Honda Police Specials

Honda 3

“One of the three most significant motorcycles in history” — that’s how Hayden Tasker describes the Honda CB750, considered by many to be the first superbike. He believes the bike changed motorcycling — so it’s no surprise to find three of them in his collection of police specials

By Ritchie Wilson. Photographs: Brian High

Hayden Tasker works as an agricultural contractor in New Zealand’s South Island because he strongly feels that there is nothing more important than food production and feeding the world’s population. He points out that even scientists researching a cure for cancer can only do so because there is toast and Vegemite for them to eat for their breakfast.

If the weather is fine, agricultural contractors work all the hours of daylight, and Hayden often clocks up 80-hour weeks with a succession of 18-hour work days. When The Shed contacted him to arrange a visit, he said he expected a cold front to pass through at 11am the next day and that he would be available then. He has studied his local weather for years and is often consulted by his neighbours on meteorological matters. Sure enough, as I made the long trek south, a towering band of cumulus cloud, gleaming white, stretched east to west across my route, from the mountains to far out at sea, as cold air from the Southern Ocean pushed northwards, complete with a southerly wind change and a band of rain.

Fitness for purpose
I arrive at Hayden’s home rather before the arranged time and, shortly after, he rides down his immaculate driveway on a 1958 Puch 150cc two-stroke scooter. We have a glance at his highly organised workshop, where everything is stored in under-bench cupboards; his road bikes, including a couple of Honda turbocharged V-twins; and his Japanese kei car — a Honda Beat two-seater sports; but what Hayden is interested in talking about is his collection of Honda CB Police Special motorcycles from the 1970s and early 1980s.

Hayden likes Hondas — even though they are not always the fastest motorcycles — because of their reliability and their “fitness for purpose”. They are built for the job they are going to do and, in his experience, rarely fail to perform. If they do have problems, it is usually because of some easily corrected, minor fault. They are “bulletproof”, with good, utilitarian engineering. 

 

Honda 1

 

A tyrannical perfectionist
Hayden thinks the admirable qualities of Honda products are a reflection of the company’s creator, Soichiro Honda (1906–1991). Hayden tells a story of the great man’s early life that shows his concern for others. Although revered by his employees, Honda is popularly considered to have been a tyrannical perfectionist who drove his business partner, Takeo Fujisawa, with who he formed the Honda Motor Company in 1948, to distraction. Hayden’s story, in contrast, shows Honda was respectful and considerate.

Hayden emphasises that the Honda CB750, commonly considered to be the first superbike, is one of the three most significant machines in the history of motorcycles. 

His top three are:

  • the Honda C100 step-through of 1958, which “changed the world”
  • the 1927 Triumph Speed Twin, which eventually put 100mph within reach of the ordinary rider
  • the Honda CB750, which was much imitated.

“[The Honda CB750] looked right, it went right, and it was priced right,” says Hayden, who admires the historical importance of the bike. “It changed motorcycling”. 

The Police Special motorcycles
Hayden has nine Honda CB Police Special motorcycles, previously owned by the New Zealand Ministry of Transport’s (MOT) Traffic Safety Service (TSS) or associated agencies.

They are: 

  • Honda CB360 twin
  • Honda CB500 four
  • Honda CB550 four
  • Honda CBX750 four
  • Honda CBX650 four
  • Honda CB650 four 
  • Two Honda CB750F fours
  • Honda CB750K four.

Police specials are made by most of the world’s motorcycle companies because police departments buy lots of bikes and can be loyal customers, with

regular servicing and repeat purchases. The bikes come equipped from the factory with radios, lights, and sirens, and with robust electrical systems to

power them. These accessories are additional sources of profit for the companies. The simple, usually white, colour schemes are also easy to apply.

Showroom condition
Hayden and his friend Stu Holdaway restored the bikes in Hayden’s collection to showroom condition over a period of four years. They also restored several other Honda CB Police Specials for other owners.

