Ken and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

When I was 17 years old, technicians in my high school word lab measured my reading speed at 855 words per minute, with 90% retention and comprehension. We lab rats were told JFK could read 1,300 words per minute, and that he spoke a blistering 200 words every sixty seconds—nearly twice the oratory pace of the common man. Common man or Camelot? My choice was clear. Pick up the pace. Move it or lose it. Pedal to the metal. The time was now.

But that was then…

Today I can't read without glasses or a five-foot forearm. "Live and learn" replaced "hurry up and wait" in my personal vernacular years ago. I still jitter and twitch, but old age and my age-old lazy streak have slowed me down considerably. I think before I speak. I look before I leap. I still rush in where angels fear to tread, but I do so less foolishly than I did in my youth. None of this is to say I'm healthier or wealthier than I used to be (I'm neither), but I do feel more wise. I'm never sure what cards life may deal me, but I play them better now than ten years ago, when I used to rationalize playing cards was actually a smart bet. I haven't logged any real miles on my bicycle in nearly three years, but neither have I risked the price of a Campagnolo Super Record grouppo on a single hand of blackjack. That's personal growth.

The hardiest seed in my sometimes withering garden of enchantment is building custom motorcycles. I'm on my fourth bike in five years, and this one boasts the strangest pedigree of them all. Previous machines have been little more than Harley kit bikes, with minor custom fabrication to bring the sum of their catalog parts to a running whole. Today's CB450 project is much different. While all of its parts hail from the Honda stable, few of them were meant to be together. The frame is from a '71 CB450 Scrambler. The motor is a rebuilt 4-stroke 2-cylinder from the same era, but it came out of a '72 CB450 race bike that ran for the last time in the mid '80s. Other bits from the OE parts bin include the swingarm off a '77 CB750—my donor bike's more highly prized big brother—and the rear hub off a '75 Elsinore 250—Honda's first machine built expressly for American motocross. I was too small in '75 to own a real Elsinore, but Mattel made one for my Big Jim doll that saw plenty of action in our living room. Speaking of action figures, now that the Internet has rendered the 20-volume Encyclopedia Brittanica obsolete , what do kids use to build jumps for their toys? Come to think of it, do kids even play with toys any more?

But I digress. This story isn't about the good old days—it's about the good new ones.

Building motorcycles by hand from scratch is one of the most mentally stimulating and spiritually uplifting pursuits of my life. As art, every finished machine is the very definition of kinetic sculpture. As science, these death traps rank among the greatest achievements of mankind, right up there with the printing press, light bulb and flight. 

From the moment I took delivery of my friend Rob's basket case, I've known what kind of bike I wanted this old CB450 to be. I love the functional ergonomics and timeless aesthetic of dirt track racers, and Honda's lightweight twin seemed well suited to that calling. After inventorying the unassembled mess, I scoured the Internet for information and inspiration. For every hour I spend in the shop on one of these projects, I spend three online. All blame for this idiosyncrasy rests squarely on the shoulders of the anal-retentive grease monkey that lives on my back. Come wrench time, my voracious research has proven to be the best antidote for both duplication of labor and mistakes. "Read three times, measure twice, build once" is a mantra every aspiring wrench pilot can live by.
This is what my project would look like if the ghost of Soichiro Honda lived in my tool box. He doesn't, so I'm trying to make something that looks like this:

As the bullets around my cobby illustration indicate, a lot of really talented people are helping me bring this thing to life. Some day I hope to return the favors. Thanks, gentlemen.

When I revisit this project in two weeks, Uncle Bitchin', Duane Ballard and Dennis Trudelle should be finished with the paint, the seat and the motor, respectively. Last-minute eBay bits and pieces should have arrived by then, too. When that day comes, the final build will begin. Early on I vowed to build this bike with no regard for its finish or livery, but ADD got the best of me and that plan flew out the window. Instead, I've spent the last three days schlepping frames to the painter, seat pans to the leather crafter, engine cases to the sandblaster and motor parts to the metal finisher. Apparently the battle between my inner blacksmith and aging metrosexual wages on…



Delivererer said...

wow, you hit many of my personal nails on the head with this one, buddy. Thinking before speaking has been high on my list of recent late. My custom motorcycle obsession flower is in full bloom and I damn straight sure am I about to pop a cap in the ass of making it all happen, now that my work life RPM have lowered. Carry on my wayward son, there will be no peace until you are duh uh un.

Tonic Fab said...

Keep on writin'!