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MD Project: Honda CB350 Cafe Racer, Part I

Last year, after some prompting from vintage-riding friends, I decided I needed a vintage cafe racer. As you may know, cafe racers are the “next big thing” in custom bikes (as determined by the Next Big Thing Committee), replacing the showy, expensive, non-functional choppers of the early Oughts. A cafe racer is a vintage motorcycle—a model produced before 1980 seems to be the cut-off point—that has been stripped to its bare essentials, then modified to go faster, stop harder and handle better than it did when it rolled off the showroom floor so many years ago. The problem is, there are hundreds—maybe thousands—of eligible models to chop and form into cafe-racer luncheon meat. What to choose? 

If all I cared about was authenticity, it would have to be something properly British. Maybe a Dresda-framed  Norton (A Drixton)?  A Norton-Framed Triumph (Triton)? Or a Sportster in a Norton Featherbed chassis (Narley)? Maybe a Vincent mill in a Norton roller (Norvin)? That’s fine for those of you with the time, expertise and buckets of cash necessary to properly get something like that running. And even running, what do you get? 450 pounds of vibrating, oil-leaking, unreliability that might make it 300 miles in a day or maybe not. Life’s too short. 

I wanted reliability, light weight and good handling. Power? Torque? Cred with the wallet-chain-sporting Rockers down at the hepcat bar? Not a priority. Cool contraction name? I can make up my own. I knew I wanted a late-’60s bike (real Vintage guys laugh at ’70s bike owners), and I wanted a four-stroke (yes, I know you get all weepy at the smell of bean oil, but that’s because it’s actually just irritating your eyes). That probably meant a Honda, and I didn’t want a CB750—too big, too heavy, and I hate the rattle of the camchains on those things. It sounds like mechanical gargling. 

That narrowed it down to a smaller Twin. The 450, I read and heard from others, just didn’t have the bombproof reliability of the 350 and 360. And the 160, though fun, just wouldn’t have the pep required for modern high-speed traffic conditions. Another plus of the 350 was the massive availability of parts. Honda sold hundreds of thousands of the CB, CL and SL 350 between 1968 and 1973. And from what I’ve seen, the average one got ridden for about a year and a half before it was parked between the lawn mower, snow blower and giant parakeet cage in the back of the garage. 

But it wasn’t just a frizzy little chick bike designed to get new riders into Honda showrooms. It was actually a pretty sophisticated design, with an overhead cam, five-speed gearbox, dual carbs and oversquare engine dimensions (it displaced 325cc, not 350) that let it rev out to 10,000 rpm. That meant a claimed 36 hp at the crank (not much less than a Triumph of the same era) pulling around just 346 pounds of claimed dry weight. That’s better than Kawasaki’s Ninja 250R. So much for 40 years of progress. So what if I could lop off 50 or 80 pounds of pot-metal flab, pump up the motor 10 percent and get the handling to at least the level of a vintage roadracer? Sounds like fun, right? 

So who would build the bike? Not me, God knows: I can change oil or swap out parts, but I don’t have the patience, attention-to-detail, tools, garage space or other resources to properly do this. Really. So I emailed Charlie O’Hanlon. Charlie’s Place  is the Bay Area’s leader in Vintage Honda restoration and repair, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more enthusiastic partner for this project. Charlie instantly got what I wanted: a stripped-down, bare-bones street-friendly AHRMA racer. Now I wouldn’t need a complete bike: he had everything I needed in his copious supply of ’60s and ’70s Honda bits. the rest  I could leverage out of the network of suppliers for the vintage scene. 

The plan: brace the frame and trim it down to save weight, bolt up a CB400F front end (to get a better fork and a disc brake), rebuild the motor with performance carbs, modern electrics and full racing exhaust, lace up new, lighter wheels with modern rubber, bolt up clip-ons, rearsets and modern shocks and replace the seat with a lightweight fiberglass tail. I once had a Honda FT500 Ascot pressed into service as a vintage roadracer, and it was one of the most fun bikes I ever rode on a racetrack—with 295 pounds gassed up and 54 hp, how could it not be? My little Honda would be in that vein, except I wouldn’t have to spend two hours heli-coiling camcover bolts for every three hours of riding. 

