® Planned obsolescence

Planned obsolescence. You don't see this talked about much on powersports user forums. A little surprising. Or is it? Vintage Honda forums--the only ones that matter to me--have not had as much reason to think in those terms as have the forums devoted to more modern machinery. With one glaringly notable exception, 1960s and 1970s Hondas (the inline fours especially) exhibit a famously observed over-built ethos on their manufacturer's part. Not tanks, exactly, but certainly the term comes to mind. It's a little ironic. Later Honda models are noticably more high tech but lack the throw-it-around durability, evocative attraction and even, arguably, day-to-day dependability of the single-cam Honda four. So, are those later model motorcycles the victims of "planned obsolescence", and if so, why shouldn't the same judgment be applied to the earlier product?

I have never like the phrase, preferring to defend Honda by saying their engineers designed 60s-70s bikes (in particular) with durability that benefitted from a calculated margin over what they knew was needed. (And that before finite analysis was common. You might say they predicted it manually, with a claculator.) Connecting rods for example, which Honda unfortunately earned some criticism for in connection with some models whose durability was demonstratively less than that of their competition. But this is not the same as planned obsolescence, which is knowing almost to the hour how long a part will last. I think Honda said, "This amount of strength plus X amount more for margin," not, "Let's plan on none of these bikes lasting more than five years." Probably the best example of true planned obsolescence in a motor vehicle context is your bike's battery. Battery technology a long time ago reached the point where the engineer knows exactly how many discharge/recharge cycles a given battery will endure. The cycle rating is as familar to the engineer as the terminal orientation is to the end user. All batteries are designed this way and this of course is not communicated to the consumer in the same manner as the number of hours a household lightbulb will last--common on the package now--let alone how long a microwave will last (two to three years?) or a modern refrigerator (four to five?)

Maybe it's trite to declare at this late a date the 70s Honda four's durability; fifty years of endurance says it for us. But at the end of the day, this is one of the elements--one of most important and enduring features--that makes 70s Honda SOHC fours so great. They are, very simply, elegantly--yes, elegantly--over-built. Not kludgedly, massively or blindly, without regard for efficiency in form and mass, but very carefully and artfully and knowingly. And dare I say, affectionately. When I look at the profile of one of Honda's smaller single-cam fours--the early CB500/550 especially and the jewel-like CB350F almost breathtakingly--I can't help but believe there was passion involved. Someone left their heart's imprint on those flowing lines, those seductive proportions. It has been reported that the 350F was Soichiro's favorite SOHC four and if not, maybe it should have been.

It could be I'm just an old man viewing through the understandably nostalgically focused lenses, but I don't think so. In any case, after more than fifty years of making a living in this industry, I can't think of a more pleasurable vintage Honda to own than an early 70s small SOHC four.

Last updated May 2023
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