story and photography by Darrell Ohs
On approach to Athena City Park in northeast Oregon, Hodaka Days 2005 looked more like a Sunday-school picnic than a motorcycle rally. Families, some representing three generations, spread their coolers, tents and lawn chairs over the grass beneath the spreading sycamore trees while kids played in the small outdoor pool. Meanwhile, adults mingled around the park gazebo and rose garden. If this isn’t a Sunday-school picnic then might it be a family reunion?
Only after entering the shade of the sycamores does the purpose of the gathering became more obvious. First, there is an outdoor kiosk selling ’70s-era NOS aftermarket dirt-bike accessories (including vintage Preston Petty accessories) and Hodaka T-shirts, jacket patches and decals. And there are dozens of chrome-tanked Hodaka enduro, trail and MX bikes, ranging from 30 to 40 years old, sparkling like loose change scattered around the grass.
Hodaka Days is a motorcycle event, but after spending the weekend with Hodakaphiles at Hodaka Days I decided my first two impressions were also partially correct. To explain, the event has a good-natured and family friendly vibe—nothing appears to happen here that you would shield your 10-year-old’s eyes and ears from. There was also a kid’s craft table and babysitting was provided.
In another sense, it is also a family reunion. Hodaka Days brings together many of the former company directors and employees to this unlikely backwater where the development, management and distribution of approximately 150,000 motorcycles took place between 1964 and 1978.
The tie that binds is a few surviving vintage trail bikes, most between 90 and 125cc, with the model names Ace, Super Rat, Wombat, Combat Wombat, Super Combat, Dirt Squirt, Road Toad and Thunderdog. These have drawn several hundred Hodaka owners and fans together each summer since the first Hodaka Days in 2002.
From within a stark industrial building, in the shadow of the town’s grain elevator situated in a little farm town off a two-lane highway, Hodaka R&D, production, marketing, distribution and dealership support was linked from Japan to the tiny town in the wheat fields, and radiated to a network of 1,200 dealerships in the United States, Canada and Australia through a Telex, telephone and mail, rail and sea.
Harry Taylor, now 71, led the R&D department and raced factory bikes. He still lives in Athena and is surprised and baffled by the following of the Hodaka devotees. “I shake my head at times—I can’t believe the way it’s happening.” Then he laughed, “It’s almost like a cult.”
Hired in 1964, Taylor said that “Working for Hodaka was a fun deal. We were having the time of our lives. It was a family kind of thing.”
To make sense of this devotion and enthusiasm for little old twin-shock two-stroke dual-sport and dirt bikes it would help to have been a part of the On Any Sunday generation, and participated in the North American trail-bike craze—an era that coincided with the rise and fall of Hodaka motorcycle production. For them, Hodaka Days is like exploring an old forgotten toy box in the attic.
Friday night, Hodaka Days participants crammed their lawn chairs into the backyard of former general manager Chuck Swanson, 75, for a meet-and-greet session with Hodaka employees. Using a laser level from his workshop as a pointer, Swanson presented a slide show of the Hodaka factory in Japan, prototype shots, and the people and places visited during business junkets from yesteryear.
Swanson was a major creative influence in designing the first Hodaka, the 1964 Ace 90, a street-legal trailbike. With its double-downtube full-cradle frame and telescopic fork the Ace’s architecture displayed European engineering rather than the stamped-steel construction coming from Japan. “We didn’t intend to beat the Japanese,” Swanson said. “We just wanted to make a motorcycle the way we wanted it.”
Following the Saturday morning Hodaka parade down Main Street we gathered under the City Park gazebo, where the Hodaka marketing and promotions duo of Marvin Foster and Scott Mayberry addressed the followers about creatively advertising on a limited budget. For example, why give the motorcycles funny names and invent cartoon caricatures for them when the Japanese concern and parent company, Farm Chemicals of Oregon (later acquired by Shell Oil), would have preferred them to follow the practice of using random model designations by letter and number?
Foster, 67, says: “We were just a little tiny company. I figured we had to attract attention to ourselves as best we could….”
As one method to keep costs down the class clowns of motorcycle marketing pulled factory service manager and technical writer Ed Chesnut as a model for many of the early ads. Chesnut’s technical newsletters were subtitled, “A Walloping Writ of Wholehearted, Whodaka Whoop-de-doos with Whomping Wads of Wondrous Wisdom and Whizzing Waves of Wanton Wit.”
Later in the afternoon Chesnut hosted and competed in an observed trials course laid out between the old grain elevator and the railroad tracks. Chesnut rode a Hodaka Bullfrog trials prototype.
Paul Stannard, 48, who rode a Dirt Squirt as a teenager, is credited with bringing Hodaka back from the ashes. His company, Strictly Hodaka, began as a hobby when people were simply happy to give away their orphaned machines. In the early ’90s he began acquiring NOS stock and new parts in earnest, as well as tracking down the old Hodaka team. Now the Hodaka revival has become a mission and Stannard’s zealotry is unbounded. “These are great bikes!” Foster recalls Stannard telling him, “and I want to resurrect them!”
So what drives this devotion to an obsolete and nearly extinct line-up of twin-shock trail bikes? Stannard explains that back in the ’60s and ’70s many people started their motorcycling lives on a Hodaka. “Most of my customers are in their 30s, 50s and 60s and they want to turn the clock back 30 or 40 years when things were a little simpler and a little more fun.”
“We always tried to make it fun,” said Swanson, “and look—today our propaganda and stuff are still working!”
For 2006 Hodaka Days will be held at the Mid-Ohio AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days July 28-30. For more information see www.strictlyhodaka.com.[From the August 2006 issue of Rider]