The Search for the Holy Grail, Pt. 2
My Facebook pal Karl Magnus Wathne is the current owner of the motorcycle that Honda’s Racing Service Center built for Mr. Stigfelt, in exchange for, presumably, one of the CB750 Racing Types from Daytona. Karl describes it as a ‘CR750’. If you’re a stickler for details, that term applies to a CB750 set up with the full CR race kit; the real Daytona bikes were ‘CB750 Racing Type’ models. The Daytona bikes had chrome-molybdenum frames that were presumably stronger and/or lighter than stock. In any case, the bike seen here now has a mild-steel frame since Mr. Stigfelt’s original frame was wrecked in a crash.
If you didn’t read my previous post, which explained the circumstances of Dick Mann’s 1970 Daytona win and introduced Bob Hansen, who was Mann’s crew chief for that race, you should go back and read that first, here
Mann’s Honda has been on my mind again lately, because out of the blue a couple of months back, I exchanged Facebook messages with a Swedish motorcyclist named Karl Magnus Wathne. He told me that early in 1970 – before the Daytona 200 – a Swedish motorcycle dealer named Stigfelt had made a deal with Honda, to acquire Mann’s race bike after the event.
The Swedish story is that Stigfelt was shipped one of the Daytona bikes – a bike Honda represented as Mann’s – but that it had no sooner arrived in Sweden than Honda officially requested it back. The company agreed to provide Stigfelt a replacement machine, which it did shortly thereafter.
This was interesting to me because if the bike that was, briefly, in Sweden was really the Dick Mann bike, it meant that the machine I saw ten years earlier in France wasn’t the real McCoy. But I’m getting ahead of myself. At this point in my tale, I have to take you back to 2003...
I was at the last Coupes Moto Legende event held at the historic Montlehry circuit on the outskirts of Paris. Coupes Moto Legende (the event is still held every year, but has now moved to the Dijon region) is Europe’s largest gathering of vintage motorcycles, with a special focus on historic racing motorcycles.
Patrick Bodden and I were walking around together. He was a good guy to walk around a vintage-racing paddock with, since I didn’t need a program; he knew everyone and every bike. He was especially knowledgeable about old Hondas; for years, his Heritage Racing team, seen at AHRMA events, was effectively Honda’s “factory” vintage team.
Montlehry’s infield is vast and forested. It’s crisscrossed with roads that have been specially “paved” with washboard, potholes, cobblestones, floodable stretches, etc., for use in vehicle testing. On that day, the roads were lined with campers. Bodden and I strolled along, then a Frenchman recognized him and caught up to us.
The stranger told us (in French) that he was sure Patrick would be interested in a motorcycle belonging to one of his buddies – the bike was not here at the show, but nearby, in a Paris suburb. It was the Honda CB750 that Dick Mann had ridden to victory in the 1970 Daytona 200.
Coupes Motos Legende is sort of France’s equivalent of AMA Vintage Days. It used to be held at a fabulous old race track on the outskirts of Paris.
This was, to me, an interesting turn of events, to say the least. Mann’s famous Honda effectively disappeared after the race. Even the Honda Collection Hall had no idea where it was. In fact, not a single one of the original four “CB750 Racing Type” machines was known to have survived. So I was surprised when Bodden brusquely told the interloper, “I’ve heard this story dozens of times. Every time I go to see the supposed ‘Dick Mann bike,’ it turns out to be a crappy replica; most are not even properly kitted bikes from the correct year. You’re wasting my time.” The guy persisted though, and finally Bodden told him, “Alright, here’s my phone number. Tell your friend to call me and describe the twist-grip on his bike.”
Somewhat chastened, the Frenchman retreated and we continued on our walk. Later on, Bodden’s phone rang. I listened to a one-sided exchange of pleasantries, then talk of Mann’s Daytona-winning Honda. Bodden cut to the chase and asked about the twist-grip. The disembodied voice from his phone described a rubber grip over a titanium tube. Bodden’s expression suddenly changed. He knew that the titanium throttle was never part of the CB750 kit. It was a feature of full factory bikes only.
We arranged to meet the caller and see his bike. To protect his privacy, I’ll just call him Daniel. Although on the one hand he was eager for Bodden to see his bike and authenticate it, on the other he was also a little worried. For starters, there was the question of whether Honda had ever relinquished its title to a machine that Honda’s RSC (Racing Services Center, the predecessor to today’s HRC) clearly owned at the outset. Still, Daniel is a completely trustworthy and honest guy. He’s a lifelong motorcyclist who runs a body shop. He has been a sponsor of dozens of top-level French motorbike racers for decades, providing paint and bodywork repairs for free or at reduced rates.
So, we found ourselves tracking down his address and meeting him face to face. He’s a self-made man with a barrel chest and a characteristically French joie de vivre. He took us through his house and into the back garden, where he’d built something that looked like a little guest house, complete with a wet bar and piped-in music. This building was the motorcycle’s house. He uncorked a bottle of good champagne and poured us glasses, then pulled a dust cover off the bike.
The circuit is, sadly, no longer ever open to the public. The event I attended with Patrick Bodden was its last hurrah.
To my eye, it certainly looked like Dick Mann’s bike, except perhaps that it was too nice. Over-restored, if anything, which is the peril of having an expert painter-bodyman spend thousands of evenings and hundreds of weekends on a project. Bodden had debunked any number of previous claims and knew that the steering head of the factory bikes was a key point of difference from the kitted ones. I watched as he went from skeptic to believer, or at least someone who wanted to believe he’d finally found his Grail.
