Funny how fast a year can fly by. That’s how long it’s been since we penned our first report on our 1973 Honda CB500 Project Café. And while it’s taken longer than we planned, we think the results were worth waiting for.
As we unscrewed those first bolts a year ago, tossing worn out parts into the scrap bin, taking notes of the pieces that would need rebuilding — just about all of them — and carefully tagging and bagging all the bits to make sure we knew where they went, we were more than a little naïve about what we’d really gotten ourselves into.
Our little bike-building odyssey started with a simple idea; take a tired old bike and make it into something new. We chose our CB500 because these little fours from Honda, while still plentiful, haven’t moved very high on the collectibility scale. In other words, they’re affordable. They’re also excellent motorcycles, well made, hugely reliable and still relatively easy to get parts for.
Sure, body hardware’s getting hard to find, and stock exhaust systems are pretty much unobtainium, but we weren’t interested in a stock rebuild. Instead, we wanted to wed a little experimentation and interpretation with a bike we think has appreciating classic appeal, and see what would happen.
The café approach struck us as the best simply because we figured it would be fun. We planned to do some gentle massaging on the intake and exhaust for a throatier sound, refresh the suspension, and add custom wheels and new tires for a better ride. Then we’d give it some style with a custom seat and cool paint to flesh it all out. Thus was born Project Café.
Our first day with the CB was probably our worst. That’s when we discovered just what we’d really bought. Electrical issues including corroded plug wires and trashed ignition coils meant we couldn’t even start it, but a call to Jeff Saunders at Z1 Enterprises got us going in the right direction, as Jeff shared with us his extensive knowledge of the breed and old bikes in general. After adding a new pair of coils (with wires and plug caps) our little CB actually ran. Well, sort of, but enough to get us to the next step in the process.
Assessing our CB, we found cylinder compression to be almost non-existent. It was obvious our engine had some serious internal issues, chief among them a burnt piston and very, very worn out piston rings, as we found on tear down. I haven’t built that many engines, but I’ve never seen rings worn into a crescent; I was sure the engine was toast. Incredibly, the cylinder bores were still good, the pistons — except the burnt one — were in spec, and the cylinder head just needed a basic strip down and clean up, so we plodded on.
Tear down was easy. It always is; there’s nothing like a little constructive deconstruction to make you feel like you’re getting something done. The devil is getting all those little pieces back together — and in the right order. That took longer than we budgeted, and there were a few stretches where we wondered if we’d ever hear our Honda run, as we struggled to work the build into what little free time we actually had.
Fortunately, there were significant milestones along the way to pump us up and move us forward, like getting the perfectly powder coated frame back from Custom Coatings and then hanging all the suspension bits back on, including the lovely set of reservoir shocks that Klaus Huenecke at YSS custom-calibrated for us. Bolting on the beautifully rebuilt wheels from Buchanan’s, with their stainless steel spokes and black Sun rims, was another big boost. Then there was getting the gas tank, side covers, seat and front fender back from Craig McGlothlen at Precision Motorcycle Painting, all so beautifully painted it made us ache to get the rest of the bike back together. The final big moment was bolting the engine together and slotting it back in the frame — without scratching the new powder coat. With every milestone marker, we were that much closer to getting our little Honda back on the road.
Finally, after hours of blood, sweat and tears, and more than a few moments of uncertainty, it all went together — and it runs perfectly. Turn on the gas, pull on the choke, thumb the starter button — and it starts. No smoke, no rattling, just a lovely muted growl at idle from its MAC 4-into-1 exhaust that turns into an oh-so-satisfying wail as the rpms climb. The exhaust note is both sharp and soulful, rising easily with a twist of the wrist and settling quickly to an idle as soon as you let go of the super-cool period hand grips we found from Carpy at Nostalgia Speed & Cycle. It’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment, and a satisfaction you have to experience to understand.
The Honda didn’t run perfectly on first start. Fresh from getting pal Ken Peters’ 1974 Harley-Davidson XLH Sportster running (on the first kick after a thorough rehab following 17 years of idleness), I cockily figured I’d have the CB happily idling on the first try. Five tries later — and my ego knocked about five notches down — it was finally right.
We also had what appeared to be a stuck clutch. Everything seemed to be in order (we even pulled the clutch basket apart to make sure nothing had gone wrong there), but it simply wouldn’t release. After a little more head scratching, and consulting a parts schematic, we finally realized that somewhere along the line we’d lost a little 5/16-inch ball bearing that fits between the clutch release rod and the release mechanism. One new bearing later, and we had a working clutch.
We also had a little trouble with wiring, mostly in the form of poor continuity thanks to 36-year-old electrical connectors. I’d made a mental note early on in the build to methodically check and clean every connector, but in the rush to get the bike done, I completely forgot. Next time, I’ll make a check list and work through it.
One of the big things we learned with this project is just how much stuff you can get for mid-1970s Hondas. Save for a few discontinued items you can’t find anywhere, BikeBandit.com supplied every single OEM part we needed, not to mention box-loads of excellent aftermarket stuff, too. OEM throttle cable? Check. OEM tach and speedo cables? Check. Complete factory ignition points assembly, pre-mounted to the breaker plate? Check. MAC exhaust system? Check. And what we couldn’t get from BikeBandit.com we found from the enthusiast outfits supporting classic Japanese bike owners. Outfits like Omar’s Dirt Track Racing where you can choose from a killer selection of custom seats and hardware, or Charlie’s Place in San Francisco for bronze swingarm bushings.
We also acquired more than a little respect for how well engineered mid-1970s Japanese machinery really is. Compared to some of their contemporary British competition, they’re built like a Swiss watch. Everything fits together perfectly, and to someone used to mid-Seventies Brit bikes the details — like little rubber insulators in the carburetor linkage to isolate the rider from undue noise or vibration — are amazing. Twist the throttle and it’s like butter, smooth and silky. Nothing binds, ever, and everything settles comfortably in place.
The hardest part of the build, however, was giving our little CB away. We knew from the beginning that some lucky reader was going to ride away with our CB, but now that it’s done, we wish we could keep it. As nice to ride as it is to look at, we think it’s beautiful, and we think our winner, Motorcycle Classics reader Dennis Picken, Omaha, Neb., is one of the luckiest guys we know. Funny, so does Dennis. He won our CB in the drawing we held at this year’s Barber Vintage Festival, and he’ll have the bike in his garage by the time you read this.
So what’s next? We’ve been playing around with the idea of another mid-Seventies Japanese bike, maybe a Suzuki 2-stroke triple, or perhaps injecting a little Mediterranean magic into our next build with a nice late-1970s Moto Guzzi. Stay tuned, because whichever it is, you can bet it’ll be as cool as our Project Café and another great exploration of the rewards of owning — and building — your own classic. MC
• BikeBandit.com: All our OEM Honda parts, including piston rings, all the brake hydraulics, cables, complete ignition points plate, plus tons of aftermarket parts, including tapered steering head bearings, fork seals, sprockets, drive chain, MAC 4-into-1 exhaust system and our groovy LED turn signals
• Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim: Custom wheel build
• Charlie’s Place: Bronze swingarm bushings
• Continental Tire: Continental ContiGo! tires
• Custom Coatings & Metal: Frame powder coating
• Forking by Frank: Replacement fork tubes
• Gardner-Westcott Co.: Custom engine cover bolts
• K&N Filters: High-flow pod air filters/oil filter
• Nostalgia Speed & Cycle: Custom gauge faces, hand grips, café front fender, headlamp ears
• Omar’s Dirt Track Racing: Café seat assembly/taillight
• Z1 Enterprises: Ignition coils/technical help