1977 Hodaka 250SL
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Hodaka occupied a unique position in the world of motorcycle manufacturing from about 1963 until 1978 and it still enjoys the kind of loyalty only Studebaker owners can relate to.
Based in the tiny Eastern Oregon town of Athena, the company with the Japanese-sounding name was actually owned by Pabatco (Pacific Basin Trading Company), formed to trade Oregon farm products overseas.
Pabatco starting importing 49 cc and 80 cc bikes from manufacturer Yamaguchi in 1961 and when Yamaguchi went under in 1963, it struck a deal with engine builder Hodaka to import a bike to the U.S. under that name.
Faced with 300 surplus engines, Hodaka agreed and the good old boys in Athena, led by Hank Koepke at Pabatco and retired Harley-Davidson dealer Adolph Schwartz designed a new 90 cc dual sport bike and tested it on their local Blue Mountain trails.
The design was called the Ace 90 and had twin down-tubes, high exhaust and gusseted frame. It was also street legal, and with its upgraded four-speed gearbox could be ridden anywhere the rider wanted to go. Hodaka agreed to build the whole bike and gave Pabatco exclusive distribution rights.
The first Aces arrived in 1964 and in four years 17,000 were sold through Pabatco’s 480 dealers. In all, about 150,000 Hodakas were sold in 15 years, ranging from 90 to 250 cc two-stroke singles with four- and later five-speed gearboxes.
Hodaka’s virtues were light weight, simplicity and surprising durability. Apart from thousands of weekend warriors, Jim Pomeroy won the Portugal Motocross Grand Prix in 1973 and Pabatco’s own service manager Harry Taylor won the 1968 Daytona road race for 100 cc bikes on a Hodaka.
Hodaka’s wacky advertising campaigns reflected a company that was hardly able to believe its own luck and success. Cartoon characters hawked the 90 cc Ace, the 100 cc Super Rat, the 125 cc Wombat, the competition Combat Wombat, a Super Wombat, the 100 cc Dirt Squirt (featuring a racing Clam), the dual sport 100 cc Road Toad (advertised as “Wart’s New?”) and the 175 cc and 250 cc Thunderdog. The Super Rat out-of-the-crate racer could be bought for under $500 in 1970.
It was all lots of fun and even profitable, but a few things signaled the end of the road for Hodaka. The major Japanese manufacturers entered the off-road market. Yamaha came with the DT-1 in 1968 and Honda with the Elsinore in 1973. Further, the dollar was devalued against the yen in the late 1970s, cancelling the economic edge.
Any chance the enthusiasts at Pabatco might have survived was shortstopped by Shell Oil, which had acquired Pabatco in 1965. The mega-corporation watched its motorcycle division with detached amusement until it started to lose money. Shell decided the answer was to get bigger or go home. Hodaka refused to sell its factory, so Shell folded the U.S. enterprise in 1978.
Hodaka owners have remained fiercely loyal to the brand, however, and the enthusiast community remains as strong and supportive as ever. Hodaka parts remain relatively easy to find, though sheet metal such as gas tanks and fenders are getting tough to locate in very good condition. Owner’s manuals and parts manuals are also readily available.