Sunday, 3 April 2016
The Honda CBR600 has had a favourable press in general, so I was interested to see a 1987 example on sale in the local rag for just £1500. The one big problem with CBRs is that they are very popular machines for use in production racing... this one had evidently gone that way, with wired in bolts and replica GRP in white where it hadn’t been scraped down to the dull beige of the GRP.
The mileometer read just over 47000 miles, which may or may not have been true. The owner was a South London yob who could barely speak English but I deciphered the grunts to the extent of learning he was the sixth owner, had the bike for three months and reckoned it was a real goer. Had he changed the oil every 1000 miles, I queried? His reply was generally unprintable and most certainly negative.
He took me for a spin on the back. I could feel his left foot working frantically as the machine wailed nicely on the degutted Motad 4—1 and the acceleration was still sufficient to threaten to throw me off the back. I dared not grab hold of the rider, he looked like the sort of chap who would take affront at such intimacy and probably beat me to a pulp. I couldn't make my mind up about the bike It certainly motored alright but under the GRP I could hear all kinds of reflected noises. The owner was evidently in need of money because much to my consternation he demanded I make an offer. Deciding not to buy the bike, I said l’d give him a grand for it, thinking he was bound to refuse. Much to my shock he accepted with apparent gratitude.
The next thing I knew I was clutching the logbook, 20 fifty pound notes poorer, trying to get the Honda to come back into life. The engine churned over on the starter, backfiring violently through the silencer and clacking away to itself. After what seemed an age it fired up and I could escape the grime of Battersea. The owner flashed me the kind of grin a Doberman might give before devouring its prey and I wondered what the hell I had let myself in for. I quite enjoyed the 50 mile jaunt home. Acceleration in second and third was especially stimulating as long as you kept the rev counter above seven grand.The engine appeared to be happy to rev hard past eleven grand but I didn't push it, thinking of its age, mileage and the money I had just handed over. ﬂue, the handling was twitchy but I put that down to the bald Michelins and a rear shock that had lost all its damping.
Nearing home, with darkness falling, I switched on the lights only to ﬁnd there weren’t any. I knew there was something I'd forgotten to check. I changed down two gears and screamed all the way home with the tacho in the red, as if to tell the machine it had better behave or else. Parking the CBR I noted a small pool of oil under the engine, I later found that the oil filter was loose and looked like it had come with the machine from Japan. I soon found out why there weren't any lights, some moron had chopped off the wiring loom where it was supposed to go into the headlamp. A weekend was spent splicing wires on to wires, swearing a lot and eventually achieving the seemingly impossible — working lights. The indicators worked after a fashion, sometimes blinking rapidly, sometimes slowly... 100 miles after buying the bike I was forced to fit a Superdream indicator black box.
The fist time I used the bike in anger at night I found out why the lights had been removed from the system, the half-knackered alternator didn't produce enough power to recharge the battery. The lights gradually dimmed until I cottoned on to what was happening and saved the day by riding home on the pilot lights. The electrics were a total mess, non standard regulator/rectifier unit and wires hastily wound together. A rewound alternator and Superdream rectifier/regulator unit worked fine.
The bike became increasingly difficult to start. I had to churn it over and over on the starter until it deigned to ignite I took the carbs and air ﬁlter off. The former were full of crud and the latter full of holes. I cleaned the carbs and replaced the air filter. Unfortunately, the reason for the holes was to match the air flow to the exhausts. A local dealer with a rolling road spent a whole afternoon matching jets to the straight through exhaust system. He must have been bored or something as he only charged me £45. It still wasn’t dead right, although starting had improved dramatically, there was a huge flat spot between 5000 and 7000 revs. The bike was also only doing 30mpg, although as I often saw 140rnph on the clock on the local dual carriageway perhaps this wasn't too surprising. A pint of oil was also needed every 200 miles. I had replaced the worn tyres with a set of Metz's which were okay, although the bike went into a BMW style weave at 90mph then became stable again once above 120mph.
Despite a lack of damping in the worn out suspension it was surprisingly easy to throw around in the curves. The riding position was perfection, it felt so good that I had felt right at home on the bike as soon as I'd swung a leg over it. Cornering clearance was brilliant, my boot would gently scrape the ground before anything else — at that kind of angle I knew. it was time to back off. so it was a good warning device. Steering was neutral for most of the time, although when well banked over and the front fork was brutally ridden over a series of large bumps I could feel the fork flex, the Honda tending to go sideways out into the path of oncoming traffic. But it was just a moment’s effort to back off the throttle or dab the rear disc on to set the bike back on to a safer line.
