1977 Honda CB550F SuperSport City Scrambler – “Day Late and a Dollar Short”

1977 CB550f
1977 CB550f

You’re looking at my latest creation, a 1977 Honda CB 550 F Super Sport that was rescued from its fate as some kind half-assed touring bike when I purchased it two years ago.  What was supposed to be a quick and dirty restoration turned into something else as I got into the bike and discovered the previous owner’s handiwork littered all over the place like rat turds.  I’ve held onto it for a year longer than intended, but I think the work has paid off.

The first dozen times I tried to ride it, I ended up pushing it home.  It got so I would always head out of my house uphill no matter where I was trying to go just to make sure I could roll back down when it cut out.  The wiring harness was made up mostly of crimp connectors and speaker wire, and at one point I discovered that the bike would short and die if I turned the handlebars too hard to the left.  It was charging at insane battery boiling voltages or not at all, and I basically had to rip everything electronic out and throw it away.

The Rat's Nest
The Rat’s Nest

Pretty much the only things that came on the bike are the right hand switch, the starter motor and the coils.  Everything else, points, condensers, stator, regulator/rectifier, battery, ignition switch, light switch, head and tail lights ended up getting replaced.  It’s got a custom wiring harness that eliminates much of the stock mess, a modern solid state R/R, a lightweight lithium ion battery stowed under the carbs, led tail, and a cb400 headlight now.

It’s also got a trick hidden ignition switch consisting of a ¼in guitar jack with a male plug that’s been wired to complete the main circuit when inserted.

 As you can imagine, the bike was in pretty sad cosmetic shape when it came to me as well.

Diamond in the Rough
Diamond in the Rough

It had mini ape bars, a huge windscreen, and a solo cruiser seat held on with bungee cords.  The paintjob was of course a rattlecan special, and for some reason an early 550K tank had replaced the now missing F unit.  As I went over the bike, I kept finding little Easter Eggs to keep me interested.  Missing motor mount bolts, exotic uses for duct tape, and unidentifiably rusted broken parts all over.  Most of the stock body work was tossed or reworked, and the new feathered steel tail was fashioned from an old gl1000 fender I had kicking around the shop.  The seat pan came from a street sign I found while walking in the woods of DC with my dog, and the tank was stripped raw and clear coated.  New Uni pod filters and a better Honda 4-1 exhaust with a mini “muffler” (note: does not actually muffle sound) were added, the carbs were cleaned, synced and jetted, valves adjusted, points were gapped, new plugs fitted, and fresh fluids were bestowed upon her.

On the plus side, the motor was actually in pretty good shape since I can only assume the last owner never actually managed to ride the thing.  With it’s current setup, but bike snarls and barks pleasingly with great throttle response and a nice strong pull up to the redline.  Good compression and doesn’t leak a drop of oil.

Speed holes

In the handling department, the front brake has been reworked with EBC pads, a stainless line and a lovely new master cylinder.  The rotor has been drilled (along with lots of other parts) to reduce unsprung weight and to improve wet weather performance.  It stops very well now, particularly since the overall bike has been lightened quite a bit with judicious use of the credit card, angle grinder and trashcan.

Tail Detail

It also has adjustable CB1100 rear shocks to raise the rear end and stiffen the ride a bit.  This makes the bike turn in much quicker, and gives it a more aggressive stance. The front forks are stock for that old school look but cleaned up and rebuilt.  The cockpit consists of aluminum dirt bars cut down an inch on each end, a cheapo bar-end mirror to keep the cops at bay, a nice RD clutch lever, and a DR650 clock I found at my local salvage yard.

Saddle and Cockpit
Saddle and Cockpit

It really shines on tight gravel strewn back roads where bigger, faster bikes can be too much of a handful to be any fun.  It also gets comments and turns heads everywhere it goes.

With all that said, it’s proved a surprisingly competent commuter and daily rider.  The Shinko DOT trials tire out back hooks up remarkably well in all conditions, and even on extended highway blasts, it creates no noticeable buzz.

A full day in the saddle will leave you a bit sore due to the stiff shocks and the small saddle, but it’s by no means out of the question.  Last fall, I took it on a major shakedown ride from DC to Richmond, over to a friend’s house near Staunton, all the way up Skyline Drive and then back in to Washington on I-66.  In other words: 2 full days of city, mountain twisties, off road, and interstate to get all the kinks worked out.  Not bad for an old rat.


