Exploring the Lincoln Highway on a Vintage Honda

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks

In 1915, just two years after completion of America's first coast-to-coast highway, The Complete and Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway advised, "Given fair weather, and with the exercise of reasonable care and caution in your preparation for the tour...your trip across the Lincoln Highway should be neither perilous nor unduly hazardous." With more anticipation than trepidation, I begin my modern-day exploration of the historic Lincoln Highway through Pennsylvania on my vintage bike, a Honda with its own historical pedigree.

America's First Coast-to-Coast Highway is Born
In the early 1900s, automobiles were mostly playthings for the wealthy and roads were often nothing more than twin ruts through the mud. A road was "improved" if it had been graded and travelers were fortunate if it also had a gravel covering. In 1912, Carl Fisher, owner of the brick-paved Indianapolis Speedway, conceived a grand idea: a transcontinental crushed rock highway. His partner, Henry Joy, came up with the idea of naming the highway after Abraham Lincoln. Connecting Times Square in New York City to San Francisco's Lincoln Park, the 1915 route of the Lincoln Highway took early motorists on a coast-to-coast adventure of 3,300 miles over unimproved roads through fourteen states.

Touring Main Street America on A Classic Honda Motorcycle
To enhance the nostalgic experience of this trip, I'm riding my red 1975 Honda CB400F. In 1973, Honda introduced a 350cc, miniaturized version of its spectacularly successful CB750 in-line, four-cylinder motorcycle. Although this first attempt at a "small four" was unsuccessful, it led to a future Honda motorcycle classic.

The 1975 CB400F has a café racer look, rear-set foot pegs, low handlebars, a six-speed transmission, a beautifully crafted four-into-one exhaust system, a shrieking 10,000 rpm red line, and it came in bold red and blue color schemes. Although popular with motorcycle journalists in 1975, the little CB400F proved to be a sales disappointment and was dropped after the 1977 model year. As with many works of art, this jewel of a motorcycle was not fully appreciated until years later, when it became a collectible vintage motorcycle.

With other Honda motorcycles in my small fleet, I had longed to own a red 1975 CB400F in pristine condition for several years. My dream finally came true a few years ago at a swap meet during Vintage Motorcycle Days at the Mid Ohio Sports Car Track. Glancing over my shoulder through a jumble of rusting vintage motorcycles, a vision seized my attention; bright sunshine reflected off the shiny red gas tank of an un-restored CB400F in excellent condition. Like a homing beacon, it drew me nearer and I didn't rest until it was mine.

A 200-mile Roadside Museum: The Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor
After several years of short day rides and general pampering, it's now time to take my two-wheeled treasure on a real road trip. I begin my exploration of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor (LHHC) through six counties in Pennsylvania. The LHHC is marked by red, white and blue road signs, containing a large letter L and the likeness of a Lincoln penny. It extends about 200 miles from Greensburg, PA, just east of Pittsburgh, to Abbottstown, PA. My vintage Honda fires up with the first touch of its starter button, but as always its cold-natured engine requires a few minutes of progressively less choke during warm up. Finally, the motor revs easily and I ease my way into morning traffic heading east on US 30.

After unintentionally bypassing downtown Greensburg, PA, I realize that US 30 and the historic Lincoln Highway aren't always on the same alignment. Like many of our historic highways, US 30 was, and still is, a commercial route, not a bucolic country byway. The original Lincoln Highway alignment that followed the curvy contours of the countryside has, over time, been straightened and widened to the point where US 30 now bypasses the slow-moving main streets of many small, charming Pennsylvania villages. My Lincoln Highway Motorcycle Guide (www.LHHC.org) proves invaluable, though, because it shows me where to depart US 30 and follow the old highway alignments to explore the many fascinating places along the LHHC's "200-mile roadside museum."

Cruising east on US 30, I take a left turn and then a quick right turn behind the Colonial Inn about a mile west of Ligonier, PA. Following a country byway with a crushed rock surface, I discover an original section of the Lincoln Highway. The lightweight, compact size of my CB400F makes negotiating the loose road surface a breeze.

Small Town Gem
Past a pond and family farms the road rambles into Ligonier, PA, a village that seems to have been lifted out of a Norman Rockwell painting. In the town square, next to the historic Town Hall, I pause to examine one of the more than 3,000 original Lincoln Highway concrete markers that were erected in the late 1920s to help motorists find their way. Today, only two dozen of these markers remain in Pennsylvania.
Continuing my exploration a few blocks further east, I pull over at Ivy's Cafe for an early lunch. With its mantled fireplace, linen tablecloths, and sunshine streaming through mullioned windows, the café radiates a warm glow. I follow Ivy's recommendation and select the lobster and asparagus fettuccini, garnished with miniature, stewed tomatoes, savoring every sublime bite.

