For more than 25 years the Blue Man Group has wowed the world with their energetic and entertaining theatrical performances.
On stage, each Blue Man is bald, earless, and yes — blue. Every Blue Man Group show features a wild mash-up of music and stories, all shared through a variety of one-off instruments and some rather interesting technology. In a video interview, Blue Man Group co-founder Phil Stanton says, “The Blue Man is that part of us that wants to remain curious our whole lives, wants to find ways to be creative, and, as such, is really a citizen of the world.”
Comparing the entertainment value of the Blue Men to the mechanical genius of Honda might seem a stretch, but the core tenets of each are much the same — constant innovation through improved technology. Indeed, like the Blue Man as described by Stanton, Soichiro Honda was certainly curious and creative in his approach to bringing his brand of powered two-wheelers to the world.
The Blue connection
After all this talk about Blue Men and Honda, it’s time to introduce Blue Man Group performer Eric Gebow of Chicago, Illinois. Eric is a devoted Honda fan, and has been longer than the Blue Men have been doing their thing. Raised in Rye, New Hampshire, Eric’s older brother and his friends rode Hondas. Eric’s first motorcycle was a Honda XL100 and he’s always admired early Honda models.
It’s his connection to Honda that led Eric to Charlie’s Place proprietor Charlie O’Hanlon, famous on the West Coast for his own personal devotion to the brand. The pair first met in San Francisco, California, and over the years Charlie has restored two of Eric’s Hondas, a 1971 CB750 and a 1967 CB450.
“I met Eric when he was a drummer in the San Francisco band Switchblade Symphony,” Charlie says. “He was a very good drummer, playing gigs in the evenings while working days at a coffee shop. The Blue Men became aware of Eric and offered him an opportunity, and I don’t think he’s looked back.”
During Eric’s tenure with the Blue Men he lived and performed for four years in Tokyo, Japan. It was there that he strolled into a store and discovered a book, written in Japanese, filled with photos of Hondas he’d never seen before, including the single-cylinder J-type Benly.
In his book Honda Production Motorcycles, Author Mick Walker says the J-type Benly followed the successful 1952 development of Soichiro Honda’s F-type Cub, a bicycle with a clip-on engine attached to the rear wheel. “The following year, 1953, saw a vast expansion of the Honda operation,” Walker writes. “Between August and October 1953 four new models were introduced: the 89cc J-type Benly OHV lightweight motorcycle; the 145cc 3E Dream and 6E Dream models, and lastly the H-type engine for agricultural use.” He continues, “Of all the new designs, the J-type, or Benly as it was commonly known, was by far the most important to Honda’s future as a major motorcycle producer.”
The name Benly is derived from the Japanese word benri, meaning convenient. The name was chosen to reflect Honda’s design brief for a practical, affordable and user-friendly motorcycle. According to most sources, Honda borrowed much of the Benly concept from German motorcycle maker NSU and its Fox model.
In his book The Honda Story, motorcycle historian Ian Falloon writes, “the Model J heralded a long line of Benly models and was quite obviously a copy of the German NSU. The 3-speed 89cc pushrod overhead valve motor produced 3.8 horsepower at 6,000rpm, and the chassis included a tidier pressed steel frame with a telescopic fork, and unusual rear suspension with the engine and swingarm moving together around a central pivot.”
At the website world.honda.com, engineer Yoshiro Harada, one of the original J-type Benly designers, talks about the model. “The idea [of the unusual engine/swingarm suspension] was to make the bike more comfortable by stopping engine vibration from being transferred to the rider. This was pretty successful, but there were some problems. When the rear wheel went up and down, because of the seesaw system the engine went up and down as well. On a bumpy road the carburetor would shake, fuel would come bubbling out and the engine wouldn’t work well,” he says.
There were also issues regarding build quality, and Honda took immediate action, purchasing better tooling to improve machining capabilities. Soon, Harada says, “the Benly earned a reputation as the best practical bike around.”
By 1954 the JA-type Benly featured a larger 138cc engine, with a somewhat more conventional rear swingarm suspended by twin shocks. The single-cylinder engine was reduced to 125cc and 7 horsepower in the JB-type Benly of 1955, but output was increased to 8 horsepower for the 1956 JC57. The JC Benly lost the telescopic forks, gaining instead an Earles-type leading-link front fork with a triangulated swingarm and shock absorbers. More changes for the JC came in 1957 when the 3-speed JC58 was equipped with Honda’s own design bottom leading-link front suspension units and power was boosted to 9.5 horsepower.
In 1959 Honda changed the Benly line with the C92. Instead of the JC’s single-cylinder engine, the C92 had a twin-cylinder, 124cc 4-stroke engine that could rev to 9,500rpm and produced 11.5 horsepower. The C92 was Honda’s first electric-starting motorcycle, the machine that, together with the highly innovative C100 Cub, helped capture the world’s transportation imagination, especially when Honda came to the U.S. in 1959.
Focus on the JC58
In the Honda book Eric discovered in Japan, a rare, Japanese home-market-only JC58 Benly model caught his attention, and it just so happened that Charlie O’Hanlon had one of them.
“On Charlie’s old website there was a photo of his shop in San Francisco [Charlie’s Place is now located in Glendale, California],” Eric says. “In that photo you could see a 1958 JC58 sitting on a shelf in the background. That just felt serendipitous to me — I was so captivated by the bike, and Charlie and I made a deal.”