Skyline Drive on the CB550f
Skyline Drive on the Honda CB550f

The New Kawasaki Ninja 300 – Sweet but Still Too Heavy

I had a chance to fondle the new Kawasaki Ninja 300 at the International Motorcycle Show in DC last week, and it certainly is a sharp looking little bike.

Kawasaki Ninja 300
2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300

However, looks can be deceiving – if you check out the specs, Kawasaki’s new “lightweight” sportbike tips the scales at an embarrassing 379lbs.

Now, I’m not going to try and argue that the new Ninja’s design choices were bad from a commercial perspective.  At the end of the day, Kawasaki is out to make money, and the Ninja 300 falls in an extremely competitive market segment.  Conventional wisdom is that American motorcycle buyers only look at horsepower per dollar, so they built a bike with a hot motor and a low price tag.  The Ninja blows it’s competition out of the water in terms of peak HP, and I’m sure it will sell briskly based on that fact alone.  I would venture to guess that most of the target buyers won’t even bother to look at dry weight, because they don’t know enough to give a damn about it.

The end.

I just want to point out that, along with practically every sportbike on the market today, the little Ninja is a big fat pig of a motorcycle.

Some of my past posts (here and here) have featured custom builds that reduced weight substantially from the stock figures, and I think with the high stock output of modern engines, weight reduction is really the most effective modification you can make to a bike.

If you take a look at the world of racing to get a sense of what’s possible with current engineering, you will see that 250cc singles racing in the Moto 3 class weigh in at less than 150lbs.  Admittedly, these bikes would be cramped for a grown adult (see below), don’t have any lights or DOT mandated junk, and the frames probably get checked for cracks after every race.

Moto 3
Grown Man on a Moto 3 Bike

But with even the lightest road going 250 bikes coming in at more than double the weight, it’s clear that the current offerings are laughably overbuilt.  Should you care?

Riding my 1989 VTR250 (at 310lb the lightest street bike I’ve owned) back to back with a modern FZ6 (420lbs), the weight difference has an obvious impact on handling.  Even with 1980’s suspension and brakes, the VTR has effortless, telepathic, almost supernatural handling compared to the FZ.  On the tight mid-speed stuff I like to ride, 110lbs is the difference between fighting to keep the bike on the road and being able to push it hard into the corners.

I can only imagine what losing another 100lbs would do to the ride since, apparently, nobody is willing to sell me such a bike.

The KTM Duke 390 down below, which comes in at a claimed 306lbs, is quite a bit closer to the goal than any of the Japanese offerings, but again, not even in the same league as the racers.

KTM Duke 390
2013 Duke 390

The best alternative anyone has come up with so far is a converted dirt bike, a so-called “super single” sportbike build.  A Yamaha WR450 which cranks out almost 60hp and weights less than 250lbs stock could be built into a formidable road weapon if you could get a street title for it, but there is some serious re-engineering necessary to get the correct chassis geometry.  Roland Sands Design has a beautiful conversion kit that you can buy for only $15,000, but until I find that huge pile of money I misplaced (or I can lay hands on a suitable donor bike for my own super single), the plan is to see how light I can go with the little VTR.

WR450F Super Single
RSD WR450 Super Single

Stay tuned for build updates on that one.  I’m currently staring at it and trying to decide what I should cut off first.




The Other Kind of Customs – Preparing for the Japanese Invasion

Let’s talk for a moment about the other kind of customs – you know, those guys who root through your luggage when you come back from Cancun. As in, “Hey, I was wondering what happened to that bag of weed!  Thanks officer!”

Oh Shit.

It turns out that in addition to ruining vacations, US Customs is also responsible for keeping illicit motorcycles out of the hands of unsuspecting American riders.

Bikes made for foreign markets don’t have to run US Department of Transportation approved safety equipment, and I think we can all imagine the kinds of tragedies that might result if these dangerous machines were permitted on American roads.  Picture ripping up a canyon at 18,000 rpms on an illegal 4 cylinder CBR250rr when you look in your mirror and realize that it does not have:

Either a mirror of unit magnification with not less than 8065 mm2 of reflective surface, or a convex mirror with not less than 6450 mm2 of reflective surface and an average radius of curvature not less than 508 mm and not greater than 1524 mm, installed with a stable support, and mounted so that the horizontal center of the reflective surface is at least 279 mm outward of the longitudinal centerline of the motorcycle. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards Section 571.111

As you search in vain for the official United States Department of Transportation Seal of Approval, you fail to notice the enormous pothole in the middle of your lane and are ejected over the bars and into oncoming traffic.  Game over.

