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Two Wheel Tuesday: Clutchless Biking for the Masses

Hooniverse February 14, 2012 Two-Wheel Tuesday 27 Comments

I can ride this one hand behind my back

Meeting the nicest people on a Honda only works as long they know how to shift. With this in mind Honda attempted to bring more people into the motorcycle fold by offering them a slushbox on two wheels.

[Image: motorcycleclassics.com]


[image credit – http://www.cyclechaos.com]

Starting in 1976 and ending in 1983 Honda experimented with making their motorcycles simpler to ride by use of the Hondamatic. This was not a true automatic since it still required the rider to switch between low and high gears. Additionally when you put the kickstand down it would place the motorcycle in neutral for a nice simple user experience. For a new motorcyclist this was the best compromise between learning how to ride and eventually moving up to a proper motorcycle. 

Honda CM400A Hondamatic

[image credit – http://www.realclassic.co.uk/]

Originally released in 1976 with the CB750A the early reviews were not that positive due to the negative affect the transmission had on performance. The early CB-750A took over 15 seconds to get to 60mph.This model would only last two model years and would leave due to slow sales in 1978. The automatic’s price was to high for most since it added a substantial amount to the cost of the models. With the CM400 this would add $500 to the base $1100 price of the manual transmission model. 

Honda CB750A

[image credit – http://www.vintagebike.co.uk]

After 1983 the Hondamatic would display and the automatic motorcycle would all but disappear on the American market for several decades.  In the last few years the automatic motorcycle and trike have come back in a big way thanks to CanAm and Piaggo. This only seems natural with the unfortunate tendency of Americans to move away from DIY transmissions. 

  • PotbellyJoe

    Why do it yourself if you can pay for it to be done, in a half-assed manner, for you? It's the American Dream!

  • That makes about as much sense as a three-wheeled motorcycle.

    • My three-wheeled motorcycle has a fully-automatic belt-driven CVT. No compromises!

      [youtube bH7qhmsB4fg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bH7qhmsB4fg youtube]

      • tempesjo

        More conspicuous consumption from Hooniverse's resident early adopter. I suppose your three-wheeler has keyless entry as well?

        • No, the lock still works on that one.

  • Slow_Joe_Crow

    Actually Hondamatics were very popular for people with missing extremities and wheel chair sidecar conversion since eliminating the clutch and working around the footshift could give you a bike that could be controlled with one hand and one foot or two hands and no feet.
    The old Moto Guzzi Convert police bikes were popular for parade and escort work since the torque convertor eliminated clutch overheating.

  • Those Can Ams have an automatic transmission? Yeah, I guess they would. I'm kind of surprised that by now, the Gold Wing doesn't have an automatic transmission. It has pretty much every other feature of a car (including cupholders), why not that?

    • PotbellyJoe

      The Gold wing probably doesn't have an automatic for the same reason Cadillac stayed away from cylinder deactivation. It was a miserable failure the first time around, they are spooked away from re-imagining the concept.

    • The Can-Am Spyder can be ordered with a sequential manual controlled by handlebar pushbuttons.

  • RealDonn


    Automatic clutch; just learned that it is still being produced.

    • RealDonn

      Honda 50/90

  • The CB750A is very popular with bracket racers. Chad Isley's is nearly a legend among SOHC people.

    <img src="http://www.peterbylt.com/motopics/sam750/chadisley2.jpg&quot; width="512">

  • Van_Sarockin

    I blame Jim Hall for putting an automatic in the Chaparral.

    • BlackIce_GTS

      "Needed the spare foot to work the spoiler" is among the best excuses for an automatic.
      Although I suppose heel-and-toeing with both feet would have been pretty epic.

  • humblejanitor

    Too many anti-slushbox comments. Have any of you stopped to think just how difficult it is for someone to ride a motorcycle? Especially someone in my shoes that has never used a manual transmission?

    I still don't understand how to shift and I'm not sure whether or not I'll keep or sell my Honda motorcycle in the spring. I love riding it but I just don't feel comfortable with the idea of riding a motorcycle in traffic around here. It's like the wild west on the road where I live. Heavy traffic and few if any people follow the traffic laws (should be called traffic suggestions).

    • pj134

      Do you have a motorcycle safety course near you? They'll teach you. There is even a chance you could find a hoon in your area to teach you to drive stick.

      • Number_Six

        Agreed: never skimp on lessons or gear. It's also simply not for everyone – if after some formal training and more experience you still don't feel 100% sure of yourself, walk away healthy and without any regrets.

      • humblejanitor

        Already did the lessons. I was unable to get my license after taking a course. I did manage to get my permit though. The people putting on the course were not very forgiving of my situation (hearing impairment) and I didn't really have much of chance to keep up with the others (there were about 6-8 other people).

        • jeepjeff

          That's horsesh*t. Was it through the MSF? I would call/write (feel free to complain a bit) and see if there is a way to retake them with other instructors or otherwise get better accomodations. Yeah, yeah, rugged individualism and not leaning on disabilities, but a hearing impairment is a hearing impairment. Another option would be to see if there are any other groups teaching classes or what the reputation of the next closest office is.

          I'm wearing my ski instructor speaking (I know jack and squat about riding motorcycles, and jack left town). When I had hearing impaired students (and this one came up), it was my job to work around it and teach the student. Actually, whatever their abilities were, I had to teach each student. So what if it is a pain, it comes with the territory.

          It might be worth learning to drive a stick in a car first (the mechanicals are the same, and my understanding (see above) is that motorcycle clutches are a bit easier to deal with), any friends or family who can teach you? I'm sure we've got some M/T evangelists on the board (by sure, I mean, I am one; you don't happen to be anywhere near the Bay Area?).

        • pj134

          I'm with jeepjeff on this. If they didn't actually help, impairment or not, you need to let someone know. There could be someone who they improperly train that gets killed as a result.

    • fodder650

      Plus in some states like Pennsylvania the MSF class is free with your permit. In other states you have to pay for it. The cost of the class will be repaid to you quickly since it will usually lower your insurance by 10% or so

  • CJinSD

    0-60 in 15 seconds? With a rider, the power to weight ratio is still about 1:14, which is better than an E30 M3. Even with an inefficient transmission, I'd think it would get to 60 mph in under 10 seconds.

    • jeepjeff

      Two speeds. Wikipedia thinks it has a 47Hp@7500 RPM and 36ft-lb@6000 RPM engine. The only "high performance" setups I know of that use two speed transmissions are torque-monster V8s sitting in front of a powerglide, and torque-monster this engine is not. Even with a motorcycle's huge power-to-mass, all of it is north of 5000RPM and with only two speeds and the ability to launch at all and travel at highway speeds, you are going to have to use a significant amount of the lower RPM bands in each gear. It's going to feel like a total dog, except right before the shift point.

  • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

    Honestly, I see the logic behind doing this…enticing potential riders, but if you're afraid to learn how to do it correctly, or cannot master the skill, then you SHOULD NOT be on two wheels.

    MC's require every advantage possible when playing on a very skewed field. Skewed toward larger, much more massive vehicles.

    Also, I can see this resulting in rather bad habits. Putting the trans in 'N' when putting the kickstand down…that's a disaster begging to happen.

    BTW, the GL1800, AKA the Road Sofa/Wingabago, is remarkably agile. I had an '01, and it felt somewhat more tossable at low speed than the ST1100 I also had. That ST had a CBR600F2 front wheel on it, too, for better tires/steering response.