Pulling the Trigger: Rickman Honda CR750

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Rickman Honda CR750
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Instrument panel on the Rickman Honda CR750
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Pulling the Trigger: Rickman Honda CR750
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Rickman Honda CR750
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Owner Keith Lee and his rare find. Only an estimated 300 CR750s were built.
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Rickman Honda CR750
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Rickman Honda CR750
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Rickman Honda CR750
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Keith’s CR750 picked up the Best of Show trophy (it’s made from recycled motorcycle engine bits) at the 2011 Rockerbox bike show in Milwaukee.

1975 Rickman Honda CR750

Engine: 736cc air-cooled SOHC transverse-mounted inline four, 61mm x 63mm bore and stroke, 9:1 compression ratio, 67hp @ 8,000rpm (claimed)
Top Speed: 109mph (period test)
Carburetion: Four 28mm Keihin
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/Wheelbase: Rickman 531 Reynolds manganese-molybdenum dual downtube steel cradle/56.5in (1,435mm)
Suspension: Betor telescopic forks front, twin Girling shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes: Single 9.8in (249mm) Lockheed disc front and rear
Tires: Dunlop TT100, 3.50 x 18in front, 4.25 x 18in rear
Weight (dry): 439lb (199.5kg)
Seat height: 31.5in (800mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.2gal. (16ltr)
Price then/now: $1,495 (kit only)/$12,000-$20,000

Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz are the unlikely heroes of the hit television series American Pickers. And if you ask me, they just may have the best job in the world. Living the life of nomads, they travel around the country in their Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, knocking on doors and following up on leads of lost treasure. They’re looking for a “honey hole,” a property with plenty of dilapidated outbuildings crammed with remnants of yesteryear — and an owner willing to make a deal.

In their travels, they regularly come across motorcycles and parts. And the pair, motorcyclists themselves, have managed some fascinating negotiations, even purchasing a rare, early 1900s Curtiss V-twin motorcycle engine.

Some folks are lucky enough to have an American Pickers moment of their own. In 2008, Keith Lee of La Crosse, Wis., had his. That summer, Keith heard about a barn in eastern Wisconsin filled with junk — the good, dusty mechanical kind of junk we’d all like to find. A friend of his had already been in the barn and rescued a couple of Puchs, and a trio of Ducatis and a couple of Moto Morinis had been unearthed and already sold. But word was there was still another motorcycle lurking in the barn; a never completed 1975 Rickman Honda CR750 kit. Keith was intrigued.

Getting the scoop

Keith knew enough to know the unfinished Rickman was likely a special machine, but he didn’t know much about the British manufacturer. Before calling the seller about the kit, Keith conducted some research on Rickman Bros. Ltd.

As he discovered, Rickman Bros. was started by brothers Don and Derek Rickman, whose motorcycle roots go back to the late 1950s when the pair was successful in scrambles-type offroad events. Always looking for a competitive edge, the Rickmans began piecing together their own machines using engines, frames and forks from different British bike makers. As early as 1961, they built their own special, the Metisse, with a Rickman Bros. designed and manufactured frame. The name is French, and roughly translates to mongrel, or anything of mixed ancestry.

Constructed using 531 Reynolds manganese-molybdenum steel tubes, the frames were lightweight yet ruggedly built, and wore a coating of bright nickel plating, the latter becoming a hallmark for the company.

Rickman frames were sold in kits, and in order to complete the machine an owner had to have either a sacrificial motorcycle or an extra engine and plenty of parts. Power plants commonly used in Rickman frames included B.S.A., Matchless and Triumph. Included with the scrambles frame was a fiberglass gas tank, seat base, tail unit and side panels.

Branching out

In the mid-1960s, the Rickmans branched out into the world of road racing, constructing frames for the highly successful AJS 7R and Matchless G50 singles. Finding great success with their competition road frames, the Rickmans turned their attention to the new crop of multi-cylinder Japanese motorcycles appearing on the scene in the early 1970s, including the Honda CB750 and the Kawasaki Z1. To their benefit, Honda and Kawasaki built extremely strong and reliable engines, but truly sport-oriented enthusiasts felt chassis development in the Japanese products was left wanting.

The universal nature of that sentiment was underscored in a July 1974 article in Cycle World magazine, in which the editors said, “Don’t sell that monstrous four-banger just because it wiggles like a wounded snake every time you even think about tilting it from a vertical plane. What you need,” the editors continued, “is a new chassis to put around that mill. One that isn’t designed to be the best for a given price, but one that is designed to be the best. Period.”

Enter the Rickmans’ chassis kits, which by the mid-1970s had become the hot setup for both street and track when fitted with either Honda or Kawasaki engines. Craig Vetter was the U.S. distributor for Rickman products, and the kits he sold included the bright nickel-plated frame and swingarm sprung with British Girling shock absorbers and fitted with a Borrani 18-inch alloy rim at the rear. A Spanish Betor fork anchored another 18-inch Borrani rim up front, and both were shod in Dunlop TT100 tires. British Lockheed disc brakes were included in the package, but what really set the Rickman apart was its brilliant orange, 4.2-gallon fiberglass gas tank, seat and tail section, fairing and front fender. In a word, gorgeous.

