Aprilia Mana 850 vs. Honda DN-01

Automatics For The People

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing, Motorcyclist Archives

Automatic Redux
Rewinding A Half-Century Of Shiftlessness

Roughly 519 years after Leonardo outlined the first continuously variable transmission on a 15th Century cocktail napkin, most motorcycles come with a manual clutch and a box of gears. A handful of variations on da Vinci's shiftless theme have come and gone, but so far, the makers of clutch plates and shift levers aren't worried. After a burst of early 20th Century enthusiasm, the automatic slipped from fashion until the mid-'70s, when it was The Next Big Thing. Just like Jimmy Carter.

Still, it's interesting to slip the lever into reverse and have a look at the evolution of shiftless motorcycles. Scooters have been using belts and pulleys for years. Nobody cares. Attention Smithsonian interns and recreational historians of all ages: This is an arbitrary assemblage, not an unabridged history. Have mercy.

Zenith Gradua
Manufactured in Finsbury Park, London, the marque gained prominence by bolting a big single to a clever belt-and-pulley CVT dubbed the Gradua. Designed by Zenith's Freddy Barnes, the combination worked so well that it was barred from hillclimb competition. Zenith's marketing department quickly adopted "Barred" as part of their logo, proving themselves at least as clever as Mr. Barnes over in engineering.

Rokon 340

Son of the legendary two-wheel-drive Trail-Breaker, Rokon's RT-340 was another bolt of brilliant weirdness from Keene, New Hampshire: a recoil-start 37-horse two-stroke Sachs snowmobile single lashed to a Salsbury belt-drive torque converter, nestled in a MIG-welded, chromoly-steel frame. No neutral: Just twist and go. A certified miracle for the off-road-impaired, subsequent versions earned gold medals at the 1976 ISDT under Jim Hollander and Gary Edmond. The '76 RT-340 II was a serious enduro contender: 278 pounds of pure hill-climbing magic. But minimal engine braking made coming down scary, and the drive belt got slippery enough when wet to strand you mid-stream.

Honda CB750A Hondamatic

Technically, the Hondamatic wasn't an automatic at all. Converted to wet-sump lubrication and carrying 5.8 quarts of oil, the 736cc single-cam four used a torque converter from Honda's N600 sedan, but its two-speed transmission wasn't shiftless. Start in low-good from 0-60 mph-and the Hondamatic stayed there until your left boot told the internal hydraulics to engage high with a normal-looking shift lever. Start in high? Same deal. Milder tuning and more weight made it slow for a mid-'70s 750, covering a quarter-mile in 15.9 seconds at 91 mph. Relaxed chassis geometry and firm suspension delivered reassuringly stable road manners, but the $2194 asking price was above average as well. Honda's safe, sensible 750 looked overweight and overpriced in American showrooms. Soon dubbed the "Dogmatic," it was put to sleep in '79.

Honda CB400A

Honda saw some life in the automatic idea, even if nobody else did. The Hawk Hondamatic landed with a pair of more successful five-speed versions of the new 395cc six-valve twin. Saddled with the torque converter and two-speed transmission, it was 32 pounds heavier, 20 percent slower and $300 pricier than a basic $1100 Hawk I. Still, automatic twins sold well enough to return as the '79 CM400A cruiser, which begat the CM450 in '82, which survived another year before bowing to the standard-shift 450 Rebel in '84.

Husqvarna 390 Automatic

Husky's 384cc two-stroke single was great with six gears and a clutch lever. Adding an automatic developed for the Swedish army-essentially a centrifugal clutch and a series of dog clutches to grab taller gears-made it better... for some. The catch was it coasted when you closed the throttle. Weak brakes didn't help. Still, the 390 Auto was brilliant on tight trails, blowing through sand and mud that would sink a clumsy clutch hand. But dirt riders' preference for proven weaponry over potentially superior ones pushed motorcycling's most effective automatic into the history books.

Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert

When the Mandello del Lario works wanted to cash in on the police-bike market and titillate American touring riders, it bolted a three-element Fichel & Sachs torque converter and two-speed transmission to a 949cc pushrod V-twin designed for a small car. Cops and Shriners were tired of burning up clutches on parade duty. Great. But you still needed that clutch lever to start the engine or shift from low to high. The torque converter took it from there, thanks. Shriners cheered. Constables yawned and precious few motor cops were converted. Was America ready to blow $3495 on a 600-pound, semi-automatic Italian land yacht that took 16.5 seconds to cover a quarter-mile? No. Not even if it out-handled anything comparable, domestic or imported. By 1983, the Convert was no more.

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