Hodaka Super Rat: The Little Big Bike

The legendary Super Rat epitomized what made Hodaka so successful in the ’60s and ’70s

Hodaka Super Rat
Hodaka R&D Chief Harry Taylor wrings out an early Super Rat.©Motorcyclist

As company mission statements go, this one’s pretty tight. “First, keep the machine simple. The fewer [the] components, the fewer things to break… [and] service will be easier. Second, [understand] what the machine must do. Never [feel] something must be changed just to be different. Third, build the motorcycle in a size that will perform hot enough to satisfy most enthusiasts yet be light and nimble enough to be enjoyed by the weekend pleasure rider. And finally, keep the price [reasonable]. Motorcycling is fun. No one should have to strain their budget to enjoy it.”

You can almost hear Soichiro Honda speaking these words to his R&D staff. And while Mr. Honda surely communicated some of these thoughts during the company’s early years, this particular credo came from a small handful of American motorcycle enthusiasts from the Pacific Northwest in the late 1960s, all of them working for a company with the curious name of PABATCO—Pacific Basin Trading Company—of Athena, Oregon. PABATCO had in the early 1960s joined forces with a Japanese engine builder by the name of Hodaka. And what the two companies accomplished from 1964 to the late 1970s has become nothing less than legendary.

Hodaka Super Rat 1969 ad
Bigger than a mini but not quite full-size MX at 72 inches in length.©Motorcyclist

And the most memorable result of this unique union of countries, companies, and minds? Arguably the Super Rat of 1969, a focused, dirt-only machine based on the insanely popular Ace 90 and 100. It’s a motorcycle that perhaps best embodies the characteristics of that mission statement. Simplicity. Solid design. Correct sizing. Affordability. And fun.

The Rat was all that and more and remains one of the most beloved classic dirt bikes on the planet, right there with legendary machines such as Honda Elsinores or Yamaha’s DT1.

The story of the PABATCO/Hodaka relationship is long and involved and one recounted comprehensively in Ken Smith's 2014 book, Hodaka—The Complete Story of America's Favorite Trail Bike. But the basics are these: PABATCO was formed as a subsidiary of a company called Farm Chemical in 1961, ostensibly to generate revenue from the US sales of Japanese imports. One such product was Yamaguchi Motorcycles, an established maker in Japan and a company wanting to break into the American market. A dealer network of sorts was set up, and during the rest of '61, throughout '62 and into '63, roughly 5,000 Yamaguchis—mostly 50cc and 80cc models—were sold stateside. For PABATCO, it was a good business.

Hodaka Super Rat poster and 1964 Ace 90
Throwback
The Rat came from the do-everything Ace 90 of 1964. It was fast and functional out of the box, but tuners and racers modified the heck out of the things for even more performance.©Motorcyclist

Unfortunately, Yamaguchi went belly-up in 1963 and PABATCO began looking for a new source of lightweight motorcycles. It didn’t have to look far, as one of Yamaguchi’s engine suppliers—Hodaka, founded in ’51—seemed like a promising candidate. Still, PABATCO General Manager Hank Koepke wasn’t about to let a Japanese engine builder—as good as it might be—dictate the type of motorcycle they’d build for the US. So Koepke negotiated a deal whereby Hodaka would build a bike of PABATCO’s design using one of Hodaka’s already-developed engines.

It was a brilliant move. As off-road enthusiasts, Koepke and a few colleagues had a good feel for what the market wanted, and their decisions were spot on. This would be a small-displacement scrambler/trailbike, one with a proper, twin-downtube steel frame, not a pressed-metal unit like other smaller bikes. It would also have an aesthetically pleasing chrome tank with plenty of capacity, along with folding pegs, plenty of ground clearance, a foam air cleaner, high-mount fenders, and a high-mount exhaust. In other words, a functional and proper trail machine.

With an engine already in production (Hodaka’s three-speed 80cc two-stroke, which was quickly upgraded to a four-speed 90cc unit), chassis development moved along rapidly. And by the summer of 1964, the first 800-bike shipment of what were called Ace 90s arrived in the States.

Hodaka Super Rat owner by Tom White
Tom White owns this beautifully restored Super Rat, photographed for this story.©Motorcyclist

The Ace 90 was more than a revelation; it was a bike very much ahead of its time. It was midsize physically, meaning adults and kids alike could fit on it. It was light, had decent suspension front and rear, and handled pretty well on road or off. Although not fast, it was a true do-it-all machine, like the best dual-sports of the 1970s, and it sold like cold beer at a summer ballgame, all for around $350. You could ride an Ace 90 on the street, on trails, or strip it down and race it, in scrambles, motocross, desert, enduros, or even flat track and trials. By the summer of ’66, just two years after its release, PABATCO/Hodaka had sold 10,000 Ace 90s, making 80-some changes along the way, always improving where necessary and always sticking to the credo.

In 1967 the Ace 100 replaced the 90, and it was more of the same. A little faster, a five-speed wide-ratio gearbox in place of a four-speed, a little better suspension, a bit more refinement, and a lot more street—or trail—cred. Guys and gals were winning motocross, scrambles, desert, and TT events around the country every weekend, and Hodaka's clever, humorous, and down-home marketing trumpeted much of it to customers. Hodaka's Marvin Foster had helped boost the Ace's cred, too, when he and Lancaster, California, fireman Frank Wheeler rode a pair of Ace 90s from SoCal to the tip of Baja and back. They chronicled their story in advertisements over the following year and also had a cover story about the trip in Cycle World.

