A look at the history of Honda is a look at the very evolution of motorcycle technology itself. Mr. Honda was an original thinker who studied the designs of the leading European manufacturers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and then propelled the Honda Motor Company to dominance on the strength of his own innovative ideas.
Among the early machines that brought the company to the forefront of the marketplace in postwar Japan was the Benly series. In the early ’50s, Honda’s business was flourishing on the strength of the Dream D and E series, plus the F-type Cub—a motor-driven bicycle with a 50cc two-stroke engine of Honda’s own design. In March 1953, Honda created the first Benly prototype powered by an air-cooled, OHV 89cc four-stroke engine, and within three months the company was already selling the production version in Japan.
The J-Type Benly was striking at the time primarily due to its innovative chassis. While most motorcycles of the day had rigid suspension, the Benly had a telescopic fork and “see-saw” type rear swingarm suspension. While most frames of the day used straight tubing, the Benly had a unique curved backbone. Most innovative, however, was how Honda mounted the engine in the frame. Instead of mounting it to the main frame, the engine was attached to the front of the swingarm and it pitched up and down with the swingarm movement. In this way, engine vibration was isolated from the main frame to provide customers with increased ride comfort. Honda sold more than 1000 J-Type Benlys in the first month.
Then problems began to surface. The valve train in the engine was loud, and the unique engine mounting method caused overheating problems. Honda responded quickly, investing in expensive machine tools that provided more accurate manufacturing, and consolidating his separate engine and body assembly plants under one roof in Hamamatsu. The problems with the Benly were quickly solved and Honda’s rapid response made the machine even more popular in the marketplace.
Honda expanded its Benly line in 1956, 1957 and 1959. In ’56, the company introduced the Benly JC57, a 125cc single-cylinder four-stroke with an Earles-type front suspension system and dual rear shocks. In ’57, the JC58 model was added. The machine had numerous improvements, but the big one was a racing-inspired oil-damper bottom-link front suspension system that dramatically improved handling. In 1959, the C92 Benly was introduced with a twin-cylinder four-stroke 124cc engine—a rarity in the world at the time—that revved to an impressive 9500 rpm and produced 11.5 horsepower, enough to outrun many larger displacement machines. Not only was the C92 fast, it was also sophisticated, featuring Honda’s first push-button electric engine starting system.
The radical Benly series culminated with the CB92 Super Sports in 1959, one of the most iconic machines of Honda’s early years. With its navy-blue frame and red seat, the CB92 had styling as radical as its performance. Featuring twin carburetors and other engine improvements from the C92, the CB92 pumped out 15 horsepower at a whopping 10,500 rpm—a screamer of an engine by any measure of the day.
The success of the innovative Benly series elevated Honda to the next level on the world stage, establishing performance and durability standards that would become the core of the company’s philosophy, and would continue to drive Honda’s design standards to this very day.