It’s amazing to consider, but 45 years ago this summer (Whoa! Can that be right?), my life’s trajectory was forever altered by, of all things, a two-minute ride on a tiny, yellow Honda mini bike. It was a hardtail with folding bars, a chunky seat, and little knobby tires, and after a few laps of my uncle’s front yard I whiskey-throttled myself and it right into a big ol’ bush. It was an inglorious end to my first-ever ride, but it’s led to several lifetimes’ worth of grins. I’ll wager that plenty of you have a similar story. And I’m betting that many of those epic first rides were aboard the same minibike I took mine on: The legendary Honda Z50 Mini Trail.
The Z50 wasn’t just a minibike. It was (and is) an institution, a chunk of motorized nirvana on the scale of the Schwinn Sting Ray, and a machine that focused the attention of young boys (and some girls, no doubt) in a way that nothing else on earth could. When my buddy Mike Starr got a blue one that Christmas I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And while he only let me ride it a couple times (the nerve!), the nagging it generated at home resulted in a red SL70 finding its way into our garage the following Christmas. Bliss…
Little doubt, then, that the Honda Z50 Mini Trail is probably responsible for more two-wheeled addictions than any other motorcycle on earth. With more than a million sold over the years (first as the Z50, then the XR50, and lately the CRF50), it’s certainly believable. There aren’t many so-called foundational motorcycles in our world, but Honda’s Z50 certainly qualifies.
The Z50 debuted in the US in 1968 but had roots reaching all the way back to the early 1960s and Honda’s then-new Suzuka Circuit, which included an amusement park called Motopia. The park featured motorized vehicle “rides” that would, according to Soichiro Honda’s right-hand man Takeo Fujisawa, “allow visitors to experience the joys of driving.” One of these featured a tiny prototype cooked up by engineers called the Z100, which used the 50cc pushrod single from the Honda Cub, a hardtail frame, and 5-inch wheels. It quickly became the park’s most popular attraction, and because riders looked so simian-like while aboard the tiny bikes, the term “monkey bike” quickly took hold.
The Z100 was never available for sale (a few are in the hands of collectors), but Honda, always adept at recognizing a promising niche, revamped the concept in 1963 with the CZ100, a similar machine using a different frame and body. The bike was strange looking but street legal and sold in several European and Asian countries (though not in the US), doing reasonably well during the mid-1960s with few changes. Like the Z100, it remains extremely collectible.
Here in the US the minibike thing was about to burst wide open, with many thousands of tube-framed, lawnmower-engined hardtail minibikes being sold by companies such as L’il Indian, Fox, Cat, Rupp, Bonanza, Burro, Taco, Bronco, Scat Cat, Power-Dyne, and others. Most were loud, ill handling, and physically jarring to ride. But for thousands upon thousands of wide-eyed kids, they represented nothing less than the coveted entry into a motorized two-wheel world. Honda, generating massive sales and reputational momentum in the US by the mid-1960s with clean-cut marketing and inexpensive, reliable motorcycles that nearly everyone seemed to like, took note of the minibike craze and began piecing together a plan.
“Mr. Honda was in the US a lot during the mid-1960s,” says Z50 collector and expert Jeff Tuttobene. “He saw all this minibike activity but couldn’t help but notice all the crude engineering and knew [Honda] could do much better.” Honda had just introduced a new-generation mini for Europe and Asia called the Z50M, which featured a folding handlebar and the new OHC Cub engine. But when it didn’t appear Stateside, dealers voiced their displeasure—which forced engineers to fast track a version designed specifically for the US.
“American Honda didn’t have its own R&D arm at that point,” says longtime American Honda product research/testing veteran Bob Doornbos of the Japanese engineers, “but they’d come over for research and testing, and we’d help them as much as we could.”
The machine the R&D team came up with months later was indeed American flavored, with larger wheels, knobby tires, front and rear brakes, front suspension, high-mount fenders, and an adjustable seat. The result was an off-road-only mini called the Z50A, or Mini-Trail. Honda didn’t know it at the time, but the minibike terra firma in the US was about to be shaken to its very core.
