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MD Project: Building a Cafe Racer, Part VI

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.

Now what?

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

51 Comments

  1. sl says:

    It’s an old school race rep, you just don’t get it.

  2. ziggy says:

    Buddy, I’m not bitter. I just wouldn’t sink too much time or effort into either of the two narrow pursuits you’ve outlined. I can wrench a bike like the rest of them but I wouldn’t start a project build just to get a look. To me, this isn’t much more than “Orange County Choppers” lite. There’s tons of guys on this site who’d slam the Teutuls’ creations for being triumphs of fashion over function – but how is this any different? At least with a chopper you can ride comfortably from coffee shop to coffee shop. With this sucker you’d be redlining the whole way just to get the painful journey over quickly.

    • Pat says:

      Mmm, don’t think I could ride one of Orange County’s bikes “comfortably” to anywhere…

      This bike is way cool.

    • Dave says:

      The guy built a bike he wanted to own. Why bash on it? Why bash on choppers? They’re all motorcycles.

      I’d rather see more choppers on the road than 8000lb SUV’s any day.

      • Reinhart says:

        Ziggy is comparing an authentic cafe racer to an authentic chopper. Neither machine is made to travel long distances but is meant to be enjoyed over the short haul. Both require a significant cash outlay if you’re going to do it right and both bikes have their fans and critics. I think the comparison is good as even the folks that ride these specialized machines realize this but continue to enjoy them anyways, even if it’s just posing beside it at the local watering hole after a short run. Heck, half the sportbikes out there run up and down the local twisties for 30 minutes and then spend an hour socializing over coffer or beer.
        Not everyone gets their kicks participating in an Iron Butt run and I would guess that includes most of the readers of MCdaily. I happen to like both choppers and cafe racers regardless of their limitations and can fully understand why someone would want to spend good money building one. I also think it’s nice that we’re all different as it would be quite sad to see everyone riding around on Honda Goldwings because they’re the most comfortable bike around.

  3. Ziggy says:

    The sad thing is you sunk two years, untold dollars, and countless man hours into building a bike that, for the most part, you will hate to ride for any length of time.

    • sl says:

      It was either the bike or some chick. Same result. At least this one waits in the garage quietly until called. Oh yea, it’s wait loss program will last longer too. Isn’t Ziggy bitter.

  4. jim says:

    everything that 350 could have been in the beginning. one of my all time favorite motors. colin chapman convinced me. mass is mass. lots of power on a fat bike or car is just a fairy tale. the pipe is perfect except for the missing shark fin……….

  5. Mondo Endo says:

    No traction control,anti-lock,gps,heated grips,slipper clutch,power mode control,electronic steering dampner, etc, etc….just a motorcycle…. Perfect..well done.

  6. cody says:

    This is one of the nicest 360 ive seen good job man

    http://cafe-racerhub.com/

  7. Z2 says:

    Hey Gabe,

    Thanks for all the info on your bike. I hope you will really enjoy riding it. Bet it sings thru that pipe with that sexy 180 degree crank firing pattern.

    Wouldn’t it be great to see the Cafe bike craze supplant all the chopper BS? But then, the current chopper guys would not be able to bend over far enough to reach the clip-ons.

  8. Kentucky Red says:

    Wow…. Great Job. I want one.

  9. Keith says:

    It definitely looks great, for the racetrack. Yeah, go racing and let it be what it is! And just FYI – Honda CB350K3, top speed = 91 mph at 8800 rpm, quarter mile 15.2 at 84 mph. Weight with half a tank = 359 lbs. Dyno hp in 1973 Cycle Annual = 27.33 at 8500 rpm, torque = 16.64 at 7500 rpm.

  10. Mitch says:

    Great job and, leave the exhaust alone it’s perfect just the way it is! As for the pegs and bars, I’m with you on moving the pegs forward 2.5 inches. To alleviate the wrist aches I installed a set of “Superbike Bars” on my RD 400 when I gave it the Cafe treatment after I found the clip-on bars to be way uncomfortable. You really did a fantastic job of giving the old 350 Honda engine a new lease on life Man, beautiful bike!

  11. Gary says:

    Very nice job! Although I’m not a cafe racer bike person, I still do have a CL350 complete with Hooker Headers, and do know from experience, that these bikes do sound absolutley wicked (especially with the baffles removed!). Maybe a restored bike someday for mine.

  12. Kagato says:

    Beautiful bike! I want one with a tiger 800 engine mounted : – )

  13. Bob says:

    Beautiful bike. I wouldn’t change a thing. It awakens sleeping fantasies about building a Triton with a modern Triumph Bonneville motor. . .

