Cheap Thrills: 1968 Honda CL90

Don Stockett revives a $348 Honda CL90 acquired after a Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club run.

article image
by Nick Cedar

1968 Honda CL90

Engine: 89.6cc, 2-valve overhead cam, air-cooled 4-stroke single cylinder, 50mm x 45.6mm bore and stroke, 8.2:1 compression ratio, 8hp @ 9,500rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 70mph (factory claim) 62mph (tested, with 200lb rider)
Carburetion: Keihin III 20mm
Transmission: 4-speed, left foot shift, chain final drive
Electrics: 6v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Pressed steel, swingarm rear end/47in (1,194mm)
Suspension: Telescopic forks front, dual shocks rear
Brakes: 4in SLS drum brake front and rear
Tires: 2.5 x 18in front, 2.75 x 18in rear
Weight (dry): 202lb (92kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 1.8 gal (6.8ltr)/176mpg @ 25mph (claimed)
Price then/now: $275 (est.)/$1,600-$4,000

Don Stockett, one of the principals of Vintage Motorcycle Rescue, a classic Japanese motorcycle restoration business near Sacramento, California, was on a ride through the Sierra foothills with the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club when one rider had a carburetor problem.

A bike needing a little roadside TLC is not uncommon on a vintage run. Everyone pulls over, and the more mechanically adept attendees get a chance to show off their wrenching skills. What happened next on that day, however, was a little unusual. As Don tells it:

“We had all pulled into a parking lot and one of our members was taking the carburetor apart. This guy pulls up in a pickup truck. He yells out the window, ‘I’ve been following you guys for miles hoping you would stop. Anyone here interested in buying a CL90?’ I asked how much he wanted for it. ‘$300.’ I knew what that bike’s value was, and figured that even if it was a total basket case it was worth $300. I told him I would buy it.”

“I got the guy’s address and phone number and showed up at his house two hours later with a pickup truck. The bike looked a little tired and dirty, but it ran and was complete. Even the exhaust muffler looked OK. It had a license plate, registration, and one of those plastic cylinders to hold the registration that some states used to require. Thing was, the owner started insisting he didn’t say $300, he said $350. I pulled my cash out and counted it — I had $348 on me. He agreed to take the $348. This is my $348 Honda CL90.”

Way back when

In the 1960s, Honda was on a roll. After working hard to establish a dealership network in the United States and gain acceptance for its products, the company was just in time to catch the wave of the baby-boom generation entering its teens and looking for cheap transportation, fun and excitement. Honda offered all three.

One of the keys to Honda’s ultimate success was its careful study of the American market and its willingness to design bikes that Americans wanted to buy. Honda was able to do this due to its huge market in Asia — at the time, Honda was the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer — with resulting deep pockets. By 1964, American Honda was offering 14 different models, each keyed to a different group of potential buyers. There were the 250 and 305 Superhawk overhead cam sporty twins, the CB160, a smaller OHC twin, touring 250 and 305 Dreams, the ever-popular Honda Cub, and several very small trail bikes.

Honda was also able to quickly identify when particular bikes were not selling in the United States, change dealer inventory and come up with more promising machines. In the early Sixties, Honda was selling several types of pushrod-operated small displacement singles. Although the 50cc Cub was a huge hit, Honda’s larger displacement singles were down on power compared with similar machines offered by other manufacturers. Honda’s answer was to design overhead cam 90cc single cylinder machines. At the time, most overhead cam machines were competition-only, and an overhead cam street bike was a real novelty.

In 1960, Honda had opened a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Suzuka, with the facilities and engineering staff to design new models quickly and then manufacture them economically. Overhead cam machines like the Superhawk, the CB160 and the 90cc singles would not have been possible without Honda’s massive investment in tooling.

The 90cc singles quickly proved themselves as both fun and reliable. Honda sold millions of these peppy little motorcycles, not only in the United States, but all over Asia. Although early-Sixties Hondas needed improvement in the handling department, they were reliable and oil-tight. Many of the larger Hondas had electric starters, 12-volt electrical systems and reasonably bright headlights. Many prospective owners were more interested in easy starting, low maintenance and reliability than great handling, and they bought Hondas in droves.

From S90 to CL90

The first version of the 90cc OHC single, the S90, first went on sale in the U.S. in October 1964. It had a lightweight pressed steel frame, telescopic forks, swingarm rear suspension and a separate front fender. Available colors were white, black, scarlet red (later replaced with candy red) and candy blue. The S90 sold in large numbers, and in 1967 Honda announced the CL90, basically the same bike, but with a high side pipe. Honda had discovered that a lot of people would buy bikes with high pipes and an offroad “look,” even if the owner never actually left pavement. The CL90 is now more of a collector’s item, since it was not manufactured in as large of numbers as the S90. These two bikes were joined in 1969 for the one-year-only SL90, which was a real dual sport machine. All of the 90cc singles shared the pressed steel frame and OHC engine, which had an oversquare bore and stroke of 50mm x 45mm and would rev over 9,500rpm. A 4-speed constant mesh transmission and a reliable multiplate wet clutch completed the package.

