Saturday, October 10, 2009

The One That Got Away: Honda CB550

At the Honda dealer in Sunnyvale, California, where I worked for a short time, there was a loft above the service department where they stored parts that had been taken off wrecked bikes. Most of these parts—dented gas tanks, ripped seats, a bent fork tube with a usable slider, a dinged rim laced to an intact brake drum, an engine that had miraculously emerged unscathed from the accident that completely destroyed the rest of the bike—had been damaged badly enough to replace under the rider’s insurance policy, but not so badly that they wouldn’t work if you didn’t care how they looked.

Every now and then some pimply-faced kid trying to cobble together a bike to ride to school or work would come in looking for used parts. He had little or no money, of course, which meant it wasn't a question of beating the parts department out of a sale, so someone would trudge up the stairs and dig out the dinged pipe or the bent lever that would get him on the road, accept a token donation for the Six O'Clock Beer Fund, and send him on his way before the boss got bored enough to wonder what was going on in other parts of the store and come snooping around the service department.

One day the service manager was looking for something for the latest hard-luck case when he realized there was almost enough stuff up there to build an entire motorcycle. So he did. It was a CB550K/F/WTF, with some parts from the four-pipe K model, others from the sportier F, and a few that appeared to have come from a lawnmower.

I was without a ride just then, and when he offered it to me for $600, I took it. Then as now, I was not sufficiently ruled by vanity to turn down a good deal, no matter how homely. But eventually I decided a few small cosmetic enhancements wouldn’t hurt.

There was a big dent in the tank. I filled it with putty and spent hours sanding and refilling it to a contour that stubbornly refused to match that of the surrounding metal, dispelling any illusions I might have had about a career as a body-and-fender man. I painted the tank in what turned out to be the ugliest shade of orange ever—the color on the can was probably listed as Ugly Orange. The resulting finish had the same texture as the peel of an orange, so in the end it was an inspired choice.

There’s something gloriously freeing about riding a mutt. The hours you would ordinarily spend cleaning and polishing a nicer bike can instead be spent riding. You don’t have to worry about anyone stealing it, because it’s so ugly no one would want to, and even if someone did boost it, the other bike thieves would make fun of him until he brought it back.

I don’t remember how many miles I put on that bike, mainly because I don’t remember how many speedometers from the loft I put on it until I found one that worked for more than a week. I do remember one odd trait it had—the quietest idle of any bike I’d ridden before or since. Most of the time, if it hadn't been for the tach needle twitching like a frog leg hooked up to a car battery, I wouldn’t have known the engine was running at all.

In 1984 I was offered a job at Rider, which required moving from the Bay Area to L.A. Since I’d presumably have access to new and infinitely nicer-looking bikes in my capacity as features editor, I sold the CB550 to a friend of a friend before I left, for the same $600 I’d paid for it; the paint job didn’t add any value to the bike, but at least it didn’t subtract any, either.

These days, when I think about getting a project bike to putter with during the long, wet winters, I always seem to search online for CB550s. If I ever find the right deal I might have to find a few cans of Ugly Orange, too.

1 comment:

Canajun said...

As an ex-CB550 owner I can relate. Fun to ride, bulletproof, easy to work on - that bike had it all. And I too will take a second look at any CB550s that show up on eBay or Craig's List, looking for that great deal.