Special: The Past Due Review – Honda CT90

Words and photos: Jamie Leonard   Ads: vintage Honda

Usually when I write a scooter or motorcycle review, I’m on the latest model, something new and shiny, smelling faintly of fresh paint and plastic.

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This time I’m writing about something a little more used. Something that isn’t available new on the local on the local dealer’s floor – though it should be.

Search for a CT

A cousin of the Honda Cub (arguably the most successful motorcycle of all time), this bike took the nice people you meet on a Honda, and put them on some not-so-nice roads.

And despite a lack of power, imperfect suspension, and less-than-ideal ergonomics, it would get you to where you are going, no matter how much abuse you put it through along the way.

The colour (Tahitian Red) isn’t likely to win you any macho points, and the step-through design may not scream out “badass biker” in any significant way – but I’d still take this over a lot of other bike choices.

If you haven’t guessed yet,  I’m talking about a bike I just bought (used) – a 1975 Honda CT90.

Here’s what Jamie bought – before he bought it.

I’ve had an unhealthy fascination with CT90’s for years. There isn’t a specific visual thing that can explain why I wanted one… no single thing like a shape or a colour that was the deciding factor – there was just … something.

… and here’s a shot after Jamie’s worked his magic.

I can justify my purchase in a million different ways – as a cottage bike I can hop on the road to get to the rail trails, and have a machine that will do both.

It is sufficiently scooter-like to toss-up on a sidewalk without generating comment. For a 37-year-old bike, it has an amazing amount of parts support, and is likely to keep its value should I ever want to resell the thing.

I can say all that, but if I am being perfectly honest, when I was going through the want ads looking for an inexpensive cottage bike – the ad for a pair of CT90’s (one running, one parts bike) jumped out at me.

The ad listed a 1975 Honda CT90 (also known as the “Trail 90”) plus a parts bike that was largely complete (the carb needed replacement, and the gas tank had been dimensionally modified by running over it with a fork-lift.)

The phone was grabbed, the seller called, and I arranged for a time to go see it.

Love at first sight?

Behold, the finest marketing the 1970s had to offer!

When I got there, the first thing I wanted to do was hear it run. I’ve learned the hard way that “Running when parked” too often means “the piston came out the side of the engine and the transmission fell out somewhere in another province.” The seller let me hop on to take it for a ride around the yard.

As expected, the CT90 needed some work; only one blinker worked up front.

First impressions? Shifting with an auto clutch is a bit weird. Seat is a touch low. It’s definitely quiet.

The engine pulled nicely for a little 90, and I hadn’t even engaged the low speed gearing, in which it’ll apparently climb just about anything, at a slow speed.

The bike did need work – the fork boots were crumbling, the electrics were down to a single working blinker light at the front. The horn button only produced a faint clicking noise.

The tires were original 37-year-old Yokohama units that were cracked along the sides.

The seller had, however freshly rebuilt the carburetor and the engine did start, with the gears shifting smoothly.

So cash was handed over, a handshake given, and shortly afterwards the machine was dropped off and I got my hands into the electrics.

Repairs

Since the Honda had been run without a battery, all but one of the bulbs were blown.

Of course, this turned out to be more work than expected. The turn signals had been replaced on the front (changing the colour codes) but one of the original wires was still in the headlight bucket – resulting in an extra wire to nowhere that caused me a fair bit of confusion when reading the wiring diagram.

Somehow, the Hondells left out any information on how to re-wire your CT90 on their hit song.

All the bulbs but one had been blown – the result of having been run without a battery.

This bike doesn’t have a voltage regulator, relaying on the battery to “even out” voltage spikes – resulting in bulbs blowing if you run it for any length of time without a working battery.

I replaced the horn, ripped off the old fork boots and installed new ones, and ordered some new 2.75×17 tires – surprisingly, there’s plenty to choose from.

Insurance madness

At this point, I hit a snag. Jevco, my insurance company for my vintage scooter, did not insure motorcycles between 50cc and 100cc.

