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MD Project: Building a Cafe Racer, Part VII

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Hi! Remember me? Two years ago, I declared my 1970-ish CB350 Cafe Racer project quasi-finished. The result looked nice—nice enough to be featured in a national custom-bike magazine as well as the Aerostich catalog—but one of our most regular (and most grouchy) commenters made a grimly foreshadowing pronouncement: “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.”

“What a (insert slang term for male or female genitalia here)!” I swore to myself, loudly enough to disturb the cats. “I’ll prove him wrong!”

Two years later, and I can report that he was kind of right. But not for the reason he stated (if I tried to redline it that long I’d be picking chunks of valve cover and piston crown out of my pant cuffs for weeks). True, the bike was barely rideable—I couldn’t ride it more than 30 minutes at a time. But not for the reasons he gave.

This is the part of the project you don’t read about in the magazines—the part after the bike is rolled out of the workshop and the guy in the dirty jeans and open-faced helmet (so you can see his lush, curly beard) kicks it over and rides off into the sunset. I now know that he probably didn’t ride much after sunset, because things started falling off, the headlight stopped working and he eventually had it towed back to his garage, where it sits gathering dust in between a ’63 Impala and a snow blower. It’s called “development,” and I know why it takes 2-5 years for a big OEM to get a new model ready for production.

Seriously, I think I’ve ridden my CB 1200 miles in 24 months. It’s not for lack of trying, and my AMA account (did you know you get virtually unlimited free tows if you’re an AMA member with recurring billing? Call 1-800-AMA-JOIN or visit the website) shows it: I’ve had many tows home. Rather than spend 3000 words explaining each and every little thing that’s gone wrong, I’ll give you some highlights:

  • -Muffler falling off because it was jury-rigged on to fit around the homemade rearsets.
  • Electronic ignition failing three times, once on the way to the Gentleman’s Ride.
  • -Battery dying not because the CB350 had a weak electrical system (as many folk will tell you), but because the 40-year-old stator (and possibly the aftermarket regulator/rectifier) was just no good.
  • MD Ed-in-Chief Edge almost getting his junk roasted like Christmas-morning chestnuts when an unexplained fire consumed the right-side foam Uni pod filter. Yes, that happened.
  • Front brake feeling like a rock, but not really stopping the bike.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. Instead, I’ll tell you about three things I did that, at some point, may lead to my motorcycle being a fun, dependable, everyday ride.

Woodcraft Bar Risers

Woodcraft Bar Risers

First, the racing clip-ons I used resulted in a back-breakingly uncomfortable riding position, especially combined with the passenger-peg-based rearsets. No good. But did you know Woodcraft CFM makes a very cool product that allows you to adjust your clipon height quickly and easily? Yes, the racing-specialty company makes a very cool “Riser Clip-on” in different heights from 1 to 3 inches for fork diameters from 36 to 54mm. You can get additional accessories to perfect the application—I needed spacers so the bars (Woodcraft’s light and easy-to-replace 7/8th-inch aluminum bars) would clear the front of the triple clamp. Because of Woodcraft’s split-clamp design, the installation should take just a few minutes, and the resulting position is as comfortable as my old CBR600F2. Ahhhh! Combined with some time in my buddy Al’s shop making more forward-set rearsets and back saved!

That let me ride the bike long enough for the battery to keep failing. Why was it doing that? Maybe it was the reg/rec, maybe the small battery, maybe some mysterious electrical connection, maybe the stator…screw it, I’ll replace everything! A visit to Rick’s Electric and $225 spent netted me a freshly rebuilt stator and regulator/rectifier. A bargain if I ever saw one, and money well spent unless you enjoy pushing your motorcycle or figure out how to rig it up for a battery-less magneto system. Bolting it all together was easy, even for an all-thumbs moron like me, and the components have worked flawlessly for a year or more (yeah, I know I don’t ride it much, but the battery charges, the headlight is bright and when the horn is connected it beeps).

Ignition Kit

Ignition Kit

The pointless (ha, ha) electronic ignition went into the trash, replaced with good-old fashioned points and condenser—now I’ll have to buy a timing light and re-learn how to use it. Yes, I know there are other electronic ignitions made for these motorcycles, but as of right now, nobody has them in stock or knows when more will be available.

The brakes were another cheap fix. I rolled up to Hayasa Motorbikes, a local repair shop in Oakland, California to show off my ride to Tyler, master mechanic and main man. He rolled his eyes—he’s been bombarded by local hipsters and their bodged-together “cafe racer” projects—before he said, “well, at least you didn’t do pipe wrap.” His contempt turned into mild respect when he noted some of the choices I’d made, but he took one look at the master cylinder and said something like, “if you want that brake to work, get a smaller-bore master cylinder for it.”

Aha! Luckily, my business partners and I had a wrecked Rebel 250 with an 11mm-bore master cylinder, so I tried it out. Success! The front brake now works like a brake. The large bore was the stock setup for these early ’70s Hondas—they probably didn’t work well then, either. To find such an effective and affordable solution is a refreshing change from how things usually go with vintage motorcycles.

