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Baja and Back - on a Honda!

How rugged can a road test get?
By DOUG RICHMOND

 

There are about 950 miles of road between the Mexican cities of Tijuana, at the U.S. border, and La Paz, near the tip of Baja California. About 238 of those miles are nice, smooth, two-lane blacktop. But the remaining 712 miles are about as different from a paved road as one can get and still make it through with a wheeled vehicle. Those "roads" are two-rut nightmares with steep grades—up to 20 percent—sandy flats where taking it easy means getting stuck, large round rocks, small pointy rocks, bedrock and every combination thereof.
One of the very best motorcycle racers in the country, riding straight through on a lightweight machine, managed to ride the one-way distance in a bit over 49 hours — a record attempt that averaged less than 20 mph! I didn't ride straight through on the way down (preferring to sleep at night), but I spent about 50 hours on the narrow seat, which meant driving hard during those daylight hours. And then I turned around and came back!
My machine was a "street scrambler" —a peculiar breed of motorcycle. Basically, it's a street machine that the manufacturer has equipped with semi- knobby tires, high pipes, a skid or "bash" plate, and a few odds and ends for people who like to go boondocking now and again but who don't really do enough of it to warrant keeping a special bike for the purpose. This defines the 161-cc Honda Scrambler CL-160 that carried me through the dust of Baja California.

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ROCK DODGING is futile on the typical two-rut Baja California road, I found. You've gotta hit some of them, and if you don't learn to ride 'em, you're out

By definition a street scrambler has to be sturdy: A broken-down bike three canyons from the nearest road is far from funny; many riders of dual-purpose cycles don't have the experience to know just when to take it easy, and novice riders have an alarming tendency to drop their bikes hard.
Unfortunately, many manufacturers have yet to realize just how tough these machines should be, so when I unloaded the little Honda CL-160 at the border at Tijuana I had definite misgivings as to whether the bike would stand the gaff. After all, a lot of advertising has has been made about motorcycles and trucks even surviving the trip one way, and here I was proposing to test an unfamiliar bike.

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BAJA CALIFORNIA isn't just a peninsula: To the cyclist it's one whose sticks-and-stones roads will break your bones (if they don't get your bike first)

 

My spare parts consisted of a set of extra control levers; clutch, throttle, and front-wheel brake cables; two sparkplugs; and a few chain repair links. Tools were those that came with the machine plus an adjustable wrench, cam-locking pliers and tire pump.
The bike itself had about 750 miles of breaking in and was fitted with a new Dunlop K-70 front and a Trials Universal rear tire as a good cactus- proof combination for this country. Another preparation took the form of a luggage carrier that started the trip but didn't finish (more about that later). Otherwise the points were set, the plugs gapped and all nuts and bolts tightened.
Considering engine displacement, the

CL-160 is a lightweight, but it actually weighs about 280 pounds ready to go, about the same as some bikes of more than twice the piston displacement. With luggage and rider, the little 161-cc engine would have to hoist more than 500 pounds over the hills.
On the road, I soon discovered that as long as I kept my speed above seven or eight mph, the little engine had no trouble at all with its big load. When the ruts were so bad that the speed dropped below this, or when on a hill, or when I had to stop to get off the road for a burro train, all that was necessary to keep headway was to wind up the engine, use the clutch for a torque converter, give a little push with the foot and away we'd go!
This trick wasn't used too often, but I was still surprised that the clutch never required adjustment and showed no signs whatsoever of slipping. In fact, it occasionally did just the opposite: When good and hot, it had a tendency to drag a bit.
On the extremely rough stretches, the forks bottomed now and again, making a horrendous "clank."

LOCAL 'SERVICE STATION' fuelling the Honda CL-160 is a plastic detergent container. Bike with a less- than-effective filter system wouldn't get you far

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CUESTA DEL INFIERNILLO is Spanish for Hells Hill — a good place to stop frequently to check for loose nuts and fastenings, one of the preventive measures that kept the road to La Paz free of one downed cyclist

But I'd been told by lads who race Hondas that this is quite normal and might as well be ignored since the forks are just about indestructible. Nevertheless, the noise worried me for the first thousand miles or so.
The instruction book said that the adjustable rear suspension units were to be turned to the second or third position for use with heavy loads or on rough roads, so at the end of the main highway below Ensenada I dutifully wound 'em 'round.
Eighty-five miles of progressively worse road brought me to Rosario — the first of two towns with identical names — with never a sign of the suspension units bottoming; my back was just a bit sore from the stiff ride. Figuring the suspension units should be as husky as the forks, I set 'em back in the soft position before starting out the next morning. Sure enough, they bottomed occasionally, but showed no symptoms of damage or fatigue in all the hard going.
On the way south I overnighted in Muleje and awakened in the night to the sound of a tropical downpour. It didn't rain long, and in the morning I arose to clear skies and a sea of mud.