Hodaka Super Rat wheels
Wheels—a 19-incher up front and an 18-incher in back—were larger than your typical mini.©Motorcyclist

"Most trail bikes today have good engines," wrote Cycle Guide of the Ace 100 in its December '68 issue, "so the main feature that sets one apart from the other is [handling]. The Ace's suspension is fantastic, considering the bike is made in Japan." (Remember this was the time before Japanese bikes were considered universally world class.)

“The Ace 90 and 100 were awesome little bikes,” says off-road legend and longtime Hodaka dealer Malcolm Smith. “They were simple, never seemed to break, and handled pretty well. We sold a ton of them over the years.”

True to form, and following their credo, Hodaka refined the Ace 100 over the next few years and by 1970 had sold nearly 25,000 90s and 100s in the six years since the bike’s introduction. And the package—a lightweight and fairly serious trailbike/playbike that could be raced competitively in any number of venues—still didn’t have any real competition. Harley’s 100cc Baja didn’t even come close, at least in production form, and the other Japanese makers were nowhere to be seen in this category. The closest thing was maybe Honda’s Trail 90, but its pressed-steel frame and tank-like demeanor put it in another world performance-wise.

Hodaka Super Rat 100cc two-stroke engine
Super Rat power came from a 98cc piston-port two-stroke that made peak ponies at about 7,250 rpm. Hodaka experimented with reed valves and nearly brought them to market first (before Yamaha) on the second-year Rat but for some reason nixed the idea. Reeds gave prototypes better low-end, which allowed engineers to modify port timing for even better top-end.©Motorcyclist

Through the years, race versions of the 90 and 100 were built, most by customers but a few by Hodaka employees. The most aggressive of these builders was Hodaka R&D chief and racer Harry Taylor, who’d been building Ace-based racers from the start. Taylor shared his findings with the Hodaka folks in Japan, which led to special-edition versions of the 90 and 100 that had “SR” (Special Racer) written on the fuel tank. (Hop-up SR parts were also offered for the 90 and 100.)

With so much excitement and success percolating on the various racing fronts, company folks on both sides of the Pacific knew a purpose-built racer had to eventually be built. It finally happened in 1969 with the introduction of the Ace 100 MX—basically a stripped-down and race-oriented Ace 100. The bike featured special porting, carburetion and exhaust, high fenders, number plates, and a larger airbox and cover, upon which the name “Super Rat” was painted in bold, funky lettering. Lore has it that when a prototype first showed up in the Athena offices, Parts Manager Roger Phillips jokingly asked, “Does it stand for Super Rat?” The nickname stuck, and the newly dubbed Rat became the first of many curiously named Hodakas, including the Wombat, Combat Wombat, Dirt Squirt, and Road Toad.

Webco-built special Hodaka Super Rat
The ultra-trick Webco-built special was a gem.©Motorcyclist

“Hodaka hit a home run with the Super Rat,” vintage guru Rick Doughty says. “They’d done their homework, integrating some of the modifications the best racers had been making for years. The result was an out-of-the-box winner for under $500—a bike that stormed onto the scene with an impact not unlike that of the Honda Elsinore four years later. Simply put, if you raced in the Trail Bike desert class, you either rode a Super Rat—or wished you did.”

“The Super Rat was the answer for a lot of people,” Malcolm Smith remembers. “Everyone—women, kids, full-grown guys, experts and beginners alike—could ride the thing, and it was really competitive. Not too expensive, either.”

“Suggested retail in late ’69 was $495,” Hodaka guru Paul Stannard says, “and the bikes flew through showroom doors. Everyone had to have a Rat, and very shortly a massive aftermarket appeared. Companies like Webco, VanTech, and others sold high-compression heads, expansion chambers, high-flow airboxes, cleated footpegs, all of which were scooped up by excitable enthusiasts looking for an aesthetic or performance edge. Magazine editors swooned, races were won in large numbers, and folks were breaking fun meters all over the country, all of which added to the bike’s do-it-all—and do-it-well—mystique. If you wanted to win in MX, Scrambles, TT or desert racing in the 100cc class, you had to be on a Rat, and many of today’s legends got their starts on them: Tommy Croft, Brad Lackey, Jim Pomeroy, Gary Bailey, Don Castro, Mark Blackwell, Chuck Sun, and Brian Myerscough, to name just a few.”

Tom White's Hodaka Super Rat
“The Super Rat was a phenomenon back in the day,” White says, “and it’s a bike that fits perfectly into my Early Years of Motocross museum theme.”©Motorcyclist

That the Super Rat is the best-known and most-beloved Hodaka shouldn’t be a surprise. As an extension of Hodaka’s foundational Ace 90 and 100, the fun and functional Rat proved that the Hodaka Credo of simplicity, savvy design, affordability, and fun was just what the company needed to survive and thrive versus its Japanese competition, at least for a while. The fact that it was the first Hodaka with a funky, lovable name didn’t hurt either.

Tom White motorcycle collection
Tom White is shown here standing in his amazing museum— next to his SoCal home— which houses more than 100 off-road classics.©Motorcyclist

The best proof of all, though, is what happens when you see one, either sitting in your buddy's garage (or at the Hodaka Days rally each summer—June 23–26 this year—up in Athena) or as you watch and hear one ripping along a trail or on a track, the sun glinting off its chrome tank and red frame, and the piercing exhaust shattering the calm: goosebumps!

Suddenly, it's 1970 all over again, you are there, motorcycling is new and visceral and wildly exciting, and you're having the time of your life.