CB77: Honda's Brit-slayer

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The CB77 started to swing the balance of biking power from Britain to Japan.  We ride a recently-built example and its brother, the CL77 off-roader.

hasing Dennis Murfin along some near-deserted Derbyshire back lanes in warm, late summer sunshine, it’s easy to be seduced by the notion that his pair of ’60s Hondas could have destroyed the British bike industry on their own. Dennis is thrashing his newly-finished CB77 and I’m doing my best to keep him in sight aboard his equally lovely CL77. Both bikes are fast for 305cc machines, refined and well finished. But were they really the bikes that scrawled the writing on the wall for the British industry?

The CB77 – Honda’s largest capacity machine to date when it was launched in 1961 – and the 1965-on street scrambler CL77 were surely the start of a challenge to the hegemony of the Brit twin in both the UK and the USA. Riding Dennis’s CB/CL duo does nothing to dispel that impression of a new wave of middleweight Davids, ready to have a crack at Triumph and BSA’s Goliaths.

Barrelling along twisty lanes lined with vistas of open moorland opening out over the tops of the dry stone walls, it’s hard to imagine why you would possibly need more than one of Honda’s first ton-up twins underneath you. Certainly, that’s owner and restorer Dennis’s take on the CB77.

“I’ve grown up with them, I suppose,” he concedes. “I raced one back when they were new and got back into them when the classic racing thing took off in the early ’80s. It was only when I packed in for the second time in 1990 that I started riding on the road again and, because I had so many spares for CB77s stashed away from my racing days, it made sense to stick with what I knew and build a Honda for the road. As long as you stay away from dual carriageways, the CB77 isn’t outgunned by much.”

A CL77 was Dennis’s come back road bike – we featured his CL77 restoration six years ago and here we are to grab a ride on his latest resto, a CB77 to go with the CL he still owns.            

“Once I’d finally got the CL77 running as I wanted,” he continues, “I started looking for another project.” He didn’t have far to look. A trawl through his stock of spare parts in the garage revealed a frame, a pair of crankcases and most of the big parts needed to make a start on a CB77 to go with his CL.

“This wasn’t so much of a restoration as a build,” Dennis agrees. “The engine and frame numbers don’t match – not that they do on any Honda – but the crankcases are within 40 numbers of the frame, which means the engine is the correct type for the age of frame. None of the major parts started life together, but I’m not too bothered about that sort of thing. The main thing for me is riding a bike.”

Since finishing the CL resto, Dennis had been picking up parts – NOS where possible – for the CB build. “It’s a good job I did,” he says. “There’s not a great deal of NOS stuff about for the CB77 now. I was pleased I’d kept so many of the parts I stockpiled when I was racing, too. I’d buy vanloads, always hoping I’d strike gold with a rare part in among the rubbish. It’s certainly paid off now.”

Dennis’s CL already had a few aftermarket tuning parts fitted when he bought it and all his race engines were built with horsepower rather than originality in mind. So building an engine as close as possible to how it would have rolled out of the Honda factory represented a new challenge – especially when starting with just a pair of bare crankcases. “Good cranks are hard to find now,” says Dennis. “But they are incredibly durable. All the time I was racing, I never wore a crank out. Because of that, I had a few lying around, so I got Alpha bearings to rebuild one.

“The CB77 has a pressed-up crank with a ball bearing main on the primary drive side and a caged roller on the alternator side and caged roller big end bearings. Alpha did a great job on it.” Dennis got the crankcases blasted at Restoration Supplies (restorationsupplies.org.uk) in Clay Cross and built up the rest of the bottom end using new bearings and chains.

“The gearbox is to stock spec,” he continues. “I decided not to do the crossover modification, just to see how it turned out. The gears and shafts were the best parts available from my parts stock, but I’ve used NOS parts wherever possible. The only other thing to hold me up on the engine was finding the right ignition advance unit. The one I had turned out to be the later type with shallower splines.

“A mate in Nottingham powder coated the frame and swingarm but, because the restoration crawled along for a few years, the black paintwork comes from a mixture of sprayers. I remember I used JBS (bike-painting.co.uk) for the paint on the outer engine covers. I had the exhaust downpipes replated locally, but the silencers are an NOS pair I’ve had tucked away for 20 years. It pays not to get rid of anything.”

Details count for Dennis. “The seat is for a later model,” he admits. “But I have tracked down the correct version and I’m refurbishing that. I’ve used American-made pattern tank badges. The later pressed--steel types fit and do turn up, but they don’t look as good. These are good copies. The rims are genuine ones – replated by Prestige Electroplating (01709 577004) and I rebuilt the wheels with pattern spokes in the rear wheel and the correct double-butted ones in the front. I had to source them in the USA and get them replated. America is the best place to look for tricky parts and I got excellent pattern rubber parts there, too.”

Dennis likes his bikes to look the part, but he also likes to ride them – and that means a few concessions to modern traffic conditions. “I’ve fitted indicators,” he concedes. “I think you need them. German models had indicators, so I made a supplementary loom and used CB400F indicators. I also fitted one of Phil Denton Engineering’s (phildentonengineering.com) gear linkages – the original had a half-inch play in it. I think it’s a pretty good compromise between an authentic restoration and a practical machine to ride. I’m pleased – see what you think.” 

I don’t need asking twice. Dennis has warmed the CB up nicely and he waves me off into rural Derbyshire with instructions to give it a good thrashing. The CB77’s rev counter is (discreetly) red-lined at 9000rpm, but even sticking under 8000 the performance is all I need on the twisty roads snaking across the moors towards the Peak District. With a few revs, the alleged shortcomings of the gear ratios fade into the background and I can revel in what would have been amazing performance for a 305cc bike back in 1964.

The brakes are pretty impressive, too, with big twin-leading-shoe stoppers front and rear. Not many (if any) of the CB77’s contemporaries could boast a twin-leading-shoe rear brake. Handling is pretty decent, too, though Dennis has rebuilt the supposedly tamper-proof rear shocks and refilled them with quality modern fork oil and rebuilt the forks. Compared to the CL, the CB77 feels tiny, with a low centre of gravity making it a joy to tip round the twisty Derbyshire lanes.

Add the superb build quality and refinement to the excellent road manners and performance and it’s easy to see why the CB77 is regarded as such a significant Honda. It proved beyond doubt they could build a high-performance bike that could match – or better – the best of the rest. And with an electric starter thrown in.

“It’s not perfect,” says Dennis of the CB as he reclaims it at the end of the day. “I don’t think Honda realised how many they’d sell and some of the design features aren’t ideal for volume production. They were so far ahead of the competition at the time, but they were still at the bottom of Honda’s learning curve. That’s the scary thing – or it was for their opposition.”

Words: Gez Kane Photography: Gary Freeman

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