Hayden leaves me in no doubt that Stu was an essential part of the restoration story — besides having an encyclopedic knowledge of motorcycles. Stu strongly encouraged Hayden to restore the bikes. He would come over to Hayden’s house after work and the two of them would work on the restorations until well after midnight, till perhaps just two or three hours before dawn and the start of a new working day. Hayden says that he doesn’t need a lot of sleep. When it became known that a major motorcycle restoration effort was taking place, other friends got interested and wanted to become involved. For instance, the local truck and agricultural machinery painter offered to paint the bikes.

 

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Twin speedos catch offenders
Originally, Hayden had bought just one police special, a CB550K, out of interest because it was a Honda CB, and then another for parts. His personal preference is to maintain his bikes to a good standard but leave them cosmetically as is. 

As he worked on the bike, he was impressed by its good looks and by the number of improvements in the police version to make them fit for purpose in their more demanding role. The frame and rear suspension are beefed up; the electrics and, in this case, the carburation are better. Distinctive purpose-built twin speedos are fitted at the factory. 

The twin speedos are interesting. One is the normal speedo calibrated in 5kph increments; the other, with fine 2kph markings, has a meter stop, which freezes the needle when operated. When an officer was trailing a motorist breaking the speed limit, he would match speeds with the speedster and press the meter stop. Then, when the speeding motorist was pulled over and disputed the accusation of speeding, the officer could point to the frozen needle, which indicated the motorist’s actual speed.

A slice of Kiwi history
A friend pointed out to Hayden that he had something special in the ex-MOT bike and that he should preserve it by restoring it to its original condition — as it was when it left the Honda factory. The friend emphasised that the MOT police specials were a rich slice of local history, of Kiwiana. The Honda CB Police Specials in their white livery, with their specialised patrol gear, were a memorable part of many motorists’ younger years, important because of their provenance. Hayden says that he appreciates a beautiful old motorcycle, but that he loves an old bike with an interesting story, such as the police specials have. They have a history. 

Sourcing parts difficult task
Restoring the bikes became more difficult over the four years as stocks of parts were exhausted and the condition of the bikes bought became worse. When the bikes were sold by the MOT, they were often stripped of their patrol gear, except for the twin speedos, and had the MOT stickers removed. Sourcing the lights, sirens, radios, panniers, and windshields to replace those that had been removed was a major problem. The mechanical sirens, driven by cables from the rear axle on some of the bikes, are obsolete and are especially rare and expensive. Hayden says that he didn’t appreciate when they began how difficult obtaining parts would be. Some local-body bikes were sold with patrol gear, and this was one source of parts. Original suppliers in Japan were another, as were online auctions, but it became more difficult and would be, Hayden thinks, almost impossible today. Again, Hayden emphasises that Stu was the kingpin in the restorations, quoting him as saying, “You can’t not do this.”

A blast to ride
The MOT’s relationship with Honda came to an end in the early 1980s after the MOT took delivery of the shaft-drive CBX version.

I’ve talked to the owner of a Honda dealership of the time, a well-known competition motorcyclist, and he says that he rode a CBX750 at, he thinks, the Manfeild raceway, when the bike was first introduced to New Zealand dealers and the press. He says that it was absolutely superb. It had huge amounts of power and he could get the heavy machine’s front wheel to lift under acceleration. He recalls it being “a blast” to ride. He had to use his racing skills on the corners because of the bike’s width, but he didn’t experience any handling problems at very high speeds; the bike didn’t have a windscreen or loaded panniers fitted. He had to be reluctantly flagged in to allow other dealers a chance to have a ride. 

 

Honda 6

 

The policing of New Zealand’s roads
The first traffic cop in New Zealand was hired by Auckland City in 1894, when virtually all vehicles were horse-drawn. From then on, many local bodies had officers with the authority to enforce traffic laws within their boundaries. The central government started policing some roads just before World War II, and gradually took over this task from local councils until, by the early 1990s, it was the sole traffic authority. 

The MOT was formed in 1968 and, apart from officers employed by some local authorities, the policing of New Zealand roads was the responsibility of its TSS. The MOT was a very large government department responsible for everything from lighthouses, now unmanned, to air-traffic control — now the responsibility of Airways Corporation — to weather forecasts. 

