The Making Of A Man

Thomas Kreutzer

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.

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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.

Your author as a Merchant Mariner circa 1991

Your author as a Merchant Mariner circa 1991

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.

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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.