It always begins the same way. The seed of an idea finds its way into my skull where, carefully nurtured, it grows and blossoms into a fully fledged daydream. In my mind I can repair anything. I can rebuild engines, troubleshoot electrical problems, weld like a pro and am a master of paint and body work. The dream always turns out perfectly, but since I am not actually able to any of these things in real life, there is some disconnect when I take that vision out of my skull and try to make it into reality.
At the time, you couldn’t have convinced me that rebuilding a 1978 Honda CBX, a bike that mounted a massive 6 cylinder engine, was an idea better left alone in my imagination. I am not sure why I suddenly fixated upon this particular design, perhaps I saw an article in a magazine that predicted it would become a collectable in the future, but as I mulled the idea over I realized that I actually knew a man who had owned one back in the day. I looked him up and, wouldn’t you know it, he still happened to own it. The engine was blown, he told me, but no matter I knew I must have it.
I got the bike cheaply enough, I traded a .30 caliber M-1 carbine worth about $200 at the time and paid $200 cash. The next morning I met my friend at his mom’s house and together we went to a small metal garden shed in the corner of the yard. We pried open a pair of doors that probably hadn’t been opened in a decade and rolled the bike out into the sunlight. There it sat in all its glory, my own CBX.
I didn’t see it then, but I can tell you now that the bike was in pretty rotten shape. Left on its own in the drafty little shed meant to hold lawnmowers, shovels and planting soil, the bike had not been totally spared by nature. About the best thing I can say was that had been out of the rain. It was covered with gunk and grime. Spider webs hung over it as if it were a prop in an old time Hollywood horror movie and a long abandoned hornets’ nest hung from one of the mirrors.
The bike had also been wrecked at one point prior to going into the shed. The handle bars were twisted and the bar ends scuffed. The headlight bezel was out of round and the glass of the headlight itself was cracked. Beyond that, it had been placed in the shed with no plans for a long term stay and so it still had decade old gasoline in the tank and a long dead battery still under the seat.
All of this paled, however, in comparison to the giant jagged hole in the crank case. Big enough to put my fist through, the hole looked like it belonged on the bow of the Titanic. It had been made when a flying piston rod had come loose from crank shaft and hammered its way into the outside world. As evidence of this catastrophic engine failure, there, still hanging through the hole it had created, was the bike’s mechanical iceberg, the piston rod itself still dangling freely through the fatal wound it had created. I saw none of this of course, or rather I saw it all but because the bike in my mind’s eye did not have a gaping hole in it, I failed to understand what I was seeing.
My father once told me that the difference between a man and a boy is that, in his mind’s eye, a boy sees how nice something could be if he fixes it, while a man pictures how much work and money the fixing will involve. I must have been more boy than man at that point because I loaded the bike in the back of my dad’s old truck filled with confidence that I could have the CBX back on the road and accruing value as a future collectable in no time at all.
As in the case of other projects I have dragged home, my father was quite angry when the CBX showed up. Angry enough that he wouldn’t let me work on it in our garage. Having recently come home from the Merchant Marines, and with more money than sense, I rented a lock and store in town and decided I would rebuild the bike there. With no benches at hand, I covered the floor with a thick layer of cardboard and started tearing into the bike.
I wish I could say the rebuild went great but it didn’t. The famous CBX 6 cylinder it turns out is a very complicated engine and the average schmuck working on the floor of a lock and store atop a pile of cardboard boxes with simple hand tools has very little chance of actually getting the engine to run right. I spent hundreds of dollars ordering engine cases from a supplier in Arizona. Hundreds more sending the crank to one of the only machine shops in the USA that would work with it and still hundreds more on pistons, rings, gaskets, carburetor rebuild kits and on and on and on. All to no avail.
Days stretched into weeks and then into months while I struggled with the bike in my spare time. My father eventually relented and allowed me to bring the bike home, but by then what had started out as a lost cause had become a real live basket case and I got my first inkling that I might really be screwed. Patience, time and still more money would be required to get the bike running and, as the summer wore on, I gradually came to understand that I was out of all of them. The money I had saved from working at sea was dwindling in the face of mounting costs, my patience was gone and as fall approached I knew that even the days would get shorter. I looked at the mess in my father’s garage and realized with a sudden finality that I just didn’t have what it took to get the bike together. The time had come to walk away.
