If you wanted to go off-road with a motorcycle in the 1960s, your options were fairly limited to larger, slower bikes that were pushrod-driven and not all that much fun to drive.
Honda entered the market with the Honda CL77 in an effort to contrast the lackluster efforts of other manufacturers by adding a more modern up to date design with a smaller, but more rev-happy engine. The result? Between 1965 and 1968, Honda sold an incredible number of the Honda CL77s as a fun, lightweight road bike that could handle off-road trips too. It was just what America was asking for.
Ready to dig into one of the original scramblers? Let’s do it!
Development and History
Dirt biking had become popular in the USA as a cheap method of transportation and of course, as a competitive sport, especially in warmer climates of the South and West. Motorcycle riders wanted fast, lightweight machines with a sporty look that could take their share of landings and handle well. Oh, and they needed to be light enough to toss into a trailer or into the back of a pickup.
Honda had the engine available to make a scrambler in the early ’60s but didn’t quite add the longer suspension and higher ride height desired by dirt bike riders. Yamaha did help spur along development a bit by putting out a competitive Bear Scrambler in 1965. However, the Yamaha sold for only one year before being scrapped by Yamaha. The Bear Scrambler earned its nickname from a race across the California deserts that the Bear scrambler participated in once but it didn’t win against European and other Japanese dirt bikes.
Honda had an answer to the Bear Scrambler, and unlike Yamaha, the concept would be refined over the years and not dumped. The Honda CL77 fits the niche of riders looking to race on the dirt or travel off-road for everything from camping to Overlanding. Effectively, the CB77 was a Honda Superhawk with a suspension better suited to bouncing and moving on dirt roads; a concept that while not new at the time, still hadn’t quite gained the notoriety it has today.
The CL77 was amongst Honda’s first scramblers, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Honda would later develop the CL50, which was a smaller, even sportier-looking version of the CL77, with a heightened rear suspension and exhaust. Another CL70 Scrambler was added a few years later with a slightly higher engine capacity of 70cc.
The Honda CL77 had a rather different engine for a 1960’s scrambler. Most scramblers outside of Honda’s lineup had big, heavy engines exceeding 750cc, were pushrod driven, and had a lower RPM capability. These designs were largely borrowed from 1940 and 1950s era motorcycles and were heavy for the purpose of a dirt track.
The 305cc Honda engine sounded small at the time but inside, was a parallel twin with a single overhead cam and a red line capacity of 9,000 RPM. This meant that the Honda engine was lighter, had smaller parts, and was capable of higher speeds before the need to shift gears. One big advantage the Honda engine provided was from its horizontal split in its crankcase. Oil didn’t have anywhere to go and the potential for a leak in a bike that was destined to be thrown around in the dirt was mitigated.
The 305cc engine did have some issues, especially with the electrical system and the fuel system. The hoses that carried proper amounts of fuel to the engine were susceptible to being dried out, which could lead to cracks and clogs. Luckily, the electrical system wasn’t engine-related, but problems with corrosion within the lighting system could lead to issues with bulbs not working.
High-revving, light, and fast. This was the start of something special.
The CL77 chassis focused on weight and height.
Dirtbike drivers wanted a high exhaust, in part to avoid hitting the exhaust on the ground as they land or tilt as they blast down the trail. In fact, this raised exhaust is the signature look of old-school scramblers. Honda also gave the CL77 an additional tube that was added to the front part of the chassis. Compared to the nearly identical CB77 Super Hawk, this additional tube provided extra strength for a bike expected to off-road on a regular basis.
The chassis also lacked a starter motor, which helped additionally reduce the weight of the bike compared to competitors. Although not designed for it, the chassis had some level of comfort too, as many riders considered the CL77 a dual-purpose motorcycle capable of handling the road as well as the rough stuff. Its small, powerful engine made it fun to ride in both scenarios.
The combined chassis and engine was also highly competitive, completing the 1968 Baja 1000 desert race while beating the previous record by more than 5 hours.
Impact on Motorcycle Culture
The Honda CL77 did an excellent job of helping usher along the dirtbike movement in the United States.
Dirt biking became a pastime in the 1960s, but bikes and vehicles weren’t necessarily developed for the purpose yet. The CL77 changed what kind of motorcycles were to be used for competition by putting a smaller, but more powerful engine on a bike instead of expecting a larger, heavier engine to compensate for a larger frame. Easier handling and quick reflexes made the CL77 a popular bike in its day.
Some also say that the CL77 is not a scrambler, but a solid street bike that was also dirt capable, but we will leave that debate up to enthusiasts. What we do know is that the CL77 also cemented Honda’s legacy of being both an innovator and also developing solid, long-lasting products. Notice how we didn’t have many complaints about the engine? That’s kind of rare in the world of bikes, but not for Honda.
Motorcycle riders can still see CL77s on the road and track today. The sporty bikes clean up quite well and last a long time with their regular maintenance. Honda ultimately made Japanese motorcycles more accessible and well known, which was a huge challenge considering the competing identity of tough, chopper riding bikers. A dirt bike rider was considered fun, adventurous, and sporty; an image enhanced with some dust on their sleeves and in their hair.
Of note, the Honda CL77 and the idea of the Scrambler also lead to drivers taking off their exhaust so they could retain some of the same loud “brap” noise typical of dirtbikes, so it made a contribution to the widespread adoption of custom modifications as well. We love the CL77 because it took the proof of concept done by other manufacturers and perfected it for many years to come. Plus, it looks great, and they’re still around today!
What more could you ask for?