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1973 Honda CB350 Four
When you buy an old bike, you're also buying a lifetime of history. Carmen Sheppard gets to know her classic Honda...
It was 1999 and I was 22 when I bought the CB350F. To be honest, I wasn't looking for a classic bike. Just something that was about 400cc-ish, around £1000 and nice and friendly for a first 'proper' motorcycle.
At the time I owned a 100cc Peugeot Speedfight scooter, which was one of the first sports scooters. Brilliant fun and I loved it…. for a while until things started to go wrong, leaving me stranded on more than one occasion. I sometimes used to go on ride outs with a group of female bikers, and they all rode fairly slowly so I had no problem keeping up on the scooter.
I had been riding mopeds and scooters since I was 16 but both my parents were bikers, so I decided it was about time I graduated to a proper bike. One of the girls I rode out with owned a Honda 400-4 Super Sport, and once said to me; 'You want to get yourself a bike like mine;. I dismissed it at the time thinking that a bike like that was far too old, why it was almost as old as me!
However, looking around for a suitable bike, my only option in my price range seemed to be tatty Honda Bros 400s or CB-1s which, while I liked them, were in far too bad condition for me to consider swapping my two year old scooter for one of them. In the end my father and I came across a strange little bike shop in Somerset that sold older, semi-classic bikes. In the corner of the shop stood the CB350F. It looked OK and was about the right size and engine capacity for me, so I sat on it and instantly it felt right.
Looking closer, I realised what it was. I'd read an article in Bike magazine a while before about the Honda fours and it mentioned the CB350F as being relatively rare but a good little bike. It was a 1973 model (annoyingly January 1973 and only just too young for tax exemption), and I could tell it was in good condition, although it wasn't very clean; and it only had 2700 miles on the clock. So I bought it and a couple of weeks later dad rode it back from the shop for me. He remarked that it ran very well for such an old bike - after all it was 25 and older than me!
I then set about cleaning and polishing it up and, to my amazement, all the little specks of what I had thought was corrosion came off the wheels and I realised that the bike was covered in layers (and years) worth of fine dust, which was dulling its lustre. It looked as though someone had sprayed the bike with some kind of preserving spray to which dust had stuck. The only real corrosion was on the aftermarket rack which someone had installed years ago, and even that wasn't bad.
It was then that I realised I had something really special. The CB looked amazing, almost like new, save for the ugly, home-made 4-into-2 exhaust system. The front indicators were also positioned further forwards than they should have been, and were attached to the light holding brackets. The reason for these problems was a mystery that would take years to solve. Why would someone replace the exhaust on a bike that was in such good condition? I knew that the original 4-into-4 system was prone to rusting through, but there were bikes out there with the original system that were in worse overall condition than mine. I assumed (as the bike was an import from America), that someone hacked the original pipes off to make the bike sound more Harley-like... despite their ugliness, the pipes did sound good.
Looking at the pile of documents I received with the bike, I was amazed to find an original sales receipt from 1974. This showed that a chap named J Mollenkopf purchased the bike from Lee's Motorcycles in Cheyenne, Wyoming for $1200.
Also with the bike, and perhaps even more astounding, was an A3 size piece of fine paper printed with a crate-packing list. This was a list of parts of the motorcycle that were shipped in some of the crates to America in 1973, why it was there I don't know but it was interesting anyhow. I also have the owners' manual (in original plastic wallet) and tools, which are hardly used.
Having a classic motorcycle meant that I had to be careful about how I treated it. I figured that it was so special that it would be a shame for it to start to deteriorate in my hands. So I tried not to take it out in the rain and, when that was unavoidable, I always cleaned it up properly when I got home. I was away a lot, and this meant that its status as a classic was actually helpful to me. When I wasn't around, it didn't depreciate with long periods of storage. However, it wasn't and still isn't a bike that never gets ridden. When I rode it, I rode it miles, everywhere I went people came up and asked about the bike. I have only ever seen one other identical model in the flesh.
It's nice having something so unique.
When I got the CB, it still had the original 70's straight-sided tyres on which I quickly replaced for some more modern Bridgestones - when the bike shop changed them they told me that there wasn't any spoke tape on the wheels so it was lucky I didn't get a puncture! I have added more than 7000 miles to the clock since I bought it and I have taken it to a few classic motorcycle shows. It has won a second and a third prize in the classic 70's category at the Sherborne Rotary Club Historic Vehicle Rally, despite its non-original exhausts.
