Backmarker: Mann’s Missing Honda Part 3

October 17, 2013
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Manns 1970 team  reunited in Paris in 2003  with Daniels motorcycle. L-R: Ron Robbins  mechanic; Bob Hansen  crew chief; Bob Jamieson  mechanic.
Mann’s 1970 team, reunited in Paris in 2003, with Daniel’s motorcycle. L-R: Ron Robbins, mechanic; Bob Hansen, crew chief; Bob Jamieson, mechanic.

If you’ve read the last two installments of Backmarker (Mann’s Missing Honda Part 1 and Part 2) you remember that the 1970 Daytona 200 featured the most amazing starting grid in the history of the event. The Harley-Davidson XR750 (actually the XRTT, in road racing guise) was all-new, though in Milwaukee’s tried-and-true V-Twin configuration. The BSA Rocket 3 and Triumph Trident Triples were also brand-new. There were at least two ex-World Champions among the riders; Mike Hailwood and Ralph Bryans, pitted against future US Hall of Famers like Romero, Mann and Rayborn. But the real drama came when Honda uncrated four “CB750 Racing Types.”

Although three of the factory Hondas failed to finish, Dick Mann won on the fourth, and that was all anyone remembered. Honda’s win established the Honda 750 Four as the dominant 750, at a time when the BSA and Triumph Triples, not to mention the Norton Commando, were all still threats in the marketplace.

Mann’s deal with Honda was for one race only. Honda had not intended the 750 Four to be used as a race bike at all, and they had no intention of racing in other AMA events later that year. So the fascination with Mann’s Honda was piqued by the way it simply disappeared after Daytona.

Two of the Daytona Hondas were sent to France, where they were fitted with lights and used in endurance races until they were, for racing purposes, used up. At least one of them was crashed and burned. The other was forgotten, and gathered dust in a Paris Honda dealer’s storage shed. Eventually a Parisian body shop owner and motorcycle nut bartered for it and began a long, loving restoration of the machine to its original Daytona specification.

Patrick Bodden and I met the owner, Daniel Mercier, in the summer of 2003. Bodden is an expert on Honda’s US racing heritage, but he was unable to confirm if the machine was, as Daniel claimed, the Dick Mann bike. Together, we arranged for the bike to be temporarily displayed at the Paris Musee des Arts et Metiers (sort of a French Smithsonian) and Bodden brought Mann’s 1970 Daytona team (crew chief Bob Hansen and mechanics Bob Jamieson and Ron Robbins) over to Paris to examine it.

At the time of the 1970 Daytona 200, all Honda four-cylinder street bikes still had sand-cast cases. Those models are the “sand-cast K0s” that collectors crave. If someone claims to have an authentic one, it’s easy to verify. There are nerds who can painstakingly examine it. These are the sorts of OCD sufferers who know that such-and-such cable was gray not black, or that in some particular year, turn-signal lenses had a certain prismatic pattern molded into them.

Since every machine came off the assembly line the same, if you can find the right expert, the question, “Is it authentic?” has a definitive answer. That answer is often buttressed by the fact that stock bikes have serial numbers and supporting documentation that can be matched with factory production records, if you want to build an ironclad case.

Ron Robbins remembered welding on the bike’s frame. The
characteristic smell made it easy for him to tell the factory frame
was chrome-molybdenum steel and not the mild steel Honda
used for the stock CB750 frames.

It’s not like that for old race bikes. They didn’t roll off an assembly line identical to one another; they were hand-built with inevitable tiny differences from machine to machine. Bikes in the same series often had intentional variations, for testing purposes. Even if they were never crashed and rebuilt, factory bikes were different every time they rolled off the truck, as they got a constant stream of updates and tweaks. As they aged, motors and major components were swapped in and out of frames.

“Is that the bike?” becomes a philosophical question that can only be answered by defining “the bike.”