The best part was I could skip that part of the bike-building TV show where we roll a rusty old hulk into my garage and start stripping, hacking and saw-zalling it to tiny pieces. Charlie has tons of used and NOS stuff in his attic (call him at (415) 255-0316 to see if he has that hard-to-find doodad you need), and Honda still offers much of the consumable items. It was time to start sending some emails and getting on the phone. I only had 30 or so years of riding time left… 

Next: We gather the bits necessary to make my dream come true.


  1. Randy says:

    Well, having owned both a RD250 and a SL350 I can say without a doubt which is quicker. Top end? Don’t know as I never really tried to get the SL over about 75, seemed like it wasn’t it’s thing. The RD redlined at 90mph, got there fairly quickly. Handling? No contest, every RD ride was a day at the races, the SL lumbers along like a big shaggy dog…

    The RD definitely has a 2 stroke powerband, but it seemed really broad to me as I was racing MX bikes that were ported to the moon.

    There were a few highly modified Hondas (350,450) slinking around South Orange County (CA) back then. Saw them from cars, never from my bike… looked the business even to a 2 stroker like me

  2. Doug says:

    I can’t wait to see this 350 Honda finished. My family talked into going “stripped down Cafe” with the 76 KZ900 sitting in my garage for 17 years.

  3. Wilson R says:

    I think he realizes that he’s not going to have the fastest bike on the street. He’s having fun with a bike that lends itself well to cafe customization. I look forward to seeing how it’s done as I have a bike in mind that would probably make a great candidate for cafe mods. When do we get part 2?

  4. Mr. Mike says:

    What a great project, the choice of bikes is perfect. I had that exact Blue cb350, it would run circles around larger displacement brit bikes of that era plus it was reliable and never leaked fluids.

    Looking forward to your progress…

  5. bikerrandy says:

    Whodathunk this subject would ever come up decades later ? In my youth I road raced a CL350 in SoCal. I put CB pipes on it and had footpegs welded in the frame for better ergonomics. Back in `68 the 350 bike to beat was a Kawasaki 350 Avenger. We ran 250-Open(650/750s) in the same race, so it got ineteresting.

    I bought the CL for $450 at a flea market. I raced it for a year and it never let me down. I finished 2nd place for the year in 350 Production in the ACA. Also ran some in AFM. I got beat for 1st place by a blue-printed CB 350. I was going to college @ Cal State Fullerton and raced for fun.

    The next year I got a new Yamaha 350 R-5, which was the hot setup then.

  6. Martin says:

    It’s all very well revving the ring out of a mid range twin, but for my money (paid two weeks ago), you can’t beat a good single for true, on the road speed through the twisties. Back in the day, my old XL350 Honda (modified for street use) drifted through winding roads lazily, hardly ever even changing gear or braking hard, while my brother cursed his CB350, which needed three or four gear shifts per hundred metres just to keep up. And a friend dropped his CB350 trying to follow me around a tight corner – they lacked the ground clearance.

    I’ve just bought a Suzuki XF650 Freewind, which has near telepathic handling, buckets of mid range torque, and while the carb probably needs cleaning to run perfectly, it has survived over 40,000 miles of hard use, something the old Hondas could never do. The local dealer has never had to do a rebuild on these DR based engines. It is very comfortable too, never giving me a backache, unlike most street bikes. Plus it has a fairing to help with the high winds. I like it.

    • Jay says:

      Brings back memories. My XL350 had CB400F forks and CB750F tank and had a very Brit-bike cafe look. One day I turned onto a back road, and slid in between a couple of BMWs. They were going a little slow for me, so I eased up to pass the lead bike, and he took it as a challenge and gassed it. I dropped back and followed him at what was still a pretty easy pace for me, and watched him almost lose it half a dozen times. We came to a stoplight a few miles down the road, and when he looked back to see who was behind him, he nearly fell off his bike in shock. Half the displacement, half the cylinders, and, like you said, twice the ground clearance.

