Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Johnny’s shadow loomed over me as I fretted.

“So what’s it going to be?”

Once you take the sawzall or spray can to a piece of the historical machinery, there’s no going back. Well, you can, but it won’t be the same.

My natural inclination was to restore it to original glory, not to turn it into something not intended by the Honda engineers.

“Even in its original glory, it’s nothing special. Make it something special.”

“I think something in black.”

The inspiration originally came from a Tennessee Craigslist ad. Someone had turned a CX500 into a black bobber. Although it looked cool at first blush, closer inspection revealed that the owner had simply coated the bike in black spray paint after chopping the frame and removing the air box.

The CX500 owner’s forum suggested that removing the air box and adding pods created a lot of headaches. It looked cool, but I need it to run predictably more than I need it to look cool. Whenever I buy a bike, I join an owner’s forum that supports that model. Most of them provide helpful insights from those who have already gone over the waterfall in a barrel. Vintage groups tend to be more helpful because anyone who commits to a vintage bike is “all in.”

I decided I’d go “all in” and customize. Johnny nodded.

I’d need to look at some more pictures and postings before deciding which direction to go in. Like home remodeling, time spent on paper is time well spent. Once you start knocking out walls, you’re committed. Hopefully you’ve sorted it out well ahead of time.

To buy some gestation time, I focused on the maintenance items first. I changed the Rotella 15W40 oil and Fram 6077 filter thanks to Advance Autoparts. I changed out the SAE90 rear differential oil in the shaft drive. I changed the spark plugs and added air to the tires and the front shocks. The air filter looked new. The master cylinder was filled with dark, syrupy goo that used to be DOT3 brake fluid. I could actually bleed it myself.

The previous owner in Mechanicsburg said that the bike was cold natured and included a factory manual and carb rebuild kit for the bike. In my experience, any bike that runs moderately well will run better with fresh gas and B12 carb cleaner in the tank.

“’Carburetor’ is a French word that means, ‘don’t mess with it.’ ”

Sometimes you have to mess with them, but the simplest solution is the correct one. That’s what Akim said.

Sure enough—after making those changes, the bike ran pretty well. That bought me more time to sort out how to proceed.

Overall, the plan was to go flat black “café racer.” I wanted to keep my costs low. The first order of business was listing what I wanted to do and what I’d need to buy. Some of the items would take time to complete. Some action items were dependent on the completion of other tasks. Writing the tasks down helped sort them out.

The initial plan was to paint the wheels, shaft drive, side covers, tank and headlight bucket flat black. I found a Krylon spray paint can that included primer.

I’d keep the stock chrome fenders, but planned to chop them.

A black GP Touring bar would replace the stock, chrome handlebars. This choice was somewhere between laid-back buckhorn bars and lay-over Clubman bars.

I’d remove the black aluminum anodizing finish from the handlebar clamp and the left and right control clusters. The CX500 has a fair amount of vibration, so I’d replace the deteriorating foams grips with chrome/rubber ISO grips and black bar end mirrors.

Many people painted or wrapped the exhaust pipes. Even with 25,000 miles, my pipes were particularly nice, so I hated covering them up. While the stock mufflers were good shape, the Emgo megaphones looked more the part. They would be the most expensive add on.

A man I used to teach motorcycle safety with would modify the seat to a café racer hump. I wanted to use the original pan, but only modify the seat so it was only suitable for one up riding.

“Never buy what you don’t want because it is cheap.”

I removed the windshield and sissy bar, which were not staying with the bike. Using Craigslist, I was able to sell them for $40. I pulled the rear seat and dropped it off with Bert. The aftermarket Travelcade cover was splitting anyway.

To customize, I started at the rear of the bike, removing the rear wheel. The bike was on the center stand with a strap looping through the front wheel to prevent an accidental roll off. Don’t ask why I always use a securing strap.

After reading online suggestions on how to apply spray paint, I protected the bike with blue masking tape and started with the rattle can. For flat black paint, it had a nice sheen. After each light coat, I’d let the parts sit for a couple of hours before applying another coat. Job and family activities turned it into a multi-day process.

I drew wiring diagram of how the tail light and turn signals plugged together. It seems very obvious when taking it apart, but three intervening weeks makes it look unfamiliar. While the electrical connections were apart, I coated them with dielectric grease to improve the connections. I disconnected the ground to the battery. Although I didn’t anticipate anything to cause a short, but this would ensure it wouldn’t.