I once asked Kansas City vintage racer Steve Spence (who as far as I know, lives in a cross between a motorcycle museum and a scrap yard) how many bikes he owned. He rolled his eyes and said, “You’d have to devise some kind of points system, with 100 points for a complete bike, some number of points for a frame or complete motor, points for a crankshaft…” That was a good idea, but without agreement on points per part, the vast majority of “authentic” vintage race bikes are an amalgam of correct components (hopefully the major ones like the frame and cases,) NOS parts, and replica bits.

Besides, obviously, wanting his bike to be the actual one Bugsy rode, Daniel believes it is Mann’s machine because a Honda France racing manager told him so. But what does that mean? That the bike arrived in France with Mann’s #2 painted on the fairing? US Honda employees took one of the other Daytona bikes and painted up a #2 fairing for display purposes. So there were at least two real CB750 Racing Type bikes in circulation with the right number.

Or did the Honda France guy know it was Mann’s bike because he knew what serial number frame Mann had ridden? Robbins and Jamieson still had their Daytona setup notes. They’d identified each of the four by the final two digits of the serial number and knew that Mann had ridden #11. The catch was, the frame numbers had been ground off long before Daniel took possession of the bike.

My friend Brian O’Shea has run into this problem in the past. He once pestered an FBI agent to tell him how the federal crime lab re-exposes numbers ground off firearms. The agent told him that a particular acid bath is used. The chemical brings the numbers up because the stamping—even after the numbers have been ground completely away—affects the underlying crystalline structure of the metal.

O’Shea has done this, but it involves stripping the frame and positioning it with the number area horizontal. A small dam is built around that area, and it’s flooded with acid. After a few days, the numbers appear as if by magic. Of course, the steering head is damaged in the process.

We described this technique to Daniel, and he flat refused to submit his bike to it. Partly, he was concerned that the perfect finish he’d laboriously put on the frame would be destroyed. Who could blame him, though, for feeling there was too much downside and not enough upside to this (literal) acid test? As it stood, he had the only bike that could be Mann’s machine; there was at least one chance in four it was, but there was a good chance it’d “just” emerge that it was one of the Daytona non-finishers.

In the absence of a legible frame number, an alternative way to reach a definitive answer would be to positively track the other three bikes. Of the four factory bikes, two went to France and two remained briefly with American Honda.

Would the U.S. Honda guys have sent Ralph Bryans’ bike, which was crashed and burned, off to France to be raced? I doubt it, but I have never spoken to anyone who could definitely say they did not. I prefer to think that the Bryans bike was decommissioned. It may well have just been cut up or crushed to prevent it falling into enemy hands.

I tell my girls  Daniel laughed  when I die  this is what youll inherit.
“I tell my girls,” Daniel laughed, “when I die, this is what you’ll inherit.”

Based on the recollections of Hansen and Co., I believe Honda painted one of the other fairings with Mann’s #2 for display in its California office and that it later shipped that same bike to the head office in Japan.

So why doesn’t Honda still have that bike? Brian O’Shea told me that it was raced by Morio Sumiya, a Grand Prix-caliber Honda test rider. It was probably wrecked or parted out and eventually trashed. (Two things are certain: Sumiya will never tell me; he died in a racing accident in 1975. And Honda does not have it now.)

All that was just speculation, but even if it was true, it was still only somewhere between “possible” and “probable” that Daniel’s bike was Mann’s. What would our experts say?

Hansen, Jamieson, and Robbins greeted Daniel’s bike like an old friend. Robbins spotted the welding-rod reinforcement added to the exhausts. “It’s got those,” he said, before realizing that Daniel had fabricated the pipes. “I welded those on to strengthen the megaphones—they were cracking.” Daniel smiled, “I thought it was something like that.”

While the three veterans studied Daniel’s bike, Bodden pulled out a superb 8×10-inch transparency of Mann’s bike, which had been taken by Honda’s PR department. The image was so detailed that I thought I might be able to “fingerprint” the bike by matching weld-flow patterns, but that was inconclusive.