After lunch I stroll across the street and wander into an art gallery that sells numbered copies of Thomas Kinkaid prints. And, even though his technique of dramatically capturing light and imaginative worlds on canvas is considered too commercial and kitschy by some, I find it pleasing, and buy one of the smaller images for my wife. Firing up the Honda again, I cruise a couple of blocks south and discover a full-scale reconstruction of the eighteenth-century British Fort Ligonier, an important outpost during the French and Indian War.

Dodging Coal Trucks
Back onto US 30, the road narrowing from four lanes to two, I travel along "The Seven Mile Stretch" from Kantner to Bald Knob Mountain Summit. It runs straight the entire distance. Although much of this land has been reclaimed from coal mining, I still can see in the distance the top of a huge dragline excavating coal from a strip mine. Oversized coal trucks are numerous on this section of road and their "wash" of wind gusts slams into my 400-pound vintage Honda.

Cresting a mountain ridge, I'm treated to an expansive view of heavily forested terrain for many miles. I'm now heading down a serpentine roadway of switchbacks into a deep valley. I roll on the throttle and the little Honda leaps into the curves. The CB400's short wheelbase, light weight, and generous ground clearance help me negotiate the downward sloping hairpin curves with confidence.

I make several roadside stops on US 30 to study the larger-than-life barn murals that depict Lincoln Highway themes. The images pay tribute to our 16th President and the vehicles and people that ventured this way in the early decades of the last century. I follow the historic Lincoln Highway road alignments through several quaint villages now bypassed by US 30.

Buffalo, Anyone?
I stop briefly at the Bison Corral and Gift Shop, about two miles west of Schellsburg, but forgo sampling the bison meat for sale. Admiring the murals on two sides of the barn directly across the road, I notice a small herd of said specialty roaming freely in the pasture. They appear unconcerned by the mortal danger posed by tourists hungering for something a little different. A beautifully hand-painted vintage gas pump - one of several along the route - also graces this turnout.

Nostalgic Stopover
Cresting Tull's Hill on US 30, I locate my accommodations for the night. The Lincoln Motor Court has been offering its miniature bungalows since World War II and, but for the addition of showers and cable television, an overnight stay here today is much the same as it was in the 1940s. No one seems to be around when I enter the office. A handwritten note tells me the owners have gone to a family gathering for the day and the key is inside my room. All is quiet except for the occasional drone of a car rushing past on US 30.

After unloading my gear, I ride a few miles further east to Bedford, PA, for dinner. Cruising through town on US 30 Business, I'm transfixed by a vision from a bygone era. Dunkle's Gulf Station, an Art Deco building covered by terracotta tiles, revives those days of uniformed attendants pampering customers and their vehicles with a level of service rarely seen today. But with only one service bay and four pumps, the founder's son appears to be struggling to make ends meet, competing against the larger, soulless gas station mini-mart complexes. After gassing up the CB400, I'm saddened by the thought that this Lincoln Highway icon may not always be here for future generations.

Finally, Some Two-lane Twisties
Continuing my journey the next morning, I roll through the town of Everett, PA, where a spectacular 30x40-foot, full-color Lincoln Highway mural graces the east wall of a brick building on Main Street. On US 30 to Breezewood, my route now tracks the Juniata River through the mountains.

The Lincoln Highway in Fulton County returns to a much narrower two-lane byway penetrating heavily-forested, rural countryside. Climbing up and over Sideling Hill Mountain and passing through Buchanan State Forest, I discover that this section of the historic highway is much more fun to ride at a brisk pace.

Rounding the numerous sweeping curves, I reflect on several modifications that have made my thirty-year old CB400F more fun and safer to ride. The little Honda had formerly exhibited a noticeable hesitation when rolling on the throttle at lower rpm, caused mostly by a fuel mixture that was too rich. Adjusting the carburetor jetting, removing the tool tray to allow freer airflow, and installing an electronic ignition solved about 85 percent of the problem. Because aftermarket fork springs were unavailable, I shimmed up the stock ones to improve handling. As for safety, installing handlebar-end rearview mirrors yielded a big improvement over stock ones, which only afforded an excellent view of my shoulders, but not of anything - like a big coal truck - coming up from behind.

Descending South Mountain, I'm soon in historic Gettysburg, PA, where I stop for a late lunch. Although Gettysburg is a great historical destination in its own right, I've been here many times and bypass the battlefield park to finish the trip.

Motoring home late in the day, it occurs to me that the Lincoln Highway and my vintage Honda CB400F have a common bond. Both have had much more loving appreciation bestowed on them after they were discontinued. Experiencing this historic road on my classic Honda has created a sepia-toned memory I will recall with pleasure whenever anyone asks, "Have you ever heard of the Lincoln Highway?"