Willy’s first love – the Zed 50

I want to share with you the tale of my first love. They say you never forget your first, and that’s certainly the case with my long-gone but fondly remembered 1969 Honda Z50A. It will forever be known in my heart simply as the Zed 50.

I vividly recall falling in love with that shiny red and silver Honda the moment I laid eyes on it. I was 9 years old, so it was 1976. The deal was I had to share it with my big brother, Allen, who is 18 months older than me, but he was already too big for it, so basically it was mine. All mine. Allen might disagree, but let the record state: it was MINE.

I’m not sure where it came from, but I do know it showed up at my dad’s buddy Eddie’s garage one sunny summer afternoon. My dad and Eddie were what were known back then as greasers. They spent every minute of their spare time wrenching on cars in Eddie’s garage near Starbuck, a tiny town about 45 minutes southwest of Winnipeg. Both my dad and Eddie are gone now; I smile when I think of them.

This isn’t the actual bike, but it’s identical to the 1969 Z50 that Willy learned to ride on.

The Zed 50 learning curve was quick. Figure out how to turn it on, work the choke, kick it over and ride away. That first day, while barreling down the highway after being explicitly told not to, I was in a low-speed chase with a Mountie. He had a big moustache and a hideous purple Ford and he scared the shit out of me, so I took off. When I roared down the driveway of Eddie’s place with the Heat in hot pursuit, I figured my dad was surely going to kill me. Turned out he and Eddie were laughing their asses off. They knew the policeman; he just wanted to remind me to stay off the road. Lesson learned. My dad must have repeated that story a hundred times. It got funnier every time.

Apparently, despite my first scrape with the law, I passed the test. The bike came home with me that night in the back of dad’s Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon.

There were train tracks behind our house in south Winnipeg, and yeah, we lived on the wrong side of them, so from then on I could make high-speed outlaw runs along the CNR line right out of our backyard. The tracks led to a wooded area loaded with monkey trails and ended at a spot us local kids simply called The Hills, basically piles of dirt from all the basements dug to make the row homes we lived in.

What a cutie – little Willy, with hair.

Initially my riding gear consisted of a crappy old snowmobile helmet, bell-bottom jeans, a hand-me-down hockey jersey, work gloves and North Star sneakers.

Not long after getting the bike, a local motorcycle dealer named Honda Hut closed shop. Dad took me and Allen to the liquidation auction. Al says that’s pretty much the exact moment I became a motorcycle junkie. My eyes lit up as a white Arai helmet crossed the block with a pair of goggles, face mask and visor already installed. The face mask was called an Iron Jaw, and it looked so badass it made my knees weak. Dad bought the helmet for me – actually, I got to place the bid. That was my first auction. I’ve been to about 1,736 since.

I was also the winning bidder on a long-sleeve Honda racing jersey that came to my knees. Before getting home, we stopped at Canadian Tire and dad bought me a pair of tan leather work boots with a white sole. Later my mom altered up the Honda jersey. My upgraded gear gave me a newfound swagger and a dangerous dose of courage. This is surely right around when I had my first of now countless crashes.

The Zed 50 changed my young life. I remember waking up early in the morning, laying in bed waiting for the birds to start chirping so I could get outside and ride. I vividly recall being alone and quiet in the kitchen as the sun came up, making a ham sandwich on white bread with mustard and carefully wrapping it in wax paper. I had a small canvas bag I’d pack with my sandwich, a bottle of Pepsi, and my trusty Vise-Grips wrapped in a red shop rag. I’d fix the pack on the handlebars with a bungee cord like I’d seen real bikers do, all set for a day of riding. It’s funny the little things you remember so many years later. I still carefully pack my gear the same way and I still love ham sandwiches on white bread, with mustard.

All you ever wanted to know about the Honda Z50.

The cool older guys I met at The Hills rode the lightning-fast and colourful Japanese machines of the era. I was no match for these daredevils, so I’d sit on my Honda and watch them rip around the makeshift track and fly over the hills. The intoxicating scent of Bel-Ray two-stroke oil filled the air, and it was there, sitting on my Honda, that I knew all I wanted to do from that day on was ride a motorcycle. At night, I’d read Dirt Bike magazine under the covers with a flashlight; at school, I’d draw motorcycles in my notebook.

I was often the first kid at The Hills in the morning. It was exciting to hear them riding in from a distance, and I learned to know who was coming by the sound of their bike. Those older guys, they were kind to me. They liked the big kid on the little Honda and they took me in. Long before I ever played football, it was on those hills where I first felt like I belonged, where I first experienced camaraderie. Steve Redman, Dave Dingman, Donnie Horta – these were the names of my hometown heroes.

