Embracing reality doesn’t have to mean killing your dreams

Kyle Smith

Dreams and realities mix together endlessly in a gearhead’s brain. Some of our ideas are just projects that we ponder from time to time; others are potential ways to use whatever steel or aluminum bits are in our oily hands. Ideas often jump from realities to dreams and, less frequently, from dreams to realities. So when I had the chance to ride and wrench on the motorcycle of my dreams, how could I say no?

One idea that has been stuck in the crevices of my grey matter for decades is a CB750 cafe racer. I have no idea why I want to build one. When I was young, such a bike made sense. Young idiots like form over function: Bias-ply Firestone tires that offer a vintage look but harsh ride and questionable traction, paired with uncomfortable, thin seat cushions atop narrow fiberglass seat pans, ostensibly for weight savings. They have the confidence to remove both fenders while still saying, “No, I’m still going to ride it rain or shine,” with a straight face.

I know better now. Yet when a friend asked me to recommend a shop that could sort out a few nitpicks on his CB750 cafe racer, it was impossible to resist doing the job myself. By the time he and the bike appeared at the bottom of my driveway, I had already muttered, “I really got to build one of those.”

The Honda CB750 is such an interesting machine: CB for the model, 750 for the number of times you have seen one hacked up in a Craigslist ad, the copy including something about how the seller “never got it running right.” An infinite amount of CB750 cafe racers have been built, and somehow, even more abandoned during the build process. There are many variations on cafe racer, yet so many “builds” come out formulaic: ground-off passenger peg mounts, rattle-can black on everything that was easily unbolted. “Is free shipping included?” seems to be the bottom line. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that buying a cafe racer that is even a fraction built by someone else isn’t even a passing thought in my mind. The only situation in which I own a cafe racer is if I build one.

That decision sticks me in a weird spot. Am I really so confident in my ability to build something different, or at least not the same, from seemingly millions of cafe-racer builders? I cannot accept building something purely for form. The thought of compromising the performance—a lot of the common cafe racer mods these days do just that—is unfathomable to me. However, successfully merging function and form with my skill set and my budget seems like an exercise in futility. So the idea gets buried deeper and deeper in my mental filing cabinet.

The other week, I caught myself scrolling the archives of BikeExif.com. My brain momentarily short-circuited, and I time-traveled to late night shifts in the college library, when I would scroll those same pages when I was supposed to be cataloging books. The cafe racer has long captivated me, but my expectations of enjoying one have never been lower.

Days after my scrolling session, this sleek black CB was sitting on a rear stand in my garage, lifted to chest level on the motorcycle lift. A quick look revealed the oil leak noticed by its owner was just the shift cover plate, an issue easily solved with a small amount of Permatex and proper torque on the hardware. I did a quick, front-to-back check of nuts and bolts, sorted out the pickup on an aftermarket speedometer, and the job was done. But I didn’t call the owner just yet.

Honda CB750 shift cover off
Kyle Smith

This bike was built pretty simply: stock foot controls, stock swingarm and forks. Tasteful. It functioned pretty darn good, too.

Again, maybe my expectations were insultingly low, but there were a lot of subtle things that made this bike stand out from other cafe racers I had seen. The straight-pipe exhaust actually had a very effective baffle: This Honda was quieter than my KTM 950 Adventure with its boom-cannon Akrapovič cans. The clip-on handlebars on the stock forks somehow had better ergonomics than the Clubman-style bars I had tried on similar builds over the years. A slim LCD display for tach and speed was neatly integrated in the top of the triple tree. It was all a little grown-up—the style without the compromise.

Kyle Smith

The build didn’t simply inspire me, it also knocked a little sense into my brain. A well-done project will always stand out, even if the parts individually do not. This bike sat on Hagon rear shocks, which had decent adjustability, and a seemingly stock front end that was nicely rebuilt. It rode like a 45-year-old motorcycle, which is to say quite nicely. “More” brakes or suspension weren’t needed. Having seen so many folks put any number of wild suspension setups on cafe builds over the years, even I had fallen victim to thinking that I would need something exotic. Looking at my friend’s build, I knew that the addition of stiff USD forks would only move the flex somewhere else in the chassis. Why would I fix what wasn’t broken just for the sake of potential performance?

Nope. Get realistic about what your dream actually is, and it might not stay a dream. I don’t need all those fancy parts, I just need a good base and a bunch of skills I already have. Oh, and a decent CB750 before the snow flies. Nothing says “fall” to a motorcycle fan quite like all the increasing number of Marketplace listings with the “great winter project” line. Those sellers know their audience is a bunch of dreamers.

 

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Comments

    I agree – that’s a real nice build. Simple and tasteful, using decent parts and solid engineering. Cafe isn’t really my style, but I can certainly appreciate how this bike would appeal to someone who likes them. You friend has a good machine – and it sounds like you now have renewed inspiration. It’ll be fun to see what you come up with.

