Motorcycle Classics

On the Road: Riding with Dad on a Honda CB750

Editor’s note: The following story, submitted by Bill Keena, is the latest installment of a new feature called “On the Road.” Plain and simple, “On the Road” is an opportunity for motorcycle riders to become motorcycle writers, and share the stories and photos from their favorite motorcycle road trips. If you’d like to submit a story and photos for consideration, just e-mail MC Associate Editor Landon Hall with the subject line “On the Road.” 

He was loud – his hearing was screwed up from all those shells that went off near his ear while loading an anti aircraft gun on a battleship in WWII.

He was gruff – maybe because he lost his youth at 17 when he went to the Pacific to fight in WWII.

But he was never happier or more relaxed than when riding motorcycles.

And of all the motorcycles he ever had, from sputtering, clapped out Indians as a kid through his last one a few years before he died, there was one that stood above all others: his Honda CB750. That’s why I had to have one.

Dad’s first Honda CB750
Dad actually had two of the early CB750’s – the first was an early 1969 KO model he picked up from John Larrabee in Manchester Connecticut. John was an old dirt tracker my Dad knew and when he started up a little motorcycle shop in an unused gas station and threw a couple Dreams and Superhawks on the floor no one thought Honda was going to go very far. By the time the 750 came in my dad had wrung out a succession of Superhawks and Black Bombers and was a believer.

We didn’t see much of Dad the summer of ’69. He came home from his work at the insurance company at precisely 4:30 p.m. and dinner was at 5 p.m. By 5:45 p.m. the garage door was open and Dad and his Honda were gone.

He would come back around 8:30 p.m. or so and had a strange smile on his face and a wistful look in his eye – kind of like a kid who had just done something fun but improper.

We never knew where he went, but one weekend he was gone longer than usual. When he returned there was something bungied down on the back of his seat. It was a trophy from the Connecticut Valley Dragway – first in class. He was smiling more than usual and he carefully taped a card on the bottom of the trophy that had a measurement  in seconds followed by the words “quarter mile” on it.

When asked about it he gave the usual response “If you tell your mother about this I will kill you.” He said it with a slight twinkle but I was never sure how serious he was and didn’t want to find out.

I asked him about it years later and he looked off in to the distance and recalled in soft tones his personal summer of love – racing every Brit bike in the surrounding area and pasting them all. He told me about hanging out at the local burger joint while men would bring their bikes to challenge the 750. “I couldn’t be touched that summer,” he told me. “It made some of those guys so mad they sold their bikes for a Honda like mine” he said proudly. And he was right – I can distinctly recall people showing up at the house with to show him their new 750 Honda’s – his friend Herbie, our uncle John and pretty much anyone serious about riding that he knew. Back at the gas station now known as Manchester Honda, John Larrabee was selling lots of Hondas and was pleased. He was also getting rich.

Dad quickly used that first 750 up and when he met with some poorly placed sand washed in to the middle of a country road the bike went down and made the decision for him that a 1971 CB750 needed to be ordered ASAP.

Dad’s next Honda CB750
The new bike was Candy Gold and I remember how large it seemed when compared to the 450’s and smaller bikes Dad had placed in our garage. Sometimes he would have me sit on it while he worked arcane magics on its innards using gauges he suspended above the carburetors. Holding the throttle at a fixed RPM was critical and took all of my concentration. I prayed that the 750 would have mercy on my plebian self and not pop into gear and squirt into the street during those times. On the other hand I also secretly vowed to master this mighty machine when I had come into my own.

Then there were the longer rides, when Dad would go away on the bike for a couple of days – off to Laconia or down the Blue Ridge from CT all the way to Winterhaven, Florida where the sun was so bright that my grandfather’s white patent leather shoes could not be gazed upon with the naked eye.

Whenever I pack my the three big hard bags on my FJ1300 sport tourer I remember Dad’s prep for a trip – one extra pair of socks, two pairs of underwear, a tooth brush, toothpaste and a comb. All of this tucked in to a Dopp kit he unceremoniously strapped to the back of the seat with a bungee cord. A “leather shirt ” served as his jacket and an open face helmet and goggles were the extent of the riding gear he wore. His pockets contained a wallet, a pack of Kents, matches and cigarette filter that made him look like Roosevelt. His wallet bulged from his back pocket, rubber banded for safety, lest it’s contents burst forth. And that was it. Other than these few concessions to necessity he could be sitting in his living room. His departure was simple – he started the bike, looked at me and left. No words were needed from the old vet, it was the same look when a soldier goes out on a mission.

I sure did want to go with him.

My own CB750
Fast forward from 1971 to now –  a four decade span. The CB750s are collector items. Dad is on a bike trip from which he will not return, his last motorcycle long gone. And me – I always kept the riding faith but never rode nor mastered that mighty 750 that loomed in my youth. Until, one day I was fishing around on eBay and saw a CB750 for sale that looked like it was in pretty good shape and was offered for a pretty low amount. Next thing you know I have a 1971 CB750 in my garage, my wife asking me when I was going to mention all this to her.