For now, Americans remain safe from this Japanese scourge.  But soon, the first wave of high performance “Japan Only” sportbikes will be available for import and registration as historic vehicles.  The Magic Number here is 25 – vehicles more than 25 years old are not subject to DOT or EPA regulations, and can be brought into the country and registered without safety inspection.

That puts us in 1987 right now…

That’s the year when the first truly modern sportbikes were put on the road.  That is to say, bikes with water cooled, high compression, dual overhead cam, 4 valve per cylinder engines, rigid, lightweight chassis, and big disc brakes.

Many 600-1000cc sportbikes were DOT approved and imported, but very few small displacement bikes made it across the Pacific.  All we got were a few years of the VTR250, detuned and restricted for the US market (J-Spec bikes are over 40hp), and the much loved Ninja 250.  Every now and then, a grey market GSXR400 or FZR400 will turn up, but they’re thin on the ground.  Now we’re getting the CBR250, which seems to be selling briskly, but it’s a complete turd compared to the old 250RR.

By comparison, Japan is swimming in these quick little bikes.  Cheap and plentiful.  I for one intend to import them by the boatload as soon as I can raise the capital. Pre-orders anyone?

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Just as an aside, Japan is not the only place with some cool and exotic bikes that don’t get any love locally.

Post war BMWs like this r/25 will run you less than $2000 in Turkey, and there are lots of cool JAWA and CZ two strokes available for next to nothing.  India (and from what I hear, Pakistan) are filled with funky British singles and old Harleys that would be worth some serious coin if they were brought back and restored.  If I had any sense, I’d be in Peshawar stuffing BSA Goldstars into a shipping container right now instead of writing this article.

Sure, the US has been blessed with an incredibly large number of UJM bikes from the 70’s, and many of these are indeed sweet rides.  But variety is the spice of life, and I’d love to see some of these rare and awesome bikes on our roads.

Custom Bikes: Why You’re Probably Not Cool Enough (Part 2)

Ok, so in my last post I talked about the many pitfalls involved in buying a custom bike.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably pretty disappointed (offended?) so let’s focus on the positives for a moment.

There are many talented people out there building extremely cool motorcycles.

Perhaps the best and cheapest way to find them is to troll your local craigslist or ebay in search of unique machines.   If you can avoid the unfinished projects or total hatchet jobs, you’re likely to see a handful of tasty tricked out bikes for affordable prices.  If the owner can detail the work performed, including any unusual or hidden non-stock features that might trip you up in the future, this is often a good way to go.

Before heading out to see a bike, it’s important to know that the seller communicates well by email and phone, because “tech support” is sometimes necessary in the days after the purchase.  It’s just the nature of customs.

I had a customer who could not start a bike because he didn’t realize it had a kickstand switch.  Another guy found that the clutch lever position made it difficult for him to operate after a long ride, and I dropped by to help him dial in the ergonomics.  You’re unlikely to get much in the way of a warranty on these kinds of bikes, but being able to talk to the builder about issues that come up could save you lots of headaches.

Plan to pay cash unless otherwise instructed, and be ready to move quickly on a bike you like.  The good ones don’t stick around for long.

You will obviously need to take the bike on a long test ride, but convincing another man to let you tear off down the street on his baby will require some work.  This should be the last phase of the process, after you’ve kicked the tires, asked any questions you might have, heard the bike running, seen the title, and hopefully established a bit of mutual trust with the seller.  Offering to leave something of value behind is usually a welcome gesture if the seller seems like he’s on the fence.

Basically, everyone is picturing this when they hand over the keys:


Once you’re out on the ride, bring the motor up to temperature and put the bike through a variety of situations to make sure there is nothing loose or broken and to ensure that the modifications haven’t compromised the performance of the bike (remember Part 1?).  Riding around the block is not good enough.  You need to check out the brakes, accelerate to highway speed, operate the engine at high rpms, and push through a few proper corners.  Basically, take 10 minutes and do whatever you need to do to replicate your “typical” ride.

