By Frank Melling, Contributing Editor

A truly amazing little off-road bike

I love fairy stories – I really do. If they are motorcycle related, they’re even better. The truth behind a legend is nearly always far more boring than the folk tale, so let’s start with a particularly nice fable – which may even be true.

Honda’s step-through scooters were the bikes that really made Honda, selling in vast quantities worldwide. They were rugged, practical machines that did everything, from daily commuting to long-distance touring in Europe, where a 1,000-mile trip on a C100 Honda Cub was considered to be little more than a hop down to the local store.

In 1960, Honda America’s first National Sales Manager, Jake McCormack, supposedly noticed that one Honda dealer in Boise, Idaho, was selling more Honda 50s than the combined total of all six dealers in Los Angeles. Deep in rural Idaho, Herb Uhl was selling the C100 as a trail bike by adding knobby tires and a larger rear sprocket for off-road use.

Now, “Big Jim” would ride out into the woods in his camo gear, with his .30-06 slung across his shoulder, slaughter some innocent moose and then return to civilization with said deceased herbivore slung across the rear of his two-wheel Chevy pickup.

More importantly, the “Cub” was a motorcycle for the non-motorcyclist. Unlike British bikes and Harleys, there was no skill required to start a C100. The little Honda fired up with one half-hearted prod first time, every time – even if the owner had just parked it upside down in a river.

The three-speed gearbox was linked to an automatic clutch and could be mastered by anyone who could ride a bicycle, with just a few minutes' instruction – and often less.

In terms of reliability, only an American V8 got near a Cub. They were unbreakable and capable of any amount of abuse. In fact, they were the perfect utility vehicle.

The lights came on in marketing brains all over Honda’s Gardena headquarters and so the American modified C100 was crated up, sent to Tokyo – and the CT range was born.

Cue house lights and credits.

Honda wasn’t the first company to come up with the idea of a utilitarian motorcycle – Norton and Triumph were selling their side-valve machines to every lonely outpost of the British Empire for just such duties in the 1920s, so when Honda got in on the game with their 1961 “Hunter Cub,” the idea was well established. What Honda did was to take the core concept of a lightweight (compared with a car or truck), simple and rugged vehicle and refine it into a commercial success.

The first CTs were quite crude things that, in a most un-Honda like piece of engineering, required the rider to thread the chain over a second, larger sprocket to give lower gearing in the woods and trails, and then reverse the process to raise the gearing for the trip home on the highway.

Then in 1968 came the quantum leap forward, which was inevitable with a Honda product. In place of the crude secondary rear sprocket, Honda introduced an ultra-neat little 1.867 reduction spur gear that gave a high and low ratio. Combined with a four-speed gearbox, instead of the three-speeder of the road bikes, and an overhead cam engine in place of the old pushrod motor, the new bike was a giant step for woodland folk all over America. The CT90 was nearly there.

However, two things were missing. First, the bike looked a real mess. In fact, it had all the appearance of a home-built special with a piece of vinyl making a very nominal attempt at concealing the original C90’s wiring. The air-filter was still located in the original C90 location at the front of the bike.

The leading link front forks were also badly wrong for an off-road machine. To be fair to Honda, they were not simply lifted from the road bike but were re-designed and beefed up for off-road use. Even so, conventional telescopic forks were necessary – and they arrived the following year.

Ironically this makes the 1968 KO Honda CT90 in this test the rarest in the machine’s 13-year history.

So, to the machine. Honda had an ace card to play in the motorcycle production stakes – and played it skillfully in terms of the CT90: this was mass production.

First, many of the parts in the CT range were lifted from other Honda step-throughs that sold in the millions. While Norton was making 200 bikes a week in Birmingham, Honda was producing 200 Cubs a minute. This meant that the pressed-steel chassis, where the cost of initial tooling was huge and therefore unaffordable for most motorcycle production, was the natural choice for Honda.

Once the cost of the tooling is amortized, steel pressings are cheap and simple to manufacture.

The same applied to the engine and gearbox. Because of the huge production runs, costs were crushed compared with British manufacturers – and simply annihilated those of Harley-Davidson.

An interesting byproduct of using parts common to many models in the Honda range is that today, 52 years after the first Trail Cub was launched, bits are still freely available for the bikes – such was the huge production.

At the same time, Honda didn’t cut corners with the CT90’s specification. Many parts of the bike, including the suspension, fenders and even the chain guard, were optimized for dual-sport use. For $330, you got an awful lot of vehicle for your money.

I have never been one to give bikes human names – nor do I see them as intrinsically anthropomorphic. However, if ever there is a machine that does break the rules, it is the CT90. It reminds me so strongly of a Cocker Spaniel bitch ready for a day in the field that I expected to see a wagging tail before we started the ride.

The CT90 is powered by the single overhead cam, 50mm x 45.6mm engine, which, to recycle Homer’s words, is the engine that launched a million bikes. No doubt some elements of this single-cylinder tsunami did find themselves in the wine dark sea – but not nearly as many as those becoming intimately acquainted with burger brown mud!

Producing 8 hp at 9,500 rpm, the two-valve OHC engine is stone-axe simple by modern standards but a thing of utter delight in terms of reliability.

It is also extremely clever in terms of doing exactly what is required of it – pulling heroically from zero revs. Peak torque is at a modest 6,000 rpm, all the way until the valves bounce.

