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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I’ll be in the market pretty soon for a bike, and I’d really like to get an old Honda, something like a 70s CB550 or similar, for a couple reasons. First, I have a little experience with maintenance of my car, but I’d like to get more competent at engine maintenance so I figure old Honda’s have lots of parts and information available. Second, I absolutely love the cafe racer style and would like to turn it into a bit of a project, starting first with the mechanics and second with the looks.
My issue is I have a fairly small budget of around $4000 max. So here are my questions:
Is this budget at all realistic for what I want to do?
Is a bike like this likely to give me expensive maintenance issues? Again I don’t mind the work as much as the cost.
Which older Honda at around the 550 range will give me the best reliability, buying price, and parts availability?
 

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Depends on where you live, but I think your budget is very realistic. I got a GL1100 for $950, a GS850G for $500, and routinely see mid range Hondas of that vintage under $1k. It really all depends on how much you want it to work and how pretty you want it to be before you start your project. Running ones with cosmetic issues could be had for like $500-$800 and so on. You could even complete your cafe project with money to spare depending on how much work you're willing to do yourself.
 

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Well, given the age of the bikes you're looking for I don't think any one model is going to be particularly better or worse than the others - most of your choice will come down to condition and completeness. Does it run, etc. Maintenance and repair are fairly straightforward on these older bikes, but you may have to learn how to tune a points ignition system.

Your budget is very generous. I think you could purchase a good, solid, running bike and make some cosmetic changes and still come out ahead of the game.

Bikes of this age range tend to fall into two groups: 1) They have been worked on/restored/repaired so they run again. 2) They're non-running and/or neglected and/or ruined and will require significant repairs to make operational again. Obviously the latter will be cheaper to purchase, but may require significant monetary and time investment to make roadworthy again. When I build one I usually work on the "spending time vs money" route and still put in at least $1000 or so to get one roadworthy.

Welcome! Feel free to ask questions anytime!
 
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Welcome from Seattle!!!

I recently got back into the game and seriously considered a 1970 CB450 that a friend's buddy was selling. It was very clean and ran, but needed restoring. I could have bought it for $700ish and after asking around, talking with different people, and even talking with a shop to do the work for me, I came out of it believing that I could have it finished for something in the $2000 range if I did it myself, and $3000 if I had the shop do it. This was including the cost of purchasing the bike. Please note that this bike ran and was quite clean, and had little to no rust on it. It wasn't something that had been sitting out in the back 40 rusting for ten years.

I ultimately went with a Triumph Scrambler because I didn't have the time to do it myself, and the shop couldn't get to it until September. This took place in June, and I wanted to ride this summer.

Where do you live? This will likely affect your ability to find a good bike to restore. Another thing to consider is whether or not the bike you choose has disc or drum brakes. Some of the 70's Hondas did and some didn't. Many had a disc on front and a drum on back. I wanted discs front and back because my riding is almost exclusively urban in nature.

This is pretty cool, it's a timeline of Honda motorcycles. It gives a good idea of how many parts would be available based on how long a given model was built. For instance, a CL200 was only built in 1974, so you will likely have a difficult time finding parts for it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Honda_motorcycles_(1970s)
 

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I have a pretty good herd of the old Hondas and maybe I can offer some advice on the good and more challenging aspects of the old bikes. If you want an old bike to learn on, a twin is much easier to work on than a four. If you try your hand a carb work, you will quickly see what I mean.

Also, I would go for a model with a long history , For example, cB550's were made four 4 years ,and the 350 class and 750 class for many more years than that.

In my experience, electrical problems caused by low voltage cause most of the running problems. You must learn to clean bullet connectors to insure against excessive voltage drop. My 750 ran pretty rough for a year before I replaced the ignition key that was supplying much less than the battery output.

Now the good news. Honda uses many of the same parts on many of their bikes for many years. When one part works on as many as 50 different bikes, that makes them easier to work on. Partzilla has a web site that shows all the machines that a specific part fits. What that means for you is a bike that keeps running because there are parts sources including the aftermarket that can keep that bike on the road.

If I were you, I would buy a good runner and keep it original. Hondas run best with factory airboxes and back pressure on the exhaust. Cleaning and reusing most of the jets in the carb is much better than replacing them with crappy aftermarket kits You might consider getting a parts bike maybe without a title to practice chopping it into a cafe' racer. Then if you are good at the cafe' treatment, you will make fewer mistakes on the good bike. More than one Honda has landed in the scrap yard instead of the road when the cafe' treatment resulted in disaster.

