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The little Hondas that could…… a ride to the desert and back

I think I can, I think I can…

I think I will, I think I will…

I made it, I made it… almost!

Having built a 1963 CB77 from a free “parts bike” last year and selling it to my friend, Lea Dennis, she has only used it sparingly, due to her 2-3 different jobs as a personal chef, caterer and all around foodie expert. Her rare days-off don’t coincide with those of many of her friends, except me, who has a lot of days off at this stage of my life and I am about the only one she can ride her bike with these days.

Lea had an unfulfilled dream of riding her bike in Death Valley this year, which we almost completed a few weeks back; the whole journey was foreshortened by high winds in the area. We trucked the bikes up there and had a short ride, but then returned early due to weather conditions. Her second wish was to ride the bike down into Borrego Springs, which is in the 600,000 acre Anza-Borrego Desert. Saturday, May 31 was the designated date for “Desert Journey, Pt.2” on her CB77 accompanied by MrHonda on the recently re-acquired 1980 CB250RS, a UK gray-market import. We left with a mix of excitement, concern and caution, due to a number of factors.

San Diego area temperatures for the weekend were forecast in the low 80’s inland, but out in the desert they were looking at 100-106 degrees of predicted heat. The shortest route from San Diego into Borrego Springs is the Hwy 78 east out of Julian, then north on S3 (Yaqui Pass Rd.) Julian is about 4,000 feet elevation while Borrego is just 600 feet above sea level, so there are hills and valleys to traverse from one locale to the other.

After some quick service work on the Super Hawk, the dynamic small-bore Honda team lit out for Julian, via the back country roads heading out from Jamul, CA, just 12 miles out from MrHonda’s abode. Lea had done the ride before in warm weather a few weeks back, but it ended in Descanso. Julian was another 20 miles through scenic windy roads with comfortable temperatures all along the way. Stopping just short of Julian, at the Lake Cuyamaca Restaurant, we rested briefly, enjoyed an early lunch and set out again for Julian and beyond.

My trips to the desert, some 40 years back, were from the Hwy 79, down the S22 (Montezuma Grade), which is a much longer route and a steep incline for small-bore bikes to climb back up on a return run. The “back door” road to Borrego through Julian was forgotten, so in preparation there were concerns about running the CB77, now with just 600 miles on a rebuilt engine, to keep out of harm’s way on the grade. Due to lack of horsepower and the bike’s cornering limitations, because of the installed aftermarket exhaust system, which would ground out prematurely in hard corners Lea’s riding style is somewhat restricted. With the prospect of a demanding riding situation and an engine that was just getting broken-in, all sorts of disaster images floated around in my mind during a sleepless Friday evening before the ride.

By the time we arrived in Julian, Lea was settling into the pace with her bike and I thought it wise to stop for fuel, in advance of the trek down the hill to the desert. For the 45 miles traveled, the CB77 took one gallon of gas, while the CB250RS had consumed just ¾ of a gallon. With fuel tanks topped off, we headed out into the great unknown, with an agreement that if things looked too hairy at any point, we would just turn around and head back. As we descended down the hill, the slope was fairly gentle with lots of slow turns until the 2,000 foot mark was reached. The road straightened out more there and the heat increased noticeably as we continued our descent.

There was little in the way of traffic on this backroad route, so a comfortable, even pace could be maintained for both of the little bikes. Soon, we rolled into the south end of Borrego Springs and followed the road as it curled around to the “Christmas Circle” roundabout and Public Park; ground zero of the town. Parking the bikes in the shade of the Borrego Springs Art Institute (!), we went inside for a brief look at the artwork and then headed out to the local bar/restaurant, which had a small row of BIG bikes parked outside the front door. Honda Gold Wings and Harley Road Kings are perfect choices for a ride down the mountain into the desert, but not so much on the 250-305-sized machines. The patrons and staff were friendly and the riders from a local San Diego Veterans motorcycle club. Lea was engaging with the various riders, boasting about our adventure down to the desert on tiny, aged bikes and several of the riders walked across the street to view the unlikely pair of road machines. The CB77 was somewhat unrecognized by many, who were more in their 30-40s and not immediately familiar with the historical link between their 900 lb. Gold Wings and the 350 lb. CB77 Super Hawk. The CB250RS was completely foreign to all, as it is probably the only one in the US. They all marveled at the choice of mounts and the courage (?) to ride them out into triple-digit temperatures.

