Dynamite can sometimes come in small packages. Kind of like the little guy in a fight who can hit the big guy 15 times before the big guy lands a shot. And so it is with the Honda 305 Superhawk. The motorcycle that ended the dominance of the big British twins in roadracing and was a precursor to the failure of the British motorcycle industry.
In the 1960’s British motorcycles were the most popular bikes being sold. Brands like BSA, Triumph, Norton, Matchless, AJS etc were ruling the racetracks with their big British 500 and 650 twins, in roadracing and in Tourist Trophy/Hare Scrambles. The British motorcycle firms had been around since the late 1800’s. AJS built it’s first motorcycle in 1897, Matchless in 1899, Royal Enfield in 1901, Triumph in 1902, BSA constructed it’s first experimental motorcycle in 1905. Compared to the British bikes Japanese motorcycles were “cute”. Sochiro Honda had started out putting 50cc motors that would run on kerosene or poor octane fuel in bicycles as a form of cheap transportation after the war. How could a motorcycle company with such humble beginnings and being a late comer to boot (Honda started building motorized bicycles in 1946) even begin to compete with the storied, established firms of the British empire?
In addition, anything “Made In Japan” was considered “cheap” and poorly made. Japanese motorcycles started at 50cc two strokes and went up to 305 while the British bikes ranged from the BSA 175cc D7 Bantam “Super” to the BSA 650 MK III “Spitfire” the “Thunderbolt” and the Triumph 650 “Trophy”. And, as I stated above, they were considered “cute” where British bikes were considered “bold”. British bikes had Marlon Brando on a Triumph “Thunderbird”….Honda had the Beach Boys with a 305 “Dream” and “You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda” campaign.
But the Japanese are nothing if not quick studies….especially when it comes to engineering. They are masters at taking something and making it faster, lighter, and more powerful. Also, the same people who were responsible for making “cheap” toys were also the ones responsible for one of the finest swords ever manufactured…the katana. And during the war had also manufactured some of the best aircraft and ships and were technologically advanced. A great example is they were the nation building the first submarine that could launch and recover a seaplane.
In addition the British motorcycle manufacturing higher ups had lost sight of the purpose of building their machines in the search for more money. These executives weren’t motorcyclists, they were “financial experts” and “marketing experts”. They didn’t listen to their engineers, customers and the people who raced their machines. They didn’t invest in new manufacturing tooling to replace the existing tooling, or invest in innovative styling or performance. They stated that there riders would prefer “tradition” above all else. There are stories such as when one engineer told an executive that American riders were unhappy with valve tappets constantly needing to be adjusted because they would vibrate out of specification due to sloppy manufacturing tolerances because of worn tooling. The executive’s response was that a “true motorcyclist” preferred to spend his Saturday mornings readjusting the valves (instead of riding?). There is another story that when American owners complained about British motorcycles puking oil all over their garage floors because of poor case mating surfaces once again due to old manufacturing tooling….their answer was to send the owner a chrome oil pan to place under the motorcycle. A running joke with late 60’s and 70’s British motorcycles was that it was when you DIDN’T see oil under the bike that you should start to worry…..because that meant the motorcycle was out of oil….
In roadracing, though the big British twins were powerful and had a higher top end speed, they were heavy, had around a 7500 rpm redline. Their brakes were woefully not up to the job of adequately stopping the motorcycle. As my father says, “after two laps you would grab the brakes…there’d be a puff of smoke….and goodbye brakes”. The 1966 BSA Mk III Spitfire weighed 408 pounds wet and was rated at 53 hp at 7000 rpm.
By comparison the, Honda 305 Superhawk weighed 351 pounds wet and made 28 hp at 9000 rpm. it had an advertised top speed of over 100 mph and one road test at the time had clocked the bike at 104 mph. In addition it had twin leading shoe brakes both front and rear. It also had electric start in addition to kick start, was dependable, well built and didn’t leak oil. It had a tubular frame rather than the pressed steel of the commuter bike, the Honda Dream, of which the engine was an integral part. You could also order optional roadracing equipment such as a “bumstop” seat, megaphone mufflers, low bars or clip ons, different ration rear sprockets and the footpeg mounting plates offered 3 different mounting positions for regular upright riding to rearsets which included optional shifter pedal linkage. You could pretty much take your motorcycle out of the crate, remove the lights, install number plates and go racing. The motorcycle in the photo above displays this optional equipment.
The end result was that, though the larger British bikes had a higher top end speed and would catch the smaller Japanese bikes on a long straight, the smaller, lighter higher revving Japanese bikes would accelerate faster, reach their top speed quicker and, due to their superior brakes, wait much longer before braking into the next turn. Most road tracks only have two long straights, one at the start/finish and one somewhere in the backfield, the rest of the track consists of short straights and twisty turneys. It was on these tracks that the Honda’s excelled and you had motorcycles with less than half the displacement of the big British twins winning the races and often taking 2 or more of the top positions. And, as the old adage states, “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”.
As a result of the better engineered, dependable package, constant updating in both performance and styling coupled with winning over and being less expensive than the big bikes. Japanese motorcycle sales soared and British motorcycle sales tanked. The higher ups in the British motorcycle industry (remember those “experts”) never woke up, believing their larger (“size matters”) motorcycles would appeal to the more manly motorcyclist and that their history would be more appealing to the motorcycle market….so much for “resting on your laurels”. They tried to save the British motorcycle industry by merging manufacturers but due to continued shortsightedness they only succeeded in having the lesser performing brands bring down the better brands and the whole industry collapsed in the late 1970’s. Thankfully, the Triumph brand returned in the 1990’s and high end, well built Nortons appear to be making comeback in a niche market.
My father restored this particular 305 about 9 years ago from the frame up, Other than the powder coating on the frame he hand sprayed the painted pieces of the bike with spray paint in cans, much as he did back in the 60’s with his old race bikes. The restoration has held up well. The motorcycle is a little cranky when cold but starts and runs well when warmed up. It more than adequately carried my 230 pound ass in this years Philadelphia Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride and kept up with the bigger machines at speeds up to 60 mph. as my father has a habit of naming is bikes, due to it’s diminutive size and unbaffled megaphone exhaust, he named this bike “the mouse that roared”. And I think the name fits quite well…..