  7. Jose says:

    Is a very pretty bike, but no enough power to maintain constant highway speeds. You are going to limit yourself to around town driving. Do yourself a favor and start with a little more powerful bike. For example: CB450(twin), CB500, CB550, Yamaha XS650 and CB750 (too big for my taste). Just my 2cts…

  8. Grumbler says:

    Three college friends of mine rode CB350s around the perimeter of the USA during the summer of 1969. The bikes were in different colors, and had tall sissybars to which they strapped their belongings to. In fact, those bikes had a little bit more top end than my ’67 Triumph 650 TR6R Trophy. They rode from/to Washington, DC.

  9. Dave H says:

    Restoring an old Honda: Awesome.

    Turning it into some sort of “cafe” racer… eh, not so awesome.

  10. Warren says:

    You are right about bullet proof I got 100,000 miles out of a SL 350 and that was when I was a young bloke

  11. Randy says:

    well, good luck. BITD I slice up every honda 350 I happened by, on a stock 1973 Yamaha RD250! So here’s a bike rated at 30hp that made those Hondas look like they were standing still.

    I kinda of like the old Hondas, owned a SL350 for a while. But you’re a little hyperbolic in your expectations.

  12. Wilson R says:

    My first bike was a 350 Scrambler. A lot of fun! I like the look of the drum brake up front and hate to see it go, but stopping is nice, too. Great fun to see a project like this progress.

  13. Goose says:

    First, I’ll be looking forward to the next episodes of this project, it should be fun.

    Second, no stock Honda 350/ 325 made 36 HP, MAYBE 30 on a good day. IIRC, the CB500/550-4 dyno’ed at 36-38 HP with 50% more displacement and two more cylinders. They were not as reliable as people’s rose colored memories. They also vibrated an unique and painful way. After I owned my ’70 SL350 (basically a CB350 in dirt bike clothing) I moved on to a 500-4 and an R5, RD350 and an RD400 Yamahas. All were far better bikes the the 350. The 350s were good bike for their day and this bike will probably be fun but keep your expectations realistic, you’ll be much happier.

    The bike before the SL350 was a BSA, I applaud your intelligence in not going with an old British bike. Fun for sure but really 1930’s engineering in the sixties.


    • MGNorge says:

      No “anything” produced what was advertised measured at the rear wheel. These horsepower figures were all taken at the crank, just as they are today. There may have been a thumb or two on the scale too but it was close. While dyno figures varied somewhat a good ballpark for RW horsepower from them would be from the mid to high twenties.

      Funny how time changes memories but I don’t recall any RD250 leaving me as if I was standing still. Far from it! I rode a few of the two-strokes back then and found them harder to extract maximum performance from. Catch them off the pipe and you had one great big flat spot in power delivery. To each their own but the trusty CB350 was plenty good for its size and for the times.

  14. Steve says:

    I’m all for cafe racers (I built a HD cafe in ’69!) but these 350s, while fun to build are of little real utility. They are great around town and for going to the bar (coffee shop) but get dusted so badly on the freeway that it’s dangerous to even go to a show. I have a GB500 cafe and it strains to keep up with modern traffic (75+). I have to get out the Bandit 1250 to actually go farther than a back road day ride. Since they are so cheap to build, I guess it’s ok that they are limited. Carry on, and have fun.

  15. Terry Seaver says:

    Great project report, I can’t wait for the next installment. After seeing the CX500 cafe racer on the TV series I pulled my trusty ’78 CX out of the rain and applied the Sawzall to the frame. Three months later it’s about done and is a kick to ride. Last Sunday a guy yelled out his car window asking if it was a Moto Guzzi. I told him it is a Honduzzi.

  16. sc56 says:

    I’ll be watching this, I have a 71 sitting in the back of my garage that I would like to do something with.

  17. Kurt Blankemeyer says:

    When will this project CB350 twin be finished?

    I started my 1973 CB350twin project a little ahead of you (started last month). I am hoping to finish it next month. Goals are pretty much the same as what you stated above (reliable, good performance for a 350cc, low weight, less than 290 pounds).

