Honda C50 Stepthru
YOU MEET THE NICEST PEOPLE ON A HONDA…
I know what you’re thinking: Spannerman dwells with the gods and can ride whatever he goddamn pleases so why would he cast his gaze on a lowly Honda C50 Stepthru?
Well, friends, I wasn’t always fabulously wealthy. As a humble apprentice, I trudged the streets of Newcastle and dreamed of the future.
I had a Suzuki Titan at the time which I wore out, piece by piece. Eventually, when it protested itself into immobility, I walked the three miles from Carrington to Moreparts Wreckers with a short parts list and $100 (my life’s savings) in the pocket of my overalls. Tragically, the bits I needed totalled $120. As I ambled out for the long, hot walk back, I noticed the Stepthru. It was, conveniently, $100, so I bought it instead and rode it home.
My colleague, Guy Allen, is in the habit of naming his bikes. I’ve never done that but the previous owner of the Stepthru had called the bike ‘Virginia’ and there was a sticker on the swingarm to confirm it. Even back then, the words ‘Spannerman’ and ‘virgin’ rarely appeared in the same sentence but I got used to it and the little, red Honda has always had a name.
I left Newcastle in 1982 to seek my fortune in Melbourne and put Virginia on the train with me so that I would have some transport when I arrived. She carried me faithfully around the deep south for years but, through neglect, she became slower and slower.
The problem was the oil feed to the head. The camshaft runs in the head casting and if you neglect oil changes, the camshaft will develop play which affects valve opening and closing. It got slower and slower but I kept riding it. Eventually its top speed dropped to around 15km/h and I abandoned it in the longterm carpark at Melbourne airport.
Four months later, racked by guilt, I drove a ute out, pushed it through the entrance gate and did a runner. By that time, parking fees had grown to around $4800 so taking it through the proper exit would have completely redefined the expression ‘over-capitalising’.
Virginia sat for years with her worn-out engine and I occasionally scanned the papers for a useable Honda 50 replacement unit. Given the numbers that were sold, you’d think they’d be a dime a dozen. Not so – they all wore out. A badly maintained Honda 50 would do about 10,000km and many of them went to God with that number on the odometer.
I found one eventually, bought it, fitted it and discovered the autoclutch wasn’t working properly – it tore a couple of teeth off third gear. Virginia is slow enough without a missing third gear so she slowly worked her way up to the back of the factory again.
I never forgot her, though. If she could talk, I’d probably still be in gaol for the things she’s witnessed over the years.
A couple of years ago I accompanied Rob Blackbourn into the scrub to inspect a Suzuki T500 he’d purchased and, amazingly, the owner had a shed full of Honda 50 engines. None were perfect but I bought the best: a C100 (still 50cc) electric-start unit. Its problems included a worn-out, kick-start spindle but, at last, I had the makings of a non-original but useable Stepthru.
I’ve had to go through the boredom of learning about Stepthrus so there’s no reason you shouldn’t share it. I’ll make it as brief as possible so you don’t feel like slitting your wrists before you finish reading.
The first example of the Honda Super Cub (C100) appeared in 1958. It was propelled by a 50cc, pushrod, overhead-valve engine. Sit down before you read this but it produces 4.5hp which powered it to a top speed of around 70km/h. The first major modification was with the C102 in 1960 which featured an electric start and battery and coil ignition instead of the previous magneto.
My model, the C50, appeared in 1966 and had an overhead camshaft, lifting power from a mind-boggling 4.5 to 4.8hp). The year 1966 also saw the introduction of the far more popular C90 Stepthru with its giantkilling 5.5kW (7.5hp) power unit. To put this into perspective, the current BMW S 1000 RR produces 142kW (193hp).
The OHC Honda engine stumbled in Asia largely because nobody read the service manuals. It developed a poor reputation for reliability, particularly against its bullet-proof, two-stroke opposition. In 1974, Honda went back to a low-maintenance, pushrod engine which still survives today in a variety of forms, particularly as Chinese copies.
In the west, however, the OHC engine thrived and built Honda’s current reputation. Not everyone agrees – read Neale Parkinson’s letter in the Spannerman section of this issue.
As you can see from the pictures, Virginia was dragged out of the back of the factory recently and once again asked to start. I can’t be sure but I think it’s about three-and-a-half years since I last gave her a gallop. As is often the case, I needed to pump up the tyres, introduce some fresh petrol and then it’s a case of turning on the ignition and taking her for a walk.
The C50 has a kick-start but, unlike most scooters, its centrifugal clutch allows you to push-start it. The compression ratio is so low that you can select second gear and just walk it a few yards until the engine fires, which it always does, however long I leave it before attention.
Honda’s stepthrus can never be considered as an investment as they became the highest-selling, engine-driven transport device in the history of the world. Forget the VW Beetle – the Super Cub is the never-to-bebeaten winner (60 million have been sold so far). I love mine because of the memories attached to it and the fact that it has survived for so long.
There are a few options for its future. I can rebuild the early C100 engine I have or seek out an OHC C50 engine from someone who has one in the back of their shed. I really only need the bottom end but if you have one, contact me at MCT@bauertrader.com.au.
Plan C is to acquire an Asian copy of the engine. Honda has sold the licence to produce the C50-style engine to SYM, among others, so Virginia might end up with a 110cc unit. There are other Chinese manufacturers who have produced copies without a licence so, as long as they fit, power is available.
We’re a weird lot. I’d like Virginia to be running well and, possibly, she’d drift up to the back of the shed again. I see a life for her when I move to a small, country town where something easy to start and which will run for a month on a tank of fuel will be useful for picking up the papers, milk and bread. I’ll save the S 1000 RR for more serious work…