This resulted in a lengthy search for insurance. State Farm? Won’t insure me since I don’t have my full G license (I only drive motorbikes). Many other companies will not insure bikes over 25 years old, others will not insure motorcycles unless you bundle with home or auto insurance, and bundling with auto insurance isn’t an option for me.

He might have the ultimate cottage country machine, but Jamie had a hard time getting insured.

For a while, it looked like the only option was to transfer it to my wife’s name,since she has automotive insurance, but even then the price tag was $600 a year. Ironically, if the engine was upgraded to 101cc it would actually be less insurance from the same company.

ScotiaLine eventually took care of Jamie’s insurance needs, so he’s on the road legally now.

Finally, after many hours spent calling around, I called ScotiaLine Financial.

Initially they didn’t seem as if they were going to insure it either, as they didn’t have the bike in their system –  they had the CT70, and the CT110, but not the CT90.

After getting an appraisal, and sending photos of the bike and VIN, it was approved however – and at a rate less than half of the earlier quote.

So after this, a safety, and some more running around, I finally had my grubby little hands on an underpowered, unimpressive little on/offroad machine. And what did I think of my newly acquired piece of motorcycling history?

What’s it all about?

To me, this is the original, and in many ways still, one of the best adventure bikes ever made.

Don’t agree it’s an adventure bike? Check out thepostman.org.uk for the story of Nathan Millward, who bought a (used) Honda CT110 former postal bike and rode it from Sydney, Australia to London, England. Going from Australia, up over Afghanistan, into China, across central Asia and through to Europe.

If a used, abused former postal bike could do 35,000km of travel across rugged terrain … I don’t think my cottage trails will tax it much.

It looks like Jamie’s not the only person out there looking to pick up a vintage CT.

While it doesn’t have any storage internally, it does have a huge rear rack which can handle larger loads, and a strong design that can take a fair bit of abuse and still keep going. This isn’t a bike that needs to be babied.

They didn’t call it a trail bike for nothing.

It’s also still very popular (especially with the RV crowd) and has a large amount of after market support, with parts being easily obtainable.

One example would be DrATV.com – which has a variety of CT90 parts including original OEM and reproduction.

DrATV.com also has kits to simplify engine swaps – allowing you take certain Lifan Chinese engines and upgrade the power of the CT90, as well as possibly changing to a 12v electrical system.

I’ve ended up with something retro, but reliable.

It’s something that I can use on trails or just for errands. Something that qualifies as a scooter for the Mad Bastard Rally. Something with an odd sense of fun – enough fun that I don’t particularly care that, when riding the bike with my 6 foot 1 frame I appear to be some kind of gorilla having intimate relations with a garden implement.

I may not be taking it halfway across the world – but every ride on this thing will see me wearing a massive grin. And in the end, that is entirely what motorcycling should be all about.


Gallery

Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.

8 thoughts on “Special: The Past Due Review – Honda CT90”

  1. Hi. Am Edwin from Kenya.
    Was asking if the spares of this Honda CT90 are available hear in Kenya and if I can get an expert mechanic to repair it coz I owe one an I value it too much..
    Reach me through. edwinmchori@gmail or
    0707587762.. Both active.
    Thanks

  2. I know its an old post but these bikes are amazing. We are an Australian couple riding a pair of these things across Canada and around the world back to Australia at the moment. Awesome tough little bikes. They sure seem to be able to haul a load.

  3. Please do not put a crappy Chinese engine on this bike – leave it original. BTW – my father rode a 67 Trail 90 from California to Ajax, Ontario in December of 1970. Those who know me will say it explains a lot.

    1. Oh this one stays original – but I have the parts one that *may* get a different engine.eventually (or I may resurrect the engine in it, or go with an ATC110/125m engine swap) But the running bike is going to remain stock. .And I now have this little voice in my head that keeps saying “CT90 road trip”….. mind you it’s the same voice that tells me to set small fires and that people are plotting against me so I’m not sure if I should pay attention to it. 😉

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