That's the short version, but there is much more to say about vintage Hondas. My first project bike was purchased and on the road for $270. Having a ball with the vintage stuff.
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Wow thanks for all the responses. I'll be moving to the Virginia Beach area in November, which is when I'll be looking for one. I understand that the twins are probably easier to work on, but I can't see myself being enthusiastic about owning and caring for one long term since it's a little low on power, and I think I'd be a bit big for it.
As far as my budget, is $4000 still realistic if I want to get a CB550, strip it down, repaint the frame and tank, tune the carbs, and make the usual café racer modifications (handlebars, shocks, seat, headlight, exhaust, etc.)? I'm willing to take on a bit of a challenge since it seems like there's lots of information and a great community surrounding these bikes.
 

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CB550 is a great bike. I had a flat tire episode in the rain and my soggy self showed up at the door of a local farmer. He let me put the bike, a little CB360, in his barn for the night and took me home. The next day, he generously offered me his shop to change the tire. There was a CB 550 in the shop that his son [a snap-on dealer] took in trade for a bill he was owed for some tools.

A non-runner with 15 years of dust and the thickest coat of dust known to man was on that bike. I told him I liked the older ones and he wanted it gone. His son wanted $200 and that was fine with me so long as the engine was not stuck. They wanted the bike out of there so i took it without paying for it until we got the title transferred. On the day of the transfer, his wife met me at an insurance company where a notary did the transfer. She asked me if the bike was running, and I told her about someone messing about the starter switch group in the handlebar group and it was missing some parts not being able to run.

What happened next blew me away.After calling her husband, she insisted that the bike would sell for $100. I told her that $200 was fine as no one expects bikes of that age to be 100% there, but she insisted that he thought the bike was complete and knows what a pain it can be to chase down parts. That is the way it goes with people and meeting up with the nice ones makes up for the ones who want to deceive you.

The old Japanese bikes are not nearly as common as they once were. There are buyers scouting around the USA buying them up and sending them to Asia. A mid-size or larger bike was not available for purchase there back in the days of manufacture and that makes them highly desirable
 

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Wot Slum said.
The CB550 was a good bike with a good engine. The CB650 had some top end issues. The CB750 was also reliable.
The seventies bikes did not handle as well as the eighties bikes, but are acceptable. The early eighties Suzukis probably handled the best.

It is amazing how much better an old bike will run, with new electrical wyre and connections. My XS1100 Yamaha improved the miles per gallon by a large amount, after fixing a bad connection to the coils. Even a corroded wyre to the tail light, creates resistance and takes away watts from other parts.

UK
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
Great to hear, I’m really excited to go searching for one.
Yeah I’ve heard of old cars having all sorts of problems just from a single faulty tail light wire. Again I’m not an expert in electronics either but have done some, is it difficult to redo the wiring if necessary?
Also given that there are so many instructional videos and such an active online community, would an engine rebuild be difficult for expensive for someone (myself) who hasn’t done it before? I think what I would like to do is find one for a lowish price and fix it up into the best possible stock condition, then start thinking about modifying it into a cafe racer.
 

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Engine rebuilds are for experienced mechanics, and not many of them are capable of doing a good job.
Better to spend that time riding, and buy a low mileage engine. I have a spare XS1100 engine with 25,000 miles on it. Paid $100 for it, which included the frame and rear end.
I also have a spare engine for my XS400.

Wyre for boats is a bit more money, but is a lot better quality. Simply a matter of replacing what is already there. The biggest issue is whether to use the original corroded connectors, or replace them. Hondas have colour coded wyres. Blue, brown, black, yellow, red and white mostly.

UK
 

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You aren't likely to find super detailed step by step videos for every engine. Like UK said if you ever need an engine rebuild it'll probably be cheaper/easier to just buy a parts bike for a couple hundred dollars, swap in the engine, then sell what remaining good parts are left to possibly break even.

The main reason (at least to me) that a rebuild is difficult is that the person doing the rebuild would be trying to return an engine to factory specs and tolerances. If they screw something up (even a small thing) or cut corners, that engine may never run "right" ever again.

My two daily bikes are a 1982 Suzuki GS850G and a 1980 Honda GL1100. Online forums will be your saviour with these old bikes.
 

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What exactly is it that makes a rebuild difficult if there are step by step videos available for that exact engine?
You need to decide how many angles to have on the valve seats, and which shop will follow your instructions.
You need to know how to plaster gauge new crank bearings, if you can find crank bearings, and someone to grind the crank if it needs it. You need to be able to measure the crank accurately. Same goes with the pistons and bore. How to end gap rings and what piston clearance to run. You need to know how to put a degree wheel on the crank and set it. Then you need to know how to accurately time the camshaft.

By now you will be down a lot of $$$$ and wasted about six months with no end in site. So you will also need another bike to ride while the fixit bike is being fixed.
You will most likely need to change the steering head bearings, the wheel bearings, the swing arm bearings, the fork seals, the brake pistons and pads, the sprockets and chains and a bunch of things I have not thought of.

