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Honda C90 Memories (V Long)

Discussion in 'Bike Reviews, Questions and Suggestions' started by PatB, Jan 15, 2008.

  1. It's a while since I hogged a load of bandwidth with a largely irrelevant bike review, so here's my latest offering.

    Way back in the mists of time (June 10th, 1989 in fact), I awoke one grey summer Saturday morning and decided that, by the end of the day, I’d own a bike.

    This wasn’t entirely a spur of the moment decision. I’d been gradually drifting into biking for several years at that point, buying magazines, visiting shows and, as the infection took hold, scrounging pillion rides with mates whenever I could.

    Indeed, I had my first introduction to the Tarmac Tasters Club as a pillion, a couple of years prior to starting riding in my own right. A blown tyre at speed on the motorway saw us going for a high(ish) speed bounce in the outside lane. Oddly enough, as 110 km/h tarmac rose to meet me, my main thought was “Oh f*#k, my folks are going to find out I’ve been on a bike!â€.

    And there stands the main reason for my delayed start in the wonderful world of the powered two wheeler. Countering the parental objections was going to be just too hard and painful. Combine that with my usual fiscally challenged state and genuine doubts as to my ability to coordinate all four limbs sufficiently to ride a motorbike, and plans got shelved for a while.

    Times change though, and that fateful morning in 1989 found me divided from the objecting parent on matters much deeper and less reconcilable than my choice of personal transport, marginally richer (although that would soon be remedied) and desperate for an economical means of escaping from the city I found myself trapped in as a result of work commitments.

    The local paper hadn’t thrown up any likely candidates and a tour of the bike shops and wreckers revealed only a limited set of options in my price range.

    This was the time of the 125 learner law in the UK and anything remotely stylish, pleasant to ride, or roadworthy commanded a premium price. Even late 70s/early 80s commuter grey porridge, with crispy brown steel and alloy covered in white fluff could only be had with an outlay that could have bought me a shiny and only mildly crashed RD250LC or a beautifully polished and already becoming classic Honda CB200. Such is life under a capacity restriction.

    But after the (admittedly not unexpected) disappointments of the early part of the day, fortune was to smile upon me. Or at least not smack me in the face with a broken pint glass anyway.

    Deep in the “display area†of my local wreckers (my last port of call before giving up), hidden behind the ranks of short wheelbase GPZ900Rs and GSXR750s lurked their bargain bin. This final resting place of every moped and 50 cc scooter in Bristol did not appear promising until I spied, amongst the pile of plastic grot, a flash of blue and off-white familiar to anyone who’s ever taken an interest in the lower end of biking’s food-chain.

    A wave of my wad gained the attention of the proprietor of the establishment, who assisted in uncovering my quarry with all the enthusiasm and affability of the seasoned small time con-artist about to separate a sucker from their wallet.

    And there it sat. A typical example of that motorcycling icon and workhorse of the developing world, the Honda C90 Step-Thru. Typical, in this case, meaning grubby and neglected, with the scuffed plastic legshields stitched together with electrical wire hiding an oily lump that, I was assured, had another million miles in it. On the plus side, the frame hadn’t rotted through above the back wheel, the pressed tin forks were similarly uncorroded, the engine ran well, without smoke and all three gears engaged cleanly. All the lights worked and the tyres had tread. One of them even had a brand name.

    To be sold as seen with no MOT certificate or license.

    Several friends had cut their biking teeth on Step-Thrus of various capacities and vintages so I had some idea of the strengths and weaknesses of these fine little pieces of industrial design.

    All in all, for the 95 quid asked, it was neither bargain nor rip-off.

    It was a bike.

    I could afford it.

    I bought it.

    After hauling it home on the back of a borrowed truck, an MOT (roadworthy) was first priority. It showed no obvious fail points so the following Saturday I cleaned it up, put some air in the tyres and rode it up to “Blind Jack’s†where it passed first go.

    That was my first time out on the road on MY OWN BIKE. The speed, the wind rush of my headlong, 40 mph progress, the wobbly, bouncy suspension, the fire-breathing 6.5 horsepower of the asthmatic little four-stroke all combined to suppress the terror of being out amongst Bristol’s Saturday morning traffic with zero roadgoing motorbike experience.

