Take a nostalgic look at Honda’s first motorcycle

Every motorcycle builder has that one model that, while it may not be first, is the one that put the factory on the map. For Japanese giant Honda Motor Company, the first motorcycle was the 1949 “Dream” D-Type aka “Type D or Model D,” though nobody living knows for sure who gave it the “Dream” name. The D-Type brought all of the elements of a proper motorcycle together with a 98 cc thumper. It did away with the need for a traditional clutch lever through a clever shifter and cone-clutch arrangement to appeal to a broader rider base through easier operation. Success would follow, though it was short lived, but a legend was born, first in the island nation and then on the world stage.

  • 1949 Honda Dream D-Type
  • Year:
    1949
  • Make:
  • Engine:
    single cylinder
  • Displacement:
    98 cc

1949 Honda Dream D-Type Design

  • Telescopic front forks
  • Double-downtube/double-cradle frame
  • 1.8-gallon fuel capacity
  • Attention-getting maroon color
1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882421
1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882411
1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882416

As its name may suggest, there were previous efforts from the Honda Gijustsu Kenkyu Sho (Honda Technical Research Laboratory) in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, Japan – types A through C – but the D-Type was regarded as the first true motorcycle as its predecessors were actually motorized bicycles. Just prior to the release of the D-Type, Soichiro Honda rebranded his marque as the Honda Giken Kogyo (Honda Motor Company) we know today, and the “Dream” made it a household name in 1949, at least in Japan. The company would not start exporting until 1952, so the early success was all in the domestic market.

Unlike the previous powered pedalcycles, the D-Type rode on telescopic front forks with the now-familiar double-downtube/double-cradle frame configuration and a rigid rear end. A teardrop tank rides nested within the wishbone at the top of the frame down over the engine with a 1.8 U.S. gallon capacity. This was done to leave room to mount the seat forward in the frame, but it gives the Dream a very distinct flyline. A solo saddle – and man do I mean saddle – is hinged at the rear of the tank with dual coil springs that provide the only buffer between road jolts and the pilot’s fifth point of contact. The passenger wasn’t so fortunate, and those brave individuals felt every bump that the rear axle absorbed.

It was a different time, the post-war era, so the only lighting is a cyclops headlight and small round taillight.

Visually, it was remarkable for its time, not for its design but its color; at a time when the competition was shooting all their sheet metal with black paint, Honda opted for a maroon color.

Very avant garde for the day, to be sure, and it certainly stood out on the road.

1949 Honda Dream D-Type Chassis

  • Lightweight welded sheet metal
  • Rigid frame
  • Laced wheels
  • Drum brakes
1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882418
1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882415
1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882420

Honda’s earliest efforts were built around welded steel-pipe frames, but the D-Type rides on a frame made from formed-and-welded sheet metal for a structure that was light, strong, and had minimal welding compared to a tube-type frame. It’s unclear if the front forks were hydraulically dampened or just sprung, but if they were juice forks, I guarantee they had fish oil as the damping medium.

Out back, the rigid frame comes to a characteristic triangle and the only shock absorption comes from the give in the rear tire. The laced wheels were typical of the time, as were the drum-style brakes, and needless to say the closest thing to ABS to be had came from the rider’s own skillset. That’s right kids, no safety nets – probably no helmets either for that matter.

Frame: Pressed steel
Front Suspension: Telescopic
Rear Suspension: Rigid
Brakes: Drum, front and rear
Tires: 2.00 x 3.00, front and rear

1949 Honda Dream D-Type Drivetrain

  • 98 cc two-stroke single cylinder
  • 3 hp @ 5,000 rpm
  • 3.15 lb-ft of Torque
  • 2-speed transmission
  • Kickstart
1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882412
1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882413
1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882421

Power for the Dream came from an air-cooled, two-stroke thumper that originally debuted on the C-Type powered bicycle. The D-Type’s mill was punched out to 98 cc with a concurrent increase in horsepower up to three ponies at 5,000 rpm, but it was the newfangled transmission that really stole the show.