In 1992, the MOT’s TSS was merged with the New Zealand Police. At first the TSS officers continued to police the roads but were, over time, given training in new skills such as firearms usage and drug enforcement. They were progressively absorbed into the police, thus greatly increasing the number of sworn police officers. In some quarters, at the time, it was said that the main motivation for the merger was to fulfil an election promise to increase police numbers. Many people think there is less emphasis on road safety than on revenue gathering in road policing today compared with the time of the MOT traffic cop. 

Even in the days of the TSS, it was difficult to recruit motorcycle traffic officers from the dwindling population of riders of large-capacity motorcycles. Hayden Tasker has heard stories of senior traffic officers suggesting to young motorcyclists that they had pulled over for speeding that they become motorcycle cops; they would be paid to ride fast — and have a worthwhile career. The relative inexperience of some officers on fast two-wheelers could have contributed to some of the accidents that injured them. 

 

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The MOT traffic officers didn’t only issue tickets to motorists who broke the rules of the road. They were also involved in, for example, traffic safety lessons in schools, safety checks on the bicycles of primary-school pupils, and conducting tests for driver licences. Ex-MOT traffic officers say that only about a fifth of their interactions with motorists resulted in the issuing of a ticket. The emphasis was on educating motorists in safe driving — perhaps a reflection of the grim death rates on New Zealand roads at the time.

Motorcycles are a valuable part of the road-policing mix. They can negotiate traffic snarls that would stop a patrol car and they can very quickly turn and pursue rule breakers speeding in the opposite direction. A police motorcyclist told me that motorcycle cops “always get their man”. 

Another essential service that the police motorcyclist performs is escorting the vehicles of VIPs in the country for official visits. During the visit of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall to New Zealand, the bikes and riders of their escort were flown around the country as the tour progressed because there weren’t enough bikes in any one place to make an appropriate show. Bill Clinton, of course, brought his own fleet of escort vehicles when he visited in 1999. In 2020, officers and their machines were going to be borrowed from Australia to make up the numbers for an international conference in Auckland. However, because of the pandemic, the conference became virtual, so the bikes and riders weren’t needed. 

It is thought that habitual breakers of traffic laws are much more likely than the average law-abiding driver to engage in criminal behaviour in the rest of their lives, so it is hard to argue that traffic police aren’t an important aspect of overall law enforcement and shouldn’t be part of the regular police force.

 

Honda 8

 

A few issues
The former dealer recalls that in service with the TSS there were niggling issues with the engine’s timing chain. At one stage, his workshop was replacing the timing chain with every oil change — at his personal expense. The problem was eventually fixed by replacing the newly introduced automatic chain tensioner with the old manual one, but it was one of the reasons he gave up the Honda dealership.

Honda warned that heavy panniers and the GN200 windshield, which had been fitted to previous models, shouldn’t be used on the CBX because of potential handling problems.

Hayden’s CBX650 Police Special has a label warning of the potential dangers of riding with a windshield and heavily loaded panniers fitted. The label states, in part: “The cargo load must not exceed 27kg under any circumstances.” This advice was reportedly ignored, and MOT officers started riding the CBX650s and 750s on the country’s highways with the windshields fitted and the panniers fully loaded with heavy wet-weather gear.

Writer and CB650PZ owner Greg Price, who wrote about the issue in Beaded Wheels magazine in 2017, told me that the staunch TSS union apparently became concerned about the Hondas and they were withdrawn from service, to be replaced by the Yamaha XJ750 and then by the BMW R80 TIC. Hayden’s CBX650 is one of the five that were kept by the Auckland City Council for parking-enforcement duties — which didn’t usually involve high-speed chases. By 2015, Honda was back in favour, and the New Zealand Police bought Honda ST1300s for traffic policing. 

Right first time
Almost from the start of the four-year restoration project, Hayden Tasker and Stu Holdaway followed the same sequence in returning the sometimes quite run-down two-wheelers to showroom condition.