Another big change I made is a work in progress, but I think I’m close to getting it licked. It’s the carburetors—and you’ll have to wait for another installment to read about them.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is the Editor of City Bike Magazine, and a frequent freelance contributor to MotorcycleDaily.com.

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35 Comments

  1. paulysr says:

    VM’s? TM’s? FCR’s??

  2. bill engstrom says:

    waste of time.

    • Gabe says:

      The project or your comment?

      • joe b says:

        I don’t think its a waste of time, to make a retro custom café like this bike. There is a strong movement to save many old bikes from the trash heap, and customize them. Its also good to see some improvement upgrades. Saying its a waste of time, would be like going to a hot-rod show, and saying that.

        There is a monthly ride out of Los Angeles, that has a large following of vintage custom bikes, very trendy.

        One does need to realize, many have other machines, and its cool to have something like this now.

  3. Hair says:

    Why is it that in the world of cafe racer builders. Job 1 is to take a torch to any and all frame braces and supports. I use to watch that Cafe show on TV. The one where the Bostrom boys would be called in to test ride the bikes. Most times they could get the biked over 50 mph. One has to wander if any of those bikes are hwy safe.

    • stinkywheels says:

      I’ve wondered that myself. Sometimes the “engineering” reminds me of Orange County Choppers. That’s why I’d have to do my own rather than buy a project bike. It’s kinda like the rear suspension mods on the 70s MX bikes.

  4. Artem says:

    Nice. But looks like Ducati in Tron movie.
    I wonder what was the model there.

  5. Hewlett Hermit says:

    Provologna,
    Have you ever ridden a bike with pipe tape in the rain? I’m guessing – no. If you do when you stop for a traffic signal you will be engulfed in steam. Been there – done that.

    • Provologna says:

      Thank you! Now I know! Move me to the “no pipe tape” column. Tx.

    • Provologna says:

      I have “lane shared” at free way speed in torrential rain, though. Also spanned the Golden Gate in wind/rain so furious it moved my almost 600 lb GS1150 exactly one full lane over…twice that happened. If there was a vehicle in the neighboring lane I’d be taking the proverbial “dirt nap” right now, not expected for tonight’s dinner call. I’m glad the wind did not blowing E with me in the “center” lane riding S.

      Both times it happened right at the bridge’s N tower. Based on my experience, wind gusts distort into a figure 8 around the towers, with concomitant exponential increase in wind speed. Think of a water skier making extreme zig-zag behind a boat maintaining constant straight line speed. Even though boat speed and line are constant, the skier’s speed increases dramatically at every apex. The only time the boat and skier speed match is for one brief moment when the skier is parallel with the boat’s line of travel. The farther he strays from that line, the greater is the skier’s velocity. Distance + velocity increase with constant towing force.

      The strangest thing was the bike stayed exactly vertical. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe the sensation.

      Also ran out of gas on the bridge at least once, but that’s a different story. Boy that sucker in the tow truck arrives quick, at least during commute hour. He stops behind your bike, strobe light glaring and fuel in hand, yells to hurry up and get back on the road, away you go, on your way, like nothing happened.

      Dude, if you’re low on money for fuel, this might be a temporary solution, but be forewarned, stopping on the GGB at commute hour is extremely dangerous! No run off lane!

      All that’s left is lying to you co-workers when you get to work and swear that was not you on the TV commute news backing up bridge traffic. Kind of hard when you’re on a Suzuki GS1000S Wes Cooley model with matching white/blue jacket.

      I did my part to insure civil service employment (tow truck guy).

  6. Duncan says:

    Does this mean it will go at least 70 miles in each direction at a time? ..With out a tow?
    That time being this Sunday for the barf meat up?
    Hope to see you there! ..or there WILL be a special award :P
    DT

  7. Provologna says:

    Remember how awful and lacking was ground clearance on motor bikes in the 60s and 70s? Strangely, Honda’s superb CB400 Hawk twins arrived with more ground clearance than just about any bike available at that time. As hard as Cycle Magazine’s road testers tried, they could barely scrape anything beyond the foot pegs.

    I’ve seen at least one awesome CB400 Hawk rebuild. I was used to riding bikes with 70-80hp and more, a few years after Suzuki’s GS450 arrived. A friend shopped for a used GS450, so I went to look at one with him. I rode it, and of course, as soon as I was beyond view of the owner, ripped the throttle open and instantly almost flipped it in an unexpected low gear wheelie.

    Bikes like the two above would be my choice for cafe conversion over this CB350, which on its best day makes about half or less power than the GS450, which has a great Euro look even stock. My old buddy Phil Cotton traded his Moto Guzzi Le Mans for a GS450. The GS looked awesome with Moto Guzzi badges flanking the fuel tank. Plus the Hawk and GS are both relative smooth by comparison, a term foreign to all CB350 riders/owners.