I throw a leg over it and my first impression is shock at how much it has shrunk. The mammoth of my youth is a mini of my middle age! The tank that towered above my head is now well below it. The bike is actually narrow between my legs and lo and behold – not even heavy! My FJ is larger and much heavier than this little thing! After the shock wears off a bit and I convince myself this is not a two-thirds replica, reality sets in. This bike is a lot less attractive mechanically than was noted in the “irrational exuberance” of the online description. This thing has the wrong back wheel (18″ rather than 17″) and it is causing the tire to shred itself on the torsion bar. Gas spews forth from the float bowls and the brakes are an old Polaroid that has been sitting in the sun; there is a vague impression that there was once something there but it faded long ago. The list goes on: battery dead, new battery dying because no charge comes from the Alternator. Clutch and transmission shot. Fenders dented, turn signal posts rusted, two left forks installed, missing grab bar, loose valves, American nuts and bolts forced on where proper Honda metric tidbits should have been, wrong shocks, etc. And the side covers are KO, not K1.

Still, I have not made it through all these years without some wear and tear, and I can’t expect this old warrior to have done so either. Plus, every Dad loves their own kid faults and all and somewhere in that garage the memory of what this bike should be overtook the reality of what it was and I decide to adopt her. Looking back, that is exactly where they should have locked me up until the fever passed.

Proof that it was all meant to be comes when I immediately luck out and find the one guy who can really help me get this thing back in shape: Dave Hunter at Honda of Norfolk, Va. A real Honda “wrench” in a real Honda shop. I knew I had found the right place the moment I went there, for it is so different than the spit and polish of other bike shops these days, where the “lifestyle apparel” occupies more floor space than the bikes. The shop is littered with parts, detritus, manuals and bikes that span the history of Honda in America. See that 305 over there? She’s real and she’s a runner. Check out that CT70 or the 1970 350 – with zero miles on it. Sure you can touch it – you ain’t gonna hurt it. The place smells just like the old gas station Mr. Larrabee and his mechanic, Archie, used to occupy. If there is a heaven for bikes it must look and smell something like this. And I bet my dad can be found there, too – when he isn’t out riding.

That’s Dave and Honda of Norfolk. I asked him if he knew and loved old 750’s. He looked me square in the eye as if I was St. Peter at the gates and said “Well I had better – I been fixing them and riding them for forty years now” Jackpot. I had my man.

I told Dave what I wanted – a dead stock, safe 1971 Honda 750. I told him I had to be able to ride this bike and that my theory is a bike ain’t a bike unless it can – and does – hit the open road.

Dave said I would need patience to resuscitate the CB. The next six months proved how right he was. For each repair undertaken another botch or slapdash effort was uncovered. This poor old bike had been tarted up but didn’t have the go to match the show. I became Dave’s part hunter, scouring eBay for ridiculously expensive bits of metal (Fifty four bucks for a stinking ignition bracket? Sigh. Hold nose, place bid, pay up, wait for UPS to come).

My wife wasn’t fooled one bit. In fact I have learned that she possess an incredibly accurate ability to know how much I have spent even when I have used the utmost discretion in my purchasing (including but not limited to charging it on the card I always pay off, feathering in the costs, spacing the deliveries, etc.) I decided to keep a spreadsheet of purchases and quickly exceeded what I paid for the bike – and she knew it full well. If NASA had the kind of targeting skill she has we could have made the moon without windows on the spacecraft.

My weekly pilgrimage to visit my bike got more exciting as shiny new bits were festooned upon it and a wicked little thought started to grow within me. What if I took a ride like Dad did – nothing more than what I could readily bungee on the back, hit the Blue Ridge he loved so much, wear some vintage looking (but better padded for safety) gear and see if this old Honda remembers when the world was young? I know – it’s old iron, the chain could stretch or break, it’s a show piece classic with all these tasty and expensive NOS (New Old Stock) bits on it that are very hard to replace. Still, it would be the ride I never had with Dad – and on his old bike.

When the vintage plate came in with Dad’s initials on them (RHK), the year (71) and in colors that matched the bike, I knew I really wanted to make that ride happen. Finally, in late Spring, I was able to do so.

Riding with dad
So there I was, the amateur historian and motorcycle rider, like my father before me, on the road to the Blue Ridge and Skyline drive of Virginia. As with most things with me, history is entirely personal. Therefore it is not strange (to me) that I turn from the consideration of my father riding this same road on his motorcycle nearly three decades ago to the Wilderness campaign fought here in the Civil War. I think about a ramrod strict VMI instructor named Jackson (whose lectures were usually recited from notes and considered boring) who thought he was the living instrument of God, and, as a Confederate General with a vastly smaller force but incredible discipline and knowledge of this terrain, foiled the Union army time and again throughout this “Wilderness” that surrounds me. I am on a beautiful cut of road that stretches across the mountains of western Virginia astride a motorcycle with Ipod music, while the soldiers who fought here lived on hard tack and force marched through uncleared terrain.

