May 5, 2012 — I don’t really pay much notice to Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day or other major drinking holidays, but this year I got to have a Cinco de Mayo adventure that thankfully didn’t have anything to do with being left for dead in Mexico. Instead of trudging under the scorching sun of the Baja Peninsula, my buddy Bree and I found ourselves in a tortured old Scion zipping down HWY 80 past Gary, Indiana. It was a positively monochromatic Saturday morning — the fog fighting with the overcast sky to see who could be more gray. It wasn’t raining though, which was all that mattered for the mission at hand. This was a hunting trip. Our prey was a vintage Honda motor scooter.
We’d already struck out once that morning. Answering an ad on the southwest edge of the Chicago metro, we came face to face with the vagaries of Craigslist and the severe neglect of what was once a fine Japanese riding machine. What had looked fire engine red in the photos was more the faded color of cheap red wine. The tires had the worse case of dry rot I’d ever seen. I was amazed they still held air. The battery was shot. There were scrapes and cracks in the poorly-installed body panels. The ad described this Elite as “very nice” but I struggled to find anything nice about it beyond its custom reupholstered seat. Although that, like the rest of the scooter, was filthy.
Though it would start off of a jump, the thing ran terrible too — sputtering and backfiring when it would run at all. This was further indictment of this guy’s neglect. For due diligence, I ran the bike around the block to see if the engine ran any better with a little throttle on it. It didn’t. The engine pulled well, but it backfired off throttle. The brakes were completely out of adjustment. The whole bike rattled and groaned.
What a disappointment. This was my first actual ride on any Elite 250, and despite its neglected ills, I could tell there was a good bike under there. It had a good soul. This wouldn’t be the Elite for me, but this test ride did at least confirm that some Elite 250 somewhere would be the right scooter for me. The fit was good, the power was there and it simply felt right. Now I just needed a good one.
The search would have to continue elsewhere. I felt bad for that scooter though. Under all that grime and neglect, there was a stellar machine in there somewhere. Someone willing to spend a couple days and $300 could easily make it roadworthy again. As charitable as I was feeling toward the machine, however, it wasn’t something I could actually ride home. So I wasn’t going to buy it at any price — let alone the nearly $2,000 this guy was asking for it. Thinking back, I would like to return with the scooter equivalent of child protective services. “We’re sorry sir. The Elite is going to have to come with us.” Then after some rehabilitation, the merlot-colored machine could get its own Sarah McLachlan commercial.
Shaking the dust from our tires, I fired up Evernote on my iPhone to look at other local Elite 250s I’d saved from Craigslist. Perhaps one of those might be available for viewing while we were out and about. I set my sights on my second-choice Elite. I’d spoken with the seller about a week earlier when the CB750 had sold. His Elite was an ’86 – black with gold pin striping. While the Elite in my childhood memory was red, the black and gold has its own nostalgic anchor point in my memory.
You see, my first car was an ’87 Honda Prelude 2.0 Si. It was black with gold pin strips and gold wheels. I loved that car the way you can only love your first car. Its angular lines and gray plastic trim gave it an uncanny family resemblance to the Elite family of scooters of the same era. So if black and gold is what I wound up with, that was actually fine with me. Especially now that I’d seen the red in person. The black and gold could be a fun tribute to that Prelude of old.
With this second scooter’s seller on the phone again, I asked him if he’d have time to show the bike that morning. “Well, I want to get it sold, so I suppose I’ll make time. When can you get here?” It’d take us about 90 minutes to get from where we were, in Shorewood, to where this Elite was in northwest Indiana. Thankfully Bree was up for the adventure. With the course laid in, we headed east in the hopes of a better bike — speculating as to what we could do with the rest of our riding season now that Bree’s Buddy 125 might finally have a scooter playmate.
This second Elite was out in the sticks. Lazy country two lanes snaked through the wooded countryside. After months in the concrete jungles of Chicago, it was nice to be out in the boonies for a change. Better yet, the sun had come out. Everything was fresh and damp and just bursting with new spring green. We passed little swamps, thick woods and the occasional cleared plot of farmland. Once we’d successfully navigated around a closed railroad crossing in our path, we wound our way down a long driveway figuring we’d either find a scooter at the other end, or get murdered.
The gravel driveway weaved back and forth about 200 yards before finally opening up into a small complex of residential buildings — two large garages and a modest house. The middle building, the main garage, had its doors wide open and a big, bright yellow Harley out front. Inside was our seller, a friendly, steady man with deep-set eyes and a pervasive coolness. He reminded me of an American Patrick Stewart. He came out to greet us puffing a mild tobacco through a small pipe. Inside the garage was a Triumph TR3 with its nose missing and its engine exposed. Next to that was a long, british racing green Jaguar coupe. He was surprised a guy my age knew what the TR3 was. This was the start of the dance. Though we were talking about cars, we were also sizing each other up. Would we make a deal, or did this guy have no idea what he had? Was I somebody he’d have to convince about this scooter? After a few minutes talking old british cars and new german bikes, we made our way to the far building to take a look at his Elite.
