Embracing reality doesn’t have to mean killing your dreams
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.
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.
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.