  18. cliff says:

    could we please stop bashing choppers.
    i love the one i have and will often take it for a ride instead of my harley.
    i currently have 23k miles on mine and still enjoy riding it.
    let’s live and let live.

  19. scotto says:

    build a retro version of this bike and I will buy it

  20. scotto says:

    I will buy a retro re-do of this bike

  21. John says:

    All anyone needs to do to be convinced of the potential of the CB350 is attend the Vintage Motorcycle Festival at Barber Motorsports Park. Well prepped CB350’s will absolutely fly! Unlike a lot of vintage bikes whose legend outstrips their actual performance, the little CB has the speed to back it up. They aren’t just out there making noise, they are fast through the turns and fast down the straights. I wouldn’t bet a against a good one. Rock on CB350!

    • jimbo says:

      Circa late 70s I owned a Suzuki GS1000. My friend wanted a used Suzuki GS450. We looked at one for sale by private party. I rode down the owner’s driveway, turned onto the street, and as soon I was out of their view I hammered the throttle just because, well why not, especially considering my usual rides with double or more hp?

      You know when you wheelie too vertical, your R hand sticks the throttle down, and the more you try to push down the front wheel the closer you get to flipping? Well, that was me. No crash, only by the grace of God. Found: new respect for what big bike riders think are toys.

      Suzuki GS450s fly. Ask Phil Cotton, who was usually first to Stinson Beach on his GS450 on the Marin Sunday Ride back in the day (and I mean back, like the 70s…that’s 1970s, no 1870s). Styling had Italian flavor, better than most current bikes. Phil had a “Moto Guzzi” badge on the gas tank and it looked the part, especially in red with (IIRC) white stripes.

      Later, on a Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans (original), Phil outran the CHP hellicopter, till they got on the radio and installed a road block…yes, those were the days.

  22. Andy says:

    Briliant project. I’ll be tuned in to watch the rest for sure. Meanwhile, try not to laugh at my 1979 XS650 Cafe Project 😉

  23. MGNorge says:

    What is so noteworthy of these bikes is that almost everyone had one, or two, or.. I think almost anyone riding in those days has a soft spot for these bikes as they were rather the backbone of the whole industry. Just Honda alone had a model range about a mile wide and not to mention the rest. Many, many a highschool had parking lots full of these bikes as they were the primary transportation for many. Anyone checked out the scene surrounding CB160 roadracing? This vintage class of racing has really taken off in some areas. Speeds are relatively low but the competiton fierce.

  24. Mark says:

    My second motorcycle, a loooong time ago, was a 1971 SL350. I got it for a grand sum of $50.00 after it had been abandoned in the back of a woodworking shop. While rebuilding it I had visions of grandeur as I would now be king of the trails…..or so I thought. It was heavy, ill handling, underpowered and most of all I found out that I was delusional. Call it a teenage reality check.

    I have since learned that technology marches on for a reason. While old technology may appear to be “COOL” it’s usually just an anchor for us to latch onto to try and remember those “good ole days”. As for me I’m trying to live in the present and enjoy all this neat new technology. Good luck with your project

  25. Norm G. says:

    can someone send me an application for the “Next Big Thing Commitee”…? i want in.

  26. Steve says:

    Great idea & I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series! I DVR Cafe Racer on TV. I met a few of the guys from the 1st 3 shows up in Ephrata Pa last year at a monthly meetup. The Yamaha with the rear shock mounted on the front of the frame was there & I told them about the TV show & they said they would be on it.. this was before the show started. Apparently the Boz Bros get into Cafe Racers since they road tested a few of the show.

    My only comment is this…

    I would love to have the 350 Honda turned into a “Street Tracker” instead of a roadracer type bike… more Flat Track style bike…..

    Looking forward to th end product!

  27. JW says:

    Don’t do it, it looks great to me as stock but watch out for the weak fork yokes, dead suspension, fading brakes, poor electrics – the Japanese home market tends towards updating the suspension and brakes which would be more interesting than ruining the versatility of the bike by turning it into a cafe racer… upside down forks and wheels form a Ninja should be lighter than stock where it counts and much better.