The overall color scheme was black and chrome, but adding a few color accents would be a nice touch. I ordered a set of ¼” red rim strips off eBay and some fresh decals for the side covers. Initially, I was drawn to WWII pin up girl decals.

“That’s not really from your time, is it?”

Atari was more from my time, but that wasn’t that right direction either. I made my selections and ordered from eBay. Some tank decals were on the way too.

Using a Harbor Freight heat gun, I removed many of OEM safety stickers. 1981 was apparently a dangerous time. The heat gun LO setting worked faster than a hair dryer, but the HI setting was too much heat.

After some wrangling, I was able to get the rear wheel back on. I installed the red rim stripes and they looked fine

The stock, two-bulb safety conscious taillight was too big and clunky looking. eBay offered a bewildering assortment of taillights- LED, Vintage, Integrated, and so on. Modern taillight, modern taillight with integrated turn signals or vintage tail light?


But I didn’t want to go 1930 truck vintage. First, it was too expensive and second, it didn’t fit the look. I picked up a tail light with integrated plate holder. The plan was to chop the rear fender and remount the new tail light.

When the part arrived, I found that it would fit into the stock mounting holes but would not accept any standard license plate without drilling additional holes. To split the difference, I used the original tail light mounting holes and then high mounted the plate to give it a chopped appearance. I put two round reflective buttons on the outside edge for a vintage feel. I soldered the wiring connections together and taped them up.

Although the stock turn signals are huge by today’s standards, I liked the fact that the OEM signals also acted as running lights. One of the lenses was a little cloudy, so $7 later, I had a new OEM cover on its way. I drilled out the mounting holes in the frame to accommodate the signals. After drilling, I gave the frame a quick spray. The drill and buffing wheel were my most used customizing tools.

I removed the side covers and used my second spray can of flat black. I did not have the skill to pull off a glossy black paint job, so I figured flat black would hide many sins. It probably does, but it looked awful. Why didn’t real wheel look like that? When I checked the old can, I found I had been using a “Satin” finish, not flat black. Unfortunately, I had painted half of the rear wheel satin and half of it flat black.

“Two ways of doing things- the right way and the other way.”

I pulled the rear wheel, took the red stripe off and repainted it in Satin. Also picked up a couple more cans of Satin—I used three cans in all. After a few more coats, I reinstalled the wheel and reapplied the red stripes.

My side covers already were a flat black, so I repainted them Satin. Although you could see the big CX500 Custom sticker over the side panel, I thought painting it would look better and be easier than scratching up the side cover trying to remove the decal. Using bungee cords, I hung the painted pieces, sufficiently out of harm’s way. The pieces were OK to touch within 30 minutes and I waited 2 hours before re-spraying them.

Next, I pulled the tank, removing the two bolts in the front and one bolt at the rear. Where possible, I screwed the bolts back into their original locations to remind me where they go and keep them from getting lost.

The tank was nearly full, so I used the brake bleeder to operate the vacuum controlled petcock and drain the tank. Thankfully, the tank was rust free.

“Use a flashlight to check the tank, not a match.”

After the tank drained, I taped the tank’s chrome washers and petcock. I laid the tank on top of a wooden sawhorse and used a screw to attach it. Over-spraying the sawhorse didn’t matter and I didn’t have to worry about the tank laying in harm’s way. The aluminum tank lock would stay original, so I removed the two screws holding it on. An impact wrench is handy for that kind of work—even if you’re not striking it with a hammer (which I wouldn’t suggest on a fragile gas tank), but it seems to provide some additional heft to break those screws free.

Once painted, the parts were now ready for decals. Slow and steady. Practice placement. Practice placement again. And again. Now slowly apply the decal and smooth from the inside out. The white “Lucky 13” vinyl application was a little trickier, but worth it. Once you apply the sticky part of the vinyl to the side cover, you need to rub remaining part firmly so the vinyl will cling to the cover instead of the sheet. Each letter was its own individual piece. The Honda tank decals were not an exact size match, but they were close enough to fit on top of the existing decals.

This was a Honda, not a Moto Guzzi, and I wanted that fact subtly displayed, not hidden.

Removing the aluminum radiator shrouds was easy; the radiator itself is small. The cooling fan mounted behind is mechanical, so when the motor turns, the fan turns. This setup makes a cold natured bike even colder. Some claim that it robs some power from the engine. One solution is to remove the mechanical fan and install a ZX6R electric radiator fan and a thermostat. I decided against this modification, although I drained the radiator, removed it and painted it Satin black. I reinstalled and filled with straight Ethylene Glycol. Others reported doing this with no problems.

