MD Project: CB350 Cafe Racer, Part III

July 26, 2011

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Kirk at Custom Design delivered perfect paint and razor-sharp racing stripes.

Yes, we all have projects moldering in our garages, don’t we? I know a guy who recently finished the Ford hot-rod project he started in High School. Good for him, but he’s in his mid-50s, so I don’t feel too bad that my cafe-racer project, which I first told you about in March and then updated you about a little later has been dragging along for almost two years now. But unlike some projects, it’s actually taking shape. I know I promised we’d talk about the motor, but aside from gathering parts, not much has happened there, so let me show you the cosmetic stuff that has come together.

Something about polished aluminum just makes us happy...

My goal was a light, fast and functional machine, one I would feel comfortable riding on a racetrack. But that doesn’t mean it has to look like a duct-taped pile of crap like the racebikes I rode in the past, either. This time I would do it right, so I called up Kirk Taylor at Custom Design Studios in Novato, California. Kirk is best known for building lean and stripped-down V-Twin bobbers—his work has been featured in dozens of magazines and in Tom Zimberoff’s book Art of the Chopper II—but as he does business in Marin County, a twisty-road mecca for sportbikes, he doesn’t shy away from lightweight stuff, either. So I handed him my battered gas tank, ugly, heavy chrome front mudguard and minimalist race tailsection so he could look over the pieces and tell me what he would do with them. He instantly got what my project was all about and told me to come back in a month or two.

What I got from him showed me what a master painter and customizer can do and why they can charge so much. The tank was rusty, dented junk, but now it sparkles with thick, liquid-looking paint, and the scabrous interior has now been professionally stripped and finished with a good-quality anti-rust coating (no, it’s not one of those $30 kits you get at your local motorcycle shop that if it’s not perfectly applied starts to flake and clog your carbs with chunks of coating, but a more expensive kit designed for professional marine use). The big, gangly fender was now cut down to a reasonable size (and weight), stripped of chrome and painted to match the tank and tail section, complete with perfectly executed double racing stripes.

The tailsection/seat is also coated with Kirk’s thick, lustrous paintwork, reminding me what a difference there is between do-it-yourself or budget auto bodyshop paint and the product of an experienced pro like Kirk. Sure, it’s (very) expensive compared to the actual cost of you spending hours in your garage (or the alley behind your house) sanding, filling, prepping, primering and shooting, but unless you have years of experience and the expensive equipment that Kirk has, your results (to put it mildly) may vary. My results, not to put too fine a point on things, consistently look like crap.

We opted for the optional black-anodizing on our aluminum rims to match the blacked-out tank and frame.

The deep black of the bodywork matches my new wheels. I had Raber’s Parts Mart get a set of 18-inch Sun rims and stainless-steel spokes and find a subcontractor to lace them to my freshly polished hubs. It took a little longer than expected, but the new wheels look great—and while I didn’t weigh the original wheels, the new ones are easily half the weight of the old steel rims, which should vastly improve braking, handling and acceleration. I just have to select tires (I’m leaning towards Pirelli Sport Demons).

It should all look great with my JEMCO exhaust system. In 1969, Jon Easton started selling his hand-made steel exhaust systems to all kinds of racers, including dirt-trackers, roadracers, motocrossers and micro-car racers. His name comes up when you inquire about getting the best power for your buck, and full exhaust systems start at an incredibly low $225. What a JEMCO system isn’t is quiet—I haven’t heard a JEMCO-equipped CB350 run, but based on the experience I had with a JEMCO muffler on an FT500 Ascot I road-raced, I’m expecting to have to push my bike way down the street before I start it, as I like my neighbors liking me. JEMCO products also don’t look very pretty, but Easton doesn’t make pipes for the custom crowd—he builds them for racers. Hopefully, it’ll look better when I get it painted or ceramic finished (does anybody have suggestions for finish for a steel exhaust system?).

Jon Easton's work isn't pretty, but it works very well.

The finishing touch is the stock top triple clamp, back from Pilgrim Plating in San Rafael, California. There, owner Kim took good care of me, stripping the stock crinkle-coat finish from the aluminum part and buffing it out to a bright sheen. I’ll probably have to polish it again in a year or two, but it looks great and only cost me $40.

So now we have most of the basic pieces. When I get my front suspension back from SuperPlush, I’ll mount tires to the wheels and take everything back to Charlie’s Place so he can start assembling everything into a rolling chassis. That’s when this will start to get interesting.

Next: Suspension and Motor

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