    • Stinky says:

      That’s some good advice about any old bike. I kinda disagree about the upside down forks. I neglect maintenance on those d–n things. They might have a couple advantages but one big drawback. Nothing can be done on your feet or with them on the bike. I hope they don’t ruin the versatility. As long as the tank holds a reasonable amount all most cafe/ton boys do is upgrade brakes, suspension, rubber and change the riding position. I hope they show me where to brace the frame to unhinge it.

  28. Cowboy says:

    I look forward to the results of this with great interest, but my recollection of those Honda 350s was that while they were pretty bulletproof, they handled like a roller skate with a hinge in the middle.

    Good luck!

  29. Stinky says:

    That’s my bike too! I’ve got a 69 CB350 and a CL450 sitting in the garage. I hate to mess up the 450 as it’s running nicely and not been messed with, and like he said, the fuse gets short when you lean on ’em. I’ve been wanting to cafe the 350 in a bad way. This is gonna be very interesting to me. Check out Mike Seates Cafe Racer Magazine if you haven’t already. I’ve got a subscription and love it.

    • Stinky says:

      OOOPS. Kinda wish I had a 360 instead of the 350 and kinda wish he’da used one of those. They came with a 6 speed didn’t they?

      • MGNorge says:

        While the 360 had a 6-speed box the overall performance was no better than the 350. With the 360 we saw the start of adding a bit of displacement while keeping peak power about the same. The net effect being a broadening of the power band. But by the time the 360 came out newer desgns were hitting the market and the 360 lasted only a few years. I eventually installed a cylinder kit with new higher compression pistons which raised displacement to 400cc. I left the cam stock as well as carbs and exhaust. Perhaps a modest bump in maximum hp but quite a gain in the midrange. Chassis dynamics were fine for the day but nothing like now. Suspension and frame design were what they were, we knew no different.

  30. MGNorge says:

    Hey, that’s my bike! Actually, mine was a year newer and two-toned white/gold. Loved that bike, took me everywhere and never had any problems. It was good for about 100 mph on the top end. Snarly exhaust note when the engine was on the boil. Much broader power curve than the two-strokes of the time. I can’t wait to see what you come up with. This should be a great story.

  31. jimbo says:

    Digg! With the quoted weight loss the complete bike will be only about 50 lbs heavier than a new Yamaha WR250R 250cc liquid cooled single. That’s pretty cool. Should have kept my old SL350 w/ green/yellow metallic fuel tank. Cool little traily.

  32. Jeffers says:

    Love the nostalgia. I was kind of surprised at the horsepower and top speed of those old Hondas too, but then I realized there was not much in the way of emissions restrictions back then. The 250 Ninja is viewed as a beginner’s machine so it’s not getting the RnD of a ZX10. If Kawi wanted to, they could make a very potent 250. Personally, I’m done with the 150+ horsepower bikes, so I would love to see the manufacturers build a modern version of these ‘simple’ bikes…let say with about 70+ hp and nice and light. The RZ350 was one of the ultimate motorcycles ever produced; wish I could buy one in these modern times.
    Good luck building your dream bike!

  33. jim says:

    Now you gone and PO’ed the Ninja 250 owners, good job!

  34. Chris says:

    Neat project. Can’t wait to see the end results.

    As far as a 40 year old Honda 350 (325) making more hp than a 250 Ninja. Where is the surprise really? It has an engine that is nearly 30% bigger. You also seem to forget that the Ninja 250’s motor really hasn’t changed all that much from when the Ninja was “new” back in ’88 or ’89… Or was that ’87? I forget… And what will 36 hp at the crank equate to at the rear tire? Less than 30 I bet. Or probably pretty close to what the Ninja puts out. 🙂

    • jimbo says:

      I’m highly confused at the oft-quoted figures for hp loss between the crank and rear wheel. Back in the day our li’l old minibikes w/ Briggs & Stratton 4-st lawn mower motors (or Tecumesh 2-st) making a measly 5hp, would pull at least 35mph IIRC. How could modern bikes loose that much hp (or more) between the crank and rear wheel? This never made sense to me.