Over the next few days I slapped together the engine and re-hung it in frame. I reattached the carbs and the exhaust pipes and put on the bike’s tank, tail and sidecovers. With the bike in one non-running, roll-able piece, I loaded it into my father’s pickup and took it to the local motorcycle wrecking yard. The manager at the yard looked over the bike, listened to my story and smiled a big knowing smile. “I’ll give you a $700 for it.” He said.
I wanted more and we dickered a bit, but the man knew he had me over a barrel. In the end I walked away with only $750.00. “I really thought I could fix it.” I told him as I signed over the bike’s title, “Maybe someone else can.”
The manager smiled that knowing smile again and, once he had the title safe in hand, he looked me right in the eye and said, “I love bikes like these. We’ll probably sell and repurchase this bike several times over the next few months. Guy after guy will come in and buy it, spend a bunch of money on parts and then give up on it and sell it back to us. It could see three or four owners before someone who really knows what they are doing buys it and gets it back on the road.”
The yard manager had spoken the truth and I was left speechless. How do you even reply to something like that? My $750 was better than nothing so I put it in my pocket and left quietly. As I crunched the numbers in my head I realized that for what I had spent trying to make a silk purse from this sow’s ear, I could have bought a low mileage example in premium shape and ridden all summer. It was a sobering thought that, like a lot of life’s hard truths, left me more than a little empty inside.
I still think about mechanical projects from time to time, and have even rolled the dice once or twice, but since that day I have never brought home any kind of a vehicle that required anything more than the most basic of repairs to be in perfect running order. I learned my lesson. Using my dad’s criteria, I could say that bike made me a man. Sitting here now I think that maybe, just maybe, it didn’t end in the worst possible way after all.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He writes for any car website that will have him and enjoys public speaking. According to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.
A great story, and a lesson many of us learn. Oh i could go on and on about the money I lost on projects ‘becoming a man’ but at least a LEARNED from these experiences and wont do it again! Now I am the angry dad trying to teach my sons.
Your father had sound, practical advice, but I think sometimes you need to follow your dreams. The key is that you need to start with a project which has problems that are (almost) within your abilities, while you started with a basket case to begin with.
When I brought home my first Mopar (1966 Chrysler 2-door hardtop) summer driver / hobby car, my dad had some advice for me as well. It was basically don’t bite off more than you can chew. Fix what needs to be fixed and return the car to driveable condition as soon as possible. If you tear it apart and make a mountain of work for yourself, you’ll get discouraged and lose interest in it.
I had numerous examples of what NOT to do. Two of my cousins have sent more restorable Mopars to the scrapyard than I know of. My dad’s own Chrysler sat in his garage for almost a decade before my brother and I started working on it, and has sat there that long again since we each bought our own Chryslers. He’ll never do anything with it now.
Over the years, I took on more ambitious automotive projects as my skills increased, but always mindful of my dad’s advice. I spent more money than necessary, but always minimized downtime. For example, for my first complete engine overhaul, I bought another engine and rebuilt that, then swapped engines.
In the fall of 2011, I took my hardtop off the road long-term for a thorough restoration. Summer 2012 was the first year it was off the road for the entire driving season since I’ve owned it, and it really sucked. Fear of my car becoming a basketcase project is one of the things that keeps me motivated.
Oddly enough, the story of how I became a man did not involve any of my several hopeless projects.
It did involve a fire, my father, and a bear. But that’s another story..
I wanna read THAT story.
Replace Honda CBX with 1961 Thunderbird and you know my story with that car. Only I never got as far into the innards of the car as you got with the bike. I tried to follow BOC’s advice, but the car was never a good enough runner/driver to enjoy. Instead, as I slowly got one little thing right, one or two bigger things would go wrong.
Your father put the observation as well as it can be put. Pick something decent to start with, and you will spend less and enjoy it more.
We have all gone down that road…those of us who’re interested in things that go vrooom.
My coming-of-age was a bit later, and on the disassembled parts of a Jeep CJ (DJ, actually). Having self-taught on basic repairs, such as radiator, water pump, wiring harness…I overestimated. I didn’t get so far, but the money was still lost, someone else wound up with my project, and I was taught to limit my reach to my grasp.
I can see the allure, though. Man, that would be a sweet runner…if it were a runner.
I once owned a 1975 Plymouth Fury wagon THREE times. Once, when I first bought it for $100 to fix and flip, the second for free when the guy I sold it to fried the 400 CID engine, and the third and last time when the same guy I resold it to fried the 440 CID engine I had put in. Sold it to a total stranger for $400, he wanted to put a 318 CID into it and run it. I wished him luck.
In the end, the Fury was a very profitable car for me.
