The terms “early” and “late” are somewhat subjective and somewhat objective, depending on how you are applying the definition as it applies to vintage Honda motorcycles. Since American Honda setup shop in 1958, just about everything sold before 1960-61 would be considered “really early,” by most aficionados of the marque. Other than the first generation Honda Cubs, the CB92 and CA95 Benlys, the “big bikes” (250-305cc) were dry-sump Dreams and few of those were sold in the beginning.
Once Honda’s production machinery really ramped up in the early 1960s, bikes came pouring off the lines in as little as every 15 seconds! That figure applies to Honda step-thru Cub models, however. Those early pushrod bikes were run continuously until about 1965, when the OHC engine designs took over. Some versions of the Honda Cub 50s (and some 90cc models) have been in continuous production since 1959, with over 65 million units produced, world-wide.
Other “early” small-bore machines were the OHV Honda 90 street and trail bikes, known as the C200 and the CT200. Again, these were superseded by OHC engines in the 1965 era.
Looking at the small twins, the 150cc Benly Touring 150s, which were also released in 1959, had a styling makeover in 1963, where the fuel tank, panels, rubbers, handlebars and mufflers were all redesigned.
Similarly, the “early” 250-305cc Dreams had their own rework sessions in late 1963, where the model changed from C(CA)77 to C(CA)78, which brought changes to the fuel tank, side panels, rubbers, tank badges and handlebar hardware. So, the true CA77 models can be considered “early” while the CA78s are recognized as “late” versions. While these styling changes are readily apparent, that was not the end of the design process. Honda reconfigured the frame, tool tray, battery ground, battery and side covers (and knobs) in 1966, changing the battery size/shape from the early, tall, thin battery to the wider, shorter 12N9-3A unit, also used in the CB77s.
Most collectors think the 1961-64 CB77s, equipped with flat handlebars, steel forks, flat seats and reverse-needle speedometer/tachometers were considered to be the classic “early versions.” In 1965, the flat handlebars gave way to low-rise units and the speedo-tach meter set mirrored the concentric CB450 Black Bomber instruments. 1966 brought alloy forks, requiring a new front fender stay design, plus the upswept seat shape, all of which carried through to the end of production. Those features are commonly referred to as “late CB77” editions.
For many Scrambler owners, the 1962-65 CL72 250cc Scramblers had the look and the sounds associated with “early” models, which included slender alloy fenders, straight exhaust pipes with no muffler can on the back and the mostly ineffective “small brake” wheels/hubs. In 1965, the CL77 was released, initially as a big bore motor transplant for the CL72. The fenders were changed to steel and they gradually widened to better encompass the rear wheel debris throw-off and to help keep them from cracking. The 1965 CL72 and CL77s had a “slip-on” muffler, which wrapped around the ends of the twin exhaust pipes, to better reduce the high-pitched, high-decibel exhaust notes. Those were quickly removed by the owners, forcing Honda to weld mufflers onto the later generation of exhaust systems.
By 1966, the CL77s were completely re-engineered with new alloy forks, double-leading shoe brakes, rubber mounted rear fender, seat, exhaust, footpegs, fork ears and a thicker chain guard. The net effect was a more beefy profile, carrying more weight and losing the slim, sleek look of the original concept. However, these “later” bikes were far more reliable and had the much-needed braking power lacking in the “early” models.
In 1965, Honda’s engineers refined the 250-305 engines, lowering the compression, changing the fin shape pattern of the cylinder heads, adding “square bowl” carburetors and other details that held them apart from the “early” editions.
1966 brought wholesale changes to the suspension systems on many models. The “early” S90, CB160, CB77 and CL77 caught up to the CB450K0 Black Bombers by having all of their fork lowers changed from the frame-color steel style to silver-painted alloy forks. The fork style helps delineate the “early” and “late” division line on all of those models.
In some cases, either the year or the country specification made a distinction between “early” and “late” type of handlebars. In some cases, early model Honda Sport Cubs, Super 90s and CB160s had “low bar” handlebar configurations. As production and sales increased in the US, a determination was made that the US bikes should have “Western” handlebars (read higher and wider) than the domestic and European counterparts. So, the cool little “W” shaped handlebars for the C110 Sport Cubs and Super 90s gave way to unattractive and out of proportion “Western” handlebar configurations, requiring whole new cable sets for each model. Many of the bikes with “A” (for America) designators, like CA110, CA77 and US-specification CB160s and CB77s all had “Western bar” handlebar/cable combinations.
However, if the bikes came into the US before 1964, they often had the lower handlebar sets, found on non-US models. If you are restoring a 1960s model bike, exactly to as-sold specifications, then you will have to study your parts books carefully to establish which handlebars and cables are needed to make the bike correct for that year edition.
Up to 1968, turn signals were not specified for the US market. The Honda S90 and CL90s and the CB/CL450s were a few of the carry-over machines, which came to the US without turn signals in the beginning and then had them added towards the end of production, which carried on past the 1968 cut-off date. Obviously, the turn signal/no turn signal machines are the dividing line between “early” and “late” models in Honda’s lineup for those affected by the change.
Another aspect of “late/early” models are how the bikes were affected by the change from JIS thread pitch to ISO pitches, starting with the 1968 production models. The 250-305s and 160s were out of production by the end of 1967, so are not necessarily affected. You will find some models, like the “early” CL175K0 Scramblers, which are built with two sets of fasteners, as production progressed into the 1968-beyond models.