by Gary Charpentier
“IT JUST GOT OUTTA HAND!” These were the words a wide-eyed Jim Cassen used to describe his first cafe racer project. We were sitting in the Old Man River Cafe on Annapolis and Smith, just up the hill from the High Bridge in St. Paul. It was a gorgeous Saturday morning, not a cloud in the sky, and we had met to photograph and test ride Jim’s gorgeous 1972 Honda CB350 Cafe Racer. Or perhaps I should call it a Retro Street Fighter? Jim says his aim was to combine the old with the new and come up with something unique. He certainly accomplished that mission, but it wasn’t easy. Nor was it cheap. I get the distinct impression that’s what he meant when he said it got out of hand.
The old Honda sat in a barn for 15 years. Jim had gotten it gratis from his boss at the time, and promptly put it where so many of these old classics end up. Then, three years ago, he dug it out from under the pile of bird droppings and rescued it from it’s long sleep when his partner Kim was given a CB350 by her brother. This is undoubtably when the bug bit him, both literally and figuratively, as the battery box by that time housed a hornet’s nest! I’m sure they had fun evicting the hundreds of nasty little tenants from THAT housing project.
The barn-fresh relic was disassembled down to the nuts and bolts, and everything was either bead blasted or soda blasted, and I think, money blasted as well. The list of modifications and upgrades is impressive:
The engine was bored 3.5mm over, to 362cc, and balanced. Former AHRMA Champion Todd Henning supplied the high compression pistons and worked his magic on the cylinder heads. A Megacycle cam was fitted to take advantage of the improved breathing, and a Megaton exhaust system provides the heavy bass backbeat. A Barnett clutch transmits the extra power to a close-ratio five speed transmission, and Dyna Coils help light off the high octane mixture which is currently supplied through stock carburetors, but scheduled for a change to larger Mikuni’s.
A stock frame holds some trick chassis pieces, starting with modern VTR 250 forks up front. These are topped by a Pyramid dual headlight kit and carbon fiber flyscreen, which parts the air around the Pro-Flo clip-ons. Works shocks support the rear of the bike, and the controls have been relocated to a more racy position with Novella rearsets. The entire bike has been tricked out beyond your typical AHRMA vintage racer, and I suspect that this is probably one of the most expensive Honda CB350s in captivity.
Jim got into bikes after many years of playing with cars. Show cars, drag racers, he has done it all. Mr. Cassen is the quintessential gearhead. As such, he is also obsessed with attention to detail. As our photos show, this bike is immaculate! But surprisingly, it wasn’t built as a showbike. “I built it to ride.” , says Jim, and ride it he does. I first spotted this bike as he rode it into the parking lot at Dulono’s on the First Thursday in June. The exhaust has a vicious bark, speaking through that pair of racing megaphones. The overall effect is that of an attack-trained dachshund; small and sort of cute, but with a wicked disposition. It caught my attention instantly, and I interrupted a conversation I was having just to go over and introduce myself, and see if maybe Mr. Cassen would like to see his bike featured in a magazine.
The impression of wickedness was confirmed during my test ride. I was spared the challenge of trying to boot the beast to life, as Jim had thoughtfully retained the electric start. Full choke, a quick twist of the throttle, and a press of a button produced a loud BOOM! Boom-boom-boomboomboom… the staccato idle of a race motor with a radical cam. The choke was shut off immediately, as the mixture runs quite rich. Vibration through the clip-ons was quite pronounced, and the riding position left no doubt that this bike would be much happier on a racetrack than out in civilized society. Toeing into first and rolling on the throttle sent us lurching out into traffic. Every power pulse seemed to produce a distinct tug forward; at low rpm the thing almost felt like a thumper.
The chassis is tight and responsive, but the front end felt a bit vague to me, and I think that was because of the steering damper Jim mounted to conform with traditional vintage racer custom. We rode down the hill on Ohio street, which consists of a series of bumpy switchbacks and is an ideal road to reveal any flaws in chassis set-up. The little Street Fighter tracked flawlessly though, and the stock drum brakes were adequate for keeping things under control. Turning onto Plato, I thought about trying an abbreviated acceleration test, but recent flooding had washed ridges of mud across the road, and I had no desire to test-FLY somebody else’s pride and joy through such conditions. After all, this bike is soooo clean…
So we stopped near the steamboat landing on Harriet Island for some more photos. Jim rode around in circles while I played Brian J. Nelson (our local, world-famous moto photographer) with my Canon Rebel. Then we called it a wrap and rode back to the Old Man River Cafe for some refreshment.
Overall, this is a very impressive first effort. The motor is pure race machine, with that Todd Henning magic very apparent. I’m sure this bike could be raced successfully with minimal changes in one of the sportsman or formula classes. (except that it might just be way too pretty to race!) The combination of old and new helps bring the cafe racer concept up to date, and distinguishes this bike from the many period customs and perfect restorations out there.
Jim’s next project is a CB450 he just bought at a garage sale. He hasn’t decided exactly what form it will take, but if his first effort is any indication, I’m sure this next bike is going to be a real work of art.