There for the grace of god go I…..
I decided to rebuild the engine in my ’63 Beetle. Once I got it out and took it apart (In my parent;s basement), the price for a rebuild job at a VW shop suddenly didn’t sound all that expensive after all. I delivered the boxes of parts, and was happy enough to pick up the rebuilt engine a few days and a couple of hundred bucks later.
I swapped out a fair number of engines in various cars, but kept it to finding a decent replacement in a junkyard. Too many small parts that have to go back together just so.
Now about that house I’m building….why did I decide to do that?
As for the road you didn’t take, my father told me of his first car – a prewar Dodge. He took the engine apart and put it back together. There were leftover parts and it would not run. He said he had a friend help tow it to a no-parking zone and it got towed away. Problem solved.
Great story. I never took a picture of my first car, which was an equally unsuccessful project, obtained for free at the age of 14 as a basket case and discarded shortly thereafter, to someone who drove it away after working on it curbside for less than a day. But I’ve attached an Internet picture … it would certainly be a CC now. I did successfully rebuild two Honda 4 cylinder motorcycles by the time I was 22, but haven’t pulled as much as a cylinder head for 30 years, though I still do all regular maintenance myself.
I don’t even do regular maintenance anymore. The big $20 I will save by crawling under a car, getting dirty and having to dispose of the waste oil and filter simply isn’t worth it to me. My time is much more valuable than that.
I’m watching my friends rebuilding their cars, ones been apart and in primer now for two years, another has his classic truck in pieces for about a year now with a new front end, new engine, rewiring jobs.
Meanwhile my box stock ’77 is still running around, powered by the same engine its been powered by since Carter was president. Sure its slow, and uses some oil, but it keeps on trucking.
My opinions of restorations is this:
It’s not worth it. You’ll spend an enormous amount of time and money and unless you have all the requisite skills, and I mean ALL of them, to finish the project, you’ll either run out of money or throw up your hands. Most likely, both.
If you want a cool piece of old iron, find a nice one and buy it. They’re out there, you just need the patience to look and the cash to buy. Save yourself an enormous amount of time and money.
You will save so much more time and money just buying the best example you can afford of whatever car you want. plus, the instant gratification of the best part of owning an old car, the “having fun” driving it part
I’ve never “frame off “restored a car, I have done a full paint, body and interior, rebuilt and swapped and engine, but I’ve never done a basket case “totally rough” rusty dead car that needed everything
Thanks for this story, Thomas.
It’s funny, my Dad is more likely to dive in and learn on the job, and is happy even if the result is a little cockeyed.
My mindset is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well…so if I can’t do it well, I can hire an expert, learn from one, or move on.” I just hate having my own mistakes (or Dad’s, god love him) baked into my house/car/etc.
My old man was a perfectionist who could fix anything he set out to fix. However, he had no patience for teaching and it drove him nuts to look over your shoulder while you figured out how something went toegther.
Asking him to “help” you fix something meant getting the hell out of the way and watching while he fixed something – and God help you if you handed him the wrong tool or shined the light in the wrong place while he was working.
Some of us learn more slowly than others. Just gave away my last project, a 72 Yamaha XS650 to a friend. It was an actual givaway but he gave me a running DT175 after the fact. I’m still not afraid of working on them but a couple fractures, increasing years, and decreasing brain cells have made me face reality. From now on it if I buy it, it will already be running.
I greatly respect that friend who tears things apart and makes them run. I can do that with AC systems and various things but I am not him.
My first insurmountable project was a ’68 Honda 350 scrambler. It lost the timing chain, and we (the friend I bought it from and I) got gasket cement sloppy enough to kill the oil feed. A few more interations of that (including one clusterfuck where I solidly plugged the top end oil line) and I happily took a 10 pound sledge hammer to the case. I didn’t want anybody to have delusions that sucker would run again.
My last project was a ’73 Super beetle (the super was my first mistake) that I discovered had been hooned and terminally neglected. (You know it’s been overrevved when the main bearing numbers are imprinted in the case. Yikes!) I ran into some identity theft issues (“whadda you mean, you don’t want me to tell the police somebody drained my account!?”) and by the time that got unscrewed, my job went away in the dot-com bust. The car (less engine) went to the local beetle shop as a freebie. The tires and chrome rims were the most valuable bits.