A “who’s who” of French motorcycle racing had gathered at the museum to watch the Americans examine the machine. After a few hours, Daniel crated the bike again and rolled it out of the museum and into his van. We all went to dinner. Well, not all of us—one of Daniel’s employees sat in the van with the bike.

Daniel—a very nice guy whose love of motorcycling in general and this Honda in particular were obvious—was in his element. Conversation ranged. He made me laugh with stories of raising his daughters who are a pair of beauties that are striking even in Paris, and that’s saying a mouthful. (“Oh, it was such a hassle!” he said, rolling his eyes. “Every one of their teachers wanted to tutor them in person.”) But what we all wanted to hear was the word, from Hansen et al.

They kept us on tenterhooks until the very last minute. We were driving them to the airport when Hansen said, “I’m convinced it’s at least the most part of one of the Daytona bikes.” So, in the final analysis, no one could say for sure it was Mann’s bike, but even our experts couldn’t say it wasn’t.

All of this became relevant again—to me, anyway—because a couple of months back, I was contacted on Facebook by a Norwegian guy who told me that the Dick Mann bike had, in fact, gone to Sweden, not France.

This cool hand-tinted photo from the early 70s shows a well-attended race at Anderstorp  in Sweden. Peter Williams Norton  #6  and Kent Andersson Yamaha  #41  were major stars. Kenneth Stigfelt  #20  is racing the Honda that  so the story goes  he traded for the Dick Mann bike.
This cool hand-tinted photo from the early ‘70s shows a well-attended race at Anderstorp, in Sweden. Peter Williams (Norton #6) and Kent Andersson (Yamaha #41) were major stars. Kenneth Stigfelt (#20) is racing the Honda that, so the story goes, he traded for the Dick Mann bike.

According to my Facebook friend Karl Magnus Wathne, a Swedish Honda dealer and racer named Kenneth Stigfelt had made a deal with Honda to buy Mann’s Daytona racebike, for his use later that summer. Stigfelt’s story is that Honda made good on its promise to sell him the bike, and that it arrived in Sweden some time later. Then, at the last minute, Honda reneged. The company ‘asked’ Stigfelt to return the machine, and promised to make him another one just like it. Honda did, in fact, send Stigfelt a very similar motorcycle, which he raced for years.

The provenance of Daniel Mercier’s motorcycle, such as it is known, does not include an interlude in Sweden. So if the bike that was delivered to Stigfelt in Gøteborg (a Swedish seaport) in 1970 was really Dick Mann’s it follows that Mercier’s is one of the bikes, but not the one.

The American mechanics remembered painting up a second #2 bike for display purposes, and sending that one to Japan. At Honda HQ, they would naturally have assumed that was the real Dick Mann bike, and may well have sent it to Sweden and then had a change of heart. I’ve been told that, whatever became of that bike—I guess it was the one Sumiya raced and was probably either just crashed or used up—it’s no longer in Honda’s possession.

The only definitive answer would come from knowing the frame numbers. Karl Magnus Wathne has made enquiries with Swedish customs officials, because it’s likely that when Stigfelt cleared customs, the number was documented. But, those files are nowhere to be found. And we know that Daniel won’t raise the numbers on his frame.

Daniel continues to believe (as we all do) what he wants to believe. In his case, that his bike is the actual one Mann rode. The “Dick Mann” CB750 Racing Type was raced for years after Mann rode it. It was ridden on the street. Obviously, it’s not complete or intact, but why should that matter?

We’re fascinated by vintage bikes because they connect us to our history. Mann’s 1970 Daytona 200 win for Honda remains a high point in that history, and Daniel’s bike is the only Honda left that was definitely there. So the bike I first saw in Daniel’s secret back garden shrine is, by definition, the strongest physical link we have to that win, whether it was Mann’s, or Robb’s, or Smith’s, or even Bryans’ burned one.

I guess I choose to believe it is the one, because I can’t think of a nicer guy, or more devoted owner, for such a bike. It was laboriously restored for love, not money. Daniel will never sell it.

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