The café-racer aesthetic has never really left us. It just became quiet in the rush of high-performance sportbikes and chromey cruisers posturing across motorcycling’s consciousness. Now, as riders who came up in the 1970s and early 1980s seek refuge from a plastic-covered and increasingly computer-controlled experience, the café racer has risen again.
Our Project Re-Cycle Café Racer starts with a 1975 Honda CB500T that is just one example of the kind of machine you can build that recalls the elegant simplicity of this period. “These Hondas make a great start for a café project,” says Rick Carmody, our builder on the project. He is president of the Cretins Motorcycle club, vintage racer (on CB450s), and 2010 AHRMA Battle of Twins national champ.
The CB500T that underpins this project traces its roots back to 1965 and the Honda CB450 “Black Bomber,” an important motorcycle because it was the first big Japanese Twin to take on Harley-Davidson and Triumph in the American market. The 450 surprised many with technology that included double overhead cams, CV carbs and torsion-bar valve springs. It was oil-tight and blessed with a claimed 44 horsepower.
By 1968, Honda replaced the Black Bomber’s oddly shaped tank with a more conventional vessel, added a fifth gear and lengthened the CB’s wheelbase, among other refinements. But it remained Honda’s technology leader for less than a year, thanks to the late-1968 debut of the seminal CB750 Four. By the mid-1970s, Honda had much more interesting bikes in the line, so with a minor refresh (thanks to a lengthened stroke), the CB450 became the CB500T, lasting only through the 1976 model year.
Rick Carmody found this CB-T on craigslist. “It looked like someone had raced it. It had a full fairing and the tailsection it has now, but it was a messy job,” he recalls. The previous owner also had mounted an awkward-looking tank. “I think it was from a Yamaha. I’m not quite sure,” says Carmody. The wiring, what there was of it, was a mess. The front brake piston was seized solidly in the bore—a common problem with Hondas of this vintage. But seeing the diamond shining through the dung, Carmody bought the bike for less than $1000 and began the restoration and conversion process.
“If you have a pristine, original, perfect example of anything, even a CB500T, please don’t ‘murder’ it by making it into a café. We have only so many of these around, and the original ones should stay that way,” opines Carmody. Stepping off his soapbox, he admits that there are many bikes like the donor CB that have had crash damage or indelicacies committed to them, so they form the perfect platform for a café racer.
Sharp-eyed enthusiasts who see the Project Re-Cycle Café Racer in person might notice that it carries a CB450 engine. “The engine that was in this frame was really rough,” says Carmody. “It was spray-painted black and oxidized everywhere. I had this good 450 engine available, so that’s what I used. There are no external differences between the 450s and 500s—same carbs, even—so it was an easy swap.” Carburetors are always an issue for older bikes that have sat idle, and our CB was no exception. “I had to go all the way through them,” says Carmody, “but an ultrasonic cleaner filled with Simple Green…man, that does the trick.”
In previous Re-Cycle projects, we obtained most or all of the modification parts through BikeBandit.com; this time, we used that source to get repair items. We bought a final-drive and cam chain, an Acerbis mini LED taillight, a complete engine gasket kit (under $50!), an updated regulator/rectifier (the original Honda items were notoriously weak) and Dyna coils, as well as Motion Pro fuel lines and filters. As is typical, what was on the bike could be described as kludged together (and that’s being kind) or just too old and beat-up to be safe. Carmody found a replacement wiring harness on eBay and mounted a new set of Avon tires and tubes to the stock-sized wheels.
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