  14. bikerrandy says:

    Gabe, if you were more interested in functionality than appearance, before you decided the muffler was not located right, you would take this bike on a track and see if it presents a problem on ground clearance. Back in the late 60’s I road raced this 350 Honda model. ;^ )

  15. Hot Dog says:

    You can walk around like a big barn yard rooster, struttin’, crowing, scratching and all puffed up, this machine is beautiful!

  16. Jim says:

    Love the bike . I am working on a street Cafe Project ( with 67 Racer Fairing )that looks like Gary Nixon’s 67 Triumph Daytona winner, and like Hermit Hewlett … would appreciate more detail pics and a list of your outsourced suppliers and their web-sites. That would be very cool.

    Jim . ( CO )

  17. Slideways says:

    Nicely done, you should be proud man. Now you have post-project-blues, you see it really is about the jouney and not reaching the destination.

  18. Tom says:

    Gabe, it’s beautiful! It has what it needs and nothing more.

  19. Steveski says:

    WELL DONE GABE! You have a very cool bike! I grew up in the 70’s riding dirtbikes (like a lot of us) & while I love the Cafe Bike Movement, I am not a fan of clip-ons + rearsets… I prefer a street tracker style bike with wide dirt tracker bars & mid mount or slightly rear set footgear…

    I almost bought a 1970 650 Triumph Street Tracker from an older guy I know last year… he did the work himself… looks like Don Castro’s old Triumph Flat Tracker… it’s street legal or could be too…

    Hmm…. maybe I should reconsider the 650 Tiger Street Tracker… replace the dirt track tires with modern street rubber & RIP!!!!!!!!!!!

    Thanks for sharing the build with us & providing some of us with a little incentive to maybe take the next step & start a build.

  20. paul246 says:

    Love it, great job. My only change would be to reinstall the original rubber fork boots. They look good and are functional.

    • Gabe says:

      Thanks! I have to rebuild the forks anyway, which is why the boots aren’t on. Boots, not gaiters–I hate how those look.

  21. Asterix says:

    Dear bike manufacturers: when people say they like the ‘cafe’ look or want a cafe bike, they mean something like this, not some 700-pound 1700cc monstrosity you slapped clipons onto.

  22. Deano says:

    Very Nice.

    Cant help but wonder if a manufacturer might soon (hopefully)realise how popular this type of toy is and bring out some new 350/500 singles…

  23. Gutterslob says:

    Now that’s beautiful!! I’m extremely jealous right now.

  24. Hewlett Hermit says:

    Well done! It provides inspiration to complete my CB 450 project. How about another article with more pictures and a list of the suppliers you used?

  25. jerrylee says:

    very tidy!

  26. ROXX says:

    I’ve been looking to do this with a GL650.
    Great job!

  27. jay1975 says:

    Man that thing is awesome.

  28. falcodoug says:

    Very Nice!

  29. Goose says:

    Just another well done. Not what I would do but really a great job of turning a 350 Honda into much more than it was from the factory.

    The only bad thing is that I have a strong urge to look for CB500/ 550s on Craig’s List. ;^Q

    Goose

  30. Reinhart says:

    Beautiful!

  31. Denny says:

    I would not expect so much “rigidity” from that siple single tube frame. It looks real airy. But, if it works for you, good.

  32. edpix says:

    That little CB350 engine is thanking you for losing all that flab off it’s chassis!
    Love the Works Performance shocks, they are the perfect match here.
    Nicely done!
    Cafe all the way!!

  33. todd says:

    Neat. It reminds me of the cafe racer I made out of a Honda XL350 (single). I wish I knew where it is now, I want to buy it back.
    I’d add some sort of rear fender, only to keep the black water from RV runoff from splashing on the motor.
    See you around the east bay.

    -todd

  34. mickey says:

    Neat! Bet it’s a blast to ride. Im too uncomfortable with clip ons and rear sets but std pegs and super bike bars feel great, although don’t look the part nearly as well. Nice job!

  35. Rich says:

    Very well done. Sounds like loads of fun and light makes right. Looks great too. Thanks for doing this and sharing it with us.

  36. Roadrash1 says:

    Yep. I think you nailed it! Less is so much more!

  37. Gentleman Rook says:

    It’s a pretty little beast, very clean, love the simplicity. Well done sir!

  38. Lanny says:

    Ever so beautiful! Do you have a sound clip?

    • MGNorge says:

      Yes, a sound clip is in order. That old 180-degree crank at full song would surely take me back. Great job Gabe, all that time and money has brought to life a real sweetheart. I wish I was your riding buddy right now! Enjoy!