The plastic did little to offer protection from the rain and one wild downpour resulted in wave after wave of water pouring off the tiny screen straight into my face, even though I was crouched down into the machine. Hands and feet also seemed to get a worse soaking than on a naked machine. A few more inches of plastic all round would have made all the difference. After about 700 miles of the usual abuse the rear disc caliper seized on. By the time I'd struggled home at a paltry 50mph the disc was red hot and the caliper seemed to have melted into a single lump of corrosion. The local breaker provided a new disc and caliper for £30, the old disc having become badly warped.
That wasn’t to be the end of the braking problems for the front twin discs became very spongy despite the presence of Goodridge hose. Under heavy braking the lever came all the way back to the handlebars and retardation became so minimal as to be frightening. The front calipers at least came apart easily enough and after replacing various worn bits and bunging in a new set of pads, I found that the brakes were not much better. The dealer told me to check the discs, they had probably worn so thin that they were warping under braking! One used set of discs later and we were back in business. Front pads last around 5000 miles, rears 7000 miles.
After about 1000 miles it was time to take the bike on a 1500 mile run up to Scotland and back — in a day! I started early, with a gallon of oil strapped on to the seat. and headed up the M1. Most of the traffic was huge artics snaking around, so I was able to blitz along with the bike strung out in fifth and sixth. The CBR won’t do much above 140mph however much you scream it in the lower gears and the handling becomes a bit weird flat out, but with 125mph on the clock the machine seemed to settle into a reasonable pace. The thinner replica GRP buzzed a lot but apart from that the bike didn't protest at being thrashed other than by doing only 25mpg. The frequent fuel stops allowed me to keep a check on the oil level and stretch my legs.
I made good time going up to Edinburgh so came back down on the A roads. as by then the motorway was clogging up with an excess of tin boxes. The A roads weren't much better and I could not safely cruise at more than 90mph. The poor state of the roads meant the Honda and I received a battering. My spine felt like hell by the time I got home and one of the GRP panels came loose, catching the wind and flapping madly. I pulled across a few cars and made for the narrow bit of gravel on the side of the road, stopping under a no parking sign, of course. A couple of strategically placed bungee cords sorted the problem until I could get hold of a replacement screw, they held the 400 miles to my home.
As the night came down I was disconcerted to find main beam blowing, something to do with bouncing the valves in second gear to avoid becoming mincemeat between a Volvo and a coach. The lights were never startlingly good (they probably weren't original) and dip only gave a view a few yards ahead. I tucked in behind an erratically driven Aston Martin, which would top 135mph then brake harshly to 70mph. This demented progress continued for 100 miles until l had to turn off to buy some fuel and top the oil level up.
After too many hours in the seat the demented wail of the exhaust had become very tiring and a headache was causing me to curse whoever invented motorcycles. Progress continued after a fashion, but the lack of lights and my tired body meant we were down to a mere 60 to 70mph, the Honda burbling along happily enough at 5000 revs or so in top gear. The only problem was that due to the flat spot I had to drop two gears if I wanted some acceleration.
At the next stop I swallowed a couple of packets of aspirin which dulled the headache to an acceptable level. As we neared home the gearbox went to pot, the bike kept slipping out of 5th and 6th gear, the revs suddenly whipping through the red line I cringed at the thought of bouncing valves and proceeded forward in fourth gear, trying to remember if it used to vibrate quite so badly in that ratio before.
By the time I arrived home I was enervated from the dizzy vibes and wailing exhaust. I was like someone who had taken an overdose of caffeine, there was no way I could get to sleep that night, my mind was still buzzing with the road and when I eventually fell into a ﬁtful doze it was filled with dreams of screaming across the countryside on the Honda.
The next morning I took the plastic off to look the machine over, as i had been annoyed to find a large puddle of oil under the engine The head gasket was seeping and the oil filler cap was missing. The oil level was down below the minimum level and l when I started her up, after stuffing a rag in the hole, the engine rattled and clicked like there was something seriously wrong.
