Taking Flight: Howard Boone’s Honda 836 CR

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Howard Boone’s Honda 836 CR.
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Howard Boone’s Honda 836 CR.
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Howard Boone’s Honda 836 CR.
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Howard Boone’s Honda 836 CR.
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The monoshock came from a Kawasaki ZX-10R.
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The round slide 31mm carbs were the inspiration for the build.
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The complete exhaust, headers to mufflers, was built by Benjie’s Café Racers.
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The complete exhaust, headers to mufflers, was built by Benjie’s Café Racers.
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The oval oil tank sits behind the carbs.

Honda 836 CR
Engine: 836cc air-cooled SOHC inline 4-cylinder, 65mm x 63mm bore and stroke, 10.25:1 compression ratio
Carburetion: Four Keihin CR 31mm
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, Dyna electronic ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Dual downtube steel cradle frame/57.5in (1,460.5mm)
Suspension: 2010 Honda CBR600 inverted fork front, custom monoshock swingarm rear
Brakes: Dual 12.2in (310mm) discs front, single 7in (179mm) drum rear
Tires: 120/70 x 17in front, 140/70 x 17in rear
Weight: 454lb (206.4kg)
Seat height: 30.5in (775mm)
Fuel capacity: 2.6gal (10ltr)

“You meet the nicest people on a Honda.” It’s one of the most popular slogans in the history of motorcycling, and Howard Boone’s story validates the claim.

As a motorcycle-mad 12-year-old in Montgomery, Alabama, Howard Boone’s first powered two-wheeler was a Honda S90. Howard’s parents didn’t want him to have anything to do with motorcycles, but when they saw the boxes of parts he’d bought from a neighbor and dragged home they said, “Now, that’s a bike you can have.”

Obviously, they underestimated young Howard’s determination, because he had the project together and running in less than a weekend. He used the small-bore Honda to explore a network of trails that ran through Montgomery and set up a jump that would land him in the Waller Hardware parking lot. The store had been closed for some time and the lot was usually empty, until one day Howard came across a van parked there that was filled with Honda crates.

Moving the boxes were husband and wife team Charles and Virginia Hunter, and Howard clearly remembers his first conversation with one of those proverbial “nicest people.” “Virginia asked me, ‘Do you know where to get car tags?’ Yes, ma’am. ‘Do you know where to get fresh seafood?’ Yes, ma’am. ‘Do you need a job?’ Yes, ma’am,” Howard recalls. It was 1969, and Howard was the first employee at Hunter Honda on Atlanta Highway in the old Waller Hardware building.

Custom calling

Howard’s been a Honda fan ever since, and has restored many of the vintage Japanese machines. That’s how he met another of the “nicest people,” this time talented motorcycle restorer and builder Bill Bailey. Some 25 years ago, Howard discovered Bill working in the back of a custom motorcycle shop, and asked him to paint a C100 Super Cub equipped with the rare Honda Rally kit.

The two hit it off, and over the years Howard has sought Bill’s help on several restorations. “I don’t know anybody else like him,” Howard says of his friend. “He does everything himself, with the exception of upholstery, and he does it all so very well.”

So there was absolutely no question about enlisting Bill’s expertise when Howard decided he wanted to build a one-off café racer. The idea for the project came to him a few years ago, immediately after Howard visited a vintage motorcycle enthusiast who had a Honda CB750 equipped with a bank of Keihin CR round slide carburetors. Howard was enamored with those performance carbs and says he almost immediately had a vision of a custom motorcycle built around a set of 31mm CRs mounted to a breathed-on but reliable Honda CB750 single-cam engine.

Everything got rolling when Howard bought a derelict 1973 CB750 for $600. He delivered the basket case to Bill’s Pelham, Alabama, home shop, where Bill immediately tore into the engine, only to discover a horror show of cracked cases, a scored crankshaft and several other nasty surprises. It didn’t slow Bill down, however. He removed all of the engine internals and bolted the cylinders and head to the empty cases while searching eBay for better parts.

Meanwhile, Bill used the empty engine to mock up the custom café racer, which had a few main build parameters directed by Howard. For example, the bike had to incorporate a steel Benelli 360 Mojave gas tank, and it had to have a monoshock rear suspension and a modern front fork. There were a few other guidelines, but eventually Howard just sat back and let Bill do what he does best — get creative when building a custom bike.

While Bill also has an affinity for Honda machines, he says he’s ridden and fixed them all. His first bike as a 10-year-old was a Honda 70, and when it started running poorly he told his dad they needed to take it to a shop for a tuneup. “My dad asked me if I had a manual for the bike, and when I said yes, he replied, ‘Well, get in there and fix it,'” Bill says. “By the time I was in my early teens I was fixing everyone else’s bikes.”

Bill has also spent years drag racing motorcycles and has learned to perform many of the machining jobs that comes with constantly developing and tuning high-performance engines. He has spent 40 years working in motorcycle shops, either repairing or building bikes, but now does his own thing in a well-equipped home-based location that includes his basement and two outbuildings, all filled with tools.