    Third Party insurance was arranged for 30 quid, a tax disc (license) was obtained and I was legal to ride anywhere and anywhen I chose, with Ls up and my car licence acting as a provisional motorcycle ticket.

    And so began my biking career and my ongoing affection for Honda’s various commuter bikes.

    I rode that little beastie the length and breadth of England and Wales over the course of the next 18 months. In fact, the enthusiasm borne of novelty, the extreme economy of running and the (eventually) bullet proof reliability ensured that it got more use than many of my later, bigger bikes.

    It did have some initial teething problems.

    Very early in my ownership, I noticed that, riding in the dark, the already feeble 25 Watt headlamp would dim from its usual dull yellow to a rich, dark brown after half an hour or so, at which point the engine would begin to run erratically and refuse to tick over. Switching on the indicators at this point would result in the headlamp going out entirely and the bike proceeding in a series of lurches as the indicator globes guzzled juice desperately needed by the ignition. Cleaning every contact in the electrical system didn’t help so I resigned myself to spending money.

    Replacement of the fossilised 6 volt batttery with a new one (less than 10 quid) helped briefly but the bike quickly returned to its pogoing glow-worm status.

    A used alternator stator and rectifier (no regulator that I can recall, the battery presumably playing that role) for 15 quid didn’t initially work, but then I tried the fresh rectifier with my original alternator and ended up with a reliable supply of volts.

    Not big, just reliable.

    It was during this electricity conservation period that the lack of a handlebar mounted kill switch, combined with the automatic centrifugal clutch combined to provide me with the “C90 Initiation Rite†one evening.

    Sitting in neutral at a T-junction awaiting a gap, the engine began to stutter as the battery went west. Being in a mood to make the little b*stard suffer I gave it a huge handful and held it at what must have been about 8000 rpm. As the traffic cleared I kept it wide open and tramped the gearlever into 1st, at which point more excitement erupted than might be thought possible for a 90 cc commuter bike.

    The clutch bit instantly and the bike stood up on its back wheel like an open class motocrosser with a nitrous kit, smacking me in the full-face with its speedo. Mr Panic, who’d been surprisingly absent up to that point in my riding, grabbed me by the shoulder and forced me to squeeze the front brake lever back to the bars. The front wheel being somewhere around head height, this had no effect other than to prevent me from releasing the throttle as the bike sprang forwards.

    With both feet flailing behind and the bike approaching the vertical, I was dragged screaming across several lanes of traffic until I regained the presence of mind, or possibly lack of balance, to fall over sideways before going through a shop window on the opposite side of the road and provoking “Mad Biker in Botched Ram-Raid Horror†headlines in the local rag.

    Even at this point, I maintained my death grip on the throttle whilst trying to pick the bike up, causing the malevolent thing to circulate rapidly around me each time the madly spinning back wheel touched the ground.

    After much fumbling, I found the ignition switch, finally managed to kill the howling engine and fell over with the bike on top of me. After the excitement of the past few seconds, it felt quite peaceful and relaxing. Until the exhaust finished burning a hole in my jeans and started on my leg.

    It was almost worth it for the reaction from the clientele of the nearby chip shop who provided an appreciative audience to the whole display.

    I was later to discover that most of my C90 owning accquaintances had had similar episodes, ranging from torpedoing a bus in the centre of Newcastle (Upon Tyne), to mounting a staircase, overbalancing backwards and being pinned under the inverted bike in the hallway whilst attempting to park indoors to avoid theft.

    Initial problems dealt with, I started covering progressively larger distances simply to gain experience and for recreational purposes, as well as my daily commute. A distance of 100-150 miles on every type of road was about average for a day trip.

    The bike would cruise at about 47 mph (75 km/h) according to the rather wobbly speedo and, thrashed at all times, returned about 85 mpg (3.3 l/100 km) which was a bit disappointing.

    Round town it was great, being narrow and light enough to wriggle through non-existent gaps, and sufficiently nippy to keep ahead of traffic when the lights went green. Out on the open road was another matter.

    It was OK on winding A-roads where it could simply be flogged flat-out and would maintain the average traffic speed, but it could get a bit frightening on fast dual carriageways where other road users wouldn’t bother to change lanes in order to overtake. It was particularly dodgy in hilly districts if there were a few trucks around as I’d overtake them as they ground up the grades, only to have them fly past with minimal clearance on the downslopes. To this day I’ll maintain that, when it comes to purely speed related biking bad moments, I’ve had an order of magnitude more from being too slow than from going too fast.