With a bit of food and drink consumed, we remounted for the return journey back. I could see the Montezuma Grade highway, cut into the side of the mountains and remembered the nature of that steep graded roadway, choosing to play it safe and go back the way we arrived. A couple of years back, I had a bad experience with a 1964 CB77 seizing up on me, during a 100+degree day, just on the highways in San Diego, so was praying not to have a repeat experience with Lea’s ride, on the return home. We were faced with some mild headwinds, as the return run escalated back up the hills leading back to Julian once again. The poor 250 engine was often near redline in 2nd or 3rd gear, as we climbed the mountain roads with the wind facing directly into our direction of At 43,000+ miles on the odometer, one could give pause to the kind of use/abuse being heaped upon the poor 250, but it never complained or hiccupped even once.

We refueled the bikes once again and headed back south towards San Diego, once again. It was after 3PM and the roads had a few more autos on their own return runs home, but overall the traffic was fairly light. The bikes had been running flawlessly, so far and I, for one, was more than ready to cruise the little bikes back to Spring Valley with no further delays. Suddenly, as we had just turned onto Highway 94, headed back towards Jamul, Lea pulled to the side of the rather narrow 2-lane highway with a very dead bike beneath her. I had to turn around when I noticed that she was no longer in my mirrors. Pulling up next to her, Lea, still with her helmet on, was looking dejected and sad at the sudden failure of her pride and joy Honda Super Hawk. Given the age of the bike and the circumstances of the ride, one can never be completely sure that “something” might not go wrong or fail unexpectedly. And so, just as we were about to finish our nearly 200-mile adventure, an unexpected and dramatic turn of events had arisen, leaving us in a less-than-ideal location for roadside repairs.

I pulled my helmet, earplugs and gloves off and inspected the CB77 for the cause of failure. It was “dead, dead, dead,” with no electrical power available on any circuits. Other than a battery cable falling off, the usual cause is a blown fuse, which was the case. But why did it blow out? That was the question…

The CB77s only have a single 15 amp fuse to run the whole bike, so when it blows everything dies at once. I ensured that the headlight switch was turned OFF, then tried to push the ends of the fuse holder together to see how big the arc might be when the switch was turned ON. Initially, it was small and normal to my experience, so I robbed one of the spare fuses from my CB250RS, which is a 3-fuse system design. The fuse allowed the bike to power up, but when I tried to kickstart it, it suddenly went dead again. The fuse had again blown out, this time in a big way… Lea was starting to go into Plan B mode, which was to call AAA and have them tow it in, but it seemed a little drastic given the problem; however I was running out of fuses and hadn’t figured out the cause quite yet.

I was about to remove the seat and fuel tank to check wiring underneath the tank, when I spied the brake light switch connections on the right footpeg mount. The wires were GONE! One of the two wires for the switch is HOT (12v) when the ignition is turned ON, so that the brake light will work whether the head and tail lights are on or not. On the early CBs (and all of the Dreams, which use the same switch), the two wires coming from the main harness just have tinned ends and are pushed into spring-loaded connections on the brake light switch. In this case, the wiring was either dislodged by Lea’s foot during braking or more likely failed due to heat/vibration that is readily felt on these bikes during normal riding operation. The “hot” black wire had dropped down against the kickstarter cover and shorted the 12v line direct to ground, which blew the fuse both times. (Note: Later CB77 brake light switches have soldered-on wiring harnesses, which plug directly into the main harness connectors, preventing this kind of failure).

Once the wiring was disconnected from the harness, I borrowed a 7 amp lighting fuse from the CB250RS fuse box and installed it into the Super Hawk fuse holder. As long as no other lighting was used, the fuse was sufficient to run the ignition system, especially with the brake light function disconnected. We safely returned to Casa Del Honda and made needed wiring repairs and changed out the fuse. Just as Lea was ready to leave, we noticed gasoline coming from the carburetor; actually coming off the left side carburetor body not from it! With a hasty removal of the seat and fuel tank, closer inspection revealed a hairline fracture of the fuel tank’s inner wall, up inside the tunnel where it wraps around the frame.

That was the end of the line for the day’s small Honda bike adventure… I dropped Lea off at home, this time in my PT Cruiser and will attend to the fuel tank crack this week. Ah, the joys and challenges of riding vintage Honda motorcycles!

Bill “MrHonda” Silver

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