I have always been fond of flowery ties. In fact, when I was at College, and tie wearing was still encouraged, I had a fantastic crushed red velvet one covered in lovely little yellow, purple and green flowers. I remember sitting in Princes Park, stroking it on a blisteringly hot day in the summer of 1970, whilst holding hands with a very attractive girl and listening to John Lennon’s “Revolution” – and wondering how I was going to change the world for the better when I finally qualified to teach.
The problem was that even in 1970, lovers of crushed velvet flower ties were in a minority and soon I had to move on to more mainstream neck wear. My tie went out with the garbage and my life moved on.
A few weeks ago, I was shopping in the very beautiful city of Chester and looked in the window of a highly fashionable retro shop full of Bakelite phones subtly stuffed with modern electronics, fake enameled shop signs and, taking pride of place in the very center of the display, a cousin of my 1970 velvet flower tie. Woohoo! Velvet is back in fashion. Then I saw the $150 price tag – about what I paid for a very nice Bultaco Pursang motocrosser in 1970. Clearly, the tie stayed where it is was!
In many ways, Honda’s wonderful 350cc Four is the motorcycling sibling of my velvet tie. Cherished and admired by only a very few fans in its day because, just like crushed velvet, it was over-priced and a very much a minority taste. The baby Four stayed unloved, and largely unwanted, for decades and suddenly, just like cute little flowers printed on soft velvet, it’s very much back in favor.
Honda’s four cylinder 350 is, in many ways, a rather strange motorcycle and its oddity is confirmed by the shortness of its production life – just 1972 to 1974. At the time of its launch, it missed every single target – except one, which, after the years rolled by, has turned out to be its ace card.
The legend, or maybe even the truth, attached to the little Honda is this. You have to remember that in 1972 Soichiro, “Pops”, Honda was still very much part of the Honda factory. In every way, he was “hands on” in terms of the business. He was actively involved in engineering decisions, marketing and, perhaps most important of all, was worshiped by the entire Honda staff. 1000 years ago, he would have been deified and would have had his own religion by now: he was that influential.
“Pop’s” fondest memories were of the golden days of Honda racing. It was he, and he alone, who decided that Honda would go Grand Prix racing, after he visited the Isle of Man with Mrs. Honda in 1954. And it was Mr. Honda’s later decision that the factory would build not Twins or Singles but the then incredibly radical 250cc Fours which were to change the face of motorcycle racing forever.
Of these early four cylinder machines, the bike of which he was most fond was the 350 four raced by such Honda icons as Jim Redman and Mike Hailwood. It is small wonder that Mr. Honda was so fond of the 350. In 1965, Redman won every Grand Prix of the season and trounced the European machines every time he started. “Pops” reportedly thought that the 350 was the ultimate GP racing motorcycle – providing an unbeatable combination of light weight, high rpm, good power and torque.
What could be better than to build a tribute to the Honda racers he loved so much, in the form of a 350 Four which would have ease of handling, high rpm, good power and torque – and would be as a smooth as a baby’s bottom?
But there were problems from the start – the main one was created by Honda themselves. The 350 Four’s main opposition came from Honda’s own 325cc CB350 Twin. This little twin cylinder gem was the best-selling American motorcycle during the company’s classic period and for good reason.
The bike was easy to ride, bomb-proof reliable, simple to maintain and cheap to buy. Better still, it was lighter than the “4” and produced more power. Better, better still was that the 325 Twin shared many parts with its smaller 250cc brother – in stark contrast to the 350 “4” which was almost completely unique. And finally, and even more better as an accolade to the Twin, if that was possible, the four cylinder engine cost much more to manufacture than the Twin – and at a whopping 136 pounds was also heavier.
The 347cc four cylinder engine takes most of its engineering cues from its bigger brothers – the 550 and 750 fours. This means a hugely expensive, one-piece crankshaft with five plain bearings: fabulous for longevity but a poisoned chalice in terms of costs for a mid-range motorcycle.
In fact, lots of bits and pieces on the 350 would have been at home on bigger bikes. The four individual exhausts look and sound wonderful but added weight, and costs to the bike, and the chassis is a heavy, complicated thing compared to the twins.
If things weren’t rosy on the technical or economic fronts the “4” did exceed all expectations in one respect: it was the most civilized motorcycle of its time. The engine is electric smooth all the way up to the 10,000 rpm redline and the power curve is gentle and progressive. Cruising down to the golf club in your Armani sunglasses and calf skin loafers was never more elegantly achieved than on board a 350 Four.
Sophistication apart, the Four is rather a good motorcycle too. It handled very well, never tried to bite the rider and the only fault was that the disc pads of the time did not particularly like gripping the stainless steel front disc.
In terms of appearance, it was not one of the most breathtakingly beautiful motorcycles of its generation but neither was it ugly. Rather, the conservative metal flake colors added a touch of class to what, at $1100, was not a cheap motorcycle.
None of this mattered to motorcyclists who did rather harsh comparisons. They didn’t cruise down to the golf club, or the yoga class, and their sunglasses were from Oakley not Armani. What they wanted was power, performance and price. Smoothness and sophistication were after thoughts. After two years of production, the elegant 350 Four was phased out. Despite all its virtues it was simply not man enough to find an economic number of buyers.
Thirty-five years on, things are very different. That long haired hippy who spent all his time grinding the center stand away on his bikes, surfing and chasing girls is now a Bank Manager with his first grandchild on the way. What he wants today is to cruise down to see his daughter on…Yes, you’ve guessed it: a gentle, elegant, non-threatening and so, so smooth classic motorcycle. In fact, what he wants is a Honda 350 Four.
This phenomenon explains the recent hike in the price of these sophisticated motorcycles. Five years ago, $1000 would have bought you a stunning example. Now, expect to triple or quadruple this – and then some – for a really nice bike and in my opinion, this still undervalues what is one of Honda’s best ever motorcycles.
So, what do you get for your $4000 or $5000? First, last and middle is sophistication. Very few classic motorcycles feel as upmarket as a 350 Four. In terms of power and performance, the 350 will keep up with modern traffic flow and, State Troopers permitting, will allow a genuine 70mph cruising with maybe another 20mph spare.
With modern tires, the handling really is very good and again with the upgrade of the latest disc pads, the twin discs are excellent.
Finally, there is ample room for you – and your life partner too.
Against this, for the same price you could have something like a 250cc BSA Starfire which looks great and, in classic bike fantasy land, performs much better than the Honda – providing you never start it.