One day, the guys invited me to follow them to a magical place: Girardin’s farm. “Don’t worry,” someone said, “we’ll wait up for you.” Located about five kilometres from my house, down an arrow-straight gravel road surrounded by wheat fields, the farm was home to local legends Henry and Rene Girardin. They were about 16 and 17 back then, and about the coolest cats I’d ever seen. The brothers took turns riding a battle-worn and viciously loud Honda CR250 Elsinore to breakneck speeds around the track they’d carefully carved around an area of their farm, littered with rusty old machinery. I’d climb up on the old combine and watch the show. When the big boys were done tearing up the track, I’d putt through it on the Zed, around and around, often until I’d run out of gas. Getting home was never a worry though – one of the brothers would fill me up with purple farm gas. “Just don’t tell my dad or he’ll kick our asses,” Henry or Rene would mutter with a grin.

That little Honda would go a long way on $1.00 worth of gas in 1976, but finding a dollar was always a challenge. Most mornings, after I’d checked all the usual places (pockets, furniture, the neighbour’s car) for spare change, I’d creep by the local party houses on the block and fill my wagon with empty beer bottles. Many times, I stood outside the St. Norbert Hotel with an empty gerry can and a wagon full of stubby brown bottles, waiting for the beer vendor to open so I could cash in empties for gas money. I wasn’t even old enough for a paper route.

Willy’s weird uncle Norbert goes trolling for Winnipeg babes on his nephew’s bike.

While I have many fond memories of the places I went on that Honda, and the nice people I met, ultimately it was the ride that hooked me. Freedom was achieved via an automatic transmission with three gears and a top speed of about 40 km/h. The Zed certainly wasn’t a rocket, but it propelled me to a whole new world. It had no rear suspension and soft springs up front, but the seat was high and firm, and the handlebars and foot pegs were at the perfect position for 9-year-old me. The small knobby tires were good in the dirt, not so good in the mud, and just right on gravel.

Each day I went a little faster, leaning over a little more, braking a little harder. Constantly challenging myself; putting my boot down on the earth at just the right moment to exact a precise turn. Falling off and quickly realizing crashing sucks. Laying alone on the trail with the wind knocked out of me, with only one thought on my mind: is the bike okay?

There have certainly been tremendous advancements in motorcycles since 1969, and even by the standards of those days, that Honda Z50 was really nothing more than a fairly simple and somewhat crude mini-bike. But if given the choice of one machine to get me through a zombie outbreak, for bulletproof reliability and ease of repair, even today I’d seek out a Honda Z50. It was quiet, fuel efficient, reasonably fast and, although I’m clearly biased, the best possible bike I could have had as my first. It pains me there isn’t one single photo of me sitting on that bike, but the memories paint hundreds of images in my mind.

It was in fairly mint shape when I got my hands on it, and in my estimation, in those three years I owned it, I rode it at least 1,000 kilometres. The exhaust would get so hot it would boil spit, the brakes were basically made of wood, and it would rattle itself apart if you didn’t stay on top of it, but it always got me home. The only times I ever pushed that bike, it was out of gas.

Willy desperately tries to relive his youth on a monkey bike, but it’s just not the same.

Being a husky kid, ultimately the little Honda did start to reveal its shortcomings. The clamps that allowed the handlebars to fold down gave way, so my dad welded them in place. Then the frame started to crack. Dad kept on welding it. Each day before I’d ride it, my Vise-Grips were used to tighten up, and ultimately strip, all the bolts that kept coming loose. I remember wrapping the hand grips in black hockey stick tape, my first custom work.

I’d like to tell you otherwise, but truthfully, in the end it was a stripped and seized hunk of battered scrap. It was covered in scrapes and dents, held together with bailing wire, and the rear frame was covered in massive globs of welding slag. Although dad could weld, he definitely wasn’t a welder. The Zed rusted away in a heap with bald tires that had gone flat and a torn seat, unceremoniously abandoned in the equally dilapidated tin garden shed in our backyard.

Then one day, like it had magically appeared, the Zed was gone.

Fear not though, I was onto a bigger and better bike: on a chilly fall afternoon in 1979, three days after my 12th birthday, dear old dad bought me a shiny new Yamaha GT 80. Ooh, two-stroke and a clutch! God, I loved that bike…

As for the Zed 50, it should have been named the Zen 50. Aboard that little bike is where I first found peace.

They say you never forget your first. What was yours?

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