IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE (I-MIGHT-AS-WELL)

IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE (I-MIGHT-AS-WELL)

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  • On 2nd March 2015

When all this started, I had no intention of building a custom motorcycle.  The idea didn’t even cross my mind and at that point I wasn’t even sure I knew what exactly a “bobber” was.

My plan was to take the engine apart, learn what was what and how all these things inside worked, put it back together and hope like hell it would fire up again.  But that plan wasn’t meant to be.

If I was going to take the engine completely apart, I thought, and I was already planning to replace all gaskets, I might as well replace all oil seals, and I might as well replace all the O-rings, and I might as well put new piston rings, new spark plugs, etc.  And I might just as well, sort of… restore it.

Without realizing the implications, the I-MIGHT-AS-WELL gate had flung wide open and I had made that first fatal step into the realm of irrational exuberance.

The engine was no longer going to be just reassembled. It had to be reassembled perfectly and for that, I thought, I needed expert advice.  I called my friend and mentor in all things mechanical Richard (The Mechanic) Lamitie in Florida and a week later he showed up in New Jersey.  We got to work.

(I have a small workshop equipped with basic tools.  Many more were acquired during the course of this project.)

Once the engine was taken apart, all components were meticulously cleaned and completely de-greased.  The engine “shell” (no interior parts such as cams, chains, gears, etc.) was put together, completely de-greased again, dried, all orifices taped or plugged, and off it went to be bead blasted. (Any grease or oil left on the surface can be driven into the pores of the aluminum engine cases during bead blasting and so must be completely removed in advance.)

ENGINE BEAD BLASTED

The engine “shell” was then disassembled again and everything was thoroughly washed and blown with compressed air to ensure not a single glass bead had remained inside.  The engine covers, caps, etc. were then polished to a mirror finish and other parts were detailed including grinding and smoothing all rough edges on the air intake walls (something, Richard assured me, would allow air to come in perfectly without turbulence that might otherwise result from the air encountering the rough small ridges left from the original casting).

Polished ribs on bottom of seat pan never to be seen by anyone. Ridiculous?

Polished ribs on bottom of seat pan never to be seen by anyone. Ridiculous?

The engine was then completely re-build from the ground up starting with an empty (no parts attached) bottom crankcase shell. (The “HONDA CB500 CB550 Service Repair Manual gives an excellent step-by-step procedure and so there is no need to give this here.)

As soon as the engine was done, into the frame it went, we fired it up and when flames came out shooting from the exhaust openings (the headers were not installed) and the workshop reverberated with the powerful sounds of unrestricted internal combustion, I was delirious with joy.  We were, yes, the cliché is so appropriate: two kids in a candy store.

And when Richard went back to Florida (I have since then rebuilt another CB550 engine by myself just to make sure I could do it; now I have a spare), and I was left with what I wanted to believe was better-than-new looking and hopefully as-well-performing engine sitting in an old and dirty frame, I thought I might as well restore the frame.  But then, what about that old tank with worn out clear coat, and what about the few spokes that had started to rust, and that seat? I might as well…

Google search after google search, hour after hour of looking at what others had done (pipeburn.com is an excellent source), I finally came across the work of The Gavel Crew, Ian Barry of Falcon Motorcycles, Mike LaFontain of Raccia Motorcycles, Eastern Spirit, Mule Motorcycles, Ton Up Garage, Braam Nel, Kaichiro Kurosu of the Cherrys Company, Kinetic Motorcycles, and many, many others.  I was mesmerized. What those guys had done was absolutely stunning.  I was hooked. Completely and hopelessly.  I wanted to follow in their footsteps.

And isn’t this absolutely perfect:

Ian Barry's "Kestrel" motorcycle

Ian Barry’s “Kestrel” motorcycle

I realize that this statement may appear pompous.  That, I, the novice, should want my name alongside “the best in the business”.  This is not my intention.  I want to share my experiences (and by doing so to bring the above examples to other aspiring fellow motorcycles builders) and express my gratitude to all who inspired me by showing, through their work, what was really possible.  I had had no idea.