I think about life then; the Civil War is one of a select group of subjects I have studied long enough to have a clear sense of presence about. This means I have dreamt about it and, even awake, can pretty easily strip back the years and see these smaller, dirty, ill fed soldiers who have little experience of the world beyond their homes and less schooling, now ready to die for the cause. I see them eating terrible food, sleeping outside here in this terrain, grateful for moderate weather and determined against the tougher sort that often came. I remember from my military time trying to sleep in the cold or in the rain and I pity their struggles’ and worse, their losses. I think about the chaos of the Civil War battlefield, the sense I have of the two sides throwing human flesh into the argument and shattering it with weaponry far ahead of the tactics of the time. I think of the trenches that still surround Richmond , to the east of me, where Appomattox signaled the beginning of the end of the war and foreshadowed the modern horrors of trenches, machine guns and total war that followed in 1917. How the world must have found us mad to slaughter ourselves so indiscriminately.

It is not surprising for my thoughts to wander to my Dad because they often do when I ride. My dad was a dedicated bike rider for the better part of his life and a little bit of family archaeology quickly uncovers a long succession of pictures of motorcycles with my Dad astride them, from the pre-war models to the Superhawks, Black Bombers, 750s and others of later years.

In fact, in a world where form follows essence he would have rather been a bike rather than inhabit the ravaged body he carried. A straightforward, no-nonsense bike with nothing superfluous on it and no apologies made for lack of styling or finesse. All function, no filigree. Strong motor, stiff frame, no fairing, good brakes and sure handling – that was Dad. I can even date him as a solid 750 from the late sixties or early seventies –  the heyday of his riding career, when his Honda was faster (With him on it) than anyone at the local coffee shop.

And every motorcycle wants to be on the road, as all things seek their purpose. So it was with my dad, who needed to move.

While every father is a mystery to his son, I somehow understood my dad’s wanderlust, sharing it from the start. When he would stand in the house looking out the window at a snowstorm I knew it was only a matter of time before he would be compelled to get in the car and drive. Drugstore or coffee shop, it really didn’t matter where, he just had to get out. And if allowed, I would be right next to him, content to be in his company, on some vague adventure. That’s why I never questioned why he often would get up from dinner, look around like an old bloodhound searching for a scent and then depart on his motorcycle for parts unknown. I never questioned why he did it, I just wanted to go with him. Mom didn’t understand, but then no woman who loves her man ever has all that she wants of him. Either she gets mad about it or accepts it but it doesn’t change.

And while I did go with him on occasion I was too young to ride next to him until he was told old to ride next to me. So it goes.

Nevertheless, he is with me when I ride and therefore I never ride alone. Can’t help it and don’t want to.

A month ago it was grey, brown and cold and winter had been overstaying it’s welcome. Stuffy noses, winter colds and cabin fever were the order of the day. Finally sun and the open road have returned and I am marveling at the rediscovery of the things I love about riding:

• Smelling fresh cut grass and (most) everything else
• Speed 
• Being where I can’t be found – or bothered
• Being outside rather than a metal or wooden box 
• Mastering and melding with a beautiful machine 
• Cornering 
• Solitude 
• The sound of the engine and wind
• Contact with the ineffable

And so on. My musings continuing until I see signs for Roanoke.

When I reach Roanoke I pull off the Blue Ridge Parkway to stop at the Star that sits on a hill overlooking the city. I note that I have that I have that special happiness that happens on a good overnight ride – a pleasant cocktail combining hours of low level, but constant, exhilaration mixed with a sense of being in an exotic place and excitement about where it will all take me next. Plus, I get to eat wherever I like. I pause to take a good drink of my mix of feelings and am warmed by them. A picture, pit stop and quick sip of soda then I am back on the road considering how motorcycling took off after men like my dad returned from the war. I don’t think they missed combat but I do think the open road helped them to sort out their experiences and even recapture an echo of the parts that they did like, such as preparing for and executing a mission, the self-sufficiency required of them and being in foreign places.

Back on the Blue Ridge again and I relax, satisfied with my bike, my journey and myself. Inside my helmet I smile a little bit like my dad used to. Middle-agers like my dad was and I am can be loud and gruff, and so can our bikes. We are also funny, loving and a hell of a lot of fun when doing what we enjoy – such as riding.

Back in the sixties they said you meet the nicest people on a Honda. I don’t know about that but I am sure that when on a bike I am definitely nicer. They don’t make people or bikes like they used to. I sure do miss my old man and I am glad to have the company of the old CB750 to remind me why. MC

  • Published on May 20, 2011
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