Be aware that if you come back with a dropped or blown up bike, you’re going to have a problem though.  Exercise restraint until the cash is handed over and the title is signed; then you can do all the burnouts and wheelies you want.  For the purchase of an existing custom by an unknown builder, you can expect to pay between $1500 and $5000 depending on the donor bike, the quality of the work, and the local market.

The other way to go if you’re not finding anything you like is to commission a “special,” either from a local shop or from one of the bike builders out there plying their trade.  Keep in mind that a proper custom bike from a “known” shop can run more than $50,000.  Sometimes way more.  If you have this kind of money and can wait a year or two for your build to be finished, by all means get a bike from one of the big boys.  I know I would ride the shit out of that Sanctuary RCM Kawasaki pictured above.

If your budget is more modest, you need to scale back your expectations to match.  Aside from finding a less well known builder to do the work, the less you specify and the less involved you want to be in making decisions, the less expensive the bike will be.  You should really attempt to find a builder who is already putting out bikes that that you basically like.  Everyone has a unique style and a set of skills and resources that makes certain bikes possible and others not so easy.  For example, I like to do lots of hand hammered metal body work on bikes.  I’m set up with the tools to do this because I have experience in metal sculpture.  If you asked me to make body work from scratch out of moulded plastic, I could do it, but not as quickly or as well.  At least not yet.  So pay attention to what your guy is already doing.  You want the builder to be enthusiastic about your project.  If you don’t get that feeling, take your business somewhere else.

Regardless of who does the work, if you demand a particular donor bike be used, require new equipment in place of used, expect extreme performance, or have a specific look in mind, it could get pricey.  Simple as that.  Also, keep in mind that certain kinds of work are unexpectedly time consuming and tedious.  Painting, polishing, and detailing come immediately to mind.  I tend to leave my bikes a bit grimy looking because I don’t have any interest in making an old bike look like a new bike.  In my opinion, it is not worth the effort.  I try to let bikes be old by preserving just the right amount of patina while focusing on modifications that improve the ride experience.

If you set out with realistic expectations about the level of finish, give basic guidance about what you plan to use the bike for, and find a builder with a style that appeals to you, it’s possible to get a rocking custom built for $5-10,000. For most builders, turnaround time of 1-3 months will be pretty normal – but make sure to ask to avoid an unpleasant surprise when your bike doesn’t show up.

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Custom Bikes: Why You’re Probably Not Cool Enough (Part 1)

Just kidding, you’re totally cool, especially if you’re one of my many customers who rides custom bikes…

This is really intended as a buyers guide to help you navigate the world of no-longer-stock motorcycles to find one that actually suits you.  Which is really the whole point of a custom anyway, isn’t it?

Before I get any deeper in to this subject, I need to get some things off my chest:

  1. If you have never ridden a motorcycle before, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE BUY SOMETHING CUSTOM/VINTAGE/BLING/FAST.  Buy the ugliest stock bike you can find that runs and rides, pay no more than $1500, and sell it next year for the same price.
  2. Do not ask me to build you a replica of someone else’s custom bike.  I can do it, but I will multiply my normal price by 5.  Pictures for inspiration are great, especially when you point out features you like.  However, asking me to assemble a copy of another bike is both extremely boring and unfair to the builder I’m plagiarizing. If you like what a particular builder is doing, you should probably be talking to them.
  3. Many custom bikes you see on the fancy motorcycles sites are either rolling advertisements for an aftermarket parts company or were built by people with a huge surplus of disposable income and/or free time.  The results can be cool to look at, but they often don’t make any sense as motorcycles.  They are customized for the sake of customization rather than to achieve some coherent design goal.  Buyer beware: many custom bikes are in fact completely unridable.

If I have not yet succeeded in scaring you away, let’s get down to business.

It should be obvious from the preceding discussion that I’m seriously offended by custom motorcycles that are not basically functional. If a completed build cannot navigate a parking lot without endangering everyone in the area, I cannot call that build successful.  The large number of bikes that are uncomfortable to sit on, extremely heavy, overpowered, with no ground clearance and evil handling should be immediately disqualified from consideration.  Anyone who would buy a bike like that has more money than brains.

