By Larry Morris

On the very day the US military occupation of Japan ended following WWII, on April 28th 1952, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper published a critical essay claiming the occupation left Japan’s people “irresponsible, obsequious and listless…unable to perceive issues in a forthright manner, which led to distorted perspectives.”

Honda’s very first international race in São Paolo Brazil, 1954, with an R125 racer. Note the girder forks, knobby tires, and tall chassis compared to the Puch racer beside it with road race tires, telescopic forks, full-width aluminum brakes, clip-on handlebars, and rear suspension! [Honda]
Less than two years later, in January 1954, Soichiro Honda’s fledgling Honda Motor Company participated in its first overseas motorsports event at the São Paulo City Fourth Centennial Celebration International Motor Race. It took four days for Honda’s staff of 3 to travel from Tokyo to Brazil.  Racer Mikio Omura, riding a modified Dream E-Type racer, rode hard to finish thirteenth. The performance gap between Honda and the European motorcycles was wide, but Soichiro was undeterred. Two months after Brazil, on March 20, 1954, Honda nonetheless published a “Declaration of Entry” to compete at the ultimate road race, the Isle of Man TT.  Setting his company in pursuit of this remarkable man-on-the-moon objective, Soichiro Honda boldly exclaimed, “My childhood dream was to be a motorsport World Champion with a machine built by myself. I have decided to compete in the Isle of Man TT races… This aim is a difficult one, but we have to achieve it to test the viability of Japanese industrial technology, and to demonstrate it to the world… I here avow my definite intention that I will participate in the TT races and I proclaim with my fellow employees that I will pour in all my energy and creative powers to win…”  Honda wasn’t simply building engines for cars and motorcycles: they were powering Japan into the modern age.

Distorted perspectives? Perhaps. Irresponsible, obsequious and listless? Hardly.

Honda’s first sophisticated racer, the RC71 or C71Z, with their new twin-cylinder OHC motor, seen at the second running of the Mt Asama volacano races in 1957. The first Asama race was 1955, the last in 1959. The track was all cinders, hence the knobby tires. [Honda]
At the time, Honda was only beginning to export motorcycles to the “advanced countries”. Racing, however, offered an opportunity to compete with the rest of the world. Never before had there been a Japanese rider competing at the TT with a motorcycle made in Japan. While no Japanese motorcycle had ever raced at the Island, a Japanese rider had, back in 1930 when Kenzo Tada, the  Japanese champion and Velocette dealer for Tokyo, was invited by Veloce Ltd to race at the TT.  Tada finished a respectable 15th, and brought stories of British and European race teams back to Japan, fueling the dreams of impressionable youth like Honda.

Soichiro Honda supervising his team of racers in 1957 on the Mt Asama track. Note the changes on the racers, from higher pipes and bigger tanks to full-width hubs and lighter bodywork. [Honda]
Soichiro Honda knew the winner of the Isle of Man TT would be known across the globe….along with any vehicle that completed the race safely. “I will fabricate a 250cc (medium class) racer for this race, and as the representative of our Honda Motor Co, I will send it out into the spotlight of the world. I am confident that this vehicle can reach speeds exceeding 180 km/h.”  In 1955he embarked on a world tour, making the rounds of British and European manufacturers who would meet with him.  Their reception was generally friendly, and in their Colonial mindset, they saw no threat in the courteous Japanese fellow who built inexpensive lightweight motorcycles.  It is said that the racing department at NSU were only too happy to show him the blueprints for their all-conquering 125, 175, and 250cc Grand Prix racers, with their sophisticated OHC and DOHC motors, pressed steel frames, and beautifully made castings.  NSU made a strong impression, and shared the most information: some say Honda was able to purchase an obsolete NSU Grand Prix racer and bring it to Japan for study.

Mt Asama in the background, and the simple infrastructure of the 1955 races. Competition was fierce as every Japanese manufacturer fielded their prototype racing bikes. [Honda]
Within two years Honda had transformed his product line into very sophisticated unit-construction OHC engines with forward canted twin-cylinders, in a simple pressed-steel spine chassis with short leading-link forks. The NSU influence was clear, but Honda did not copy NSU’s street bikes for their new lineup, but took the technology of hand-made NSU Rennmax racers into mass production [how this was possible can be studied in another article here].  With this new architecture, Honda competed at the Isle of Man TT for the first time in 1958 on a modified version of their twin-cylinder 250cc design, the RC71Z.  NSU had dropped out of racing the previous year, along with BMW, Moto Guzzi, Gilera, etc, as the European motorcycle market hit a rough patch due to the growing popularity of cheap cars, but the Japanese market was booming, as was the American scene.  In 1959 Honda established their first dealers in the USA, and just two years later, in 1961, Honda factory rider Mike Hailwood claimed his first of many victories at the TT, winning both the 125cc and 250cc classes, with the factory race team sweeping first through fifth places in both classes overall.

Distorted perspectives – certainly. Listless? Ha!

