Scooter Cannonball 2014: Honda Helix is Go!

The First Maxi

SCB2012_logoThere are many concerns and considerations when preparing for the 2014 Scooter Cannonball Run, but at the top of my list was obtaining a scooter to complete the ride. While there are many capable scoots out there, I wanted one that has a high degree of reliability, low maintenance needs and an engine that can tackle high altitudes and inclines while not exceeding the 250cc maximum for the event. Also, as this endeavor will already require a sizable budget, I wanted to get the best scoot I could find for the lowest price.

That left few options. At the top of my list, something I’d never owned or even ridden, an ’80s Honda Helix. Last week, I spent many hours on trains and buses to get to La Jolla, CA and bought a 1987 with only 5800 miles. After putting air in the tires and draining some of the excess oil the owner had overfilled it with, I hopped on and rode it for about 150 miles back to Los Angeles, stopping just once for a fuel up.

The trip was a bit of a leap of faith. Such low mileage on a used scooter often means a bad battery, a clogged carb from buildup, dirty filters, bad tires. But I knew this Helix was running, had seen pics, and it did well on the test ride. And, well, it’s a Helix. I’ve seen some that have sat unridden for over decade resurrected with no more than a new battery, spark plug and fresh gas.

The First Maxi

The First Maxi

The model’s legendary reliability is a big contributor to its reputation and cult status in the scooter world. It’s the predecessor of every contemporary maxiscooter but has never been matched in some ways. The model was so enduringly popular it was dropped from Honda’s USA lineup twice, only to be revived due in part to popular demand. The replacement model, 2002’s Reflex, was a solid effort but failed to win over riders as the Helix had.

Still, there’s no getting around the obvious: it’s a somewhat ridiculous scooter. It’s big, long, aesthetically challenged. There is no way to look cool riding this thing. It has a trunk. It’s so unapologetically nerdy that unlike  Hondas such as the SuperCub or CT90 or even Elite 150, it will never become an object of two wheel trendiness.

Embracing the Ridiculous
The appeal of the Helix becomes apparent when riding it.

A friend and former Helix owner (now a Burgman 650 rider) congratulated me on my purchase by welcoming me to “The Barcalounger Club.” The Helix saddle is cushy. Not at all a butt buster. Almost embarrassingly comfortable.

Before the Cannonball, I’ll be taking the Helix up into the mountains and canyons surrounding Los Angeles and getting more familiar with iota handling in more challenging terrain. It’s performed well so far as a commuter in city traffic, on the freeway and on a couple of short canyon runs. It’s smooth for a large, carbureted scoot. The handling is easy; it takes sharp curves and hard leans better than I expected. By contrast, its fraternal twin, the ’80s Honda Elite 250, is downright bouncy. Unlike the Elite, the Helix sports a disc brake up front for extra stopping power. Even the Helix’s pedal-operated rear drum brake is stronger than many other scooters.

Performance-wise, well, in its current state, it’s strong but not fast or quick. Top speed, at around 75 indicated, is less than my kitted Vespa LX, but it takes hills better and accelerates better at high speeds. A thorough transmission service and a few tweaks should give it some pep.

My preference for the sort of urban commuting I do every day remains smaller, lighter, more “flickable” scooters. One of my issues with some maxiscoots and even the larger modern Vespas is that they’re so smooth and rideable that they take some of the fun out of riding for me. The Helix is squarely in between on that measure. Its quirks — the rear brake pedal, low seat height, riding position, even the rake of the handlebars — give it a bit more personality than some others in its size range or larger.

I’ve no doubt, though, that when doing the long haul for Cannonball, I’ll appreciate many of the Helix’s advantages.

And I must admit, the big trunk is kind of nice. Not as convenient as underseat storage, but it holds much more.

Prepping the Scooter for the Cannonball
Though it’s in good shape, the Helix is still a 27-year-old scooter and will need some maintenance and a couple upgrades before it’s ready for a long endurance ride. I’ve changed the engine oil, which can be done in a few minutes on the Helix — much faster than any other scoot I’ve worked on. Over the next several weeks and months, here’s some of what’s in store for the scooter:

  • Transmission service, gear oil change (very curious about what I’ll find in there)
  • 12v outlet installed in dash to power/charge GPS, iPhone, etc.
  • New battery
  • RAM mounts added for GPS and iPhone or camera
  • Replace fuel and coolant hoses (just in case)
  • Replace exhaust
  • Acquiring a small stockpile of spare parts (already underway)

I’ll be documenting the Helix’s progress as well as other preparations for the ride as the date nears. 228 days to go.

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