Charlie takes up the story, “About eight or nine years ago I was presented with the opportunity to get a pair of JC58s out of Japan,” he says. “I bought what I call ‘mine’ first, and then another one followed almost a year later that I put on display, and that’s the one Eric bought.”
Charlie’s personal JC58 was a runner and he’s ridden it a few times, including a pretty slow run on the famous 49-Mile Scenic Ride in San Francisco. Troubles getting the clutch adjusted discouraged him from doing much else. “It took me forever to realize the clutch worked differently on the JC58 than on any other Honda I was familiar with — it has a floating rod that pulls instead of pushes the pressure plates.”
Eric never personally laid eyes on the project JC58 before Charlie completely disassembled it, right down to the last nut and bolt. Charlie says he was working on his own without a reliable source of technical information. To his knowledge, there are no written shop references about the machine. Undaunted, he set to putting everything right on the very tired, but mostly complete, JC58.
As delivered from Japan, all of the long-lost shine on the badly pitted chrome parts had been painted silver. After ensuring everything was straight and any welding or sculptural grinding had been performed, Charlie delivered parts for chroming to Allen Brothers at Global Plating in Fremont, California.
As Charlie recalls, his contact at Global would “look at the pieces and say, ‘This is too far gone, do you have anything else to start from?’ and I’d say, ‘That’s all I’ve got.’ He got it all done, including the gas tank. The guy is just incredible.”
The pressed steel frame was in good condition, Charlie says, because it’s made of thick metal. He adds it would be difficult to dent, unlike later Honda pressed steel frames. Even the hand-rolled front fender is heavy gauge steel, and it wasn’t in terrible shape.
What was in rough shape were the side covers and the two halves of the chaincase that completely encloses the final drive chain. The dents were removed and the bodywork was filled, primed and painted by Jack McCann of Los Angeles, California. Many of the rubber components, including signal light housings, final drive cushion rubbers, the brake pedal pad and the shifter and kickstarter rubbers were sourced from Clauss Studios.
Rubber inspection plugs that fit holes in pieces such as the swingarm and fork lowers proved more difficult to find. While Honda CM91 plugs will fit in a pinch, Charlie says they’re not quite right. He had new ones made by a local company that produces one-off items for the film industry.
One piece that proved difficult to replace was the unique saddle mount that features molded rubber fused around two separate pieces of metal, one that bolts to the frame and the other to the nose of the saddle. While crusty, the original was restored by scraping off years of detritus before a layer of silicone was applied and sculpted to shape. The film industry folks did this job, too, and painter McCann finished it to look like a brand-new rubber part.
The engine wasn’t seized, but the piston was in terrible condition. The JC58 125cc pushrod engine features a cast iron head and cylinder while the alloy crankcases are split vertically, housing a pressed-up crankshaft and roller big end bearing. Lubrication is by a plunger pump feeding a series of brass pipes to deliver oil directly to the cylinder head, crankshaft and clutch, with oil carried in the crankcase.
The intake valve is on the right-hand side of the head and the exhaust is directly opposite on the left. Pistons of the correct size were available, but Charlie couldn’t find any with the exhaust valve cutout in the right position, so he had a modern replacement piston including rings, wrist pin and clips manufactured by JE Pistons. All the gaskets were cut by hand and the seals came from a company called North American Seal & Supply in Cleveland, Ohio, as suggested by Ohio Cycle.
For rolling stock, Charlie re-chromed the rims that were on the bike while Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim made special thin-gauge, non-shouldered spokes to match the originals. The brake drums were machined and the shoes, which had plenty of lining left, were cleaned and reinstalled.
A specialty of Charlie’s is repairing Honda horns. He took the JC58’s apart, cleaned and repaired it, and put it back together so the 6-volt hooter functions correctly.
Charlie estimates that 75 percent of the clutch was remade by NS Manufacturing, a machinist neighbor of Charlie’s in Glendale. “Not to second-guess Honda, but I made some changes to the design,” he says. “In my opinion, the drive plates were too thin, and the friction discs were too thick. I evened things up, and made thicker driven plates and used thinner friction discs from a later CB125. NS modified the inner hub significantly to accommodate the changes.” The clutch was a challenge, but the revisions have made a significant difference in operation.
As you’d expect, Charlie made sure the Honda runs properly, too. “The JC58 is kickstart-only, and the operation of the points is odd as they sit to one side of the flywheel. A short rod runs off an eccentric lobe off one end of the camshaft and that opens and closes the points and there’s no advance mechanism, but Eric’s starts up very easily with the Amal carb and it idles very well. My bike feels like a clunker while Eric’s bike is so smooth,” Charlie says. “Underway, there’s a giant jump between second and third gear. I wasn’t trying to break any speed records with it, but it’s a fun, very comfortable bike to ride.”
Neither Charlie nor Eric is certain how many J-type Benlys are in the U.S., but they both figure perhaps fewer than 15. Some estimates for total production overall are as low as 450 models. Because the machine is so rare, Eric plans to store the finished Benly in his apartment. But that doesn’t mean it will never be seen.
“I don’t want to hide it away,” he says. “I’d want to see a Honda like this out and about if somebody else had it.” And, just like the Blue Man Group “wow” the world with their performances, Eric knows the JC58 would do the same in the motorcycle community. “I will take the Benly out and ride it to bike shows where it can be seen and enjoyed.” MC