Triumph may have defined the classic “desert sled,” but for a lot of American riders, the Honda CL77 was the better dirt bike.
Don Johnson's 1967 Honda CL77.
Years produced: 1965-1967
Claimed power: 27.4hp @ 9,000rpm
Top speed: 85mph (est.)
Engine type: 305cc air-cooled SOHC parallel twin
Weight (dry): 319lb (145kg)
Price then: $707 (1967)
Price now: $2,500-$4,000
MPG: 40-60mpg (est.)
Don Johnson looked at the Honda CL77 in the back of the truck. He had driven a lot of miles to pick up the two-wheeler he had “won” on an online auction, and here it was, old and tired, and not at all as advertised.
Even though the auction photos didn’t show the actual color of the chassis, which was in reality the wrong shade of red, it still wasn’t the bike Don expected. The photos also didn’t reveal the useless wiring harness and the bodged repairs all over the bike, which was supposed to have been a more or less stock 1967 Honda CL77. “The threads on Honda mirrors are two sizes, 8mm and 10mm. Someone took a grinder to the threads on the mirrors of this bike so they could jam them in the holes, wrecking both the mirrors and the holes they screw into. That’s just one example of what this bike was like,” Don says.
Looking closer, Don was within an inch of tearing up his cashiers check and going home. But nostalgia is a powerful thing, and the mistreated little critter in the truck looked too much like the bike he had owned many years ago when he was stationed with the Army on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. He took the Honda CL77, knowing he was in for a whole lot more work than he had anticipated.
It was during World War II that American riders really became familiar with British motorcycles. This was also when American riders started getting introduced to British offroad competition events such as trials and scrambles, the ancestor of today’s motocross. As offroad riding surged in popularity in the U.S., trials and scrambles joined enduro and desert racing as popular weekend motorcycling activities for riders here.
But competitive motorcycles for these forms of competition weren’t available from the dealer showroom floor. Early on, American enthusiasts competed mostly on heavily modified but still heavyweight V-twins. British singles — which also needed a lot of work to be competitive — became available later, but prior to the first Honda imports in 1959, any small, lightweight motorcycle available to the average American was typically low tech and gutless.
When Honda entered the U.S. market in 1959, it spent a lot of time and energy expanding the market for motorcycles in the United States, convincing Americans that nice people rode around on two wheels. Honda’s success opened the door for other Japanese manufacturers, who started offering high powered models designed specifically for the American. As interest in offroad riding continued to build, Honda turned its attention to designing lightweight, powerful bikes that would excel in the dirt.
The first CL77s were imported into the United States in 1965. They were a dual-sport version (then known as scramblers) of the CB77 Super Hawk, a 305cc overhead cam parallel twin. The Super Hawk had been on the American market since 1961, two years after Honda had established its import arm in Los Angeles.
When it first showed up, the Super Hawk created a stir in enthusiast circles. In 1961, double-leading-shoe brakes and electric starters were rare features, and overhead cam engines were typically only seen on race bikes. Period testers were surprised by the Super Hawk’s oil-tight power train and 105mph top speed, and impressed by its engine’s ball-and-roller-bearing supported crankshaft.
In 1962, Honda brought over a 250cc scrambler, the CL72, and enlisted Honda dealers Dave Ekins and Bill Robertson, Jr. to ride the new model on a 963 miles offroad blast from Tijuana to La Paz, in a forerunner of the Baja 1000. They made it in just under 40 hours. The 250 scrambler soon became available at retail, but for several years the only 305 Hondas available in the U.S. were the low-compression touring Dream and the high-compression sporty Super Hawk, neither of which performed well off road.
In 1965, Honda finally decided there was an American market for a 305cc scrambler. Cycle World immediately tested the bike and liked it, even through it was not the production racer they had hoped for. Cycle World referred to the CL77 as a “gentleman’s scrambler,” stating, “It is, in fact, the appeal of scrambler-type styling that sells the CL77.” Period testers found the CL to be too heavy for competition and not as fast as the CB, but perfectly adequate for both offroad fun and reliably getting to work.
The four-stroke engine was almost identical to that used in the CB77 Super Hawk, with the same aluminum cases and chain-driven overhead cam. A lower compression ratio to aid low rpm power was allied to long, upswept pipes to assist ground clearance, and reliability was ensured by full-flow oil filtration.