Putting all this to use, however, required a donor motorcycle. In the case of the CB750, the machine yielded its engine, complete with carburetors and exhaust, handlebar controls, speedometer, tachometer, side covers, and side and center stands. About the only thing you didn’t need off your old Honda was its flexy frame.

After doing his due diligence, Keith realized the Rickman CR750 he’d found, one of an estimated 300 built, with an unknown number of those coming to the U.S., was indeed a special machine. Although he’d yet to actually see the bike, Keith called and talked to the owner — who wasn’t really sure he wanted to sell it — for more than an hour to get a description of the Rickman Honda. Keith persisted, and in the parlance of the American Pickers, he verbally “pulled the trigger” on the deal.

Arriving at the barn with his trailer, Keith found the Rickman, long neglected and covered by three decades of accumulated dust and grime. And yet, the Rickman chassis kit had zero miles on it, while the 1972 Honda CB750 engine and associated parts intended to complete the project were very close to new, too. “The owner was a bit of a hoarder,” Keith says of the barn. “There were snowmobiles, cars, boxes of Ferrari wheels, race car parts, car bodies hanging from the ceiling — just about everything.

“He wanted to get rid of some stuff, and the Rickman was in front and it was in his way — he was willing to let it go so he could get to the rest of the stuff,” Keith says. He picked up the bike in late summer 2008, but didn’t have a place to store the machine while he finished constructing his two-car garage, so a friend agreed to house the project.

“My friend’s wife asked him, ‘What’s that piece of junk doing in our garage?'” Keith recalls. When his friend replied that it was a rare classic bike, she said: “So what’s that rare classic piece of junk doing in our garage?” After finishing his own garage, Keith finally brought the Rickman home, and for the first time, he really got a chance to assess what he’d bought.

The real work starts

What he’d bought was a 1975 Rickman CR750 rolling chassis, with a 1972 Honda CB750 donor engine held in the frame by a single bolt. In boxes were all the needed donor CB750 items, including a wiring harness, handlebar controls and clocks. Getting started, Keith completely dismantled the motorcycle, deciding that if he was going to do the project, he was going to do it right. Proceeding with the frame and armed with a case of StrongArm penetrating spray, Keith worked all of the corrosion from the Rickman chassis. Then, he spent many a Wisconsin winter night hand polishing the nickel-plated tubes, using buffing wheels mounted on a Dremel tool or a drill. He worked the same magic on the Borrani alloy rims, but he stopped short of completely disassembling the wheels for cleaning and polishing.

“I’ve probably got 30 hours in each wheel alone,” Keith says on reflection. He was comfortable while polishing, though, with a stereo and cable TV in the heated garage and a small fridge for cold refreshments. But it was still work. “I’d get done polishing and my hands would lock up with arthritis,” he adds.

Keith rebuilt the Honda CB750 engine, as the rings had seized in the cylinders. Even so, it was a satisfying process of discovery. “If that engine had 2,000 miles on it, I’d be surprised,” Keith explains. At some point the unit had been painted black, and Keith labored fin by fin to reveal the underlying alloy. The cylinder bores were treated to a light hone to clean them up, and Keith replaced the piston rings with new ones. Keith had the valves and cylinder head valve seats cut, and he reassembled the engine with stainless steel fasteners.

With the engine back in the frame — this time secured with more than one bolt — Keith turned his attention to other details. He cleaned up the original 1972 Honda wiring harness, replacing some of the bullet terminals and other connectors where necessary. The gauges, which were full of dirt and dead insects, were dismantled. He cleaned them, installing new faces and painting the needles the correct white with red tip. This part of the process was new to Keith, and he credits the Internet for providing him most of the advice he needed to do almost every job on the Rickman, from rebuilding the engine to resurrecting the gauges.

“The Internet made this project possible,” Keith enthuses. For example, Internet contacts in England helped supply the seals required for rebuilding the Lockheed calipers, and also provided the correct chain adjusters. eBay in Australia offered up an original Rickman assembly guide, and eBay in the U.S. yielded up the stunning period 4-into-2 Dunstall header assembly. On this, the two outside pipes cross over and merge to form the left side, while the two inners cross over to form the right. The mufflers Keith installed are Dunstall replicas.

Surprisingly, the fiberglass bodywork, with the exception of the gas tank, withstood the test of time extremely well, and the fiberglass bits are all still wearing their original orange and black paint. Missing from Keith’s package, however, were the original Honda side covers. He had to source a set, and he had these, together with a replacement gas tank from Airtech Streamlining, painted orange to match the rest of the body parts. The seat upholstery was torn, so Keith replaced the foam and had a new cover stitched to match the original.

Locating hydraulic brake lines proved challenging, as off-the-shelf components that match the threads on Honda’s metric master cylinders and the Lockheed’s standard threads do not exist. Instead, he had Galfer Custom Lines in California make up a suitable set.

Keith says his end goal was simply to have a machine that looked good, and that he’d want to ride. But now that the Rickman is finished, Keith’s not sure what to do with it. “It’s a pretty rare 36-year-old motorcycle, with zero miles on it — I think it belongs in a museum. It’s got a single mile on it from going around the block once, and from my pushing it around the garage.”

Proving Keith has some restoration chops, at the 2011 edition of Milwaukee’s Rockerbox motorcycle show his CR750 received the Best of Show trophy, an award he says he never expected to pick up with his American Picker-style find. MC

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