Based of the four-cylinder racer that dominated Grand Prix at the hands of Jim Redman and Mike Hailwood, the CB 350 Four was a short-lived design, surviving only two years after its 1972 debut.
It’s strange how time changes perspective. Remember how you used to hate fish for dinner? Now, cod bake is your favorite meal. How disgusting was it seeing old people, like your Mom and Dad, kiss? Today, what’s better in the world than walking down the beach holding hands with the woman who has been your life-long partner?
Honda’s four-cylinder 350 was a bike just like this. 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 “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 worshipped by all Honda staff. A thousand 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 350cc 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 Europeans 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.
Honda was its own worst enemy when it cam to the 350 Four, as many riders were unwilling to give up their cheaper Honda CB350 Twins.
What 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 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 bike was the best-selling American bike in 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 if that was possible, the four-cylinder engine cost much more to manufacture than the Twin – and at a whopping 136 lbs was also heavier.
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 10,000rpm 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 “4” is rather a good motorcycle too. It handled reasonably 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. 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 by way of afterthoughts. After two years of production, the elegant 350 “4” 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. Now, what he wants 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 double 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.
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