My Honda XR600R Project Is Going to Hell in a Handbasket

Kyle Smith

Progress on long-term projects is very nebulous. A written-out list of to-dos or a pile of parts carefully organized on the bench both indicate that a project is underway, but it is often weeks, months, or even years before progress is visible. The indicators are often so minute that, even after we do all the work to clean and carefully prepare a part, it will look nearly the same as it did before we started … and that’s before friends and loved ones stop by week after week and begin to question if we are insane. In an effort to see measurable progress toward my dream of reviving a dead Honda XR600R, I took a big step—one that, at first blush, seems like it was in the wrong direction.

I bought a basketcase engine from a thousand miles away.

Of all the absurd ways to move forward on a project, buying yet another one is an interesting decision to justify. The reason boils down to discovering exactly what it is about this hobby that is most enjoyable and exciting.

Shopping for a core crankshaft–one that is undamaged but needs rebuilt–led me to an ad for this 3D puzzle. I did a mental tally of the parts included and weighed the ease of starting right in on cleaning and assembly versus the time required to tear down my question mark of an engine, which was likely hiding even more bad news. Suddenly, it made sense to buy a complete engine and demote my broken one to spares or a potential future hot rod project.

honda XR600r in Kyle's garage
It’s in a sad state now, but this bike is a great start to a project. Kyle Smith

It would be possible to tear down the already broken XR600R sitting on the lift, take inventory, and then source and repair the needed parts and pieces before putting it all back together. I had even done some light disassembly and inspection, estimated a rough list of parts it would need, and totaled up the cost. I had then spent a few moments daydreaming about spending modern KTM money on a 36-year-old Honda and taken a walk around the neighborhood—in the blizzard that was then hammering the Midwest—to shock myself back to reality.

I chose the known over the unknown, and bought this basketcase full of goodies. The list of parts was very close to what I was originally planning to buy for a rebuild, anyway. The crankshaft was rebuilt how I would have had it done, and the cylinder head had received the same treatment, and a welded and reground camshaft with a conservative lift and duration increase was included as well. The previous owner had even sourced a few new transmission gears—a common swap on these bikes to get wider ratios across each of the five speeds in the gearbox. The only change I’ll likely make is swapping the 9:1 compression piston with a 10.5:1 unit: I really like how these Honda XR engines respond to the bump in compression, and the new piston will pair nicely with the camshaft to make great power off pump gas.

This exercise in project planning and budgeting is rare for me and forced me to realize what I actually enjoy most about these projects: The puzzle aspect. Buying carefully cut cardboard from Amazon or basketcases from motorcycle forums is essentially the same thing at some point: Acknowledging that you have a little too much time and want a challenge to fill it. That said, you rarely need to spend more money on a cardboard cat picture to make sure the whole thing goes together correctly.

Rebuilt xr600r cylinder head
The cylinder head is ready to install after inspection and that makes everything move a lot faster. Kyle Smith

Buying this engine is also a vote of confidence that I can and will finish this puzzle. I’m essentially betting $1500 against myself that I will create something worth that much from the parts I unwrapped. Of course, there are multiple ways to pull that value out: Selling it all piece by piece; assembling it quick and dirty, and selling it to the first person who makes an offer; or carefully building it into the powerplant it deserves to be.

The cleaning and processing has already started, and I’m taking inventory of everything, including condition, to ensure that this will be an engine to be proud of. Basketcase engines can be nightmares, but sometimes nightmares are just dreams with a twisted perspective. A pile of parts on the bench is what makes me happy, so this basketcase carried me to cloud nine and I expect the process of finishing the job to keep me there.




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    Ah, project creep. It gets us all at some point. At least your parts are smaller than the stockpiles of Mercedes parts I’ve strewn about my shop, stepping around the islands so I can work.

    Motorcycle guys are devoted to the project. Flippers are concerned about the cost. It’s easy to tell the difference.

    At age 18, multiple lacerations of the head and neck plus a fractured skull cured me of motorcycle Kylitis. Unfortunately the disease metastasized into the 4 wheel version which takes up far more space.

    I’ll admit I’ve been pretty lucky thus far in my riding career, whether do to my own caution or other circumstances is unclear so I try not to push it. Would hate to have to double my shop space just so I could work on two cars!

    Sometimes I wish I was a motorcycle guy. Cheaper to buy and maintain, less space to store and supercar performance. But if I’d been a motorcycle guy, I probably wouldn’t be alive right now.

    It’s a fine line to walk. Bikes are lot more enjoyable as projects for me lately compared to my cars. The tide will likely swing back at some point, but it’s fun to be able to progress so quickly compared to a car for all the reasons you call out.

    Hard to resist scooping parts vehicles, they’re almost always a terrific value. It’s why I have hoods, trunklids, doors and bumpers stuffed everywhere in and around the house, garage and shed.

    Don’t try and fool us, Tinkerah – you have hoods, trunklids, doors and bumpers stuffed everywhere because you drive a T-Bucket, which needs next to none of those things, so you’ve not found a way to use them – yet. But you will, son, you will! 😁

    You know me well DUB6!…But I also have a 1st Camaro and ’67 Chevelle, both of which have a lifetime of spares on site. It’s a blessing, AND a curse!

    I too love 3D mechanical puzzles, and motorcycles are the best method to tackle them, for me. I also want the ride the finished result, which has not been the case for car projects I have done. The finished car was always so much inferior to a decent modernish car that I never kept them. I have now given up on old car projects except for modernish (like 18-20 year old) drivers with a full suite of airbags and safety engineering, but always want more old motorbike projects! More of this kind of motorcycle content, please!

    The Healey quietly got sold a couple years ago actually. I had a lot of fun with it, but three cars was too many for me where I’m at in life right now. Barely have space for the Model A and Corvair to get what they need. The Sprite was a purchase purely of opportunity so of the three it was the easiest to let go.

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