    That’s a nice-looking bike. Me, I’d probably have a longer tailpipe and a small front fender, but nevertheless, your buddy has a good eye. I keep thinking about something that looks like a board-track or flat-track bike, but with a sound like my old Z1R or a CBX with a proper pipe…

    My buddy has an old Honda Gold Wing but he thought it would be to big and heavy for him to deal with in his older age. When ever I research something, and in this case I immediately thought “lowered bobber” for less weight and easier stance to handle it, I put in “Honda Gold Wing Bobber images” in the search bar. This way you can scroll numerous pictures until you find something you like. Then when you click on a picture you have the option to enlarge it or go to the page it comes from. Once there all the info on it opens up. I also do this when researching an item I have but I’m not sure what it’s called. I start with a rough description until I find something close, click on it and usually find the correct terminology, then replace that into my Images search. With the cool bobber I found, I printed out a picture and sold him on the idea right then and there. Now I get to help him spend HIS money!

    The cafe racer I built in the 70s from a CB750 was a first year ’69 Pre-K with the bigger valves. Power all kit bored to 860. 4into2into1 BSA exhaust. Clip ons and back sets. Koni shocks. Stripped of everything that didn’t matter like the metal fenders. Put on plastic fenders. Most everything except the engine, controls and exhaust painted hand rubbed lacquer gloss black.
    Dunlop K91s. Sounded like a Ferrari at high RPM. Like the article states the only problem was the frame Flex. I should have gusseted it when I had it apart. Sold it when I was facing mortality conscious when I had two young children so we took the money I sold it for and went to Hawaii in the mid 90s.
    It was pretty much destroyed by the new owner within a year.

    The cafe racer I built in the 70s from a CB750 was a first year ’69 Pre-K with the bigger valves. Power all kit bored to 860. 4into2into1 BSA exhaust. Clip ons and back sets. Koni shocks. Stripped of everything that didn’t matter like the metal fenders. Put on plastic fenders. Most everything except the engine, controls and exhaust painted hand rubbed lacquer gloss black.
    Dunlop K91s. Sounded like a Ferrari at high RPM. Like the article states the only problem was the frame Flex. I should have gusseted it when I had it apart. Sold it when I was facing mortality conscious when I had two young children so we took the money I sold it for and went to Hawaii in the mid 90s.
    It was pretty much destroyed by the new owner within a year.

    I built my first cafe racer from a fresh, new RD350 Yamaha (6 speed gearbox!), then moved onto a BSA Rocket 3, inspired by the Norton Production Racer. Both worked well, but then, I saw the Ducati 750 Super Sport, and the 750 Sport and then, decided on a factory production racer… The Ducati 750SS, early model, which was really hard to find, and nearly required hand to hand combat to acquire (initially, there were only 4 and Cook Neilson took two), so… I bought the next best thing; The Laverda 750 SFC, which was then joined by an MV Agusta 750S America, and the Guzzi V7 Sport, then the 850 LeMans. No longer did I have to fiddle with S&W shocks, figure out springs, adapt dual disc brakes and tune around cams and exhaust systems to get some sort of useful power for the canyons. Oh, and buying a factory production racer, while expensive ($3500 For a Laverda was all the money in the world in the mid 70s, let alone the $6000 for the MV… ‘Could’a bought a Corvette for that…but didn’t. ‘Bought that MV). This gave me a good 30 years of riding pleasure, though. Each machine took excellent care of me in the canyons and the longer trips up the coast to Monterey, won a few trophies and silver plates. In the end, when I gave up Motorcycling to conserve blood (anti coagulants will cause a rethinking of even small things like road rash), I was able to trade the bikes for some wonderful sports racing cars. And then, clients came around to have me restore their old Guzzi and Laverda sport bikes, so I stay busy in my old age. I guess I was a clip on rider from the very first bike I owned, a Ducati 250 Mach 1, and the Matchless G80S with the Typhoon 600 CC thumper and clubman bars. Come to think if it, I never really owned a bike with conventional bars. As I look at the bikes being offered today, there is a myriad of choices. The one that comes closest to what i would want today is the Triumph Thruxton, as it is just low enough for me to reach the ground when seated. Man, I miss riding… But then, my Westfield 11 won’t tip over…

    I originally thought about getting a 750 and as was mentioned, many were already chopped up/not completed or top shelf high dollar originals or many with high miles. I opted for a 1975 550K which was mostly all there with low miles 2995. I decided to stay stock with the original 4 into 4 exhaust which was in good shape. This bike was sitting for some time and had a mouse house in the airbox as well as several mods that were quickly put back to original. I put about a shot glass of marvel mystery oil in each cylinder and let it sit for a week. Compression was ok in one and the other 3 were low. tune up, oil change, carb rebuild and the Italian tune up and now have a nice running 550. I was surprised that the compression came back but sometimes you get lucky. I thought about the Cafe Racer but this bike was too nice to chop up. Not knocking Cafe Racers but many of these you find for sale are just that. All that being said, the 750 looks great.

    Great article and a beautiful bike! Still thinking about re-building my ’67 Bonneville T120R and selling. Mine from new with just over 12,000 miles on the clock. Haven’t been on the bike since the early 2000s. Not sure that I can ride any longer and the bike needs a total re-build. Maybe someone out there would enjoy it as much as I did in my “Glory Days”???

    If you look for Gold Wing cafe racers on Pinterst, you will be overloaded with images of stripped down Gold Wings with thinly upholstered brown seats that look much sleeker and faster than the original. I have been tempted to strip my ’83 Gold Wing down, but then what if I wanted to go touring? It makes sense to do the cafe racer thing but only if you don’t care about touring.

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