Honda eliminated the previous hand-controlled clutch and instead integrated the clutch function with the shifter for foot operation. This was meant to make it easier for new riders to get their fists in the wind with a slightly less-steep learning curve, and early on it was well-received, but that same feature would eventually doom the model.

It came with a two-speed transmission, but to keep it in first gear the rider had to keep pressure on the toe-pedal or heel-pedal to keep it from slipping into neutral.

This constant action led to fatigue and an unpleasant riding experience. The onset of the Korean War saw an increase in Honda’s fortunes due to a number of large monetary grants along with an increase in production, but by 1951, the two-stroke D-Type was old news and due to be replaced by the four-stroke E-Type.

Engine: 98 cc (6.0 cu in) two-stroke single-cylinder engine
Bore x Stroke: 50 mm × 50 mm (2.0 in × 2.0 in)
Power: 3 hp (2.2 kW) @ 5000 rpm
Torque: 3.15 lb-ft (4.27 Nm)
Ignition type: Magneto with Kick start
Transmission: 2-speed semi-automatic

1949 Honda Dream D-Type Competitors

1949 Honda Dream D-Type
- image 882419
Honda Dream D (1949)
source: Rikita, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

There were some 70-odd Japanese motorcycle companies to come and go in the 20th century, but the ones who would go on to flourish and become the Big Four had yet to show up on the scene. Kawasaki was the closest; it started work on its first project in 1949, but it would be 1953 before it went into production. The four-stroke powerplant and 3.9-horsepower output was popular, but a little late to the show.

Suzuki started life as a silk-loom manufacturer in 1909, but didn’t fully throw its hat into the motorcycle field until 1954 when it became the Suzuki Motor Company. Like Honda, its early two-wheel efforts started out with “clip-on” engines meant to drive common bicycles in a war-torn Japan.

Yamaha is the relative Johnny-come-lately with a 1955 inception date and its YA-1 motorcycle that put it on the map.

He Said

“You could say that the Dream is a result of two wars; World War II made it necessary for the recovery of a shattered infrastructure, and the Korean War boosted monetization and production to prop up the fledgling company. That’s an advantage that Mr. Honda (The Old Man) certainly took to the bank.”

She Said

My wife and fellow motorcycle writer, Allyn Hinton, says, “It is an absolutely charming design, and I can see younger buyers going for this style if someone keeps the lines and updates the technology in a retro-release. Its popularity came in the years after Japan’s “transportation revolution” in the ’20s and ’30s and the manufacturers it was competing with are names unfamiliar with modern motorcycle enthusiasts: Rikuo, Meguro (which later partnered with Kawasaki), and Fuji (later becoming Subaru) to name but a few.”

1949 Honda Dream D-Type Specifications

Engine & Drivetrain:
Engine: 98 cc (6.0 cu in) two-stroke single-cylinder engine
Bore x Stroke: 50 mm × 50 mm (2.0 in × 2.0 in)
Power: 3 hp (2.2 kW) @ 5000 rpm
Torque: 3.15 lb-ft (4.27 Nm)
Ignition type: Magneto with Kick start
Transmission: 2-speed semi-automatic
Chassis:
Frame: Pressed steel
Front Suspension: Telescopic
Rear Suspension: Rigid
Brakes: Drum, front and rear
Tires: 2.00 x 3.00, front and rear
Dimensions & Capacities:
Length: 81.5 in (2,070 mm)
Width: 29.1 in (740 mm)
Height: 38.2 in (970 mm)
Dry Weight: 180 lb (80 kg)
Fuel capacity: 1.8 US gal (1.5 imp gal; 7 liters)

Further Reading

Honda

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TJ Hinton
T.J got an early start from his father and other family members who owned and rode motorcycles, and by helping with various mechanical repairs throughout childhood. That planted a seed that grew into a well-rounded appreciation of all things mechanical, and eventually, into a formal education of same. Though primarily a Harley rider, he has an appreciation for all sorts of bikes and doesn't discriminate against any particular brand or region of origin. He currently holds an Associate's degree in applied mechanical science from his time at the M.M.I.  Read More
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