Using Krylon Satin Clear Coat, I applied a couple of coats to the tank and side panels. It might help the decals stay put. Since I would be working on the controls and handlebars next, I kept the tank on the sawhorse. No point in denting it while installing the handlebars.

The controls are actually anodized aluminum, faded by time. I saw on the forum posting that you could polish them to a chrome like finish. I was going to reverse the OEM color scheme. Instead of black handgrips with black controls on a chrome handlebar with a black center console, I’d go with chrome grips with chrome controls on a black handlebar with a chrome center console.

It was a cool idea that turned into an awful lot of work. Except for the right control, it was simple to take the switchgear out. For the right control, I needed to cut the wire to engine cut off switch to remove it. For all of the aluminum pieces, the process was the same. Soak them in purple cleaning solution and then spend a lot of time on the buffing wheel. Lots and lots of time. Some folks on the forum has shined the pieces to a mirror finish, but I liked the industrial look. Plus, it wasn’t as much work.

Once the pieces were polished, putting the switchgear back in them was like repacking at the end of your vacation. While it’s easy to pack everything into the suitcase at home, getting it all back in there at the islands is tougher.

The ISO chrome handgrips I ordered looked great, but were not OEM. The right grip had cable eyelets that were farther apart than the stock grips. It only took me two hours of struggling with the cables to realize this. Using a hacksaw and small snip, I managed to get the cables attached to the non-OEM grip.

“Customize means it’s not factory.”

The grips also had an ugly pointy things on the ends. Easy enough to take off, but I wanted to ream out the holes on the grip ends to accommodate bar end mirrors. Turns out that a 7/8” drill bit cost as much as the grips, which was hard to justify. I found an abrasive grinding bit that was more in the $4 range. It turns out that reaming the grip hole with a grinding tool produces a lot of heat. Enough to melt the rubber inserts of the left grip anyway. I ordered a new set of grips, so I didn’t save money by not buying the drill bit.

Once I slipped on the controls and grips, I realized that the long stock cables would need to be re-routed to work with the short GP Touring handlebar. Consequently, if I moved the grips in any further to accommodate bar end mirrors, I’d be left with even more cable slack. Bar end mirrors aren’t very functional anyway. I’d stick with traditional mirrors and figure out a way to cover the holes.

With the handlebar on, I put the bike on the motorcycle lift to remove the front wheel. The front securing straps hooked to the handlebar the rear securing straps hooked to rear frame.

“Don’t put your bike on a lift without securing it.”

After removing the headlight, I made note of the wiring connections inside the headlight bucket. The headlight bucket would be black and the trim ring would stay chrome. A BMW headlight guard gave it a nice retro feel. I used my favorite customizing tool to ream out the mounting holes.

After reassembling the headlight, everything worked except the headlight. The CX500 forum offered up possible culprits, but none of the fixes worked. I put the headlight problem aside. Electrical problems can be a real headache.

The front wheel came off so I checked the brake pads. Plenty of life left. I cleaned the rim with rubbing alcohol and taped up the tire. Taking the front disc off was simpler than trying to protect it from spray paint.

Several coats of paint later, the wheel was ready for reinstallation. I cleaned the speedometer hub and greased the axle in the process. To apply the red rim strips, you need to be able to spin the wheel.

Many years ago, I picked up a Craftsman 318 socket set. That was some of the best money spent on tools. They may not be professional mechanic grade, like Snap-on, but they aren’t as expensive either. For my purposes, they are the right tools. It’s handy to have a ½” drive with matching sockets when you need them.

Originally, I was going to use the chop saw to trim down the fenders. The rear fender looked nice without doing that. I could leave the saw in the box and get $70 back from Harbor Freight. Or I could take out the saw, chop the front fender and hope I’d be happy with the results. I decided I’d rather have $70.

Updating the wheel did not fix my headlight problem. I looked at Johnny. He shrugged.

The postings on the forum pointed to either a blown fuse in the center console under the handlebar clamp or a loose connection in the starter button. When you start the bike, it temporarily turns off the headlight to provide more juice to the starter motor. Neither seemed to be my problem.

I posted on the forum with the specifics of the problem and Reg from England responded back with a helpful checklist. I have a handy tester that lights up when you get a good connection. It turned out the problem was with my HI/LO beam switch. His advice really saved a lot of time. Once I was on the right path, it only took about five minutes of checking to sort it out and test it.

“It’s always darkest before dawn.”