All the bikes were New Zealand new and were purchased in New Zealand. Hayden says that a newly purchased bike would be returned to good running order before the restoration process began.

“I usually liked to put some miles on them before we pulled them down for restoration. The main reason is that then we knew when we reassembled the bikes that they were good runners. If we had done our job properly they would be right first time and wouldn’t need pulling apart again.”

After the bike’s evaluation, it would be methodically stripped down and the parts classified according to what needed doing to them. As soon as the bike was disassembled, Hayden would take the parts to the appropriate folks to be blasted, powder-coated, painted, or plated. Any parts that were in too poor a condition to be reused were put on a ‘pray we find another one’ list.

In a number of cases, a second bike of the same type was purchased and was used as a source of parts. One good bike was made from two. The overall result was that most of the bikes have 100 per cent original parts in them, with only a few nuts and bolts being new. “We never at any stage mucked around timewise,” Hayden says. “Things happened fast, keeping up our enthusiasm for the project. Stu did the electrical work and I did the polishing and tidying up of parts. Everything else was a team effort. We used a wheel-building expert to lace the wire wheels.”

 

Honda 5

Saving the best till last
The most challenging restoration was the last, the CB750K. It was also the most satisfying, but it tested the resolve of the two friends. Hayden says that some nights they would sit with a coffee in his house and say, “What the hell are we doing wrong? This bike is growling at us!”

The bike had been crashed and it had also been highly ‘civilianised’: the mounts for all the patrol gear, such as lights and siren, had been cut off. There were other ill-considered modifications as well. It was the only bike where pulling it apart was almost more difficult than putting it back together.

Hayden says that the bike is proof of his theory that the things in life which are hardest are the most worthwhile. Stu says the bike almost killed him — and not because he was riding it, either.

The bike did, however, turn out very well. It has distinctive four-barrel exhaust pipes, two on each side, which Hayden particularly likes — he has a contemporary Honda advertising poster featuring a large image of the rear of a CB750K, exhausts prominent. 

Military police bike
One of the CB750F bikes that Hayden and Stu restored is exceptionally interesting. The person who sold the bike to Hayden said that it had been part of an estate sale on the West Coast and had been a Military Police bike, first at a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) airfield and then at the Burnham army base. It transpired that it was a well-known, very fast bike that had impressed in informal racing between engineering apprentices on the airfield. Apparently, airfield racing was a common occurrence at Air Force bases back in the day — perhaps it still is.

As the restoration progressed, a few unusual aspects of the bike became apparent; for instance, the engine mounts were welded to the frame rather than being bolted on to allow routine replacement. In an attempt to find out exactly what he had, Hayden contacted the Honda museum, called the Honda Collection Hall, which is in the small town of Motegi on the island of Honshu, Japan, near where the Japanese MotoGP is run.

Amazingly, it turned out that the English-speaking expert he spoke to at the museum was a friend, who had been a fellow pupil at Hayden’s local high school, where he played rugby for two years and generally had a good time. The expert was excited when he was told the details of the CB750F and confirmed that it was a rare bike, with an experimental engine, which the museum was keen to buy. Hayden had no hesitation in rejecting this proposition. “They sent it here, so here it stays” is his attitude. 

 

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A stunning collection
It is difficult to describe the impact of seeing these gleaming, fully restored bikes as a group. Each is of absorbing interest, with its perfect chrome and paint, its specialist patrol gear, and interesting history, but the whole is greater than its nine separate parts. The overall effect is genuinely stunning.

Hayden wants the collection to stay together in New Zealand, perhaps in a museum where it would be able to be seen by the general public and would be well looked after. There is a police museum in Porirua, but these are MOT bikes not police bikes.

The front has passed; the rain hasn’t been as bad as feared. Hayden is ready to return to work. My time with the nine ex-MOT Honda CB Police Specials is at an end. I can hear Hayden’s phones ringing as I drive away. 


The Shed: Story and images supplied by The Shed magazine. Read more The Shed content here at the-shed.nz.

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