    The simple answer to this deficiency was to avoid fast dual carriageways where possible. Fortunately, one of the UK’s better points is that, for most journeys, there are several route options. Typically there is a motorway option, which is off limits to L-platers, boring and bl*ody dangerous if you’re small, vulnerable and unable to maintain 70 mph. Then there is the A-road route which can vary from fast dual carriageway to good quality undivided road which may or may not be wide and straightish and which will generally, these days, bypass towns and villages. Finally there is the B-road route which is often the old main road, full of exciting twisty bits and passing through town and village centres.

    Needless to say, at a mind and backside numbing 47 mph, the B-roads were my preferred option where possible. Varied scenery, plenty of interesting places to stop for a smoke or a bite to eat, not much other traffic and frequent opportunities to explore the handling of my steed more than compensated for any lack of directness. I also discovered many brilliant biking roads to which I would return later with more potent machinery.

    To return to the qualities of the Step-Thru, the handling was surprisingly good considering the lack of frame, the bouncy, undamped rear suspension and the equally bouncy, undamped, leading link forks. The little thing was so tiny and light that, as long as the tyres had some grip, it could be manhandled and chucked around by brute strength. Sure, the handlebars would flap around a bit on bumpy bends but if you held your nerve and kept aiming in approximately the right direction it would get round safely. Hitting potholes mid-corner was a little unpleasant as, at speed, you could feel the whole bike flex, particularly with the extra mass of a passenger. On right-handers, the brake pedal could ground hard enough for it to be smacked upwards against the exhaust downpipe, bending and, eventually, breaking it. Not that a complete replacement system was going to tax even my meagre resources at 20 quid a pop.

    It was fortunate that the handling was nimble as the available braking power was limited. The thimble sized drum brakes weren’t too bad in themselves but the skinny, 7 quid a go, Malaysian tyres wouldn’t transmit much of the resultant retardation to the road and the geometry of the front brake and suspension caused the front end to rise under braking, with what appeared to be an incidental self-servoing effect. As a result, panic stops required great concentration in order to avoid a front wheel lock-up and consequent fall, particularly on wet or greasy roads.

    One morning, after about 2500 miles of reasonably local pootling and just prior to my first planned big trip (350 miles in a day, for a weekend with friends in Newcastle, then 350 miles return), I noticed that my maximum speed was dropping. Over the course of a couple of miles, it fell from the usual 47 mph to 40 and then 35. Finally it wouldn’t pull over 30 mph in top. In an effort to not get run down by following traffic I knocked it down to second (3 speed box remember) and wound it on. For a brief instant it responded but then it just went BBBBBLLEEEEEEUUURRRGH and locked solid (which is interesting when you’ve no real clutch). Looking in my mirrors revealed a smoke screen worthy of a WWII battleship covering the escape of a North Atlantic convoy. A glance below the legshields showed an engine oozing oil from every joint and smelling of mechanical death.

    I let it cool off for a couple of ciggies and then attempted a restart in the hope of getting home. No luck. No compression either. It went home on a truck.

    Dismantling revealed an interesting piece of avant-garde sculpture masquerading as a piston with all its rings welded into place and a lovely, linear pattern of furrows all around. The cylinder bore was equally stuffed and, quite clearly, both were well beyond the restorative powers of emery cloth. On the bright side, both crank and cylinder head apeared unscathed and an exchange barrel and new piston cost next to nothing.

    Slapped together with new gaskets she fired second kick and ran perfectly whilst leaking no oil. Result.

    Have you any idea how BORING it is, running in a bike so slow? Very very boring indeed. Evening after evening was spent crawling around the area, attempting to avoid overrevving or lugging the engine whilst giving it a variety of loads and speeds.

    Eventually it was done, just in time that my brain didn’t turn to cheese from sheer tedium.

    The Newcastle trip went ahead, thus beginning the bike’s spell as a long distance tourer. It was to do many more such trips and would, over time, cover most of England and Wales carrying me, a fortnight’s luggage and enough tools and spares to undertake a full rebuild at the side of the road.

