Honda CB72, Living The Dream...

Honda’s CB72 – or Dream Super Sport – is one of the most important bikes ever built by the Japanese giant. And it did it while still a teenager...

The young guy on the modern 125cc race-replica didn’t back off the throttle as he went screaming past the stationary CB72. He barely gave the Honda a second glance, and if he had done he probably wouldn’t have been impressed. To most people this was just some old bike with a shiny, chromed petrol tank; and a rider who was jumping up and down on its kickstarter in an attempt to get it running.

A few moments later the twin-cylinder motor fired up and I roared off in pursuit, with a half-formed plan to catch the newer bike and restore the ageing Honda’s honour. It was no use, of course; he’d long since disappeared into the distance. But if ever there’s been a small-capacity roadster that deserves respect from a modern-day motorcyclist – especially a young guy in a hurry – it’s the Honda CB72.

Honda’s Game Changer

This 247cc Honda parallel twin from the Sixties might not look very fast and exciting in comparison with a modern, fully-faired CBR300R, at least if you’re a teenager. But it’s no exaggeration to say that not only was the CB72 the best small-capacity sports bike of its day, but that half a century later it is right up there with the CB750, VFR750 and CBR900RR FireBlade as one of the most significant models that Honda has ever built.

That humped, chrome-plated tank with its rubber knee-pads looks quaintly dated now, but when the CB72 reached Britain and other export markets in the early Sixties its style and specification were a big step forward. This was the bike that proved Honda was getting serious; the first Japanese machine with enough performance and street cred to appeal strongly to European enthusiasts.

Honda had already begun making a big name for itself on the world’s racetracks. In 1961, just two years after the firm’s first, exploratory attempt at the TT, Mike Hailwood and Aussie Tom Phillis won the 250 and 125cc world championships. The following season Honda retained both, and added the 350cc title for good measure.

But although Honda’s twin-cylinder racers – inspired by the German NSUs that had impressed Soichiro Honda during his earlier TT visit – were fast and competitive, the same couldn’t be said of the firm’s roadsters.

Models such as the 250cc C71 – which became the first Honda twin seen in Europe when it arrived in 1959 – were well engineered and reliable. But with its huge mudguards, pressed-steel frame, leading-link forks and rectangular-section shocks, the C71 was heavy and pretty ugly. It was also slow, and didn’t handle particularly well.

The CB72 – known as the DreamSuper Sport in this country and the Hawk in the States – was very different. This was the sporty version of the year’s three-model 250cc range, which also consisted of the basic C72 and dual-purpose CS72.

It had low, flat handlebars, a relatively thinly padded dual-seat, and an innovative instrument panel incorporating a speedometer and rev-counter whose needles rotated in opposite directions. There was even a degree of adjustability in its footrests, which were respectably high and rear-set.

All three 1960 models retained the previous year’s SOHC engine layout, plus dimensions of 54 x 54mm, and switched from dry- to wet-sump lubrication. In addition the CB72 had a 180º crankshaft instead of the C72’s British-style 360º set-up. It also had twin carbs instead of just one, and a higher 9.5:1 compression ratio that helped increase maximum output by 4bhp to 24bhp at 9000 RPM.

The CB72’s chassis changes were even more important. In place of the pressed-steel frame retained by the C72, the sports model had a new and more rigid construction – based on that of Honda’s works racers – combining a tubular-steel main spine with short twin down-tubes leading to the cylinder head.

The old-style leading-link front suspension was replaced by telescopics, with a pair of conventional round-section shocks at the rear. Both front and rear brakes were of high spec: finned, eight-inch diameter twin-leading-shoe drums.

That all gave the CB72 a much more racy and modern look, and riding it did not disappoint. As US mag Cycle World put it at the time:

"Rider position is of necessity very ‘Mike Hailwood’, and although it looks ferociously uncomfortable for touring, the controls and the seat are positioned in such a way that it is, in fact, quite good. In any case, the combination makes the rider feel as though he is very much a part of the machine – and it is fun to drop into a crouch and bare your teeth at other riders as you go by."