Getting to work

With the empty engine bolted in place, Bill cut away the frame’s rear section. Using a bender, plasma cutter and TIG welder Bill shaped a new set of 1-inch-diameter tubes for the rear subframe, all gusseted with 1/4-inch plates. Instead of using the square-tube CB750 swingarm, he found a round one from a CB650. With the swingarm bolted into the stock CB750 pivot point, he bent and grafted a set of 1-inch tubes to the CB650 swingarm to meet up with a single shock from a 2012 Kawasaki ZX-10R. It not only works well, it also looks great. “It was really important that you be able to see through the machine and see the single shock under the seat,” Bill says of his handiwork.

While working on the frame, Bill devised a clever way to remove the twin lower tubes from the upper backbone to facilitate working on the top end of the engine should the need arise. In a stock layout, the CB750 mill has to be removed to allow access to the valve train because the upper frame rails run so close to the top of the engine. On Howard’s café frame, the frame rails feature special slotted lugs welded in place that, once unbolted, let you move the rails out of the way for easy access to the top of the engine.

The front forks came from a 2010 Honda CBR600. The bottom triple clamp is stock while the top came from Cognito Moto, drilled and tapped by Bill to hold the all-in-one Cognito Moto GPS speedometer/tachometer unit equipped with a large speedometer and small tachometer. The stock Honda CBR600 clip-ons are equipped with mini-chrome push button switches from Dime City Cycles set in Bill’s specially made housings. Also from Cognito Moto is the kit that includes brackets, folding rearset footpegs and brake and shift linkage from Tarozzi. Rolling stock is a mix of custom and stock pieces. Up front is a stock CBR600 hub that Bill laced to an Akront flanged alloy rim with stainless steel spokes from Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim. It’s a similar situation at the rear, with a CB750 hub laced into an Akront rim. Before spoking and truing the wheels himself, Bill used his homebuilt powder coating outfit and oven to treat the rims to a white finish while the hubs were done silver.

Bill reworked the tunnel of the Benelli Mojave tank to make it fit, and ordered a seat/tail section from Dime City Cycles. There was a large gap between the tank and seat, so Bill carved a foam plug and then molded fiberglass to the seat pan to make that transition flow and look as seamless as possible.

To build the oil tank Bill started with a piece of sheet metal and used his slip roller to produce a cylinder. In a perfect round shape, the tank wouldn’t fit under the CR carburetors and air cleaners, so Bill put the cylinder in his shop press and squished it to give it an oval shape. It fits perfectly. All the fittings for the tank, and the oil cooler mounted up front, were sourced from automotive supplier Summit Racing Equipment.

With the basic bones of the café racer finished, Bill turned his attention to machining and assembling the engine. Engine parts came from a number of different sellers on eBay. With the cases, cylinder and cylinder head in his shop, Bill cleaned them with his vapor blaster prior to inspection. After those bits were given the OK, Bill gave the replacement crankshaft and connecting rods a good once over before assembling them with fresh bearings.

Using his boring bar, Bill milled out the cylinders to take the engine from 736cc to 836cc, installing 65mm Wiseco pistons with 10.25:1 compression ratio in place of the stock 61mm 9:1 compression pistons. He also spent time porting and polishing the cylinder head to work more effectively with the 31mm CR carbs he installed in place of the stock 28mm Keihins. He had a Norris “R” grind camshaft in his stock of spares, and installed it when putting the engine together. A complete 4-into-4 stainless steel exhaust system came from Benjie’s Café Racers. Sparks come from a Dynatek Dyna S ignition system.

Much of the wiring was routed internally through frame tubes to a tray located under the seat pan that holds the battery and other electronics for a neat and tidy overall appearance. A keyed ignition under the left front side of the gas tank not only turns on the power, but also acts as a starter switch. Turning the key fully to the right energizes the electric starter, and when the engine fires the key is released and springs back to the “run” position — just like starting a car.

Neither Howard nor Bill wanted to paint the frame black — it was always going to be either white or red. Howard envisioned a Japanese flag painted on the tank, but that’s where Bill deviated from the plan. He did paint the frame white, but sprayed the tank and seat pan gray, with a checker flag graphic for a final touch.

In the end the entire bike, from zinc plating the fasteners to installing the Avon tires on the powder-coated rims to the paint job, was completed in Bill’s shop. Nothing was sent out for specialized service. Bill finished the build in five months. At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Bill says the bike is a tight fit for him, but he has ridden it to add some test miles. Roadracer friend Dave Crandall has added most of the miles, as Howard hasn’t been able to ride it much at all. After four hip replacements — the latest occurring during the build — Howard can no longer ride very far or for very long, which has led to the decision to sell the 836 CR.

But that doesn’t disappoint Howard much, because the build was so engaging that he and Bill have decided to entertain custom builds for other riders. They don’t have a website yet, but if you’re interested in talking to Howard, just send him an email. For Howard, however, it all comes down to Bill’s talents. “He’s one of the nicest people, and quite simply a master craftsman. I think this café racer he built is proof of that,” Howard says. MC

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