The Little Trail Bikes That Won Everyone's Hearts
WORDS Michael Hilton IMAGES Courtesy Octane Press
In the early '60s, The Pacific Basin Trading Company (PABATCO) in Athena, Oregon, began importing Yamaguchi motorcycles from Japan, hoping to establish a market for small trail bikes and spirit away some of Honda's burgeoning success. By 1963, however, Yamaguchi had gone out of business, leaving PABATCO high and dry.
General manager Henry Koepka and other PABATCO employees decided they should design their own motorcycle and looked to Hodaka — the company that built motors for Yamaguchi — to help realize their vision by manufacturing the bikes. Keopka and his team set about improving the design of the Yamaguchi Scrambler, a lightweight trail bike, resulting in Hodaka's first model: the Ace 90. The bike arrived in the U.S. in 1964 and became an instant success thanks to its low cost and durability.
PABATCO designed the Ace 90 around a very basic concept: “Let’s build a simple trail bike that is red with a chrome tank and improve on it, over and over.” That way, whenever they updated the bike's design, the newer, better parts could be retrofitted onto older models, allowing owners to always keep their Hodakas up to date. Notable features on the Ace 90 included adjustable folding foot pegs, high ground clearance, high fenders, a seat with thick foam, a tire pump, and a cylindrical toolbox.
Between 1964 and 1970, PABATCO sold over 24,000 Ace 90s and Ace 100s as it worked its way to the front of the trail bike market.
Hodaka succeeded not only because it built awesome little motorcycles, but also because it created radical marketing campaigns for all of its models. Created by Marvin Foster, who held to the mantra, “The more you tell, the more you sell,” Hodaka's quirky, lighthearted advertisements went into great detail about the bikes and their features and accomplishments.
For 25 cents, readers could order a pamphlet — The Hodaka Story — that explained the company’s philosophy, preached about how riding should be fun and affordable and claimed that because the backcountry folks of PABATCO were riders themselves, they knew more than anybody about designing trail bikes.
"PABATCO fostered a feeling of community where enthusiasts knew what was going on with the company and felt like they were a part of it."
The marketing team also made a concerted effort to establish strong connections with dealers and customers. Using publications such as Dealer Guide and the Resonator newsletter, PABATCO fostered a feeling of community where enthusiasts knew what was going on with the company and felt like they were a part of it.
A significant moment in Hodaka history came when two employees, Marvin Foster and Frank Wheeler, each rode Ace 90s to the tip of the Baja peninsula and back — thirty days of rough, adventurous riding with no outside support; just the shirts on their backs and a few cans of oil. The little bikes held up and completed the trip, and the widely advertised affair lent credibility to the Hodaka brand.
PABATCO eventually recognized that even though components could be upgraded, there were inherent limitations to the Ace models. In 1970 the company introduced its Super Rat, which used the same frame, engine, and transmission as the Ace 100 but featured improved forks and shocks, an enhanced exhaust, and an enlarged airbox. Next came the Wombat, which had a new 125cc engine, a longer wheelbase, and added indicator lights and a larger taillight. A competition version — the Combat Wombat — followed soon after.
PABATCO believed there was demand for smaller, stripped-down, economical models and produced the Dirt Squirt. The spartan model had the proven Ace 100cc engine; the clutch, transmission, and frame from the Wombat; and smaller tires for a lower stance. Then came the Dirt Squirt's road-friendly brother: the Road Toad.
Larger 175cc and 250cc enduro-style models trickled out in the mid-'70s, but PABATCO found itself struggling to keep the lights on and stay afloat. The market for enduro-style motorcycles was limited, and the enthusiasm to promote them waned.
While most manufacturers gave names to their bikes that evoked speed and power (Commando, Ninja, Rocket), PABATCO preferred fun, wacky animal names that appealed to their followers. The idea to use offbeat names happened organically.
The designation "SR" (Special Racer) had been earmarked for a soon-to-be-released motocrosser when PABATCO parts department employee Roger Phillips jokingly asked, “Does it stand for Super Rat?” The name caught on. “We decided to name the bikes rather than give them model numbers to make them more memorable,” Foster says. Cartoon characters were created to complement the name and reinforce the playful, whimsical approach.
The mid-'70s saw a downturn in the trail bike market. Honda's release of the legendary Elsinore 125 and the falling dollar helped seal PABATCO's demise. In the years since, a cultish following has developed that is a testament to the endearing quality of the brand. Outlets such as Strictly Hodaka sell parts for the throngs of owners intent on keeping their lovable rides going, and collectors are willing to pay as much as three times their original cost. Every year, devotees flock to the company's birthplace in Athena, Oregon, for Hodaka Days, a rally that celebrates all things Hodaka.
It's all thanks to a small group of dirt bike enthusiasts who relished designing and distributing affordable bikes to the masses, leaving an indelible mark on motorcycle history.
Purchase the book Hodaka Motorcycles at Octanepress.com
This article was originally featured in Issue 031 of Iron & Air