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'AND I LIVED TO TELL ABOUT IT' is a well-worn story line and is also the story inscribed on the fuel tank, where I chalked up my impressive record of tumbles

Although I waited until almost 10: 00 o'clock before pulling out for Comondu, the road still alternated with patches of sand, rock and mud. I'm not embarrassed to say that I fell off the bike in every piece of muddy road for 10 miles before I gave up and started riding "trails style" on the slick stretches. This is the technique of standing up on the rear pegs and balancing as you go, and it turned out to be a pretty good ploy —I didn't take much splashing mud.
If ever an engine had an excuse to overheat, mine did when I left the muddy road bordering the Bahia and started pulling the steep hills just before Comondu. The front of the cylinders and the exhaust pipes were covered with a good two inches of baked mud which I should have broken away. But even with all this insulation the engine kept its cool. And the chrome didn't even turn blue on the pipes!
In 16 falls (by actual count) of one kind or another, I didn't suffer any broken control levers and only the gearshift lever bent. It bent every time the bike went down on its left side. This lever is made of soft but tough aluminium and when it bent I simply straightened it out.
The center stand on this bike has a projection on the left side, ostensibly to make it easier to bring the stand down. But any time the bike goes down hard on the left side, this projection bends the left leg of the center stand in toward the wheel; which fouls the chain when in the up position. A few sharp thwacks with a rock— Mexico's universal tool—was all it took to restore it to its original configuration. Anyone riding a CL-160 with this center stand might give serious thought to a little hacksaw manicuring of this appendage.
The CL-160 has a high exhaust system terminating in a very efficient muffler. A lot of people like a loud exhaust system, but I'm definitely not one of them. I much prefer the burbling notes of the CL-160's exhaust. It has the sweet sound of a severely overrevved BMW!

Blessed the exhaust shield

Happily the exhaust system is also well- shielded—a feature I had cause to bless when I spent five minutes or so lying in the middle of a sandy road with the bike pinning my left leg after hitting a buried rock at speed. Although only the shield and a pair of heavy jeans protected me from the exhaust pipe, I didn't even wind up with a slight reddening of the skin. And the engine had been running wide open when I "got" off!
The bike restarted at first kick—when I restarted after getting out from under and making sure I was still "working."
This, incidentally, is one of the most important attributes of a motorcycle. Some bikes don't like to start when they're hot, others when they're cold. Now and then you encounter one that dislikes commencing hot or cold. A pox on such.

The CL-160 always started with either the first or second kick — usually the first. Even when it had been on its side for 10 minutes or so, or out all night in wet or freezing weather, the story was the same. Fired right off.
The handling was fine on or off the pavement. Although a friction steering damper is provided on this motorcycle, I never used it — and never felt the need.
My only criticism is probably unjust. I'd like some more steering lock, but let's face it, the CL-160 is not sold as a trials iron. Another thing I like was the way the adjustments "held." No need here to be fiddling constantly with the machinery. On the whole trip the only adjustment that was necessary was the rear chain.

Unusual gas 'pumps'

As long as I kept the rpm above 3000, the bike ran perfectly on "Mexican regular," siphoned out of drums and measured with everything from buckets to plastic detergent bottles. It is a supreme recommendation for the filter system that neither carb required cleaning.
Mechanically, the trip was what I would consider trouble-free as far as Baja runs go. I caught a rock in the chain and broke the master link at just the right place to dump both machine and yours truly into a mass of donnikers — smooth rocks of varying sizes that line the road and actually form an eerie roadbed that gives you the impression of being on another planet. In the same mishap, the luggage carrier that was bolted to the seat mounts and the rear fender twisted the rear fender, actually tearing the metal. This necessitated an on-the-spot amputation of the rack and fender. Another mechanical mishap occurred when I carelessly allowed a sweater to fall into the rear wheel, again breaking a master link. Otherwise, I wore out a throttle cable with hours of full-on, full- off throttle twisting and went through two sparkplugs.
After finishing the Baja round trip the weather looked so good that I decided to ride the bike back to San Francisco. The good weather didn't last, but I still pushed on, through driving rain, sandstorms and full-fledged blizzards in the Cajon and Tehachapi Passes. I faced the wind every inch of the way and rode with wide-open throttle, but the engine never faltered.
I might be bragging, but I'd say that a test like this is easily the equivalent of five years of normal use by the average non-competitive rider. The CL-160 came through with flying colors — but I was drooping a bit!
Source: Popular Mechanics
Date: November 1967
Pages: 118, 119, 120, 226 and 228
 

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