A quirk of the CT90 design is that it has a centrifugal engine speed clutch and a four-speed, semi-automatic gearbox. Hardened and experienced motorcyclists might not like the system, but someone who has never even been near a bike can master it instantly, and this was one of Honda’s ace cards.

Neutral is foolproof and easy to find because it is the first “gear” in the box and you can’t go beyond it. A reassuring little green indicator lights up when neutral is engaged.

First gear locks in when the rocker gear pedal is depressed – but the bike doesn’t move. Open the throttle and the centrifugal clutch gently engages and the little bike pulls effortlessly away.

Press the rocker lever again and, accompanied by a tear-inducing crunch, second gear comes into play and the bike accelerates again.

The noise is truly horrendous for riders used to seamless, silent gear changes, but the box is unbreakable and completely beginner proof.

Changing down is a matter of reversing the process until the neutral indicator comes on again. In fact, with a little bit of nimble throttle and gear lever play, it is possible to blip the throttle and get smooth, motorcycle quality changes.

Note that there is no balancing the engine speed and clutch bite – followed by the inevitable beginners’ stall. Just pay us $330 and after a couple of minute’s tuition away you go. Now that was seriously clever understanding of the marketplace. The CT90’s target audience was customers with no knowledge of motorcycles and probably no interest in them either. They were looking for an ultra-cheap, two-wheeled Chevy pickup – and wanted to spend as long mastering their new machine as they did checking out the specification of their latest chainsaw.

Top speed for the CT90 was claimed to be 55 mph – but this was extremely optimistic and no doubt achieved by a tiny Honda test rider with a following wind going slightly downhill. In perfect conditions you can see 50 mph on the speedo, but 40 mph was a happier place for the CT90. At these speeds, the little bike sips fuel, and you can expect 80-plus miles to be squeezed out of every gallon.

This means that the bike is perfectly practical for modern road conditions. OK, you wouldn’t want to battle through central Los Angeles at rush hour, but the CT90 can handle gentle urban traffic perfectly well and just loves minor rural roads.

Honda stiffened the CT90’s suspension for off-road use, creating a bike that handles much better than a standard C90 road bike. There remains the feeling that you are in the center of a large blob of biking jello, and the front and rear wheels seem determined to march to the beat of different drums, but at least the jello is firm and well set instead of the pogo stick soft sensation offered by the CT90’s road sister.

The exhaust note is also different from the road machine with a hard, racing edge to the high level pipe; in fact, it's quite the little sports machine. As standard, the bike would have carried a U.S. Forestry approved spark arrestor, but with this removed, I wouldn’t mind betting that the standard pipe is running at over 100 dBA; Termignoni eat your heart out!

The four-inch drum brakes are also surprisingly effective and again make the bike a really useable classic. At one time, car drivers would show a lot of courtesy to anyone riding a classic bike – demonstrating amiable tolerance for the fact that the old motorcycles didn’t stop, turn or go like modern machines. Now, Britain is such a pressured place and the driving is so aggressive that classic bikes have to be safe in this hostile environment.

If the CT90’s performance is surprising on the road, it is astonishing off-road. Beneath the case housing the spur gear is a little lever. Click this to the right and the overall gearing is dropped by around 40%. The original Honda literature pretended that changing gear was a two-second job, but it isn’t. The technique is to put the CT90 on its center stand and engage first gear. Then, one must use a 10mm ring spanner to turn the selector and tease the low gear into place by rocking the rear wheel to and fro. It’s not exactly sophisticated – but it does work.

Now you really do have a “go-anywhere” vehicle. The CT90 weighs less than 200 pounds, even with a gallon and a half of gas, so you can almost pick the bike up and put it into your pocket. However, neat as the trick would be, it is unnecessary because in low gear the CT will claw its way up and over any obstacle.

This is not off-road riding as we currently understand the term, with the rider standing and instant power in the blink of an eye. However, if you want to get from point “A” to point “B” – with camping gear, a gun and even an animal corpse on the huge carrier – then the CT is a truly remarkable, not to say practical, dirt bike.

The reality of the bike’s off-road abilities is shown by the legions of epic travel stories. There’s not a single great motorcycling challenge that these miraculous bikes haven’t conquered.

Then there is the final factor – one that took me completely by surprise. For what reason, I haven’t a clue, but the CT90 is a complete show stopper. Wherever I took the bike it was instantly surrounded by fans in a way that is both fascinating and bizarre. Whatever magic the CT90 possesses, it’s certainly star quality.

This is the part of the story I don’t like to write because bikes should be enjoyed for what they are – not their value or investment value. The best, and most practical, CT90s are the later ones. These have telescopic forks, a more sensibly placed air-filter and are better looking. The supreme example is the CT110. These are rare in the U.S., although common in Australia as the legendary “Postie” bike that has delivered mail to rural homes throughout the sub-continent since the 1980s – and still does today.

In America, later CT90s are the ones to have.

In all cases, original, low mileage and unrestored bikes are the ones to look for. These are still cheap enough so that you don’t have to go looking at rubbish that remains worth a few hundred dollars.

At the top of the collector’s tree is the Honda CT90-KO, the bike we had on test, which is the first of the true, eight-speed CT90s made in very small numbers for only a few months. To a CT90 aficionado, this little bike is the Holy Grail, and an unrestored example is worth serious money.

Thanks to CT90 guru Colin Wilkinson for his help with the research for this article.