To me, it seemed like an unlikely place for the bike to have turned up, but the more I listened to Daniel, the more plausible his story sounded. Honda had built a CB750 race bike for the 1969 Bol d’Or 24-hour race. At the time, the “Bol” was by far the most important marketing “scene” in the French bike business. Daniel said he’d seen the paperwork that proved that after Honda’s famous Daytona win, two of the four machines were sent to Honda France, where they were raced in endurance events.
Nowadays, maybe racing teams have a stronger sense of history. Maybe they’re more inclined to preserve – or at least keep track of – a bike that racked up a particularly historic win. In 1970, that wasn’t so true; after a year or two, as the two ex-Daytona CB750s got less competitive, the French importer pawned them off on a dealer team. One of the two was crashed heavily and (again, shades of Ralph Bryans’ Daytona mishap!) caught fire. The other was purchased by a Paris dentist who was well known to local racers. He converted it into a street bike and managed to license it for road use. (I’m told that at the time, this would have simply taken a well-placed bribe.)
The dentist eventually part-exchanged it back to the dealer for something newer, and the “street” bike, along with what was left of the crashed racer and the team’s spares, gathered dust in the dealer’s storage shed.
Then the dealer was involved in a car wreck. Being a motorcycle guy, he knew whom to turn to for bodywork: Daniel. It was a significant repair, worth several thousand bucks. There may have been a reason the dealer wanted to leave his insurance company and the cops out of it. In any case, he offered Daniel a trade: the dentist’s bike and all the race team’s old spares – unobtainable RSC parts including cams and all kinds of engine internals, several hubs and wheels, a treasure trove, although far from the condition in which I was now seeing it. Although it was an off-the-books transaction, Honda France knew about it and gave it tacit approval when one of their senior race guys told Daniel, “That one you have, that’s the Dick Mann bike.”
Patrick Bodden looks on as Daniel prepares to fire up bike. So was it really Dick Mann’s 1970 Daytona-winning bike, or just a replica good enough to fool an expert like Bodden? Check back in two weeks, and I’ll tell you what Bob Hansen, Bob Jamieson, and Ron Robbins – Mann’s Crew Chief and mechanics – concluded.
Daniel compiled a scrapbook of photos and reports of the 1970 Daytona 200 in general, and Honda’s factory racers in particular. He set about removing street equipment and the heavy endurance-racing battery and lighting coils, and rebuilding the bike to its original specs. The four-into-four megaphones were handmade from scratch after being scaled and patterned from photos. Recreating Mann’s bodywork and paint job was not a problem, of course. That, Daniel could do in-house.
In a way, the quality of Daniel’s meticulous research, attention to detail, and fastidious fabrication made Patrick’s task of authentication even more difficult. The Frenchman’s exhausts, for example, fooled him, and they were fakes. “The steering head looks correct,” he said while peering at it, “but there should be a number here somewhere.”
“Oh. The number. Yes,” Daniel said sheepishly. “There was probably a number there once. When I got the frame, there were grind marks that had been painted over. I polished the scratches out when I repainted the frame.” The Daytona bikes had been shipped with three or four-digit serial numbers simply stamped in by Honda RSC; obviously not “road legal” sequences. The original numbers were probably removed when the dentist put it on the road. I imagine he rode it around with a serial-number plaque borrowed from a standard CB750 and riveted to the low-profile chromoly head.
As darkness fell, Bodden and I returned to my apartment in Paris. After debunking many “Daytona Hondas,” he had come up against one that might be real. Daniel had certainly sketched out a plausible provenance for the bike. But in the absence of a paper trail and serial numbers, there was no way for us to be certain. Patrick, through his Heritage Racing activities, was a good friend of Bob Hansen, who had run Mann’s pit in 1970. A couple of years earlier, Patrick had gone as far as to reassemble the whole Mann team, for a Daytona vintage meet.
Over the next few days, the 750 was our constant topic. The more we talked about it, the more determined he became to learn once and for all whether this was the bike.
To do that, he planned to reassemble Mann’s team again. Only Hansen and his two mechanics, Ron Robbins and Bob Jamieson, knew more about that bike than Bodden. They’d have to look at it. But there were a couple of catches; neither Daniel nor his bike were coming to the U.S. any time soon, since Daniel almost never let the bike out of his sight, and he was afraid to fly anyway. And he was a tad paranoid about having strangers come to the “shrine” he’d built to the bike in his back garden.
If the mountain wouldn’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed would have to go to the mountain. Bodden flew back the U.S., to his regular life (in 2003, he was a Washington D.C. area architect and teacher.) He was determined to bring Hansen, Robbins, and Jamieson to Paris, ASAP. My job was to find a suitable venue for a temporary display of the bike – a place big enough for a few people to walk around it, and safe enough that Daniel would bring his bike there. The Japanese embassy turned me down, but the beautiful French national museum of arts and crafts – which had a few bikes in its collection – was pleased to let us conduct our “salon” in their lobby.
Wow, would you look at the time? Check back on October 17, when I’ll tell you what happened when we reassembled Mann’s 1970 team in Paris, and had them look at the bike. And, I’ll try to get to the bottom of the obvious discrepancies in Daniel’s story that two bikes were shipped to France, while Mr. Stigfelt’s bike arrived in Sweden from Japan and was shipped back right away.