And I finally learned what a “bobber” was.  (I made it an absolute requirement to “bob” the original rear fender.)  When I read that the basic idea was in having “nothing superfluous”, the lights went on and the concept of BLACKSQUARE finally came into shape.  The rest was seemingly easy.

Given unlimited resources, we could do anything.

More to follow.

In closing this post, I just want to say that for perhaps half of the time I spent on this project I simply just sat in the workshop and looked at the bike trying to figure out what would bring the best balance of form and function.  Then, enthusiastically deciding that something would work, I would try it and sit back to look at it again.  Disappointed, frustrated and sometimes just tired, I would walk away.  But not for long.  Often, I would return to the workshop after everybody had gone to bed and would spend more time looking, walking around the bike, contemplating.    (I don’t remember ever wanting to get up early in the morning on weekends except while I worked on this project.)   In the next day or two, I would be back to more sketching, drawing, cutting, shaping, getting frustrated, and staring over and over again.  Eventually, something would work really well and it would be such a relief and so rewarding.  A few weeks or months would pass and I would think that I could make that particular part better, and into the vicious circle I went again.

Luckily, it somehow came together relatively nicely balanced in the end.

ON THE SUBJECT OF COSTS

I would prefer to save myself the embarrassment of financial disclosure, but here is a very rough estimate of what it might cost to build a motorcycle like BLACKSQUARE, provided the builder got everything right the first time (which, in some cases, I didn’t) :

Original HONDA CB550 = $2,000 (One does not need a pristine bike for a project like this, but a $1,000-dollar CB550’s are not readily available.  If you must start immediately, budget $2,500+.)

Engine (including clutch) Restoration = $700+ ($100 blasting, $500+ parts, $100 miscellaneous)

Carburetors Restoration = $300 (complete rebuild, parts and consumables only)

Solid Brass Velocity Stacks = $250 (Steel Dragon Performance)

Frame Restoration = $300 – $400 (cutting, grinding, welding, powder coating)

Wheels and Tires = $1,200+ (if you wanted DEVON RIM stainless steel rims and spokes or BORRANI)

Front Wheel Hub = $200+ (restored and fitted with new brake shoes)

Rear Suspension = $300 – $500

Chain and sprockets = $175

Seat = $50 – $1,000+ (make your own or have it custom-made by a reputable craftsman)

Tank = $ 1,500 – $2,000 (yes, good custom tanks are expensive)

Gas Cap = $120 (or more, SPEED DEALER CUSTOM)

Painting = $500 (could be substantially more)

Exhaust = $1,000 – $1,500 (for a custom set of stainless steel headers and off-the-shelf mufflers, 4 into 4; could be substantially more.)

Cables = $300+ (BARNETT)

Clutch and Brake Levers = $50

Grips = $39 (ARIETE)

Custom Handle Bars = $100 (stainless steel, add more if you wanted it polished)

Headlight = $100+ (Restore-it-yourself antique or $300+ for a quality custom one.  Many MADE IN CHINA headlights are available for about $50.)

Taillights with glass lenses = $100 (could be more)

Battery = $150

Ignition key = $90

Electrical Harness = $75 – $150 (if you can do it yourself)

Custom “3D” stick-on emblem = $50

Custom Parts = $1,000+ (or substantially more; here I define “custom parts” as truly custom and specific to your bike only and I include foot pegs, brake pedal, gear shifter, kickstand, throttle assembly, front brake stay, exhaust hanging brackets, headlight brackets, rear hub plate locking brackets, brass chain adjuster bolts, etc. See above for things like custom seat, custom exhaust and more.)

Fasteners = $200+ (stainless steel, brass, etc.; the number of nuts and bolts on a motorcycle is truly mind-boggling).

Miscellaneous = $500+ (all chemicals such as cleaners, de-greasers, lubricants, rust removers, anti-sieze, locktite, gasket makers, carburetor cleaners, stainless steel cleaners,WD-40, oil, fork oil, etc. and things like sand paper, wire wheels, polishing wheels and compounds, not to mention shop rags of which you will need hundreds)

Specialty tools = $500+

QUESTIONS?