Right now, our oldest vehicle is a ’98 with under 50K miles (gotta do hoses this summer), and I’m happily doing new projects. I’ve remodeled a couple of houses, and have no desire to do that again. If I get ambitious, I’ll build a nice garden shed some year…
Wow, I’m a bit shocked at the “can’t do” attitudes. I’ve been through a couple of motorcycle restorations; yes, it’s going to cost more than you think. Yes, it’s going to take longer than you think. There will be times of immense frustration. It will be unpaid work. The search for obscure parts will be tedious and expensive. Yes, for the money spent, I could have bought a runner in good shape. The rewards, while great, are almost inevitably shortly followed by the next major component failure.
I’d do it again in a minute. For me, there are few greater pleasures in life than hopping on (or in) a conveyance that I’ve personally brought back from the dead. I can only hope that I learn from each experience and become more efficient the next go-round.
Good post, Thomas. I bet you’ve got some great stories!
> I’d do it again in a minute. For me, there are few greater pleasures in life than hopping on (or in) a conveyance that I’ve personally brought back from the dead. I can only hope that I learn from each experience and become more efficient the next go-round.
Judging from the other comments, I was starting to wonder if I was the last person that actually valued the learning experience and the satisfaction of doing something for yourself.
On that note, what happened to Junqueboi’s comment? I subscribed to this thread so I saw it in an email, but it’s not actually here.
I think it’s a matter of finding the balance between what resources one can bring to the project (money, skill, time) and the expectations. I’ve had projects go well, but mentioned the two that went really sour.
In one, I didn’t have the resources to do (or pay for) a good job (apartment parking lot shop space), and in the Super Beetle, when circumstances changed (bye bye job), I no longer had the resources nor the need for a fun commuter. I had wanted to build a new engine, but rebuilding a house was a lot more important… That was a learning experience! Kind of fun, once it was done.
BOC, I think I got mad and deleted it because it sounded stupid despite my repeated attempts to reword. Some guys can probably replace a head gasket in the time it takes me to finish typing a post 🙁 . I enjoy sharing my obsession but putting it into words is such a chore for me.
I echo your sentiments about valuing the learning experience. With no formal education, I learned how to work on cars by spending a majority of my free time trying to get vehicles running that came across the scale at my father’s scrapyard. When they were too incomplete or obviously FUBAR, I took them apart just to take them apart, learning a lot in the process.
To this day, I crave the feeling of accomplishment whenever I’m able to get a non-running vehicle operable again. I’ve battled self-worth issues throughout my life and even small victories like getting a scrapyard pushmower running again keep me going.
Bigger things like my first clutch job on my wife’s Mustang a couple years ago could have been a major step backward, especially after she came out to the shop and took a picture of me with my “transmission dolly”.
But she drove it to work again today and by golly it hasn’t ‘sploded yet. And wouldn’t you know it, I got my $600 Formula Fiero running a few hours ago & drove it for the first time — what an incredible experience.
I may not have reached manhood yet at 41 years of age, but I’m getting closer anyway.
I read your first post and, like this one, thought it was clear, concise and made its point. You write well and it is obvious that you have a lot of experience to bring to the discussion. Don’t be your own harshest critic, you don’t deserve it.
+100 to Thomas’s point, JB. You write clearly and concisely and always have something worthwhile to add.
I kinda think I have your bug in reverse. If anything, I’m too quick to throw words out there, but I’m afraid to muck up an expensive machine. Just remember words are free! 🙂
+1. I never skip a JunqueBoi comment.
junqueboi: Some folks find it very natural to fix stuff. Some folks are meant to write about it. As a retired teacher I have had students that had difficulty putting it on paper but could do almost anything. They were just as intelligent as others and, at times, certainly will prove to be more valuable. Your feelings of low esteem are unfortunate because they are not deserved IMO.
I always enjoy your comments because they seem to have a real world touch from a genuine gearhead. Keep them coming.
JB, please don’t be so hard on yourself. I enjoy reading your comments, and was looking forward to what you’d have to say about this article. I thought your original comment was fine, though your second attempt is more in-depth.
I also have no formal education in auto mechanics. The only shop classes I took in highschool were electronics, not auto. The first time I attempt a job I work slowly because I’m figuring things out as I go, but I do some research before I start as well. I guess it’s like when I was in school, I work best on “independent study” projects. There’s always something new to learn when working on cars.
I’m especially proud because, until I bought my first Chrysler at 25 years old, my dad was convinced that I had pretty weak mechanical abilities. Today, at 38, I’m the go-to guy for automotive advice amongst most of my friends and coworkers.
Congrats on your automotive accomplishments, and your writing. Don’t stop either one. 🙂
I’m both stunned and flattered: I will never be able to thank each of you enough for such thoughtful kind responses. These precious gifts will remain with me for the duration.