A couple of years after I got the bike we replaced the ugly 'Harley' end cans with some new silencers. However we had to keep the ugly homemade collection box, which probably stifled the performance somewhat. I had looked and looked for an original 4-into-4 system but with no luck. David Silver Spares had three of the four pipes available but apparently the mould for one of the pipes had been broken in the early 80s and was never replaced, so getting hold of a complete system was nigh-on impossible.
I now live in Hertfordshire and unfortunately do not have a garage or anywhere to store the bike, so it stays in Dorset in my parents' garage. Occasionally my dad takes the bike out for a ride. Once he even used it to participate in a ride out with his somewhat surprised biker friends when his Triumph Sprint ST wouldn't start! He sometimes tells me how he's overtaken people on BMWs and left FireBlades behind on my little CB350F, which scares me a little! He just says that they don't know how to ride their bikes properly and that my bike is very light and easy to handle if you ride it well.
The CB gets stored in a plastic bag with desiccant, which works really well and keeps it looking good, as the garage gets very damp in the winter.
The most up to date and exciting part of the story of my CB350F happened in the last couple of months. I recently went through the documents again and looked at the original sales receipt, which not only had the name of the original owner, but also his address. Out of curiosity I looked up the name on the Internet and found that he may have still been there after all these years. So I wrote him a letter telling him about the bike and asking him if he knew what happened to it between 1976 and 1994 and what happened to the exhausts...
Eventually the letter came back to me with a stamp on it saying 'Forwarding expired'. This encouraged me as I thought it probably hadn't expired too long ago, or they wouldn't have known. So I looked up the name on the Internet white pages. There was only one person of that name in Cheyenne, Wyoming so I decided to give the letter another shot and included an email address.
A couple of weeks later I got an email from none other than J Mollenkopf himself, saying he was indeed the original owner of the CB350F and that he was not aware that the bike had left the USA. He said that the bike never saw direct sunlight for about 18 years as it was in his shop and garage, collecting dust from 1976 to 1994. It was still in 'as new' condition when he sold it to a friend of his nephew's, a Mr Bryan Cushing. He also said that it had a windscreen on it when he sold it, which explained the positioning of the indicators. Most frustratingly, he said that when he sold it still had the original, non-rusted, non-dented, non-rockchipped, like new pipes, meaning that only five years before I bought it, it was a complete original bike.
In a later email Mr Mollenkopf said that he had managed to contact Mr Cushing and asked him about the bike and the exhausts. Mr. Cushing also had no knowledge of the bike's trip to the UK but he DID rebuild the exhaust system as the pipes were rusted through at the join between the silencer and the down pipes. Unfortunately he thought he'd probably thrown the old silencers into a skip! The silencers that were on the bike when I purchased it were indeed from a Harley. Apparently Mr Cushing had swapped the bike at a dealers for some four-wheeled transport and now wishes he had the bike back… unlucky! (I'd like to thank Mr. Mollenkopf for his help in this).
In the meantime I looked on eBay to see if there were any CB350F exhausts on there and to my surprise there were. Someone in the States was selling a complete, original CB350F exhaust system. Unfortunately the bids were already to $500 and there were a good few days left before the auction finished. I later saw that the winning bid for the exhausts was $1600, way above my budget - this just illustrates how sought after they are!
I eventually found a pattern system made by MiVV, which was a 4-into-4 and looked really good so I bought this for the motorcycle and dad fitted them few weeks ago. They don't look exactly like the original silencers, as they don't have seams, however I think they look better for it as the originals (in my opinion) always looked a bit cheap. Thankfully we've also done away with the collection box, which, we discovered, had big lumps of metal partially covering the holes where the pipes joined - that would explain why the bike always had to clear its throat for a bit when you opened the throttle!
So this (for now) is the end of the tale. After being purchased in 1974 the CB350F had a screen and rack fitted but was ridden only a few miles before being stored for 18 years until it was sold in 1994. Then the screen was taken off and it had some major surgery in the exhaust area and was sold and exported to the UK in 1996. Who exported it and why is a mystery, as is who the two owners in the UK were. I briefly met one of the two UK owners at the Sherborne Historic Vehicle Rally a few years ago. He said to me that he sold it because he had a few classic British bikes and couldn't keep it. From the way he was looking at the CB350F I could tell he'd never seen it looking the way it does now and so had probably never polished it up and appreciated how special it was. I couldn't talk to him for long as we were leaving for the road run, and I haven't seen him since.
The CB now looks even better for its new pipes and I can't wait for the weather to cheer up and the salt to be cleared off the roads so I can try them out and see if they make the performance better…bye bye FireBlades…!
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