by Gary Charpentier
Cafe Scrambler. Sounds like a breakfast dish you might order at Denny’s, doesn’t it? But throughout the course of this three-year project, I’ve been unable to come up with a suitable name for this motorbike. I don’t know if that’s because it is made up of parts from three different bikes and four different countries, or if I have simply lost the enthusiasm for naming my motorcycles. “Gypsy” was the obvious choice for my `82 Gpz 550, I didn’t even have to think about that. But I have called this bike so many names during the course of it’s creation that it doesn’t know whether to answer to “#@$%&*!” or “&*%#@#!”. More on this later…
Offered as either the CB (streetbike) or CL (scrambler), in 450cc displacement, these Hondas were quite technically advanced for the period. First introduced in 1965, they featured technology which was only previously found on racebikes. Double-overhead-cams (DOHC) acted on two valves per cylinder, which were held in check by torsion bar valve springs, instead of the usual coils. This was a controversial application in 1965, but has proven to be strong and reliable over the years. Produced until the mid-1970s, they were given a displacement bump up to 500cc for the last models. But the Honda DOHC Twin was never as popular as it should have been here in America. We were into displacement then, same as we are today. All that hinky Japanese technology was just too much for us to grasp, apparently. But just as with my old Bridgestone 350 GTR, the oddball technology was one of the attributes which attracted me to this bike.
The Cafe Scrambler is my vision of the optimum Honda DOHC Twin. It has all the best parts of the various versions of this under-appreciated classic. By “best”, I mean either functionally or aesthetically. When it came down to a choice between the two, aesthetics won out; this is going to be a streetbike, after all. For instance, I chose the drum front brake because it looks right. The single hydraulic disc brake from the later CB model didn’t offer enough performance advantage to justify it’s use, and the yearly hydraulic system maintenance is a chore I would rather forego. The scrambler high-pipes were a similar compromise. They may not flow the best, but they really look the business.
The search for the right fuel tank was a project in itself. The fuel tank is the visual focal point of any unfaired motorcycle. Why else would the manufacturers all put their company name or logo on there? From an aesthetic standpoint, it is the single most important component. The small scrambler tank was definitely out. The larger CB tank was the right size, but it was so generic lacking the sort of visual punch I had in mind. I thought about using various tools to reshape it into a more unique and racy design. After a sufficient amount of liquid creativity was consumed, thought turned to action, and I made a complete disaster out of a formerly pristine vessel. So I retreated to my computer, where I began searching cyberspace for the perfect centerpiece. It soon became obvious that I needed the tank that graced the first version of the DOHC twin: the venerable “Black Bomber”.
You will often hear the term “unobtainium” used to describe particularly trick, and hence hard-to-find components. Nowhere does this term apply more aptly than to the famous Black Bomber fuel tank. Chrome-sided, with knee rubbers and elegant round emblems, this was the apogee of early Japanese motorcycle art. I looked everywhere for a perfect NOS example, but the only one I could find was waaayyy beyond my budget. I settled for a fixer-upper with light internal rust and little dings here and there. POR-15 solved the rust problem, and lessons I learned from my earlier bodywork experiments fixed the rest. At the last moment, I decided to ditch the black paint in favor of an elegant, dark Cadillac green. This was applied in typical rattle-can fashion and hand-rubbed to a high luster. My centerpiece complete, it was time to get this thing running!
The first order of business was to get rid of the points. Newtronic’s in England makes the HO-6 electronic ignition specifically for this motorcycle. Just set it and forget it; I much prefer these to the finicky old contact breaker system. Of course I realize that points do have their advantages, most notably that of their failure mode. Points will usually exhibit a gradual decline in performance, allowing the savvy rider enough warning to get the thing home and in the garage before having to deal with it. When the Newtronics fails, I will almost inevitably be out on the road somewhere, tooling along blissfully until combustion suddenly stops, leaving me stranded who knows where. But hopefully there should be many miles of carefree motoring to enjoy before that happens, and the performance of the `lectronics is supposed to be superior. We’ll see…
The high-mounted scrambler exhaust was always infamous for being rather loud and snorty. An aftermarket company called “Pacifico” made a product for these back in the `60s called “Snuff-or-Nots”. These consisted of a metal washer-on-a-stick that was inserted in the end of the exhaust pipe and could be opened or closed by means of a knob for silent running through quiet residential neighborhoods or past sleeping policemen parked behind billboards. These qualified as a “baffle”, which in those days was all that was required for an exhaust system to be legal. (Remember the old biker movie cliche of The Man running his nightstick up the pipe and declaring them illegal, thereby “hassling” the poor, misunderstood hero?)
But in these days of “Loud Pipes Save Lives”, I’m just going to run mine with it’s resonant, burnt-out muffler. Compared to a straight-pipe hog, these are downright civilized. If The Man hassles me, he had better be hasslin’ Mr. Dow Jones on his DynaFatAssYuppyGlide too.
I decided to leave the motor stock this year, so I could concentrate on sorting out the chassis. Mark McGrew, former Honda race team mechanic and current owner of M3 Racing, is the local guru for these bikes. Having campaigned them in AHRMA for the last several years, he knows about all there is to know about getting them to make decent power. M3 sells numerous parts and services in this vein, so I know where to go when it’s time to hop-up the powerplant.
Now, I mentioned that the Cafe Scrambler has parts from four different countries. One of the most prominent sources has been the UK, birthplace of Cafe Racer culture. A fellow named Jim Morgan runs Disco Volante Moto (www.discovolantemoto.com) out of a small shop in Wales. Disco Volante is Italian for flying saucer, and Jim christened his company after an MV Agusta by the same name. DVM supplies cafe racer parts sourced from all over the world, including the Paolo Tarrozzi (Italian) rearsets mounted on my Cafe Scrambler. These are top quality pieces that simply blow away anything else I’ve seen for this application, regardless of price. I also bought my Lucas-style tail light from DVM, and I couldn’t have been happier with the quality and service. I don’t often endorse commercial interests, but we need to keep this guy in business. So let’s review: The bike originated in Japan, natch. Tail light and Newtronics from the UK. Rearsets from Italy. Oh, and several other bits and pieces fabricated “with a little help from my friends” right here in Minnesota, USA.
If this is starting to sound like another episode of Shawn Downey’s “This Old Bike”, I apologize. But the fact is, I didn’t ride at all this past winter. I spent all my time in my newly-heated garage trying to make parts that were never designed to fit together converge into a ridable work of art. It’s too soon to say whether I have succeeded. I’ve been able to make it run, but there are still so many niggling little details to work out that it has yet to turn a wheel on the street.
However, in the course of thinking and writing about it, I have finally settled on a name. At first I leaned towards some knock-off of the “Frankenbike” theme, due to it’s dubious multi-bike origins. After getting it mostly assembled, I sat there for awhile and just stared at it. I contemplated the racy hunch-backed profile, and like an answer appearing in a Magic 8-Ball the name emerged from the murky depths of my winter-addled mind. Ladies and gentlemen, meet “Quasi-Moto”… coming soon to a Café near you.