To my mind, the core of building a custom bike is tailoring the machine to its intended use.  For me, that means creating something that is nimble and light enough to maneuver in traffic, with enough suspension and tire to rip the occasional gravel road, enough motor to reach 100mph flat out, and a riding position that allows me to corner aggressively. All the bikes that I build and sell are basically set up to do this.

If you are commissioning or building a bike, think long and hard about how it will be used – for real in your actual life and not in your fantasies about being in a motorcycle gang.   Let that thinking drive the design.  I love the look of old stripped down hardtails, but I’ll probably never own one because it’s just never going to be any good for what I use my bikes for.  Too many potholes where I live, and not enough long straight roads.  But maybe that’s the perfect bike for your needs.  The point of customization is that everyone’s situation is different.  It’s the builder’s job to balance the performance goals with cost and coolness to create a motorcycle that fits the rider’s needs.

(Part 2)




Another bike almost finished

This is just a teaser for my latest build, a 1977 CB550f which I bought about a year ago and has been pretty darn annoying to put back on the road.  Lots of rewiring, carb tuning, and custom fabrication to get it running and looking the way I wanted.

Hopefully the GS500 and the VTR250 will be smooth by comparison.  But probably not. 

Here’s the feathered tail piece I made for the bike, complete with an LED rear marker tucked up inside.  It looks pretty mean in person I must say.  More pics to follow once we get a sunny day.   



Local Builder: Bad Juju Vehicles

I met the Bad Juju guys last week, and I must say the “show bike” was what I’ve come to expect from show bikes: a wildly impractical piece of sculpture meant for looking pretty and not for riding.  But there were some very cool ideas on display as well as a very ridable looking little CB400 four which can be yours for around 3 grand.

They also had some cool lamps made from moto parts and framed pics (mostly of the same cb400) available for purchase.

But now for the main event:

This unfinished Triumph based . . . spaceship thing was incredibly cool looking (very steampunk) and had some features that I hope to borrow on a future build.  First, the steel body work was framed up in thin rod and then the sheet was cut/bent/welded to fit over top.  Not the lightest way to go, but it certainly gave the bike a solid feel like it came from a single piece of metal.  The 2 into 2 undertail exhaust was particularly well done also, but my personal favorite is the “ignition key.” Just a brass plate with a hole in it that happens to fit the head of a 1/4″ instrument cable.  The little plug is soldered up so it completes the circuit and the bike gets juice.  I’m rewiring my CB next week, so this might be what happens to my ignition.  To the 3 people who read this, please don’t steal my bike…

GS500 Racer Envy

Click the photo for a writeup from sportrider.

Another example of the kind of crazy, stupid, wrong, gorgeous, awesome motorcycles I want to see built.  I believe that those blessed with full machine shops and scrap bins full of aerospace grade titanium owe it to the rest of us to create bikes like this.  The barely recognizable GS500 pictured above weighs in at 320 lbs, has been punched out to 650ccs, features ram air induction, full ti exhaust, GSXR750 8 valve heads, and a whole lot of carbon fiber.

Marc and I will be circling back with pics of our own track rat gs500, but I can tell you one thing for certain: it will not be this cool.  That’s because it’s being designed, fabricated, assembled and tuned in Marc’s unlighted alley.  Hell, I’ll consider it a success if the bike ever makes it out of there under its own power.  But, with a bit of luck, we’ll be out crashing it at Summit Point before the summer is over.

Customer Bikes: 1976 GL1000 Goldwing

This spring, Gregg’s Goldwing came into the shop in pretty sad shape.

The bike had been parked 10 years ago due to a bad coil, and in the meantime, the carbs had rusted solid, the tires had dry rotted, and all kinds of seals and gaskets had failed.

I spent much of February giving it a thorough once over, including carb cleaning and sync, new fluids, cables, pads and hoses throughout, an upgraded front master cylinder, rebuilt forks, dyna electronic ignition, new timing belts, valve adjustment, new tires, new fuel pump and lots more I’m forgetting.  With the mechanical resto done, the bike is back home with its owner for the riding season and awaiting a full cosmetic going over (new chrome and paint) for next year.

Without a doubt the most comfortable bike I’ve ever ridden at highway speed, and even on 40 year old suspension, it handled surprisingly well on the twisty roads by my house.