The 1961 Isle of Man TT, where Honda swept the 125cc and 250cc classes.  Tom Philips, Luigi Taveri, and Mike Hailwood, with Mike’s father Stan directly behind him. [Honda]
Fast forward a generation.  By the time most teenagers take the fateful leap from drooling over bike magazines, to actually riding motorbikes, their tastes firmly eschew “classic” or “vintage” as old and uninteresting; much as they saw their parents generation. When that first motorbike is decades old, its hardly by choice; rather, its a compromise driven by budget, hand-me-down or practical happenstance. A rite of passage, a first step on the road toward the ultimate grail: the latest shiny and sparkly machine they (nay, we) could get our hands on. History can wait until later in life.

Takeshi Maejima, or Ted, of Ted’s Special Motorcycle Works in Japan. [Larry Morris]
An outlier of the old-is-boring, new-is-better view common among his peers 30 years ago, Takeshi “Ted” Maejima had just one occupational goal for his life, one all-consuming passion: to revive, preserve and celebrate Honda’s remarkable legacy of motorcycle racing. To Ted, his first bikes were “too new”- he was determined to travel back in time. Today, his motorcycle shop, Ted’s Special Motorcycle Works in Kanagawa Prefecture is a treasure trove of racing history. Ted is the go-to expert for vintage Honda service, restoration and parts, particularly CB72 Hawks and CB77 Super Hawks, for both track and street.

At Willow Springs Raceway, 2014: Ted is on the left, on the 72x Honda CB160, while Larry is on the right, not that they knew each other at the time.  [Philip Graybill]
Willow Springs International Raceway, April 2014. This image, shot by my friend, photographer Phillip Graybill, who joined me while I was racing at this AHRMA event, is how I first “met” Ted, who had no clue who I was until years later. The photo ultimately led to a connection on social media and eventually, in-person in Japan where I now live, just 30 minutes away from him.

I asked him a few question for The Vintagent:

Larry Morris (LM): How and where did you get the nickname Ted?

Takeshi Maejima (Ted): 1996, in the USA. Americans had a tough time saying and remembering my name, Takeshi; so they began calling me Ted. I had an opportunity to move to LA for two years to help my friend Ken Awae, who had a workspace inside famed Hollywood stuntman (and top desert racer) Bud Ekins’ legendary repair shop in Los Angeles. Bud was well known as Steve McQueen’s stunt double and close friend. When McQueen wasn’t filming he was usually riding dirt bikes with Bud. By the time I arrived, Bud was retired. His son-in-law ran the shop and rented space to my friend Ken. I helped Ken fix Honda and Kawasaki street bikes.

A Honda CB77 with full factory race kit: curved carb bellmouths, special seat, megaphone exhaust, rearsets, clip-ons, etc. [Larry Morris]
LM: Is that where you learned how to take apart and repair motorcycles?

Ted: No, when I was 20 I attended Honda’s International Technical School for two years.

LM: Ahh, this is all starting to make sense to me now. How did that come about?

Ted: Back then there were so many more kids trying to get into university than today in Japan. To be honest I didn’t do very well on my exams, so I was not accepted into university. Thats when I realized my destiny was to learn about and be around motorcycles as much as possible.

A rare CR110 production racer with period patina, sitting in the library of Ted’s shop. [Larry Morris]
LM: I always think of you as the “Honda Hawk/Superhawk Guy” (CB72/CB77) . When and how did you develop such a particular knowledge about these motorcycles?

Ted: After I finished Honda Technical School I moved to Osaka and spent two years working for a guy who at that time was very well known and trusted for fixing and restoring these bikes.

LM: Tell me why these are such special motorcycles.

Ted: The Honda Hawk was the first “Sport” bike. Everything was designed and built from Honda’s victories in TT racing beginning in 1961. There was nothing better than the Hawk as a street bike. At the time the CB750 came out, it cost about $2500. The Hawk was nearly $8000. These were really the best and most advanced machines. You see this design in your beloved Laverda twins, and elsewhere. Now the world was following Japan, following Honda. This was very special to me.

A Honda CB450 ‘Black Bomber’, the bike that truly put the world on notice that Honda would soon dominate the global motorcycle market, with its DOHC motor with plenty of power, and good handling. [Larry Morris]
LM: Lets talk about racing. Every time I turn around it looks like you’re racing…or around racing. When was your first race and where?

Ted: I did my first race at Tsukuba on a CB77 when I was 20 years old. I’ve been racing Honda’s ever since. When I went to the States, I was very fortunate because I joined AHRMA (American Historic Race Motorcycle Association). It was there I raced with and learned about racing from some of my heroes, such as Gary Nixon and Dick Mann. I just wanted to be at racetracks and I wanted to be around racing, as much as possible.

LM: You’re 46 now. How much racing are you still doing these days?

Ted: About 8 events per year. Four LOC (Legends of Classic vintage racing) and four BOBL (Battle of Bottom Link Supercub amateur vintage racing).

LM: I’m sorry for crashing your BOBL racer. Three times.

Ted’s Special Motorcycle Shop, filled with treasure for those with eyes to see. [Larry Morris]
Larry Morris is the proprietor of New York City Motorcycles in Venice, California and Chigasaki, Japan. Instagram: @newyorkcitymotorcycles
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