The CL90 frame came in candy red, candy blue and black, with a silver tank fitted with black rubber knee pads on all models. The fenders and exhaust were chrome, unlike earlier S90’s, which came with painted fenders. It was mostly bought by teenagers who used it to get to school, after-school jobs and the local hamburger stand. Many kids also took their bikes offroad for trail high jinks.

In 1969, some states, including Nevada, limited riders under the age of 16 to bikes under 5 horsepower — considerably less than the 8 horsepower the CL90 produced. Honda wanted to sell a bike that could be purchased by any teenager. At first, Honda marketed 90cc singles with restrictive carburetors to reduce power. For 1970, Honda introduced an updated line of 70cc singles, aimed especially at the teenage market.

Even though it has been 50 years since Honda’s 90cc singles were available in the United States, there are thousands still around, mostly S90’s and SL90’s. While a CL90 is not exactly rare, it is uncommon to come across one, which is why Don Stockett snapped up this bike. This CL90 was close to stock, which is even more unusual. The reliable engine and the light-but-sturdy frame of these small overhead cam bikes has inspired all sorts of backyard mechanics and carport race teams. They were modified with larger carburetors, trick cams, big bore kits, improved suspension and racing tires and turned into everything from little road racers to lightweight enduro machines.

As a result, would-be restorers often end up with a bike that is heavily modified, and have to engage in serious detective work to figure out what was originally on the bike. The carburetor, carburetor manifold and exhaust system changed with the model and year. Incorrect parts may affect quiet running and, if you enter the bike in a show, this will cause you to lose points.

Reviving and restoring

Don took his $348 Honda home and had his business partner, Geoff Sprague, take the drivetrain apart. The CL90 was not only basically stock, but also in surprisingly good shape, needing only a cleanup and adjustment. “The bike had been loved and ridden its entire life. It’s just that when we got it, it was recently neglected.” Even the seat and the exhaust system — parts that are often worn out — were usable. Geoff and Don replaced all the cables, changed the oil and installed new brakes and new Heidenau tires. Don says that parts are not only readily available, but inexpensive. “Anything for 90s is available. There are lots of providers on eBay. The best sources are in Thailand or Malaysia. There is a very popular kit that will turn a 90cc into 120cc.” The one item that was not easily available was a new fuel tank. The tank that came with the CL90 was tired and had a small dent, so Don had it professionally repaired and repainted, which cost almost as much as he had paid for the entire bike. The knee pads are the original parts, but metal reproductions replaced the faded round plastic badges. NOS badges are no longer available.

The lights are 6-volt, and the headlight is not that bright. The small headlight shell is less than a half-inch short of the space needed to install an LED system. Vintage Motorcycle Rescue likes to put LED headlights in its restorations, and this was a disappointment. Don did locate a 6-volt trickle charger, and hardwired a one-way charging plug to the battery. The plug hides under the seat, and makes it easy to keep the battery charged. The small drum brakes are adequate to stop the bike, given the speeds it is usually ridden.

Although Don is in business restoring classic Japanese motorcycles and selling his award-winning restorations, this bike is not for sale. It is not only the unofficial pit bike for Vintage Motorcycle Rescue at shows, but also gets taken out and thrashed around local twisty roads. It’s street legal, with turn signals and a horn, and handles pretty well. Geoff loves riding a slow bike fast. We take it on Vintage Japanese Club rides and on our “test loop,” 50 miles of local roads that we use to test new restorations. Top speed is 60mph, maybe 62 with a tailwind. “I’ve heard claims that it will get up to 70mph, but I doubt it. It might get up to that speed with a really light rider with a tailwind and a downhill slope,” Don says.

“Everything about the CL90 is simple and easy,” Don says. A properly set up CL90 can be easily started by a skinny 14-year-old boy who has not been eating his Wheaties. You just turn on the gas and the ignition, prod the kickstarter until the piston is up to top dead center, and kick. “You can literally do it with your arm,” Don says. He also says that the CL90 makes very little noise — making it easier for a teenager to sneak off before finishing chores — and shifts easily, with a light clutch.

First gear is really low, and around-town riders will spend most of their time in second or third. Don says there is a big jump between third and fourth. “You need to keep the power on through the curves. If you let off the gas, it takes a long time to get it back up to speed.” Maintenance is also simple. Once set up properly, the Keihin carburetor can be left alone, except for an occasional adjustment to the idle. Don says it is important to change the oil every 1,000 miles or once a year, whatever comes first, and strongly suggests oil specifically formulated for motorcycles, which has a higher zinc content. Ethanol gas is corrosive to rubber carburetor parts, and Don suggests turning off the gas a mile from home and letting the bike run until the fuel in the carburetor is used up if the bike is going to be stored for any period of time.

“If you are riding a 90, you are guaranteed to have a big smile on your face.” Don says. He really likes his $348 find. “It’s got this little pressed steel frame, which is surprisingly light and strong. Parts are available and cheap. It’s like a motorized bicycle, but the darn little thing has a heart and a soul, and it’s doing everything it can to make you happy.” MC

Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine Featuring the most brilliant, unusual and popular motorcycles ever made!