My Hillman started as a basket case a why would you bother car, its kept me out of trouble for ages rebuilding it and now it starts at a flick of the key and drives quite well.
Part of me has always wanted to buy an old bike or car and fix it up, but I’ve yet to get around to it.
As I sit here and wonder which house remodeling project I have the stomach for tackling next, a project car/bike loses most of its appeal. There’s many ways to make a man, I guess…
Great story. Not trying to one-up you but my first project(and I actually finished it) was the first MC I bought. A 75 Suzuki RE5. Bought it running and I actually did put a couple of thousand miles on it until I found out the hard way that bikes and fresh gravel on a dirt road(I lived way out in the sticks) don’t mix. I high ended myself over the handlebars when the front wheel got buried in the berm in the center of the road. Fortunetly for me parts were still available from Suzuki. Not only did I split the cases and replaced all of the broken side case parts but I got my first education on paint and body when I decided to paint it back to its stock color. A rather challenging mix of metalflake and pearl that most Japanese bikes used in the 60’s and 70’s. After that I was the Wankel bike expert and the dealer sent anybody who still had one over to my place for advice and sympathy. To this day I’m still a fan of weird motored contraptions because of that bike. Crazy question? I’m no expert on CBX’s but does that have roller bearings for the rods and ball bearings for the mains? I know what you mean. I’ve been in my 82 GS1000SZ a few times. Those roller bearings are great until you have a problem with the lower rotating assembly. I was lucky and found a guy who could work on those really cheap. Too bad he’s so old. Hopefully I’ll be old and rich so I can farm it out to somebody else.
No roller bearings in he Honda, just the normal two pieced bearings.
I think roller bearings are a Suzuki specific thing. My GS850G and my GSXR1100 had them. They make a distinctive sound, I call it the “bacon frying sound,” when the engine idles. They are a great Idea, I think, but they have to be a pain in the ass to work on. I’ll say this, the GS model Suzuki engines are great, solidly built power plants.
If the CBX had been built like that, it would never have blown apart. The reason for that bike’s destruction was that the bolts backed out on the bottom of the connecting rod and allowed teh rod to slip off the crank. Then the crank bashed that rod end right out the front of the case. I wish I had taken photos, but that was back in the pre-digital world, It was an ugly scene.
Sir, I am impressed. You have rebuilt one of the most impossible motorcycles ever made. From the sounds of your submission, you no longer have it. A pity.
I tried and failed to rebuild one of the most impossible motorcycle engines ever.
Although I make it sound in the article like I am totally hopeless, I am actually a pretty fair mechanic if I have the time to really slow down and analyze what needs to be done. Even so, I was trying to punch way above my weight when I took on a CBX.
Once my father told me he thought he wanted a Model A. I told him that he didn’t. Although I love As, my aging father would not have been able to handle the extremely heavy steering, or the need to adjust the timing on the go.
So he bought a really great 1955 Buick Special convertible with chrome Dayton/Kelsey Hayes wire wheels. It wasn’t a 100-pointer, nowhere close, but it was a looker. A parade queen, which is why my father bought it.
Compared to todays cars, the handling was horrible, but that was the cheapest upgrade that I was able give my dad. I checked the tire pressures and they were dune buggy low. I went to a gas station and pumped the tires up as high as the pump would go, about 36 psi, not as high as I wanted, but it was as if I had just injected an F41 option into the thing. Improved the steering response about a Brazilian percent.
After about five years my father lost his penchant for parades and sold the car. Sold it back to the dealer that he bought it from. For about $3000 more than he paid for it. Daddy ain’t no dummy.
I believe this is a good rite of passage , most tinker and move on , a few become Enthusiasts , a few less become Mechanics or whatever .
For me up fixing old vehicles became a life passion , nothing quite matches the feeling of satisfaction one gets from hearing it run again , moreso if you’re diligent and take the time to fix all those niggly little things the DPO’s & DPM’s ruined or neglected .
Junqueboi ~ you’re my hero ! I wish I’da grown up in a junkyard , I too learned and learn so much by simply diving in and taking things apart to see what makes them tick .
My favorite job ever was running a combination VW Indie Shop , Junk Yard and Sales Lot , a fun and _priceless_ education .
BTW : Honda used roller bearings in the rods of millions upon millions of smaller displacement Motos , they’re *very* reliable unless you either lug them , run low or dirty oil in them the three things Americans love to do the most .