The gap between the top two ratios necessitated an occasional tread down into third on uphill stretches, prompting some contemporary testers to suggest that the bike would have been improved by a five-speed box. But they didn’t complain about the CB72’s performance.

The Motor Cycle speed-tested it at an average of 89mph, with a one-way best of 91mph, and said: “The Dream Super Sport is far and away the fastest production two-fifty yet tested. It would hold 70-75mph for the entire length of the M1 motorway with the rider normally seated.” That was impressive stuff, though less so than it would be now, because in 1961 the newly opened M1 was only 60 miles long!

Handling was good, too, in contrast to that of the CB72’s heavier and less well equipped forebears. Cycle World described the Honda as “stable and fast cornering”, adding that “fork angle, trail, spring rates and damper settings are near-perfect, and even a fairly timid rider will find it very natural to ride faster and lean over farther than is his habit to do.”

Building the Brand

Back in the early Sixties the Honda impressed not only with its speed and handling but with its quality and reliability. As the Motor Cycle put it:

“Have racing successes any bearing on production quality? Does racing really improve the breed? that the answer to both these questions is a decided ‘yes’ is immediately obvious ! That a machine of such full blooded performance should at the same time be so unobtrusive and docile reflects tremendous credit on a firmfounded only 13 years ago.”

The CB72 made an excellent impression with almost everyone who rode one, and did much to increase the respect with which Honda was regarded in many countries. It was followed in 1963 by a 305cc version – the CB77 – which was good for a genuine 95mph and had “performance that would do credit to a 500”, according to one report.

Lingering anti-Japanese prejudice combined with a high price to ensure that the CB72 didn’t sell in vast numbers. In 1962 it cost almost £300 when Ariel’s 250cc Sports Arrow was priced at £190. But the twin made a strong impression, and was much loved by many of its owners. Most importantly, the CB72 proved that Honda could make fast, fine-handling, stylish bikes that appealed to enthusiasts all over the world – much as they’ve been doing ever since.

What’s It Like to Ride?

Aggressive riding comes naturally to the pilot of a CB72, as I soon discovered after setting off on this very original machine, borrowed from specialist Oxford Classic Honda. With 13,000 miles on the clock the 1967-registered bike looked in good, unrestored condition.

Its distinctive speedo face was slightly faded, while the chrome and paintwork had a few minor marks and rustspots, but generally the Honda had aged well. It had been borrowed on short notice, and not run for some time, which explained its reluctance to start on the button, due to a weak battery. But the air-cooled motor generally fired-up easily enough after a few leaps on the unusual kick-starter, which swung forward rather than backwards when I applied my boot to it.

Once under way the Honda soon confirmed that its character was pretty much as you’d expect from the sporty riding position and the tacho’s 9000rpm redline. Revved hard, the CB72 performed well enough to make me realise why it had so impressed testers and owners alike back in the early Sixties.

There was a notable flat-spot at 4-5000rpm, almost certainly due to this bike’s carbs being in need of a cleanout due to the bike having been standing for a while. Then the motor got into its stride, revving smoothly with a dull drone from the low-set twin pipes. Soon I was barrelling along at 70mph, leant comfortably forward into the breeze, and with plenty of speed in hand. At that pace the engine wasn’t even particularly stressed, because top gear in the four-speed box was quite tall. Even so it was easy to understand those contemporary testers’ desire for a fifth cog.

The Honda was quick enough to be plenty of fun, and it also went round corners well for a small and elderly machine. Its suspension was reasonably firmand welldamped, even at the rear where the shocks didn’t make me want to replace them with a pair of Girling units, as some hard-riding owners did in the Sixties. At 153kg dry the CB72 was light even by modern standards, and was stable enough to encourage me to flick it around.

The only aspect of the chassis that disappointed was the twin-leading-shoe front drum brake, which was regarded as excellent in its day, but in this bike’s case was rather spongy and ineffective. New and freshly set-up shoes would doubtless have helped.

At least the lack of stopping power meant there was no danger of overwhelming the skinny, 2.75-section front Avon tyre.