Derek Pauletto breathes new life into an unloved Honda and transforms it into a unique café racer.
1979 Honda CB650 Special
Power: 55hp @ 9,000rpm (est.)
Engine: 627cc air-cooled SOHC
Weight (wet): 415lb (189kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4gal (15ltr)
There’s an interesting trend emerging in the motorcycling community, one that sees relatively unloved classic machines transformed into something the original maker would never have imagined. Many of them are based on Japanese bikes from the late 1970s and early 1980s that originally didn’t have much grace.
Take the humble Honda CB650, a four-cylinder model sold in North America from 1979 to 1982. Honda produced thousands of these motorcycles, yet how many of us remember them? The CB650 didn’t have the charm of the smaller Honda CB550, or the power of the larger Honda CB750. Like many other bikes of its era, the Honda CB650 just isn’t considered an important — or collectible — motorcycle.
That’s not to say it isn’t a good motorcycle, though. Calgary, Alberta, Canada, welder and fabricator Derek Pauletto learned just how reliable his 1979 Honda CB650 could be after he bought it for $300 from a co-worker’s older brother. The first time he laid eyes on the CB650 the machine was outside, leaning up against a garage. Covered in leaves, the Honda had been exposed to the elements for a few months, but it had brand new tires — hence the $300 asking price.
“I wasn’t attracted to it, and it wasn’t my style,” Derek says, remembering his initial reaction. At the time, Derek was interested in more modern, streamlined equipment, but, he adds, “I thought I might be able to get the thing running, and I didn’t have a complete bike to ride at the time.” It took him only a few days to sort out the carbs on the CB650 before it roared to life, and Derek began using it to commute to his last year of welding classes at tech school, and to his job at a local welding and fabrication shop.
It was while working at that shop that Derek became known by vintage motorcyclists for his skill with a TIG welder and his ability to bring back from the dead almost any cracked or seemingly destroyed piece of cast aluminum, including British motorcycle engine cases and primary covers. Derek now runs his own shop, Trillion Industries, and he continues to be a go-to guy for alloy welding repairs.
For two years, the Honda CB650 proved to be dead reliable, always starting on the button and never protesting. It was easy on gas and cheap to run, but when Derek finished putting together a 1988 Honda Hawk GT project for himself, he decided to sell the CB650. He stuck a $500 price tag on it, and waited for a buyer. None arrived. Neither did they at $400, or even $300.
“Friends were laughing at me that I wanted that much money for it, and were telling me I was wasting my time trying to sell a motorcycle like that,” Derek says. “But that CB650, it had gotten me from A to B for two years. As ugly as at was, it was a good bike, and I felt insulted. So, I said ‘screw it’ and decided to take it under my wing and fix it up.”
But Derek wasn’t thinking about restoring the Honda CB650. At the time he started contemplating just what he’d do to the CB650, it was the heyday of stuffing stupidly fat rubber into the back ends of American V-twins. On a bit of a lark, Derek wondered when someone would create a fat-tired sport bike. That line of thinking sent him off to do some research, and he became familiar with café racers. It was then he began to appreciate the 1960s and early 1970s period of custom “sport bike” motorcycles — café racers. Derek’s plan took shape; take his old CB650, an unloved classic, and use the machine as a platform for his own, unusual vision of the café style.
First on his agenda was widening the original Comstar mag wheels. Although disliked by some, Derek appreciates the Comstar’s five-spoke pattern. Plus, some of his motorcycling friends told him widening a Comstar simply couldn’t be done. That’d be the wrong thing to say to Derek.
“At the time, I really liked to go against the grain, and I don’t think anybody else was using Comstar wheels on their customs,” Derek says. “And then when people told me it couldn’t be done, well, it became a challenge to widen the Comstar rims.”
A visit to local bike wrecker TJ’s Cycle yielded a second set of rims, a matching 19-inch front and a larger 18-inch rear as opposed to the stock 17-inch unit.