“I first saw the bike at that year’s dealer meeting,” Doornbos remembers, “and expectations weren’t all that high. We had two types of dealers then, so-called ‘50-90cc’ dealers and full-line dealers. The 50-90 stores carried only little bikes and were typically sporting good stores, bicycle shops, et cetera.” Honda management surely looked to these smaller, mini-focused shops to help sell the new machine, but what happened as soon as the bikes began to arrive two to a crate at both types of dealerships shocked everyone. “There was huge demand,” Doornbos says, “and we were backordered almost immediately. It was crazy. People—kids and adults—were riding them everywhere, on the street, in the dirt. It was so versatile and inexpensive too. Just toss it into the trunk and haul it anywhere.”
“The Mini-Trail astounded the minibike world,” Tuttobene says. “A three-speed with automatic clutch, real brakes, knobbies, a spark arrestor, and folding bars so Mom or Dad could stow the thing in the trunk and drop their kid off at the local riding spot. My mom loved it.” But kids loved it more.
Amazingly, Honda sold 50,000 Mini-Trails in the first year despite the back orders. Suggested retail was $239. The first thousand or so bikes were slightly different than later first-generation models, Honda making changes to parts and processes even while bikes were moving along the assembly line. These first Z50As are known today as “slant guard” bikes by virtue of the angled exhaust guard bridging the rear frame tubes. Other details include a slightly taller handlebar than 1969-and-beyond bikes, white grips, red/white and yellow/white paint options, no muffler stinger, #415 chain and sprockets (later updated to 420), painted silver fenders, and an under-tank on/off toggle switch.
Honda made some significant changes for ’69, adding a headlight and taillight, battery, lower bars, a reshaped seat, chrome fenders and chain guard, and a proper key switch. Nearly 100,000 were sold. More changes came in 1970, including a longer muffler stinger and rear fender. A new tank graphic made an appearance, as did a pebble-grain seat cover, aluminum levers, and a rear- brake pedal. Honda also nixed the K2’s battery and box, going with a magneto that allowed the lights to work while the bike was running—and then not very well. “It was like riding at night with a birthday candle!” says Z50 aficionado Mike Maciejko, who owns many of the bikes photographed for this story. Even more were sold that year.
“It was a crazy time,” says Robert Williams, whose family opened Fairway Honda in Somers Point, New Jersey, in the late 1960s. “We sold the heck out of the Z50s in those early years. They were everywhere—part of life as we knew it.”
Some of motorcycling’s legends spent time aboard Mini Trails, including AMA motocross champion Jeff Ward. The “Flying Freckle” not only rode Z50s but raced them as a seven-year-old for Herb Friedlander’s Honda shop in scrambles and TT events around Southern California. Ward’s most famous Mini-Trail moment came in Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday documentary. “I was riding my Mini-Trail at Saddleback Park,” Ward says, “and I saw this guy with a camera shooting a guy doing wheelies on a trials bike. I did a couple wheelies and the guy pointed the camera in my direction as I rode by standing on the pegs. I had no idea what he was doing until I saw the movie in the theater with my dad months later!”
Big changes came in ’72 with the K3 model, Honda switching to a new frame and rear suspension along with a host of other detail changes. Sales continued to be strong, the bike quickly becoming the minibike standard of the world, its personality, functionality, and durability ensuring its place in history—and kids’ minds—for many years to come.
Although the original A-model morphed into the sportier Z50R in ’79 and eventually became the XR50 in the early 2000s, the spirit of the original bike lives on as the CRF50—a small, lightweight, good-looking and dead-reliable mini that kids seem unnaturally attracted to.
But for most boomers and Gen Xers, it’s those early-generation Mini Trails that stoke memories of those epic first rides most effectively. If I close my eyes I can still see, hear, and smell my uncle’s pale yellow/white K-Zero…right along with the bush I buried us in!