Sixty Years and Six Cylinders

A motorcyclist considers six decades in the saddle, and the notorious Honda CBX 1000

If Donna Greer's family was a little less functional, her situation might make a decent premise for a sitcom. When she was five years old, Greer's parents divorced amicably. They're still divorced. And for their own good and different reasons, they both live with her in Jefferson City. It's the empty nest, just inside-out and upside-down. And they all appear to get along impressively well.

Greer's father, Bill Powell, is a Floridian who recently moved to Tennessee for health reasons. He's 72 years old, and rode his first motorcycle right about 60 years ago.

"When I lived in Pensacola," says Powell, "a girl down the street had a bicycle with an engine on the front. It was called a Whizzer. I rode the Whizzer just a little bit, and that was it. I worked for a pharmacy, and they wanted me to deliver and they bought me a Cushman Husky. I rode that a while. Then I had a Cushman Eagle. Then I had a 125 Honda Sprint. I went from it to a Harley XLCH Sportster."

Powell was 12 when he motored that mighty Cushman around Pensacola, back when a kid could get a license to make deliveries on a scooter. These days there's a lot of philosophizing and braggadocio about how loyal customers are won and kept. Powell describes his own transition from Harley to Honda, and makes it sound both logical and inevitable.

"There was about 10 of us that rode and partied around," Powell recalls. "We were all headed out to the beach one night. That Harley had a habit—it would only crank when it wanted to. I jumped on it and I kicked and I kicked. Half the time, the inside of my leg stayed blue from kicking that thing. A buddy of mine kicked it for a while. I chained it to a pole there and doubled up with a friend. We rode on out to the beach. Next morning I got up and called another buddy, said take me down there and see if it will crank. Got on the thing and it fired up the first kick. I rode it straight to the Honda dealer."

That was in 1971, and the dealer showed Powell a CB 750. In particular, the salesman stressed the convenience of the electric start feature.

"They called it ‘The Plumber's Delight' because of the big chrome pipes on it," says Powell. "He put the key in and pushed a button and fired it up. I said, ‘Do that again.' He turned it off and started it again. I said, ‘I'll take it.'"

Powell tallies off the long list of motorcycles he's owned: a KZ1 900, a Honda 450, a Honda two-cylinder 160 that he track-raced briefly. (Powell recalls that when he raced, motorcycles followed the car events at Mobile… and the oil left on the track by the cars made things just a little too exciting.) All those machines have come and gone. There's only one bike that Powell has hung on to, and moved to Tennessee with him: a red and black 1979 Honda CBX 1000, with 36,000 miles on it. When new, it was touted as the fastest production bike in the world, with six cylinders and 108 horsepower. Powell has no intention of parting with the bike. And even though his family, his doctors, and the reality of his health (Powell has suffered two strokes, and is undergoing chemotherapy for bone cancer) will not allow him to ride the bike, Powell is surreptitiously seeking a mechanic who can tune it up and help it recover from five years of storage.

"That motorcycle is almost too fast to ride in town," says Powell of the CBX. "If you're pulling out and there's a car in front of you, you have to let that car get two or three lengths ahead of you before you take off. I read that when Honda got out of sports car racing in '76 they had these engines and didn't know what to do with them. I don't know whether to believe that or not. I know that when I bought it, nobody would finance it and they would not insure it. I had to pay cash for it. For insurance, I had a '69 Thunderbird, and they let me add it to that policy."

Naturally, Powell misses riding which, among other attractions, he remembers as the best way in the world to dry off after skinny dipping. "I miss just taking off, not knowing where I was going. I'd see a road and I'd just take it. I never made plans because they didn't work. I never knew where I was going until I got back, then I knew I'd been there."

Powell says he was never able to find out just how fast the CBX could go. Even though it was not recommended, he kept a modified Goldwing fairing on the bike. You probably know where this story is going …

"I kept reading in the literature, ‘WE DO NOT RECOMMEND A FAIRING,' and I didn't know why," says Powell. "After I put that fairing on it, I was on I-65 between Pensacola and Montgomery. I figured they advised against the fairing because it might cause high-speed wobble or something. I was running about 60 or 70, and it was just as smooth—I could turn loose of the handlebars and just steer it with my head. I said, ‘I want to see what this thing can do.' I hit it, and that thing stood straight up. I eased it down and pulled over to the side. It took five minutes before I quit shaking.

"The engine's on a 45-degree slant, then you've got the fairing. So there was 48 inches of up-push and only 18 or so inches of down-push. It was like an airplane with no wings. That's the only time I did that."

Fortunately, just a block from Donna Greer's house is a shop called Biker B's. It's a hopping leather and accessory shop, within reach of Powell's electric scooter, where he can go to shoot the breeze and reminisce about two-wheeling and watch packs of Harleys rumble toward Cherokee Lake.

"Bill Powell's a fine fellow," says a customer named Joe. "His ex-wife brings him down here."

Joe pauses to consider what he's just said.

"You know a man's got to be a fine fellow if his ex-wife is driving him around," he concludes.