1954 Honda Benly 89cc Model J
Engine no. J54-28391
Soichiro Honda’s company originally produced piston rings before and during WWII, but in the war-torn Japan, he saw an opportunity to mobilize the country with affordable transport, in much the same way as Italy’s Piaggio. As the Italian firm built the Vespa, scooter, Honda started with fitting small engines in to bicycles, a la American companies such as Merkel at the turn of the century with the “motor wheel”. As engine supply dried up, in 1951 Honda designed and built his own, initially in 2-stroke and, later, 4-stroke configuration. The original Model E was a 150cc with dated pre-War design, but the successor, the Model J, had all the flair of the European competition. Like an NSU, the ‘J’ featured a spine frame, leading-link front fork, torsion-bar rear suspension and left-side kick-starter. In the middle was, initially, a 98cc 4-stroke engine with 3-speed ‘box. Capacity increased a little as the model was developed, until superseded by the overhead-cam Dream.
The ’54 is a special machine as the first motorcycle to have the engine bolted directly to the swing arm. There were no rear shocks and zero vibration while underway. Unfortunately, this also caused serious issues with carburation as the carb shakes and the engine misses. This was the first significant development issue that Honda faced and almost put them out of business. Hence the rear shocks on the 1955 model.
The motorcycle offered here, an early 98cc ’54 example, hails from a prominent private collection. From the pre-export era of Benly’s the bike is a rarity today. Found in Japan in the late 1980s, the bike was subject to an open-checkbook restoration, with parts being sourced directly from Japan, on more than one occasion, in person. The arduous process of accumulating parts in such a way and restoring and assembly of them could only be trusted to recognized marque expert, Ron Mousouris, owner of The Benly Shop in Southern California. His restorations take up to 1,000 or so hours, and often involve travel to Japan in search of NOS parts. Fit and finish is second to none and authenticity is ensured by his encyclopedic knowledge of the Benly and early Honda brand.
In the same vein as Deus Ex Machina’s Woolie’s Wonders and Revival Cycles’ meticulous and uber-detailed custom builds, Mousouris designed this diminutive steampunk special with minimal modifications from standard, but with a maximum effect. Flat black paint, accented by the chrome side panels, outlined in gold, and fat wheels and tires give the bike an aggressive stance and dark, but very elegantly-so, appearance. Well, as much as can be mustered from 98cc of raw power.