What we can afford

What We Can Afford: 1967 Honda P50

This month's search for a used bike uncovers a 53-year-old machine

Back in April of this year, we (ie, you, dear readers, and me) decided that £170 was a reasonable amount of money to set aside each month toward buying a “new” used motorcycle. Now that we’ve hit July we’ve accumulated £510 in our imaginary savings, which, if this vehicle’s seller is to be believed, is enough to get our hands on a running 1967 Honda P50.

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Methinks we’ll need to take this one with a grain of salt, though. One of the reasons I didn’t write a “What We Can Afford” article last month is the fact it’s pretty hard to find stuff under £500 that isn’t 32 flavors of awful. This old-school moped sold on eBay for just £370, which strikes me as suspiciously cheap for a classic machine that, from the photos, at least, looks OK. No, its little air-cooled single won’t exactly see you melting the fabric of space and time with speed – a claimed 1.2 horsepower means you might be able to hit 25 mph with a good wind at your back – but take the thing in context. It’s not any slower than those electric scooters that have become ubiquitous since lockdown started* and it costs less – all the while possessing a more unique sense of style.

You have to admit: it’s strangely cute

The only real drawback is that it’s a moped, which is something that has an ingrained stigma for me. Back when I was a kid in Texas you didn’t need a license to ride a moped, which in my neighborhood meant they were the vehicle of choice for dudes who’d lost their licenses to DUI. Stop and think how drunk you’d have to be to get busted for drinking and driving in Texas in the 1980s. Back then, my uncles measured distances in the number of beers consumed between point A and point B. There were drive-through liquor stores that served bloody marys in takeaway cups. So, most of the dudes I saw on mopeds were sketchy. I mean, skeeeeeeeetchee!

I remember one dude in an Army jacket riding up when my friends and I were jumping our bicycles off a homemade ramp. He shouted, “Hey! Watch this,” then rode all the way to the end of the street to pick up speed. The ramp, having been constructed by 7-year-old boys whose parents would not allow them access to dangerous items like nails or hammers, fell apart as soon as he hit it. He skittered off to the left, the moped crashed to the right, and out of his pocket slid a half-pint bottle of booze that to our surprise and disappointment (broken stuff is always cool to 7 year olds) didn’t shatter when it hit the street. He popped up, cheerfully dusted himself off and handed us pieces of bubblegum that we threw away as soon as he had ridden out of sight.

It suddenly occurs to me that more fuel tanks should serve as luggage racks, such as on ADV vehicles

But I digress. The Honda P50 moped first hit the scene in 1966, powered by a 49cc four-stroke overhead cam single cylinder engine. To that end it was unique for its time, with almost every other moped on the market being a two-stroke. Reportedly Honda chose a four-stroke engine because company founder Sochiro Honda hated the sound of two-strokes. Efficiency may have also played a part; you don’t have to worry about correctly mixing oil and gasoline with a four-stroke.

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The P50 is also unique in the sense that all of the driveline components are housed within the rear wheel, with the vehicle’s tiny engine hanging low on the rear of the frame. It’s a set-up that no manufacturer has attempted since, though it did have a predecessor in the form of a kit offered by BSA in the 1950s. BSA’s so-called “Winged Wheel” allowed you to attach a 35cc two-stroke set-up to an existing bicycle, thereby creating your own moped.

I’m willing to bet that working on that rear wheel mechanism is a nightmare

In the world of affordable products, however, it seems novelty rarely translates to success. Cheapskates want a cheap thing that is cheap, not a sorta-cheap thing that is clever.  And, really, I’m not sure how cheap it was. In 1967, a brand new P50 would set you back 49 3/4 guineas, according to an old advert I found on the interwebs…

Deep breath here as I dig into my surprisingly vast mental bank of coin knowledge… The guinea is/was a British coin that hasn’t been in circulation since 1816, when excessive debt from the Napoleonic wars forced an overhaul of the British financial system. In that overhaul, the guinea – which got its name from the African region where gold for it was mined – was replaced by the sovereign (a coin that hasn’t been in circulation since the First World War). Although the sovereign (21 shillings) had a different value to the guinea (27 shillings), people fell into the habit of referring to sovereigns as “guineas” because reasons. In the gold-trading markets of India and southern Asia they still do this (the sovereign still being available for commemorative and bullion purposes).

Yours for only 49 3/4 guineas

For reasons that are tedious and not entirely clear, for many centuries it had been a habit of traders and businesses to list the price of high-end/luxury goods in guineas. This persisted even after the guinea’s withdrawal from circulation, all the way to Decimal Day in 1971 (when the United Kingdom abandoned its convoluted arithmetic of shillings and pence). So, in its advertising Honda used an archaic practice to subtly imply that its P50 moped was a luxury item. If I’m correct, 49 3/4 shillings works out to £52.24 in (decimalized) 1967 money. That’s the equivalent of roughly £810 in today’s money. That seems like a lot.

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Especially when you consider that the P50 riding experience is reportedly less than ideal. According to the website Classic Motorbikes, the engine’s weight on the left side of the wheel makes turning left challenging: “its sole aim is to ensure both bike and rider meet the tarmac.”

Because you need leg guards when traveling at 25 mph

But what’s life without a little adventure, eh? And with the the £140 left over from this month’s budget you can undertake the adventure of trying to get this particular P50 roadworthy. The bike’s owner says it starts and runs, but see if you can spot some problems in his eBay description:

Starts well, runs and rides. Good overall condition. Lights and horn work. Tax and MOT exempt. Complete with period extras, such as front carrier and rare leg guards. Needs exhaust replacement/repair and has slow puncture to rear tyre. An excellent project to finish off. No V5. Reluctant sale, due to the fact I’ve just bought an old BSA that is going to keep me very busy. Ideal investment.

I’d be inclined to mount a massive speaker here and ride around blaring ranchera music

Firstly, the words “project” and “investment” are trigger words for me; when I see them in an ad my brain translates them to: “STEP AWAY FROM THE MOTO.” At best, someone describing a bike as an “excellent project” is simply trying to boost the price by making it seem fun to fix the thing; at worst, it means the bike is a soul-sucking nightmare of shittery and befuddlement. And no bike, ever, is an investment.

Also there is the mystery of the missing V5. A V5, for those of you playing along outside of Britain, is a kind of ownership document. You need it for all kinds of important administrative tasks. The seller is correct that a vehicle this old won’t be subject to MOT checks or annual tax but you’ll still need the V5 to register the vehicle in your name. As I mentioned in my article on how to buy a used motorcycle, a bike without a V5 is a nightmare. Really, you should only be buying this P50 if you have another P50 and want to use this one for parts, or you live on a large estate or some such thing and will never be using the vehicle on public roads.

So, although this bike seems like a charming piece of history on which to travel short distances slowly, I think we should pass on it and keep saving for bigger and better things.

Be careful not to snag your bellbottoms

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* Is this happening where you are, or is it just a South Wales thing? Within a few weeks of lockdown starting seemingly everyone started zipping around on electric kick-style scooters like this one. I don’t have a problem with it but I just find it fascinating that so many people went out and did the same thing at the same time. Perhaps this is yet another example that I don’t belong in Wales: I’m not connected to the hive mind.