Retrospective: Honda CL175 Scrambler: 1968-1973

Year/Model: 1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler, Owner: Bob Duncan, Atascadero, California.
Year/Model: 1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler, Owner: Bob Duncan, Atascadero, California.

There certainly were lots of variations of Honda’s 175 twin over its six years on the market, from Super Sport to Motosport, with the Scrambler sitting right in the middle. All part of Honda’s marketing wisdom—offering roughly the same bike in a variety of styles, appealing to any number of potential buyers.

1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler
1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler

In the mid-1960s Americans were falling in lust with smaller, lightweight Japanese motorcycles that were cheap and dependable. And while our nation’s motorcyclists were divided between four-strokers and two-strokers, cubic capacity was always a good sales tool. Give a bike a bigger number, do some serious advertising and see who comes into the showroom.

The predecessor to the 175 was Honda’s 160 twin, with a bore of 50mm, stroke, 41mm, for a displacement of 161cc. Merely boring each cylinder out by 2mm allowed the ad people to advertise this 174cc engine as a 175. The bean counters liked this inexpensive way of doing things. The rather oversquare 175 engine kept the 160’s two valves per cylinder, which were operated by a chain-driven single overhead camshaft, a one-piece design running in well-lubricated bores machined into the aluminum head. The 175 also used the 160’s two 20mm Keihin carbs. Compression ratio was upped half a point from 8.5:1 to 9:1, and that was about it.

1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler
1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler

However, the claimed horsepower went from 16.5 to 19.7 at 10,000 rpm; a 20 percent increase in horsepower for a mere 13cc is considerable. That was also in the days before motorcycle magazines had easy access to dynamometers, and often relied on factory claims.

The bigger CL kept on with the 160’s 360-degree crankshaft, which ran on four main bearings, one a ball bearing and three rollers. Very dependable. It also used the CL160’s starting system—by kick. Only a few people seemed to miss having a button. Kicking over a 175 twin did not require much effort, and it asserted a certain manliness…which was the point of the Scrambler design. The upswept pipes with covers to protect the left leg of both rider and passenger were a successful styling notion. As a matter of fact, when sales of the low-piped, street-going CB160 lagged, leaving bikes on the showroom floor, Honda started selling CL “dealer kits” that could turn a CB into a CL.

Definitely new was the 5-speed gearbox, which the CL’s roadster CB sibling did not get until a year or so later. This gave the CL more of a dual-purpose range, as the extra cog allowed for lower gearing for the dirt roads, higher for the highways. The gearbox developers had been busy, as Honda had been a bit upset when Suzuki put six gears in its 1965 250cc X6 Hustler.

Year/Model: 1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler, Owner: Bob Duncan, Atascadero, California.
Year/Model: 1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler, Owner: Bob Duncan, Atascadero, California.

The chassis was typical late-1960s Honda, with the engine/transmission unit being a structural member, the top of the engine suspended from the tubular backbone, and the cylinders leaning forward about 30 degrees. It had a hydraulically damped telescoping fork, a pair of DeCarbon shocks at the back, 18-inch wheels, drum brakes and a 50-inch wheelbase. No tachometer, only a speedo built into the headlight nacelle, just like the 160. And a non-threatening 31-inch seat height. Ground clearance was almost eight inches, and a big skid plate protected the sump. Price was a miserly $645, a mere $35 more than the previous CL160.

1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler
1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler

Honda obviously felt that the 175 numerology might get rid of the relatively unsuccessful 160 and began rather hastily bolting the bored-out engine into the previous chassis. But Soichiro Honda’s boys in the Skunk Works had more plans for this model. In the second year the CL175K3 appeared, mysteriously skipping K1 and K2. Major changes had been made to the frame—it became a semi-full-cradle, the semi aspect being the single downtube from the steering head, splitting into two tubes running under the engine. And the engine was virtually vertical.

Along with the new frame, Honda jettisoned the old nacelle idea and had individual instruments up above the headlight, adding a tachometer. This way the rider could see when he was hitting 10,000 rpm and nearly 20 horsepower were working hard at spinning the rear wheel. Even with a couple of ponies being lost between the crankshaft and the rear axle, that was a lot of giddy up for a bike weighing in at 275 pounds wet. With the gas tank filled up with 2.4 gallons of petroleum by-product, the bike could travel 150 miles.

1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler
1970 Honda CL175K4 Scrambler

Honda also saw that the young and relatively impecunious crowd considered the “scrambler” design cool, but that this was truly a street bike, with minor pretentions at any capability in seriously rough terrain. OK, so give it an electric starter.

Then the Skunk Works unveiled the new SL175 Motosport, which appeared for the 1970 model year. This had a whole new frame, a full double-cradle, extending the wheelbase another inch and a half, longer suspension travel and more torque at lower rpm. Also, a solo saddle, so no room for the co-ed.

The CL street scrambler soldiered on through 1973, price going up to a mildly inflationary $715. Then the engine got bored out another 3.5mm, now seriously oversquare, raising the ante to 198cc and called, quite naturally, the CL200. And the price of the 1974 200 went up over $200, to $935—serious inflation.

After 1975 Honda dropped the Scrambler designation; the XL singles were taking over.

 

5 COMMENTS

  1. I bought one of these CL175’s new in the early 1970’s, not sure of what year it was. I was living in Greeley, CO and put many miles on it commuting to work and traveling north to Cheyenne, south to Denver or west to Estes Park through the mountains. It was my first motorcycle purchased new and was one of the gold metal-flake colored ones.

  2. I have a 1973 CL175. For a small bike it is fairly comfortable for my 34 inch inseam. The power adequate to get out of its own way. The fun of this bike is its simplicity. Kick start when you want. Drum brakes work decently on such a light bike. Good gas mileage. Carb and points. When you wring it up to 9 grand, it just plain speaks to you, even though you’d be hard pressed to get up to 60 mph comfortably. Really can’t get into trouble on the bike unless you’re trying to keep up with some faster traffic. A great bike for little traveled curvy two lane roads. The closest “modern” bike to this one, I think, is the Yamaha TW200: small, light, makes you grin every time you ride, simple, feel like a hero with every move even though you’re really not heading anywhere in particular. Hmmm, I think THIS will be my next bike when the Scrambler needs a passin’ on to the next curator.

  3. I bought a new CL175 new in ’73 and over the next six years put over 35,000 miles on it. bulletproof reliability. I still miss it!

  4. Hi, I’ve just got one today 8000 mls 1969 looks great, hope it is ok, I’ve just sold my Suzuki Hyabussa, I wander if it will keep up lol. Regards Peter UK

  5. Hi, I’ve just got one today 8000 mls 1969 looks great, hope it is ok, I’ve just sold my Suzuki Hyabussa, I wander if it will keep up lol. Regards Peter UK

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