You will need to change your own tyres and get them balanced. The carbs will be plugged and dirty / rusty inside. The gas tank may need a lining, the pet cocks will leak, the head light will fail, and finding pipes will cost a lot.

There is a lot of good info on the internet. There is also a lot of misleading info on the internet. I have not checked any sites about rebuilding engines.
As I said above, I have a near new low mileage 1100cc engine for $100.

UK
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
Alright so if a full rebuild is out of the question for a newbie, does anyone have some buying advice? Such as what condition to go for to get a reliable bike for a reasonable price, what questions to ask the seller, etc.
Also what major difficulties are involved in carb work?
 

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There was a time when I knew just about everyone who worked in a bike shop from Vancouver BC, to Portland OR. Plus some guys who worked inland. Only one out of the entire bunch was good at rebuilding Honda engines. He got hired by Canadian Honda in the late seventies and is still there. He also went with me to the bike races for a few years.

I also knew nearly all the guys that raced on the three North West tracks, Westwood in BC, SIR ( Kent ) in SW Seattle, and PIR in Portland. Only a handful of those guys could rebuild a two stroke crank. Engine rebuilding is a specialized business, and completely non doable by a rookie, IMO.
Back in the day there were more machine shops that could do decent work. On the plus side, there are internal parts available for many engines. On the downside, a gasket set might cost more than a decent engine.

My price for a complete XS1100 as a spares bike, would top out at $500.

UK
 

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Vjmc

Maybe you should consider joining a club like the vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club. Your interest level of these bikes would probably serve you well. When you get in any club like that I think your chances of getting a fair deal from an honest seller goes up exponentially from some random Craigslist ad. You budget of four grand should net you a dandy bike so long as you look at tons of them and then when the ONE jumps out at you, you will just know, that's all.

We are prohibited from mentioning other competing forums about motorcycles here, but there are many that specialize in Hondas of two cylinders and those that specialize in four cylinders as well.

I am on a Gold Wing forum and that is where you find out about some world class carb rebuilders. The Honda factory shops no longer do such things, so it is things like that is what you discover as you go along. Also, no one rebuilds Gold Wing motors. I have a 1200 cc that runs like new with 98000 miles on the clock. Most Hondas are like that because if they run well when you buy them, they will continue to do so if you change the oil regularly and adjust the timing chain and valves. You can locate spare engines from untitled bikes much cheaper than any other way of doing things. Untitled bikes are very common among the old Japanese bikes simply because they got parked when dad bought a Harley and then the title got lost.

Now if you want to mess around with a beater Japanese bike, that is a good thing as well. Find a complete unmolested original bike if possible. Again, you want those original brass parts for the carbs and you don't want some idiot throwing away stuff you need by buying a cheap kit. Know also that those "Phillips" case screws are not for your regular tools, but take JIS screwdrivers. My first project bike was firing off in a week and running in three for $150 purchase price and $270 with tires. What fun! Most guys with old bikes have more than one just because little things.
happen at the worst possible time and you want to have a bike available.

The first thing I do with a barn find bike is take Deep Creep penetrant and apply it to each and every screw on the engine case and any other bolt I see. Repeat once daily for a week and two weeks is better. It pays off and pays off.... Bigly.
 

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I'm sure you already know this if you are from Cleveland, but the biggest thing I would be looking for is that it be free of rust. Granted, there is some surface rust on darn near everything, but I mean no real rust, nothing deep and cancerous. An older Honda that is free of rust is a great start. From there you will be replacing lots of stuff like cables, chain/sprocket, new tires, etc.

Also, a word to the wise if you want to build a café racer: some people are SUPER sensitive about what a potential buyer plans to do with their stuff after they sell it, so I would not answer a Craigslist ad by saying, "I am interested in your old Honda, I want to chop it in half and make a custom bike out of it." I wouldn't care, but some people would not sell you a bike based on that.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
Alright thanks a lot. How about the safety of these bikes? Obviously over the course of almost 50 years there have been huge safety improvements, so just how dangerous is a 70s bike in comparison to a new one, and what should I watch out for?
 

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By far the biggest safety factor is the part sitting on the seat and holding the handlebars.

You won't have ABS. Just ride like a human being and watch out for cagers.
 

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I used a CB750 front brake master cylinder on one of my race bikes and tortured it. Worked like a charm.
As above, the guidance system was the biggest problem. The stroker kids rode the 500 and 50 Kawasakis to death, and the CB750 and later the XS1100 Yamaha and the 1100 Suzuki. That is why so many are in the dead bike yards. Low mileage engines sitting in bent frames.
All the Honda engines and gearboxes were very reliable, more so than any others from the seventies. That includes BMW.

UK
 
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