    What’s with all the pipe tape hate? I don’t see what’s so bad about it!

  8. Mark says:

    Forget about the carbs. Go over to http://www.ecotrons.com/?ncr=1 and pick up a nice modern fuel injection kit. A little time playing around might make it a daily driver…..and you’ll never have to sync carbs again. Bonus!

  9. Bob says:

    Is it possible the faulty charging system was damaging the electronic ignition module? Points were at the top of my list of most hated maintenance/repair items in the 70’s, right ahead of spoke wheels with tube-type tires and then drive chains. By 1975 the aftermarket helped solve the first two but a new motorcycle was required for the last one.

    Need a dwell meter?

  10. RJ says:

    Looks great! All business and good tires to boot (instead of ones just for looks). Only suggestion I have is lose the tape on the headlight, that’s for racing, not for the street. Love the black headers too.

  11. takehikes says:

    I used to ride a CB350 back and forth LA to SF on many weekends. Not all that bad other than buzzy….so get the riding position right and put some miles on that dog…or declare yourself a pussy! ;)

  12. Superlight says:

    These cafe bikes are great to look at, all basic and visible, but a word of caution. Don’t think you can keep up with more modern machines on twisty roads. One of the guys in our group had a CB500 built to his specs and it was beautiful, but he also laid it down at the end of the riding season while trying to keep up with his buddies. Most of the cafes I’ve seen haven’t upgraded the tires/wheels/suspensions along with appearance items. Big mistake.

  13. GuyLR says:

    Needs moar (sic) checkered flag tape! No, seriously it’s a clean looking bike, good job. The good thing about points is that you can usually fix them by the side of the road. With a fried transistorized ignition you just call for the tow. Stick with it and the points.

  14. johnny ro says:

    Its all about the adventure (including the image of adventure) and its more adventurous, in a certain way, to head out on something like this than a $2500 used CBR250RA with its digital instruments, catalytic converter and antilock brakes.

    I am thinking of returning to an earlier bike as a fun diversion/3rd bike; a second generation EX250, built from 1988 to 2007. Those require knowledge to optimize and keep running, just like this, but spin entertainingly to 14k and have a lot to work with.

  15. Ricardo says:

    Finished my ’78 CB550k cafe racer last summer, cheap build turned very nice and for mufflers I just cut down the orgnal silencers andit sounds like a V8!! love it and gets a lot of attention on the road. We should rescue more of these bikes….

  16. americo ney says:

    i’m a cafe racer lover and I had all the same problems of you when I did mine, after all, congratulations for your work, the bike is great.
    cheers
    americo

  17. PN says:

    Come on, Gabe, you should know that clip-ons suck and that these old reg-recs and stators are toast. At least, you didn’t have pipe wrap!

  18. Provologna says:

    “…MD Ed-in-Chief Edge almost getting his junk roasted like Christmas-morning chestnuts when an unexplained fire consumed the right-side foam Uni pod filter. Yes, that happened…”

    Old carbureted motors like this often back-fire. Inherent risk with K&N individual filter or those old green Uni-pods: upon back fire (which is just really bad case of pre or post ignition), a spark travels right through an open intake valve, back up through the carburetor, eventually kissing all that oily/gassy substance accumulated to the filter, which instantly ignites into a small blaze of fire, which happens to be in close proximity to Dirck’s so-called “chestnuts.”

    Not a good day to ask for a raise, son…

  19. Gronde says:

    Form before function, a page right out of Harley’s play book.

    • stinkywheels says:

      With 250/300, 125/150s coming into the states for $3000+ and they can’t be worked on or have any character this is a bargain experiment. I know, they don’t need to be worked on, and character is overrated, but for about the same price or less you can relive the past. Sometimes you need a refresher to feel it wasn’t that great or you’re now that old. Much cheaper than a girlfriend/mistress and it can be sold.

    • skortch says:

      Form before function? It’s 100 pounds lighter than stock (and 200+ pounds lighter than the lightest Harley). Upgraded suspension, sporty riding positon – I’d say the function is probably just fine. And, yes, it looks great, too.

      • Gronde says:

        That riding position and stiff suspension will kill you.

        • stinkywheels says:

          I’m a creaky old man(53) and that position looks pretty civil compared to my RC51 or clip on’d Monster . If it’s got stiff suspension he ordered the wrong springs. I’ve had to stiffen up most of my bikes though, Duc SS (front), BMW R100CS{fr&r)for my 215# lardass. That’s what’s so nice about rolling your own, any problems are ones you created. Depending on the engine balance (vibes) I think I could do some sporty rides on it. I’m right between the Black Hills and Bighorns though, no more than 50 miles of straights. Got rid of my 350 as had to many irons in the fire. I’m jealous.

  20. MGNorge says:

    Having owned a 1970 gold/white CB350 K2 back in the day your project has me glued to it. Thanks for the update.

  21. Don Fraser says:

    First bike was an SL350 Honda, fun, but feet asleep in about 30 minutes.