SHAKE RATTLE & ROLL | CLASSIC IRON
Chuck Berry rode a motorcycle, and nothing screams rock ’n’ roll quite like a Hondamatic…
John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
No other quote does more justice to the work and life of Charles Edward Anderson Berry. And, as well as being one of Rock and Roll’s most successful stars, Chuck Berry rode a motorcycle. Not an all-American Indian or status-blaring Harley-Davidson, but a Honda CB 400 T Automatic. A simple and practical utility bike that was owned by one of the world’s biggest rock legends.
Born in Missouri on 18 October 1926, Chuck Berry was one of six children. He went on to have a very successful career in music and lived a fascinating and controversial life. As well as his glittering music career, it was punctuated by a passion for photography, a handful of stints in jail, a short-lived career as a boxer, he even trained as a beautician. And he owned one motorcycle. This is its story…
Miller ‘Gig’ Hamilton has loved motorcycles his whole life. From an 80cc two-stroke Yamaha, to a 1937 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, Hamilton’s love of motorcycles doesn’t discriminate. His realisation that he was adept at working on them came in the mid-1960s when he bought the aforementioned Knuckle as a box of bits.
In the living room of his second-floor apartment in Pennsylvania, he built the bike from the ground up, arcing the bits he was missing until he’d created a complete motorcycle. And when he realised he couldn’t get the bike down the stairs, he had to take it apart into moveable-sized pieces and put it all back together again on the ground floor.
It kicked off his career as a motorcycle mechanic. He got a job at the local Yamaha dealership and began racing motocross on Maico machinery, and by 1968 he’d gone into business with a bloke named Harvey. Together they launched H & H Cycle Center, however Harvey only lasted a year, meaning Hamilton ran the business alone, while still racing and working at the dealership.
In fact he worked at the Yamaha store for 12 years in the end, and he had a short stint managing the local Suzuki dealership, too, before focusing solely on his own business come the 1980s.
In that time, Hamilton raced Maicos with much success for many years, winning motocross, dirt track, and scrambles on the German machinery. Over the years, Gig earned a name for himself as a successful tuner of two-stroke off-road motorcycles, and his days as a racer gave him an insight that he used to great effect as a tuner.
He was the man who fettled the factory Maico machinery in the early days of the Trans-AMA series, among others, and was well-regarded in American flat track circles, too. Gig realised that the very light two-stroke machinery could be hugely competitive against the more powerful but heavier Harley-Davidson bikes, which were dominating the ovals.
Elsewhere, Gig Hamilton’s cousin ‘Sasa’ was Chuck Berry’s long-time manager. And on his way to race tracks Gig would often call in to Berry’s 30-acre estate, sometimes staying for up to a week, and he got to know the rock ’n’ roll superstar pretty well.
“He’s pretty wild,” grins the softly spoken Hamilton, who recalled spotting a brand-new Honda Hawk Automatic in Berry’s garage during a visit in the late 1970s.
Dubbed the CB 400 T Automatic in other markets, the 395cc twin-cylinder with a single overhead camshaft delivers about 43hp at 9500rpm and 34Nm of torque, whose peak chimed in 1500rpm earlier. More than enough, Gig reckons, to compensate for the decrease in power that is caused by the automatic transmission.
Chuck had bought the bike as a simple and practical way to get around his Berry Park Estate. He needed a bike that wasn’t too heavy, something easy to operate that could get him quickly and comfortably to anywhere on his estate. The Honda filled the spot perfectly.
When Chuck saw that Hamilton was eyeing off the bike, the star asked him if he’d like to take the Honda for a ride around the property. Hamilton replied that he would, but only if Chuck would have a go on one of the race bikes Gig had in his trailer, but Chuck Berry refused.
“I said, ‘let me start them up for you’, and
he’d say, ‘no, no, no’,” recalls Gig. “He would never ride them.”
The 1978 season was Gig’s last as a professional racer, but he promised himself he would start racing in the senior class of the AHRMA, the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association, when he turned 50.
When this moment finally arrived, Gig once more prepared his old trusted well-tuned Maicos and it became immediately clear that the old master hadn’t lost any of his talent – either racing them or tuning them – and many races were won
in his first season back.
At the end of the 1990s, Gig raced dirt track, motocross and flat track in the 600cc class. It’s the category anybody can enter with an AHRMA license and a motorcycle with a capacity below 600cc. He was crowned the 1999 American Motocross Champion in the senior class – not bad for a bloke who only races half a dozen MX events a year – and he finished second in the 600cc class, where he races between 10 and 14 dirt track events annually.
Six or seven years ago, again on his way to another race, Gig called in to see Sasa and Chuck.
“My cousin’s house is also there on the property. I went over to the studio where Chuck was working, to say hello, and happened to ask if he still had that old Honda 400 we used to ride, back in the 1970s. He said, ‘Sure, let’s go find it.’ He was positive it was there, somewhere.
“Well, finally, in the fourth building we checked, there it was; that old Honda automatic with just a couple of hundred miles on it.
“He told me that that bike had never left Berry Park. He asked me if I wanted it. ‘You rode it, you worked on it—it’s yours. I want you to have it.’ He gave me a bill of sale that day; I still have it, with his name on it, along with a matching helmet. I bought it for one dollar!”
When they rolled the bike outside to put it in Gig’s race trailer, Chuck asked Sasa whether she could take some pictures of him and Gig together. Gig knew that Chuck didn’t like to be photographed, so this meant a lot to Hamilton, and just moments after being gifted the rock ’n’ roll legend’s one and only motorcycle.
When Chuck gave the Honda to Gig it hadn’t been ridden for a number of years. Gig did what Gig does best, cleaned it up and got it back to perfect running order before putting it on display in his H&H Cycle Center motorcycle shop, where it stayed until the legendary tuner eventually retired.
Now well into his 70s, it’s hardly surprising that Berry’s Hondamatic remains one of Gig’s most prized possessions.
It’s everything that a highly-tuned Maico motocross machine isn’t and, according to Gig, “I’m gonna hang on to it as long as I can”.
Words Ivar de Gier Photography Archives A. Herl