The big door came up and there it was. As soon as I saw it, I was especially glad it was the black and gold Elite. It was the color I really wanted all along, despite the red Elite in my memory. Looking as spaceship-like as ever, this Elite was in much better shape than the one we’d seen earlier that morning. Tires were in good shape, and none of the body panels were cracked, although there were contact scratches on the right side and full-on, low-side drop scrapes on the left. However, the panels themselves were undamaged. More of it was shiny than wasn’t, and it didn’t look like it’d been washed anytime lately either. This wasn’t a “posed” machine. It just was.
Best of all, the bike was showing less than 4,000 miles on the odometer. Over its 26 year life of leisure, this Elite 250 had averaged less than 150 miles a year. The low miles was a big plus. I wasn’t looking for another project machine. I wanted a runner. Would this be it? The proof would be in the starting.
The seller was confident. “It ought to fire right up. But for the record, I haven’t run it since a couple weeks ago — back before we first talked on the phone. So it’s cold. I didn’t warm it up before you got here or anything, so what you see is what you get. But it ought to just start right up.”
The starter turned over enthusiastically, but the motor still didn’t fire after a couple of tries. I wasn’t actually worried about this. It was simply amusing to watch the look on the seller’s face as the engine defied his prediction. On the third try the engine finally fired. Rather than the sickly, grumbling idle of the earlier machine, the black and gold Elite idled steadily and rev’d easily. It didn’t sputter or stall. It just ran. No ceremony. No drama. Just that familiar lawnmower sound of a high-compression Honda single.
“Would you mind if I ran it up the road and back?” I asked, excited that this machine had so much promise. The seller agreed and looked at me as if to say “why are you still here?” I donned my helmet and scooted back down the long, gravel driveway in search of pavement.
I have to say, it doesn’t get much more enjoyable than an empty country road and a zippy two-wheeler. With the blurry green countryside passing by on both sides, the Elite and I became fast friends. Even on just 10″ wheels, it was stable, planted and comfortable. The 250′s 19 hp were more than enough power to get me and the big scooter well out of our own way. The notoriously soft suspension was comfortable, if a bit bouncy. All the gauges worked. All the electrics and lights did their thing. The whole bike felt solid, tight, straight and powerful. In a word: healthy.
I returned to the seller and did the deal. I didn’t even try to haggle with the guy. His price was fair, he was a straight shooter and the bike was exactly as he’d described it, if not a bit better. Best of all, he hadn’t murdered us at the end of his long, long driveway. In fact, he even double-checked the air pressure in my tires before I set off for home.
With Bree as my caged navigator, we set off for the back roads return trip northwest to Evanston. The Elite felt happy to be ridden again. The winding backroads were a perfect place to get to know it. More than anything, it was terrific to be back on a scooter. It’d definitely been too long. I’d forgotten just how much stupid fun they are. Sure, motorcycles are thrilling and wonderful, but there’s something special about a good scooter. In particular, it’s that magical sense of speed you get from small wheels and light steering. A scooter can give you a thrill at 35 mph that on a motorcycle requires double that speed. The Elite was no exception. It was fun from the instant I’d jam on the throttle and pick up my feet.
I chased Bree’s xB through the backroads of Indiana and up the whole length of Chicago’s iconic Lakeshore Drive. This included a bit of Chicago stop-and-go traffic on the LSD as well. Nearly two hours of scooting and no real discomfort, either. That’s always a good sign. I had to sell my Blur 150 because it hurt to ride the damn thing. On the dash I was able to watch the Elite’s temperature gauge rise and fall with our forward progress. Good to see the coolant system was working. Continuing up Sheridan, only a couple of people tried to run over me. At least I know the horn works. Brakes aren’t bad either.
Buzzing through Rogers Park, it was fun to catch my reflection in the shop windows. The Elite 250 is not a pretty machine. I’m not going to pretend it’s as good looking as a Vespa of the same age. It’s just not. It’s perfectly proportioned to me as a rider, but it’s the epitome of clunky, 1980′s design. For me though, that’s a lot of its charm. It’s not something you see very often. It’s not a common object of desire. It’s simply a machine from my youth, and yes, it’s kind of ugly. Was anything timelessly beautiful born in 1985? Alright, anything else?
Aesthetics aside, bringing a 1986 Honda Elite 250 out of the Indiana countryside and back into the wild turned out to be one hell of a way to spend a Cinco de Mayo. When we finally arrived home, The Mrs took the Elite for a quick spin around the block and reported that though the looks hadn’t grown on her any, she definitely felt inspired toward another scooter of her own. For me, it was the first step in closing a circle opened all those years ago. It was the beginning of satisfying an itch that had been planted deep in my young brain. Pulling into my garage and parking the Elite next to the GL and The Mrs’ CM400 felt so right. Welcome home, little Elite, we’ll soon have you good as new.