History can be a tricky thing. Here in 2023, it’s a very simple matter to instantly make photos look older than they are, simply by digitally converting them to black-and-white or sepia tones. While things like fashion and design choices might give away the proper time period, it will probably take you at least a few moments to mentally get there, just because the color palette threw you off the (mental) scent.
The same goes for who’s telling the story. If you’re a fan of small bikes, and/or motorcycling history, chances are good that you’ve heard about how Honda’s extremely successful trail bike series originated in the US. Maybe you’ve even heard the name ‘Herb Uhl’ associated with that history.
As it turns out, here in 2023, Uhl is still very much alive and telling stories. The always-excellent Small Bike Stuff YouTube channel recently had the chance to get the story from his own mouth about how he changed motorcycling forever.
Although Uhl is now based in Washington, back in the 1950s, he was in Boise, Idaho—which is where the legend of the original Honda trail bikes begins. Back when Honda was first finding its feet in international motorcycle racing, and around the time that American Honda was getting it start in southern California, serendipity apparently struck.
As Uhl tells the story, his wife was out riding her motorcycle when she got hit by a car. She was mostly OK, but the bike needed some repair. They received $800 from the other party after the crash, of which they spent about $300 on repairs. The remaining $500, Uhl said, was what he used to open his first motorcycle shop.
The more you study history, the more you realize that patterns frequently repeat themselves. It may be hard to believe in 2023, but Honda’s reputation for reliability didn’t yet exist back in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Instead, the OEM had to earn it over time—and so, Uhl really felt that he was taking a chance when he decided to buy his first few Honda Cubs and Benlys through American Honda. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but we're seeing this happen again in 2023 as more Chinese OEMs sell their bikes overseas. Some of those bikes will be good, and some will be bad, just like most things, but the pattern and its related xenophobia remain.)
Anyway, Uhl's Boise, Idaho location was close to the hills—and that’s primarily where riders in the area liked to go. With loads of old logging roads, mining roads, and tons of other off-road riding to do, riders in the area were all about dirt. Few riders at the time, Uhl says, liked to ride on the street in his area.
That’s why, in typical Midwestern fashion, Uhl took a good, long look at those first Honda Cubs. Then, he also took a good look at the extremely unforgiving little Tote Goat bikes that local folks were building (basically a Briggs & Stratton engine in a hard frame with zero suspension), and saw how he could modify those Cubs to make a better trail bike.
Local riders loved Uhl’s modifications so much that they told their friends, and then they told their friends. Pretty soon, Uhl says he was selling more Cubs than all the other Honda dealers combined.
Naturally, American Honda wanted to know what he was doing differently—so he showed them. Both the Honda mothership and American Honda, you see, had been marketing the Cubs as civilized little city bikes. They hadn’t even thought about the off-road possibilities, much less explored them. It took a guy like Uhl, with a riding background like he had, to see that particular way forward and make it happen. He sent one of his modified machines to American Honda, who sent it on to Japan, and the rest is history.
It’s a great story, and an absolute treat beyond measure to hear it from the man himself, as he lived it. Get yourself a nice beverage and a tasty snack, and settle in for story time from a living motorcycle legend.