Unlike the Super Hawk, which used the engine as a stressed member of the frame, the CL had a heavy duty single downtube cradle frame, topped by a small silver gas tank and protected underneath by a steel skid plate. The front brake was smaller in diameter than the one on the Super Hawk and the steel wheels were 19 inchers, with deep ribs to resist dents. Large air filters and a battery were tucked up under the seat. The CB’s electric starter was omitted in the interest of saving weight.
Later models of the Honda CL77 got bigger front and rear brakes and a better muffler, but not a whole lot of other changes. The bike was a best seller as it was, and Honda didn’t want to mess with success until it had a worthy successor. The last CL77s were built in 1967, although, as was common at the time, some CL77s were registered in 1968 and titled as 1968 models. By then, Honda had introduced the new 325cc CB350, including a scrambler version, the CL350.
Honda twins like the CB77 and CL77 were the motorcycles many people learned to ride on, rode to school on and used for on and offroad weekend fun. In the Sixties, college campuses were crowded with small Hondas. Thirty years later, they were among the first collectible Japanese motorcycles, leading people to drag battered old CLs, like the one Don ended up with, out of garages and onto auction sites.
When Don got his project home, he decided the engine and four-speed transmission were in decent enough shape to stay in one piece. “If the engine starts, runs, idles nicely and doesn’t make funny noises, I don’t mess with it. I tuned it up a little, that was all,” he says.
With the power train squared away, Don started searching for all the cycle parts the bike needed. He found an original seat still with original paint on the underside and matched it. “I talked to several people who worked for Honda retailers in the Sixties,” Don explains. “They said when they lined up the bikes for sale, they were different colors of orangy red. This bike is probably one of several shades of red that were used.”
Thanks to their popularity when new and high interest in them today, parts for CL77s are available if you know where to look. Don, who has been restoring bikes for a while, knows who to call in the old bike network. His local Honda dealer had some parts, but one of the best sources was a knowledgeable fellow collector and friend, Ed Moore. Other pieces were sourced from Western Hills Honda and Ohio Cycle, another old Honda specialist.
After Don had the frame powder coated and got the chrome back from the platers, he started rebuilding the little bike, treating it to a new wiring harness and a lot of new-old-stock components. Most of the rubber is new, while the seat was put together from pieces of four different seats. “There’s a guy in Reno, Nev., Bob Abney, who does seats. He did a wonderful job with this one. He got the contours perfect.” The tank should have a welded seam down the middle, the headlight ring should have an adjuster screw and the adjusters for the brake and clutch levers are wrong, but the bike is otherwise correct.
When the Honda CL77 was finally back together Don wheeled the bike out, kicked it to life and rode off. He was, he says, somewhat disappointed in its lack of power and acceleration. “I had to remind myself that in the last 40 years, I have gotten used to big, modern touring bikes. I ride a 2008 Kawasaki Concours. The Honda is only a 305, and you can’t compare it.”
After that initial adjustment, Don learned to enjoy the bike for what it is. “I have been riding it to the local Bike Night. You never know what is going to show up. I shoot the breeze, get something to eat, and ride it home. I have taken it off road a little bit. It’s a fun bike to ride around town. It will do 55 or 60 on the road, and it hasn’t really shown me any shortcomings other that I seem to find several false neutrals in the gearbox.”
Adding to the fun is the small number of hours a CL owner has to spend on maintenance. Don says that aside from making sure all nuts and bolts are tight, the bike requires little maintenance. He changes the oil before winter comes, and connects the batter to a tender for the winter.
“The Honda is light and maneuverable, and it brings me back to when I was 21 years old, when I was young and crazy and invincible. I used to do jumps on it. The other guys would dare me to jump a canal, and I would do it. The speed limit off the base was 60kph, about 36mph. I was speeding around and got stopped by a Japanese policeman. I could actually speak good Japanese, but decided I would be better off pretending not to. The cop tried to talk to me, gave up, and finally pointed to my bike and said “Heavy speed.” I smiled, patted my gas tank and said “Yes! Heavy speed!” He decided I was crazy, gave up and let me go.
“In those days, a Honda Scrambler was a very desirable motorcycle, and it is still adequate for the job. You just have to keep in mind that it is only 305cc, and the suspension only has three or four inches of travel, and the brakes are not as good as modern brakes. You just have to take it with a nostalgic grain of salt.” And if you do just that, Don says, you’ll find you have one of the nicest motorcycles ever made. MC