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Bike Profile - Posted 1st September 2010

1980 Honda CM400A, Part One
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Automatic motorcycles are really, rare. Automatic antique motorcycles are even more rare. By the time they get to Australia, we're talking hens' teeth. Bruce Kennewell found one...

I'm a 64-year old grandfather, have lived in Canberra (Australia's national capital) since moving here from Sydney with my wife and two small children in 1984, and had never owned or ridden a motorcycle in my life… until August last year.

In the USA - the target market for this 395cc Honda parallel twin - the automatic version was introduced in 1977 and ran until 1981 as the CM400A and until 1983 as the larger-capacity CM450A. The auto was then dropped entirely.

Author, son, and newly arrived CM400A... 1980 Honda CM400A

The transmission comprises an oil-bath torque-converter which transmits the power to a two-speed gearbox. It is really a clutch-less operation so it's a semi-automatic, not a true auto which automatically switches between ratios up and down the range, as we are used to with our modern automatic cars.

To quote from a July 1981 'Cycle' magazine review: 'In operation ….you simply toe the shift lever into low gear and twist the throttle. Some time before reaching the 50mph maximum speed in first gear, jab the gear lever into second, best accomplished with a momentary chop of the throttle. Riding in this manner………the CM will deliver maximum gas mileage and acceleration. Alternatively, you can engage second right from the beginning and never again touch the shift pedal until you've reached your destination'.

This feature (the auto change) made the CM400A ideally suited to use in an urban environment, yet the performance was still sufficient to allow comfortable cruising at highway speeds.

And here it is now... 1980 Honda CM400A

Honda never released the CM range in Australia. At that time (the late 1970s), they considered the CB model as their flagship and, with a relatively small population compared to other markets, having two Australian models in the middle-weight class would just increase the level of competition, and they had enough from Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha without adding themselves to the equation.

In addition to not selling the CM here, Honda also restricted sales of the CB range to manual-gearbox models; the automatics were not an option in Australia. The company considered that they would not sell very well; city and urban traffic in Australia bearing little relationship to a similar situation in the USA, for example.

So the fact that I am the owner of a 1980 Honda CM400A motorbike is somewhat unusual in itself, as is the story of how it came to be in Australia and ended up sitting in my garage, because in the past twelve months I have not come across any 'for sale' listings here for this model. That is not to say they're not out there, but the numbers privately imported must be minimal.

Unmistakably Honda Dream... 1980 Honda CM400A Engine

In July of 2009 my son decided to buy a motorbike. Here in Canberra (as in most Australian states) there is a requirement that, before being issued a Learner's Permit, one must attend a two-day course which introduces the new rider to the theory and practical aspects of riding a motorcycle, with a test at the end of it.

He successfully completed the weekend, and within a few weeks had bought his first bike (a Yamaha SRV250 Renaissa). When it arrived I was admiring it and mentioned something about always wanting to ride a motorcycle and doing so before I die. So he encouraged me to do the introductory course and before I could change my mind I had signed up for the following weekend.

Suffice to say, I passed and was issued with my L-plate and over the following weeks I kept an eye out for a suitable bike.

My selections were limited; I am too old and creaky to be hunched over on a modern sports bike (and I don't like their styling - reminding me as they do of Transformers!) and I also had to take into account that I was limited to a specific power-to-weight ratio, being a Learner.

Therefore I was tending to look at things like the Yamaha 250 Virago and similar cruisers from the other companies when one evening, whilst browsing the web, I spied an auction ad for a 'Honda CM400A Automatic. 17,000 miles. All original'. Hmmmm. A 1980s automatic bike. That looks interesting. A classic style, to which I can relate, and no having to co-ordinate all that clutch / throttle / brake / gearchange stuff!

The details were somewhat sketchy but I bookmarked the site and then did some research using the internet, learning about the model, gleaning information from contemporary reports and checking comments on forums. I also gathered specification information to make sure that the power output and weight were okay for a learner-rider here.

During this time I discovered that:

  • The CM400A was never sold in Australia and
  • The auto-box was built like a concrete bunker, bomb-proof, let alone bullet-proof and
  • The internet listed over 3500 'for sale' bits, pieces and NOS items for the CM400 range, so parts should not present a problem.

    I contacted the vendor of the CM400A, asking some pertinent questions, including 'Where did the bike come from?' and 'Why are you selling it?'

    The answer to the first question was that the current owner - who had only ridden it a few times in his several years of ownership - had bought it from a chap in Melbourne who was possibly the person who brought it into the country but he didn't know for sure and didn't have any contact details.

    The second question was answered by the chap telling me that he had too many bikes, had never really 'got into' the CM and decided to sell.

    He stated that the bike was running, registered, original, unmolested, in very good condition for its age and came with a spare starter motor, a used-but-good exhaust collector box (as a replacement for the original, which had corroded at the outlet flanges) and a used headlight bucket (the original having a crack in the plastic).

  • Random 'Autos' on Right Now......

    We did a deal and less than a week later a truck from Melbourne pulled into my street and my CM400A was rolled into the garage.

    Of course, the urge to ride the CM was at a peak, so after reading the little owner's handbook (a copy of which I had found on eBay before the bike arrived) and checking oil and tyres and familiarising myself with the controls, I readied myself for the first ride.

    On with shiny new helmet, gloves, boots, jacket. Key into ignition, petrol 'on', kill-switch to centre, turn key to 'on' and press the starter-button.

    Nothing. Just silence.

    I checked everything again, had a look at the manual and discovered that, with the gear lever in anything other than neutral, the engine would not start. I also learned that, in addition to that safety-feature, when the side stand was kicked down with the bike in gear, the engine would cut out.

    So I toed the gear selector into neutral, tried again and, with about half-choke, the engine fired and settled down to a nice idle. Once it had warmed up (remember that August down here is still winter) I released the parking brake (what would, on a manual bike, be the clutch lever), snicked the gear selector into first, gave a gentle twist to the right handgrip, trundled up the driveway and into the street for a few circuits around the block.

    Not a clutch... 1980 Honda CM400A Parking Brake

    Bearing in mind that the only other motorbike I had ridden in my 64 years on this planet had been a standard Honda CB250 mere weeks before this event, the experience of not having to concern myself with gear-changing, and the coordinating that goes with it, was wonderful. Being able to increase or decrease speed simply by twisting the throttle and being able to concentrate on other things, like the traffic, was a blessing.

    After several laps of the streets around my home (restricted to 50kph) I dared to venture out onto an 80kph inter-urban road which then led onto a 100kph dual-carriageway highway. The CM400A handled the higher speeds beautifully, able to cruise ease at 100kph -- and it was a totally new experience for me. For the first time in my life I was doing 'the ton' on a motorbike. :


    Part Two, coming shortly: Bruce investigates his CM's history, and then clocks up some miles in the following year…


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