With that problem solved, I began tightening and adjustment period. Not everything is tightened appropriately when it’s put back together, so I started from rear to front. The clutch and brake controls were semi-tightened, so I could tweak the adjustments later.

The bike would not start after with the first hit or two of the starter. It would turn, but not catch. I sprayed a little starting fluid in the air box and she started right up, the engine vacuum pulled on the petcock diaphragm and she maintained a slightly elevated idle. Good deal.

“The test ride is when it all comes together-- ask a test pilot.”

The seat was not ready yet; Bert had some questions about how I wanted to proceed. Apparently, the seat foam had been modified when the Travelcade cover had been installed. I put a piece of cardboard over the air box, sat down and eased out the clutch.

If I didn’t reassemble it correctly, it would be a disastrous ride, particularly at highway speeds. I started out easy on side roads before merging on to the Interstate. It was a nervous ride, but the bike performed as well as before I took it apart. Actually, a little better, since it was lighter. The clutch slipped at full blast and the controls were slightly out of place, but I could fix those with adjustment.

Putting the seat pan on the bike in person made it easier to visualize how to alter the seat. He said he’d have it for me within a week. Good deal. I rode back with more confidence.

I was pleased with the end result. A nice, vintage cafe racer without breaking the bank.

FINAL NOTE: Any similiarities to an American singer, living or dead is completely coincidental. The words I thought I heard him are more of a combination of hard learned life lessons or advice I'd gotten from many others.

1981 Honda CX500 "To Do" List

Paint Rear Wheel
Tape Rear Wheel Red
Install Rear Wheel
Paint Rear Hub
Install Rear Brakes
Install Rear Shocks
Fill Rear Tire with Air
Install Tail Light
Install Rear Fender
Install Rear Turn Signals
Find Rear Turn Signal Lens
Install License Plate
Paint Muffler Brackets
Install Mufflers
Remove Helmet Lock Sticker
Paint Side Covers
Measure Side Covers
Order Side Cover Decals
Paint Honda Front Plate
Install Honda Front Plate
Remover Radiator
Paint Radiator
Drain Coolant Tank
Reinstall Radiator
Remove Tank
Remove Tank Lock
Paint Tank
Reapply Honda Stickers
Check Fuel Lines
Remove anodizing from Left Controls
Remove anodizing from Right Controls
Remove anodizing from Center Console
Remove Handlebar
Install New Handlebar
Reroute Control Wiring
Install Controls
Install New Handlebar grips
Install Mirrors
Paint Headlight Bucket
Lubricate Headlight Connections
Reinstall Headlight Wiring
Reinstall Headlight
Install Headlight Guard
Remove Front Wheel
Remove Disc Brake
Tape Front Wheel
Paint Front Wheel
Tape Front Wheel Red
Replace Valve Stem Covers
Polish Motorheads
Paint Side Stand
Wax Motorcycle
Pick up seat from Bert
Fix Headlight
Reattach Battery Ground
Charge Battery
Test Ride
Take Final Pictures
Write up Blog

Parts used in the project, including price, assessment and eBay seller:

Krylon Satin Black + Primer $4.98 walmart Easy to apply

Krylon Satin Clear Coat $4.98 walmart Easy to apply

Blue Tape $6.00 walmart Easy to apply

Triumph Bonneville Rear Shocks $0.00 me Good fit, knocking out the Triumph eyelets was on par with Sportster shocks

Clay Smith Decal $8.99 so-cal_speed_shop Easy to apply - correct look for me

Lucky 13 Vinyl Decal $4.25 evil_vinyl A little trickier to apply, but great look

Honda Decals $15.80 spidercustoms2012 Kinda pricey, but fit the bill

Rear Tail Light $27.98 2wheelproject Perfect fit to CX500 fender, but needed drilling for license plate holes. Had to mod wiring connection.

Red Rim Stripe $7.49 cgd_graphics Strips work perfectly, but a perfect application is on the installer

Emgo Megaphone Mufflers $115.98 bk-rider Correct period look for me. Needed the included adapters for a perfect fit

Iso Handgrips $19.98 kleiner-chinese Good price, but the cable connections were further apart than stock, requiring quite a bit of modification

GP Touring Handlebar 7/8" $20.95 ragingparts Perfect café look without hiring a chiropractor. Stock cables are a little long for this bar

BMW Headlight Guard $36.95 classicscooterparts Requires some drilling to fit the Honda bucket, but I liked the look

Seat Modification Bert $200

Total $474.33