I took the motor out, removed the cylinder head and cursed my ill luck. Bits of valves were missing, the camshafts were scored and the camchain and tensioner were well shot. A mate told me of a mechanic he knew who set CBR engines up for racing so the various engine bits were put in the car boot and taken to his garage. He looked the motor over, scratched his chin and said he’d take it on for £500! After a lot of negotiation, he agreed to fix the top end and gearbox with various used bits he had hanging around for £175, but at that price I could expect no guarantee.
Three weeks later he delivered the rebuilt engine to my house, telling me that he'd probably made a loss on the job and he didn’t want to know if anything else went wrong. After putting the motor back in the frame, it took about two hours connected up to various neighbour's cars to churn into life. The neighbours weren't very amused to find they didn’t have enough power left to start their cars, but there you go.
I cocked a ear to the engine, sniffed the exhaust and then rested an ear on the end of a screwdriver placed on various bits of the engine, finding to my relief that the motor sounded quiet. I whipped the throttle open with the bike in neutral, finding the engine fair flew into the red with an instantaneous action that had previously been lacking. The only problem came when, after lashing all the GRP back together. I tried to engage first gear. The lever was incredibly stiff and was impossible to operate unless you wore heavy motorcycle boots and had a lot of violence hidden within your system.
Up the road, acceleration in first gear was breath-taking. There was a nasty crunch as I changed up to second, then the same hollowness in the stomach as it charged forward. I just hoped the gearbox would loosen up as the mileage increased, but I was to find that it became very recalcitrant in heavy traffic, but at least it had stopped leaping out of gear.
I later went to see the mechanic, who eventually admitted he had used some race cams and bigger jets in the carbs. The bike would do an indicated 150rnph and it tended to jerk the rear and off line if you hit 8000 revs suddenly coming out of a bend. I had some wild slides in the wet until I learnt to keep it below 5000rpm in tricky situations. I had a race with a ZZR600 whose owner became frantic when I stayed level with him, then dropped down a gear and shot off into the distance. He eventually caught up, but that was only because the Metzs were worn out and the bike had become a brutal bastard in the bends. The tyres would only do about 3500 miles.
Having done about 7000 miles on the bike, I was afflicted with various bearings going. The swinging arm’s went first, producing a buckling, wobbling bike only fit as a means of suicide. As the chain was shagged at the same time I replaced that as well. Then the front wheel bearings went about a week later, evidenced at first by violent head shaking if I took a hand off the bars and when I ignored that by a full scale tank slapper. The steering head bearings were well pitted so they were replaced as well. Congratulating myself on sorting the bearings, 120 miles from home the rear bearings went. I didn’t make it home and had to summon the AA.
I also bought a used White Power shock which was probably as old as the bike but had been rebuilt to as new spec. The front forks needed replacing as well as the chrome was falling off but they didn’t seem that bad as the chassis was rigid enough to absorb their worst machinations. I had been using the bike for commuting and weekend fun, it seemed a natural for the annual holiday but that was not to be.
Cruising through town, after an enjoyable evening at the local heavy metal pub, I piloted the bike around the usual lethargic Morris Marina when its owner suddenly woke up (probably by the Honda's open exhaust), throwing his vehicle into my machine. lt wasn't a high speed crash but the way the car caught the bike and threw it under a car coming the other way meant the machine was a write off. I ended up getting crunched between the two cars. It could have been worse, I was only badly bruised and cut up. As I staggered upright, the Marina owner rushed over and said. "Sorry, mate, I didn't see you.‘
Unfortunately for him I could see my flattened machine poking out from the underside of the other car. My head twitched violently, the helmet catching him full in the face. As he reeled away clutching what was left of his face, I growled, ”Sorry mate, I didn't see you, either”
Needless to say, the police were not too amused when they arrived. Ambulances and recovery vehicles were summoned. When the car was eventually cranked off my pride and joy, I could have cried out loud. I didn't need an insurance company to tell me it was a write off. There is a happy ending to this, the insurance company reluctantly coughed up £1600, so I probably came out a little ahead.
The CBR600 was expensive to run, immense fun to ride and my well thrashed example was tougher than I expected. Buying a bike in that kind of state, you shouldn't be surprised if it gets you home without failing. I've just bought a 1990 CBR600 for £2500, a real nice one that hasn't been raced (I hope), which answers all the other questions.