    Wales was particularly good fun as there were numerous hills where second gear was too high whilst first was a bit low. As a result, the bike would claw itself upwards at a steady 20 mph, little single screaming and throwing off wafts of heat, for what seemed like an eternity, only to sit on its stand the next time I stopped, ticking over like I’d just popped down to the shops. Then on the downhill stretches I could get my chin down on the speedo and my feet on the rear pegs and wind it up to its absolute maximum of 57 1/2 mph before having to back off for the next gravel strewn, stone wall lined hairpin bend.

    I only crashed it once, after riding for a year. Ironically it was immediately following a formal rider training course and one day prior to my test for my full licence. I smacked the back of a bus whilst daydreaming in traffic. The mighty C90 shrugged it off better than I did, and carried me through my test the next day with only a taped up indicator lens to show for it. I failed but passed second time around a couple of months later.

    After I passed my test, I transferred my attentions to a CZ250 Sport ( :rofl: ) which is another story. The C90 was sold to a mate who proceeded to ride it to Portishead and back (about 40 kms) with no oil in it. Tough little beastie though it was, that was too much (although, amazingly, it was still running when he got home) and it died, unloved, in a damp shed, which pissed me off a bit.

    I later obtained another C90 as a stopgap when one of my later bikes was having one of its regular tanties. It was fun in a way but I'd been spoiled by then.
  2. The things we have to do just to get attention!! :shock:

    Great write up.


  3. HAHAH.. the Same quote that grabbed my attention.
    Top Review. was a great read.
  4. :LOL: :LOL: :LOL: :LOL: :LOL: :LOL: :LOL:

    nice read mate, well done
  5. I had one of these as my first bike when i was about 10. My old man fixed it up and gave it to me for my birthday. Apparently it belonged to a teacher at a nearby school and the kids put water or something in the petrol tank (a teacher riding a c90 is just asking for it). The teacher gave it to my dad to fix and never picked it up. I have memories of when i was really young sitting on it in the garage and thinking it was a jetski. Yeah i was a dumb kid. They're robust, thats for sure, i used to ride it around my parents horse paddocks. Once i smelt burning rubber and had a look. Mud had caked under the rear guard and set hard and was rubbing against the tyre. I lowsided it a couple of times at speed going at a decent clip down a hill in the paddock. All it did was bend the pegs a bit (just bent them back into place- oh i took the plastic leg guard off). My dad could mono it (did once and i fell off the back). Obviously i thought it was a pretty dorky bike at the time (not that i was complaining tho), but i did like the long fenders and the long chrome exhaust. I thought it looked like an indian. I also thought it sounded a bit like a harley when i took it into the carport and revved it (yeah i was a dumb kid). After a while it started giving me troubles by not starting. A guy that rented a house off my mum (who had a harley) had a look at it for me and found the points were stuffed. He adapted the points off his harley (yeah it was an old one) and put them on the stepthru. It was sweet as after that. I had to mow the lawns for payment. Eventually i wanted something faster that i could take into the bush and ride. I had my heart set an a DT175 (but ended up with a suzuki ts185). So i took it to a bike shop in Berwick and sold it for 175 bucks (it seemed like a lot of money at the time and yeah i was a dumb kid). It was pretty much immaculate (despite my previous attempts to destroy it), had shiny paint, no corrosion and only about 6000 miles on the clock. I still regret selling it for what is much less then a days pay now. On the plus side a couple of years ago i recognised the guy from the shop when he came into my work. I asked him about it and he said some old guy had bought it and fully restored it. Every cloud has a silver lining i guess :cool:
  6. Oh if you checkout youtube there is a series of short episodes taken off some english pay tv show top 10 bikes of all time (or some bs like that). The c90 took number one (the cb750 was second i think). Its got charlie boorman racing round london streets on a 50cc c90 (was it called a c50?) going over gutters and generally acting like a funny tool. He replaces the oil with used cooking oil and rides it around and then loads it up with a couple of hundred kilos of pizzas and stuff. Then the final test is to drop it from 10 stories (or something like that- bloody high anyway) up. The bike is rooted, everything is bent and damaged. It still starts. Pretty much first kick :LOL:
  7. Good story first bikes are always special.
    Got a c90 out the back, Valentines Day present from a few years back gonna have to start on it after that little write up!
  8. That'll be hard to toss for the best post in Bike Reviews this year; thanks for a GREAT read, mate!!!