.”

Kelly eventually ended up with a Kawasaki 2-stroke, and just as eventually, got married and started a family. He still rode – and fast. “I was doing crazy stuff on the Kawasaki, and there was an incident where some milk bottles fell off a truck in front of me. I went home and told my wife about it. She said that with a baby son, I needed to stay off that bike, so I stopped riding.” But then the baby grew up and bought a Shovelhead Harley-Davidson. “I was inspired to buy a Harley of my own,” Kelly says. “I figured I wouldn’t do all that crazy stuff on the Harley. My wife called it my redheaded mistress.”

Kelly worked for 35 years for the father of Japanese motorcycle enthusiast Trace St. Germain. Trace served a stint in the military before he went to work for his father, and when he got out he built a couple of motorcycles for friends. That experience started Trace on the path to doing restorations professionally. “I’ve always been mechanical, and restoring motorcycles makes me happy. I like taking things apart,” Trace says. Kelly met Trace while working for his father and they became buddies, their mutual interests including motorized two-wheelers, and Kelly would sometimes look for bikes that Trace could buy cheaply and restore.

Trace retired in 2011. “I was bored and going nuts, so I started restoring and rebuilding bikes as a business.” At first, most of the bikes Trace took on were big-bore Japanese machines. “A friend challenged me to do a smaller bike. I found a Honda 90 to restore, and ended up selling that 90 to Honda Motor Corporation for one of their museums.”

Meanwhile, Kelly started having medical issues and was put on the list for a heart transplant. “He was on the waiting list for a while,” Trace says. “There were two false alarms where he thought he was getting a heart, but ended up not. The third time, he was in the hospital, and it was clear he was not going anywhere until he got the heart.”

Too weak to ride the Harley, Kelly passed the time by looking for restoration projects on eBay and Craigslist. “I saw this CL, and it brought back a flood of memories.” He called the seller, who turned out to be the son of the original owner and was actually trying to value the machine, not sell it. “He told me that I was the first guy who called with a story about why I wanted it. Everyone else just asked him how much he wanted for it.” After discussing the bike with Kelly and learning he wanted to restore it and keep it, not sell it, the owner decided to sell it to Kelly after all. The CL, a low number 1968 model, had 941 original miles on it, and had sat for almost 50 years.

The restoration

“I bought the bike in December and delivered it to Trace. I wasn’t out of Trace’s driveway before the bike started coming apart, and a few days later I ended up in the hospital,” Kelly says. With Kelly out, the bike’s seller stepped in to help, picking up parts from the plater and bringing them to Trace. “This was a three-way restoration: me, Trace and Eric, the guy who sold me the bike. The three of us became friends.”

Kelly received a new heart just in time, and while he was recuperating from surgery Trace gave him regular reports on the Honda’s restoration progress, but refused to send him photos so he would have a surprise when he finally got out of the hospital.

All of the CL’s parts were there, but so was a lot of rust, especially on the frame, which was losing its paint. Trace ended up painting the frame, along with the engine side covers, and getting a lot of the nuts and bolts re-zinc-plated. Incredibly, the original inner tubes and tires were still holding air, so Trace used them. Even more amazing, the original paint on the gas tank needed only cleaning and polish.

Given the popularity of 350 Hondas, many parts are still available, but not all. For instance, the carburetors on this bike were the early version of the Keihin constant velocity carbs, and they have square floats. Unlike the later version with round floats, bowl gaskets are no longer available, and Trace had to repair one float because the square floats are no longer available at “a reasonable price.”

Although Trace didn’t disassemble the engine, he carefully cleaned every bit of it. “I used a time-consuming, but very effective process, soaking the cases in vinegar and scrubbing them. The cylinders and heads came out looking good, but the cases aren’t perfect; they look a little stained. I also used vinegar to clean the inside of the gas tank, which looks brand-new now.”

One item that’s hard to replace is the seat cover, as new covers that look exactly like the original Honda seat covers are not available. Trace and Kelly lucked out, however, as the seat on this bike was in perfect condition. “The foam is a little crushed,” Trace says, “but I am scared to take the cover off.”

At some point, a friend of the owner had tried to hot-wire the bike, but outside of some damage done by the hot-wiring attempt and a little surface corrosion, the wiring system was in great shape and Trace says that the wiring harness was easily repaired. Trace also replaced the rubber grips, the rubber handlebar mounts, the rubbers on the footpegs, the fork seals and the chain. The rear shock springs looked great on the top, hidden under the chrome cover next to the bike, but were marginal on the bottom, so Trace simply flipped the springs around.

Trace finished the bike just before Kelly got out of the hospital. “Trace wouldn’t send me photos. He brought it to the Quail Gathering in Carmel, California, for me, and I rode across the grass for the first time there. He wanted it to be a surprise, so I had no idea what it looked like. It was really cool. I wanted the bike to be ready for Quail, which was my first weekend out of the hospital.” Trace has ridden the 350 and says that “it has a lot of giddyup, even though the rings are leaking and compression is just over minimum specs. I had it up to 75mph.”

With Kelly back in the hospital before the next show, Trace brought it and displayed it. “Trace brought it back to his house and I rode it home. It is so much lighter than the Harley! Riding it felt great. People were honking at me, giving me the thumbs-up. At shows, people come over and tell me how a 350 was their first bike and how much they appreciate me bringing it out,” Kelly says.

With show season over, Kelly has to make some decisions. Although he does not yet have the upper body strength to ride his Harley, he is physically able to ride the Honda. But if he decides to really ride the Honda, he knows that he’ll have to replace the original, now 51-year-old tires. And Trace, concerned about the rings, would like to do a top end job. Otherwise, Kelly will keep the CL350 as a show bike and concentrate on physical therapy so he can get back on his Harley.

“Now I have something to get well for, and a new friend in Eric, the former owner, all thanks to looking for motorcycles on Craigslist.” MC

  • Published on Dec 11, 2018
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