Derek cut the flanges off each side of the rear rim before rolling out two 3-inch x 3/16-inch flat aluminum strips. These hoops were then welded to each side of the rim, and the flanges welded back on, increasing the width from 2.5 inches to 8.5 inches to accept a 250 series rear tire. It was definitely easier said than done.
Looking back on the project, Derek says widening the rims was the hardest part of the entire build — the rim flanges are hollow, not solid aluminum, making them very delicate to weld. His perseverance and dedication to building custom Comstar rims never flagged, but the CB650 project stalled after completing the widening chore.
About the time he finished the wheels, Derek branched out and opened Trillion Industries. While known for his aluminum welding repairs, he also took on some serious one-off fabrication jobs, including constructing a helicopter and a frame-up custom V-twin motorcycle. As he focused on getting the business running, the Honda CB650 sat: It would be almost two years before Derek got back to the build.
When he did, however, he stripped the CB650 down to the frame. To accommodate both the widened Comstar front rim and the beefy twin radial brake calipers, Derek fit a complete — including handlebar and controls — inverted fork front end from a 2003 Kawasaki ZX636, machining new triple clamps from billet aluminum to accommodate the larger forks.
To fit the 8.5-inch wide rear wheel, Derek had to lop off the chain adjusters from the original swingarm, using them to build a completely new unit extended by 2.75 inches and widened by 6 inches. “I bent and welded up the tubes, and definitely made up a swingarm that is far more robust than what that engine is ever going to put out,” Derek laughs. To make it all fit, he widened the CB650’s frame on the left hand (chain) side and cut off any extra brackets.
Derek redid all of the frame welds after an old timer at a local bike show — where the frame in the rough was on display — looked at the frame and said, “Kid, I don’t know about these welds,” Derek says. “I was worried for a minute, until I saw he was pointing at a factory Honda weld!”
Lending the Honda CB650 its café racer credibility is a fiberglass Honda CR750 replica fuel tank and rear tail section from Airtech Streamlining in Vista, Calif. Although made for a CB750, Derek cut them and re-glassed them to fit, and Frenched in the rear taillight. A headlight from Harley-Davidson’s V-Rod parts bin gave Derek the modern flair he was looking for. Derek made the intensely minimalist bar end signal lights, and the rear units, set into the swingarm near the lower mounts for the Kawasaki ZRX rear shocks, are Watsen Designs LEDs.
Derek rebuilt the CB650 engine top to bottom, starting with new valves in the shaved head — something he did to slightly increase compression. Standard pistons received new rings, and every bearing and seal in the engine was replaced. The four carbs are stock 26mm Keihin piston-valve units, but Derek has plans to upgrade to flat-slide 26mm instruments. Rideability, not horsepower, is the goal.
“It’s a 30-year-old 650,” Derek says. “You couldn’t take it anywhere near what a modern 600 will do now.”
To get power from the narrow engine to the wide rear wheel, Derek welded a 1.75-inch tube between two output sprockets; the outer portion of the extended output is supported in a bearing caged to the frame. The foot pegs would be recognizable to riders of dirt bikes, as the Fastway stainless steel pads are from the world of motocross, fitted to Derek’s own brackets and controls.
Then there’s that unusual exhaust, made up of Suzuki GSX-R titanium headers that were being scrapped. Derek used as much of the tubing and fittings as he could, and manipulated them to dump into a Yoshimura canister. Surprisingly, the bike is actually very quiet, and isn’t obnoxious at all when running. In homage to Honda racers of the 1960s, Derek’s friend Donny Klukas painted the machine red and striped it in yellow and silver.
“This is my interpretation of a modern café racer,” Derek says, adding, “The build was mainly because people made fun of my baby — people get attached to things, even ugly duckling motorcycles. It became more of an exercise about what could be done to an unloved 30-year-old motorcycle, and it just got carried away. It doesn’t make much more power than it did, and it wasn’t ever about the power, but more about the looks and how things can be transformed.” And oh, how it has been transformed, from a nobody wallflower to one of the more interesting café bikes out there, Derek’s CB650 shows there’s more than one interpretation of the classic theme. MC