School Bikes: The 1981 Honda CBX

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This is as close to new as it gets. Believe it or not, this 1981 Honda CBX has never been started.
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A portion of the cockpit of the Honda CBX.
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If you found a vintage bike in mint condition would you use it or display it in a museum?
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Right down to the lettering, Jeff Winter’s “school” 1981 Honda CBX looks brand new — which it basically is: The engine’s never been fired.
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Early ads for the Honda CBX honed in on the CBX’s biggest asset, it’s 6-cylinder engine.
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Jeff with the 1981 Honda CBX at a recent show.

1981 Honda CBX
Claimed power:
100hp @ 9,000rpm
Top speed: 138mph
Engine: 1,047cc DOHC, air-cooled inline 6-cylinder
Weight (dry): 633lb (287kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 5.8gal (21.9ltr) / 25-40mpg

It’s not an urban legend: Honda really did donate hundreds of its six-cylinder motorcycle to high school shop classes, and the 1981 Honda CBX Jeff Winter found at Richfield High School in Richfield, MN is one of the few survivors.

Let’s see a show of hands. How many of us would head back to school if the Honda CBX was a teaching aid in the mechanics shop?

Hard to believe, but in 1981 Honda distributed hundreds of its advanced CBX and V-twin CX Turbo six-cylinder motorcycles to vocational and technical schools across the U.S. The machines were donated on the assumption they would be used to teach students the ins and outs of motorcycle mechanics. But working on such a technically advanced motorcycle was surely beyond the scope of the average student.

It has been 30 years since the introduction of one of Honda’s most memorable motorcycles, the CBX. The 1,047cc inline six-cylinder motorcycle was introduced in 1978, and sold as a 1979 model. At the time of its release, Honda was on a mission to prove its superiority.

“That was an advanced motorcycle for the time,” says Minnesota CBX and Honda enthusiast Jeff Winter. “It was, in fact, mind warping. Honda had been tied up in developing a car business and had let its motorcycle designs stagnate a bit. Honda had used the single overhead cam 750cc K-model platform for more than a decade, plus it introduced the flat-four Gold Wing [GL1000]. But the CBX was a mass produced inline 6-cylinder motorcycle with a great deal of technical innovation.”

A Step Forward

The Honda CBX was meant to be a benchmark in the super-sport category of motorcycles. With 103hp at the crank, the bike was something of a hot rod, and while the motorcycling press praised the CBX, the machine did have its shortcomings, chiefly in the handling and braking departments. For 1979 and 1980, Honda kept the CBX in its sporting format. Air-adjustable front forks were added to the 1980 model along with adjustable rear shocks to improve handling.

The 1981 and 1982 CBXs went in another direction with a slightly detuned engine and the addition of a fairing and saddlebags — these were sport-tourers. To help tame the CBX and make it an enjoyable ride, Honda replaced the dual rear shock swingarm with a single shock Pro-Link system, strengthened the frame and put on beefier brakes. It was a short four-year run, and 1982 was the last year for the CBX.

Jeff’s Collection

Jeff never owned a Honda CBX when they were new, but he was well aware of them when they were first introduced. In 1991 he bought his first CBX — a machine he still owns. It is a very early 1979 model (built in 1978), purchased with just over 7,000 miles on the clock. It now shows more than 22,000 miles. That CBX started him down a path of collecting and repairing the CBXs.

“The CBX intrigues a lot of other people, too, but you have to have some mechanical inclination to work on them — they can be off-putting,” Jeff explains. For example, adjusting all 24 valves requires time and patience, as they are shim-in-bucket. Servicing the carburetors is not a chore for the faint of heart, either; accessing them requires dropping the exhaust system and rotating the entire engine forward.

And that’s why it’s so surprising Honda would ever have thought to donate such a complicated piece of machinery to American technical schools — but they did. Some of the CBXs saw wrenching duty, while it would seem others were simply stored away because of their mechanical complexity. After languishing for years, more than a few of these bikes found new homes in the hands of private collectors. Then there are the stories of schools disposing of unwanted CBXs by dismantling them piece by piece and throwing the parts into dumpsters. In the interim, Honda’s donated CBXs have become known as “school bikes.”

Finding a Jewel

“The lore behind it is most of these school bikes were damaged because of how they were stored, or they were abused because nobody had any vested interest in preserving them,” Jeff explains. A lucky few were spared, however, and that’s how Jeff came across this immaculate 1981 school bike. In his circle of CBX friends he knew of someone with four school bikes stored away, in various states of repair, and in 2008 he learned they were coming up for sale. There was one in the bunch described as close to new, and that’s the one that grabbed his attention.

“There were years of dust and dirt on this bike, and I had to clear away the grime to see how the gauges looked,” Jeff says. The speedometer showed just less than two miles. He adds: “We talked about the fact I might keep it as a ‘school bike’ and came together on a price, but I wasn’t able to pick it up until later. He literally put my name on the bike with a piece of tape.”

Jeff returned in November 2008 with his truck and loaded his school Honda CBX. When he got home he took stock of his purchase. Everything was intact, and it looked to be in generally very good condition. The only thing missing was the original tool kit. Jeff removed the seat, and proceeded to cover the CBX with S100 Total Cycle Cleaner. Taking pains to keep the wiring from getting damp, he attacked the bike with a hose and some soapy water. The dirt just ran off the CBX, and at that point he realized just how immaculately well-preserved the bike actually was.

Jeff began a month-long process of cleaning and lubing, and bringing back all the CBX’s systems to functioning condition. He completely dismantled the brake hydraulics, soaking the rubber seals and O-rings overnight in silicone brake fluid, before putting it back together with all the original components. Jeff filled the brake reservoirs with DOT 5 silicone fluid and had fully functioning brakes.

Turning to the engine, Jeff says he felt the need to sneak up on the complex piece of equipment. He started by removing the spark plugs — which showed no sign of combustion — and was surprised when he shone a light in the cylinders. “I’m looking down in the cylinders and I see clean aluminum shining back at me — the dome pistons were reflecting the light. It was spooky,” he says.

Next, he sprayed the cylinders with WD-40, slowly worked the crank over, and discovered the engine was free. In fact, it turned over easily, and he continued turning the crank until he was sure oil had circulated throughout and up to the cams. Then he set to the wiring harness, removing every connector and spraying the brass terminals with electrical cleaner. After getting a key made by a local locksmith, a fresh battery went in, and everything lit up and worked. Jeff thumbed the starter button and the engine turned over. Using a spark tester, he confirmed all six plugs were firing, but has yet to light it up. “Now, I’m at the horns of a dilemma,” Jeff says. “Do you fire it and it just becomes another bike, or do you leave it alone and start talking about it being a museum piece — leaving it as a time capsule?”

It has apparently never run, and all of its 2.2 miles have been logged from pushing the CBX around; an argument could be made that in fact the machine has zero miles. “It’s a very unique set of circumstances,” Jeff says. “That motorcycle, if it were taken apart and the pieces sold on eBay, would be worth about $8,000 to $9,000. I don’t ever intend to see that happen, and am considering donating it to a museum.”

For the time being, Jeff is using the school CBX as — what else — an educational tool. He’s showing it at several events, and the bike took an award for most original motorcycle at the Minnesota Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club meet earlier this year, where you can bet more than a few Honda fans got schooled as to what a completely original CBX is really like. MC 

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