Mighty adventure bikes belie the humble beginnings of scramblers of 50 years ago.
It’s a curious feeling. It’s been a while since I’ve ridden a motorcycle on th road, and at age 61, I’m not sure how I would feel about doing it again after the absence. We self-employed learn not to get too attached to our toys, so, during a slow business period, my collection of seven Italian thoroughbreds was sold, one by one. Now in Australia are my ‘69 Guzzi V7 Ambassador and ‘72 Guzzi V7 Sport. International shipping, it turns out, is cheaper than imagined. All that’s left is a 1964 Honda CT200 Trail 90 project, picked up as a nonrunner at a yard sale, as one might take in a stray dog. The Honda is one of the few bikes that found me, rather than vice versa. Not exactly MV Agusta performance, but even if I get it running, it’s unlikely to kill me. My Brutale had a strong chance of doing just that, each time I took it out. While riding it was always an intoxicating experience, that I somehow managed to survive it seems more miraculous as time passes.
Ownership has always been about the experience. I’ve had the fortune to ride some incredible motorcycles, and drive some obscenely expensive supercars, but owning a vehicle is an entirely different thing. It places certain limitations on most budgets, but that needn’t be a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be a Hispano Suiza or Brough Superior. There’s fun to be had at all levels. The little Honda clearly belongs in the “cheap and cheerful” category, with a budget of zero, it provided a project. It’s been two years since I purchased and dismantled it, so the target has progressed from “get it running” to “can I remember where all the bits go?”
There was plenty of enthusiasm at the beginning, but a just-out- of-warranty pressure washer became an unexpected distraction for which I could muster little enthusiasm. Both jobs were left behind, and both piles of parts were eventually swept into a heap. It’s likely that certain parts will prove to be deficient on reassembly, and that surplus parts will turn up months after both items have left my possession. The Honda will go, complete and running, however long it takes, but the pressure washer is likely destined for the sledgehammer.
Whatever off-road aspirations the Honda has are mostly down to knobby tires, an upswept exhaust silencer, and a curious low-geared secondary sprocket, on which it seems unlikely the bike would even reach walking speed. The rest is pure commuter. The interest in riding it is only marginally greater than my mountain bike, which hasn’t seen any action in 10 years. The Honda is unlikely to remain in the stable for long.
Considering a replacement, and respecting the ideal status of staying alive, a classic scrambler (preferably with more than 90cc) would fit the bill nicely. And while most Japanese products are ultimately disposable, they did knock out a few models in the ‘60s and ‘70s that are distinctly collectible. Scramblers are light, simple and reasonably dependable. Compared to most modern trail bikes, the seat height is relatively low, making them appealing to those shorter of leg. A high saddle also becomes increasingly challenging with age.
Values have been rising steadily, but most can still be had for the price of a modern commuter. Those that need a little work can be surprisingly affordable, although not all spare parts are readily available. Find one that has been spared any serious off-road use, and it’s unlikely to be a financial loss when the time comes to move it on. The plethora of scramblers currently churned out to meet the demand for budget bikes with a distinct image has diluted the appeal of the real classics. Simply tacking a high-rise pipe covered in exhaust wrap onto an otherwise boring small commuter bike hardly puts it in the same category, though.
Modern Chinese interpretations may tick all the boxes on paper, but they lack the emotion inherent in the older Japanese bikes. Those offered a combination of rugged simplicity with almost sensual curves in the silencer, juggling the balance of clearing both the frame and the rider’s inside leg. These little bikes oozed charm, and were entirely different beasts from the gritty utilitarian dominance of a Husqvarna, Bultaco or Greeves. The knobby tires gave a hint of machismo, despite a slender form and some delicate-looking tubing, by modern standards. All “big four” Japanese manufacturers produced some form of scrambler or trail bike starting in the 1960s. So did Hodaka and Bridgestone, if you’re looking for something more unusual, and are good at making your own spare parts. Honda started the whole thing rolling in Japan, with the 250cc CL72 in 1962, followed three years later by the now highly desirable 305cc CL77. European scramblers had already been around for decades.
The CL series continued to expand up to 450cc, although models were often a trail-bike version of an existing CB street model. The more off-road biased SL series followed. Finally, the XL, starting with the 250 in 1972 and a 500 being added three years later. Kawasaki seemed hesitant in applying the theme to street-legal models. The company introduced the 123cc two- stroke “Red Tank” B8M in 1963, which trounced the competition to take the top six wins in the all-Japanese Motocross Championships that year. The 238cc F21M “Green Streak” followed in 1968, an off-the-peg scrambler, complete with the now-familiar green livery that has since become a Kawasaki trademark. The industry’s first production motocross model, the KX250, followed in 1974. However, these were all dedicated off-road models. The original road-legal ‘tribute’ models were mostly regular Kawasaki street bikes with certain offroad characteristics, and information is sketchy. The 85cc J1T and J1TL were essentially the standard J1 or J1D (electric start), with an upswept exhaust, chrome ront mudguard and a smaller chain cover. That was it. The bike even came with whitewall street tires.
By the late ‘60s, it had sported a high front mudguard and knobby tires, and looked more the part, but it was still a half-hearted compromise. The same seems to be true for the 100cc D1/D1T, 125cc B1/B1T, 175cc F1/F1T and so on. Things got slightly more serious with the A1SS Samurai, but it was still the old formula of street bikes with high pipes. Even the tires were back to pure street. If BSA, Norton and Triumph could get away with it to sell a handful of extra bikes, then why not?
In 1973, Kawasaki finally introduced a dual-purpose bike that looked built for the job. Even if the 100cc G5 ‘Bighorn’ rear mudguard did appear borrowed from a 1971 Harley-Davidson FX Super Glide. Things went ‘K’ from the KS125 (successor to the F6, and the KE from 1976), but they were all still two-strokes. By that time, the company had exhausted the alphabet, and confused all their customers.
Suzuki was more consistent in nomenclature, running the T-series (Trail or Trials) across the board, albeit with additional letters for sub-groups, such as TM (Motocross), TC (Trail), and TF (Farm, with an optional plow and milking machine). Then, to spoil things, Suzuki threw in the DS (Dirt Sport), presumably for mud-wrestling enthusiasts. The TS series became the main dual-sport version, coming on the scene in 1969. As with the TC, available from 50cc to 400cc, and all were two-strokes.
Yamaha offered the two-stroke DTseries from 1968 in 50cc to 400cc variants, augmented by the four-stroke XT series in The XT500, and its TT Enduro sibling, were quite formidable machines at the time. Although the XT was built in number, they are also highly collectible today. By the late 1970s, plastic had started to appear in place of metal, such as the mudguards, and the scrambler morphed into a new generation of dual purpose machines. Headlamp fairings, side panel number roundels and other clutter polluted the simple purity of the earlier designs.
With water cooling came radiator scoops, which altered the visual balance, and filled up all the spaces that had previously generated a sense of lightness. With the pretentious Paris-Dakar trappings went the simple honesty of the earlier scramblers, and along with it, the charm. Such is progress, which also creates demand for nostalgia. Fortunately, we have access to both.
– By Glynn Kerr