Honda SL350


The Honda SL350 had a standard Honda 350 twin cylinder, four-stroke engine with a modified cam for increased low-end torque. It was a beautiful bike - tall forks, high bars, metal-flake golden bronze paint, twin matt-black upswept exhausts, and big knobbled tyres. It was somewhere between a road bike and a motocrosser. The only picture I have of it is the picture on the right, taken in Kings Park in Perth.

I bought it in 1971 from a guy who had brought it over from Sydney, and it was the only one registered in Western Australia. It had done a couple of thousand miles.

A week later I went out into the hills behind Perth with a couple of mates, one on a Honda CB250, and the other on a Suzuki 250 two-stroke that went like the devil. When we stopped for petrol I noticed fumes coming out of the oil breather. Later, offroad, the tappets began to sound like castanets, and I stopped to adjust them. Later still, oil began to seep from the top cam cover. The truth began to sink in: I had complete lubrication failure to the top of the engine, and the camshaft, rocker arms, valve stems and camshaft bearings were swarf and slag.

A testament to the robustness of the engine was the fact that when it finally stopped working there were 1/4 inch grooves in the camshaft lobes and the rocker arms. My mate with the Suzuki 250 towed the bike the 20 miles back to Perth using a clothes line.

My father was an experienced mechanic, so we stripped the engine, dug out all the metal swarf, flushed the oilways, fitted new parts, and a week later it did it again. A new Honda dealership had opened, and I was able to persuade them to fix it - the bike was only just out of warranty. I insisted on a new oil pump. They insisted the pump never failed, but I'd seen the oilways flushed clear, and with the new pump and new head components the bike went well for the rest of the time I owned it.

Unfortunately they fitted a regular camshaft, which meant the bike lost a lot of its torque. The only time I wheelied it was when I tried to tow a Yamaha XS650 up a steep hill using ... a clothesline. The SL350 was bucking and standing on its tail with the strain, and when the line snapped I had the most memorable standing start I can recall prior to buying a Blade.

I took the bike offroad on an organised trail ride wearing my usual biking gear of tee-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. I found the ride tricky. Everyone else was on light 175 and 250 cc Yamaha two-stroke trail bikes, and the SL350 was a monster by comparison. The lack of the off-road cam didn't help. The hills behind Perth are a conglomerate sandstone that weathers into a mess of ballbearing-sized pebbles, so it was tricky even with sensible footwear and a sensible bike. On one slope I didn't make the top, had trouble holding the bike on the gradient, and lost my flip-flops in the confusion, so I found myself trying to get a heavy bike off a steep slope in my bare feet. Eventually I fell off going down a hill, demolished the indicators and headlight, and lost enough skin to upholster the inside of a Bentley.

That didn't teach me a lesson. I rode down to Margaret River for a party with Les on his old BSA. It was about 100 miles through the bush in the dark. I was still wearing a tee-shirt, jeans (a concession to the cool night air ), and flip-flops. At each moment I expected to run into a kangaroo - they go rigid in headlights and wait to be run over. Next day, a bunch of people I knew announced they were touring around south-west Australia, and "did I want to come". Well, I had the clothes I was standing up in ... and I had my flip-flops. I agreed. It was chilly in the early mornings, and I ended up riding with newspapers stuffed down my shirt until someone lent me a denim jacket.

On this trip around the south-west I climbed Bluff Knoll, a 3,600 foot volcanic plug that goes straight up from sea level outside Albany. I had become very nostalgic for Scotland, and West Australia hasn't much that looks like mountains, so when I saw Bluff Knoll I had to climb it. The others didn't want to wait, so I said I'd be quick. I went up and down in an hour and twenty minutes. In flip-flops.

I finally conceded the issue on footwear after a visit to a folk club, where I drank too much. Peter Harding (the man with the XS650) and I drove home through Kings Park. Kings Park is very large, and is mostly natural bush. It is very dark at night. I began to ride through the bush in the dark, but someone had the stupidity to dig a bloody great ditch in front of me. I don't know whether they dug it as they saw me coming (my theory), or whether it had been there for some time. I went into the ditch, and the bike landed on top of my foot. To be more precise, the hot part of the exhaust landed on top of my instep. My doctor thought it might need plastic surgery.

I continued to wear flip-flops, but I was beginning to realise that there might be better things to wear on a bike. Like sandals.

July 1973. I had sold the SL350 a few days before. I caught a flight that day to New Delhi, and from there I caught a bus that went through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and brought me back to the UK.

I am actually wearing boots. Maria, on the other hand, appears to be wearing flip-flops (aka thongs for our Ozzie readers).


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Copyright Colin Low 1997