What is a dog supposed to do when he catches his tail?
That’s what I was wondering last week while I was standing next to my completed project, 24 months in the making. I had spent plenty of dough and many, many hours researching, hunting down parts and shuttling various subassemblies back and forth. And now it was done.
It was time to ride, that’s what. I flipped on the ignition, opened the choke, turned the fuel tap to on and deployed the kickstarter. Toe it into neutral, rotate the kickstart down to horizontal, then kick. Nothing. Again—a little more force—and the motor turns over a few times, blub, blub, blub, cough. One more time and the bike starts with a throaty roar you wouldn’t expect from a 350.
Charlie appears from his workshop, chiding me. I shut off the bike (by releasing the clutch abruptly—there is no kill switch) to hear him out. “How long have you been working on this? This bike is your baby.” He tells me to limit using the choke, to warm the bike up for a minute or more, and to ride it gently the first 500 miles or so, making short trips and varying engine speed.
While Bob shoots photos of the bike in front of Charlie’s Place, I have a chance to really look at the completed bike. To quote The A-Team, I do love it when a plan comes together. There is something very pleasing about the CB’s clean, simple lines and minimalistic equipment. Functional equipment just looks right, whether it’s a racing motorcycle, a firearm or your favorite kitchen implement. I’m pretty pleased with the choices I made—there are a lot of over-done elements you see on some cafe-racer builds, so I think keeping it clean and simple is the way to go. I’m particularly pleased with the contrast between the blacked-out wheels and polished aluminum motor covers. And the white racing stripe on top of the bike looks good, although it’s not visible from the side. The only thing that didn’t work out so well was the muffler—it would look better angling more upwards. I’ll try to modify it at a later date.
We load the CB into Bob’s truck and head to the East Bay to shoot some action photos. On the way to the Bay Bridge, motorists roll down their windows to ask about the bike—how much? Where do I get one? On a lightly trafficked street near the Pixar studios in Emeryville, we unload the CB and get ready for some pan shots. A guy in a Mercedes pulls over like he has an engine fire. “How do I get one of those? I’m a photographer, I want to take some pictures…” I politely took his card; “I’ll call you.”
Paparazzi dispatched, it was time to ride, but it was only up and down the block under a rapidly increasing drizzle. Not ideal testing conditions, but it did let me experience what a tractable and tourqey little mill the CB350 is. With power available right off idle and a quasi-close-ratio gearbox, acceleration is brisk (period ads promised a 13.8-second quarter mile and 106 mph top speed). There’s no tach, but it’s not needed—the 180-degree crank makes for a buzzy ride at too many revs, prompting an upshift. Braking is probably good by CB350 standards, thanks to the rebuilt front disc brake and substantial weight reductions, but it won’t impress the owner of a Triumph Street Triple R, which (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) I am.
A couple of days later, and the weather has cleared enough for some more riding. Would the little CB have enough verve for modern superhighway travel? The bike starts even more easily than usual, and after a minute or two of warm up, it’s running smoothly at idle. I point it at the nearest on-ramp and mix it up with our local road warriors. No speedo, but I’m pretty good at guessing speed, and the little black cafe racer zips right up to a comfortable cruising rate—about 65 to 70 mph—without feeling like I’m violating Charlie’s dire warnings about running the motor too hard during break-in.
The motor isn’t strained, but I am, at least at first. The rearsets are really…um…rearset, and the bars are very low. Also, the narrow seat has little padding in front, prompting me to slide back against the bumstop and lean forward even more to reach the bars. That means an achy wrist after a few miles, but I’ll never admit it this side of two scotches. The footpeg positioning feels weird—like my feet are on the passenger footpegs, which, actually they are. Moving them forward 2-4 inches will be a priority.
The CB350 may have been a popular choice for cafe racers and clubman racers of the early ’70s, but I’m realizing what a great bike this is for beginner riders. Lightweight, with a 52-inch wheelbase, huge amount of steering lock and torquey, smooth motor (at least at low RPM), the bike is scooter-like in its ability to maneuver at low speeds.
At higher speeds, the bike works well, too. Charlie was surprised when he first rode it. He remarked on how firm and controlled the ride was, how light the bike felt, and how well it steered and responded. That’s understandable—Charlie is used to riding customer’s bikes that have been on the road a long time, with original shocks and heavy steel wheels. My CB is essentially a brand-new bike, and it feels like it. The frame feels surprisingly rigid and the ride is pretty smooth and compliant, although the front springs Racetech sent me are too stiff—they were probably figuring the proper rate for a stock CB350. The Works Performance shocks feel spot on, and although steering is heavy because of the clip-ons, it still turns quick enough. And it doesn’t feel too light or fluttery, even keeping up with the 70-mph flow of traffic.
A note about wet weight. Honda claimed 375-ish pounds for this bike when it was new, and I can tell you that number just might be a slight mis-underestimation. Using my famed two-by-four/ancient-bathroom-scale-under-each-wheel-method, my bike weighs in at 323 pounds with a full tank of gas. We saved at least 20 pounds by ditching the steel wheels, another 25 pounds with the exhaust, five pounds (at least) with the battery, another 10 with various electrics and, five to 10 with the seat, and we haven’t even counted instruments, centerstand, sidestand, fenders, sidecovers, toolbox…it makes me think the “little” CB350 was actually well over 400 pounds, approaching the weight of a modern middleweight sportbike. Maybe even 420, which means we managed to shave around 100 pounds off the bike. Not bad.
I haven’t had the bike long, and it still needs a few finishing touches. We will attach the taillight when we have a spare moment, and I’m waiting for a Vapor tach/speedomter unit I ordered to show up. We’re also fabricating a sidestand—until that’s mounted, I’ll have to keep leaning my bike against a wall when I stop…
Or I could just keep on riding! See you on the road.
Look for an update this summer, after I take the CB on the 1000-mile Moto Melee vintage ride.
Gabe Ets-Hokin is the Editor of City Bike magazine, and a frequent freelance contributor to MotorcycleDaily.com