1976 Honda CB550F Supersport: Turning a Sow’s Ear into a Different, More Expensive Sow’s Ear

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and

let him go.” -John 11:38-44 (New International Version)Look at this heap. What was I thinking? Well, I figured every motojournalist needed a vintage bike project to occupy his garage.

I had a stupid, romantic image of myself on a snarling, barely-tamed vintage bike, held together by baling wire, electrical tape and sheer guts.

I would be in touch with every nut and bolt on the thing, building a bond with it like the Lone Ranger and Silver.

The trouble began when I saw an ad on Craig’s List for a 1976 Honda CB550 SuperSport. The ad described the bike as running, but needing work. It was set up as a Café racer, with clip-on handlebars and a cool solo seat. In the picture, it looked OK.

Craig’s List 

What was I thinking?

If you have access to a computer, you’ve probably looked at Craig’s List once or twice. It’s a remarkable website that commands a huge presence on the World Wide Web, an incredible achievement for such a low-tech, low-budget operation.Craig’s List was founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark, a computer programmer in San Francisco, Calif. He originally started it as an events-related bulletin board, but it expanded to include job listings, apartment vacancies and classified ads for cars and motorcycles. More recently, Craig’s List has expanded to almost every major city on Earth, with millions and millions of people looking at it every day. A feature-length documentary, http://www.24hoursoncraigslist.com/will be in theatres soon, further boosting the popularity of this global site.

The “motorcycles and scooters” for sale listing is an amazing thing, with far more bikes listed for sale by private sellers than any other classified ad site I’ve seen. (Cycletrader has tens of thousands of ads, but the great majority of them are dealerships advertising new bikes.) You can find many terrific bargains in there, and I’ve bought many bikes there in near-perfect condition for well below Kelly Blue Book Value.

Posting ads is very simple. The old-fashioned, HTML-only site loads quickly and is easy to navigate. You just type text into the proper boxes, upload any photos, and your ad posts in minutes. There are no ads, banners or pop-ups to slow things down. The ad stays up for 10 days and is then deleted automatically.

It’s not all a dream-come-true. Like any other public space, there are criminals and hustlers waiting to take advantage of the unwary. When you see a motorcycle or scooter priced so low that it’s too good to be true, it usually is. An emailed inquiry to one of these ads will produce a response in badly written English informing the buyer that the motorcycle is in another country and will be air-freighted as soon as half the money is either sent to the seller Western Union or placed in an escrow account. I don’t know how they get the money from the escrow account, but I do know you’ll never get the bike or your money back. Scams exist to take advantage of sellers, too: fake cashier’s checks in amounts exceeding the bike’s sale price are sent with instructions to cash them and wire the change to someplace. The check bounces 30 days later, leaving the unfortunate (and not-so-bright, in my opinion) seller liable to the bank where she cashed it.

The bottom line is to be sure and inspect a bike in person before you commit any money and don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal, no matter how sweet it is. With millions of readers and thousands of ads, something else will pop up soon.

Some sellers aren’t scam artists, but they do grossly misrepresent or overprice their motorcycles. Here’s news for you if you’re selling your motorcycle: “Like New” or “Perfect” means absolutely flawless, as-new condition. A bike with the original tires and 4,500 miles is neither perfect nor like new. It’s going to need new tires, and the chain is at least 25% worn. And no motorcycle makes it that far without at least one little scratch somewhere. Here’s another tip: the Kelly Blue Book retail price represents what a dealer would sell that bike for in a showroom, with a limited warranty, an implied guarantee of clear title and lemon-law and other rules and regulations protecting a prospective buyer. A private seller offers none of this. So why do so many Craig’s List sellers add 20-40% to Kelly retail when they price their bikes? Who knows? Ignore the price they ask: most sellers will come down to a reasonable price once they realize they are dealing with a serious buyer.

The bottom line is to be sure and inspect a bike in person before you commit any money and don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal, no matter how sweet it is. With millions of readers and thousands of ads, something else will pop up soon.

The bike was a couple of hundred miles away, near Yosemite. The owner was willing to bring it down to my house in San Francisco, and after negotiating a price I felt was more reasonable for a dodgy, 30 year-old bike that needed lots of work, he told me he was on his way.

Six hours later a car and trailer pulled up in front of my house. On the back of the trailer was a pretty sad-looking motorcycle. Both side covers were missing, most of the wiring harness was coiled up uselessly next to the headlamp, the turn signals and horn were missing, the headlamp brackets were non-original, the speedometer was gone, and the whole bike was coated in grime and grease. Also, there was a dent on what looked like a repainted gas tank and the starter button was broken. I may have only shelled out $400, but I was starting to think the seller should be paying me for disposal.

I tried to look on the bright side: it’s not everyday you can get a running motorcycle for $400, right? So I straddled the bike, and with the seller directing me, kick-started it for my test ride. It fired up, filling my street with a distinctive CB sound coming from the Supertrapp exhaust.

OK, maybe this will be OK, I thought as I kicked it into gear and let out the clutch. The bike pulled away smoothly, with a nice hit in the midrange and no bad stumbling. The frame and forks seemed straight; better still. All the gears worked smoothly, and the brakes…well, they were brakes. After a four-block test ride, I felt good enough to know the bike was basically sound, even if it looked like it had been living in a small apartment in Hong Kong with William S. Burroughs for the last 15 years.

Money changed hands, a cardboard box of mostly useless spare parts went into my garage next to the other boxes of mostly useless spare parts, and I was once again a Honda owner. The next day, I gave my new bike a good cleaning so I could start to inventory what it would need to make it an acceptable member of the motorcycle community once more.

 It would need plenty. I took it on a longer test ride, putting about ten miles on it. I noticed the clutch wasn’t disengaging like a clutch should, so I ordered new clutch plates and springs. It also had no horn, functioning lights or turn signals. Bad. It needed side covers, and forget about finding those in the original “shiny orange” 1976 paint (not to be confused with the 1975 “Flake Sunrise Orange”). The chain guard was missing, and I also noticed fresh oil dripping from the shifter shaft.

I gave it a good bath, rinsing off years of accumulated grease and grime. Underneath it all, I found some good news. The first bit was a rear IRC tire in almost-new condition, which means I didn’t have to spend $25 buying a new rear tire. The chain was an O-ring model that also didn’t look too bad. The next nice surprise was a motor that had probably been rebuilt, evident by new-looking gasket materiel here and there and a leak-free cylinder block, a rarity on mid-70s Honda fours. I also discovered the tank was original and didn’t look half-bad.

A week later, armed with a fresh shifter shaft oil seal, new clutch plates and springs and a healthy sense of optimism, I set out to fix my new bike up. After I got the tank off, I attacked the cheese-head screws securing the engine and clutch covers.


One of these bikes without a leaky cylinder block is as rare as Sean telling a clean joke.One of these bikes without a leaky cylinder block is as rare as Sean telling a clean joke.

Nine minutes later I was upstairs on my couch with a big glass of Scotch watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood at three in the afternoon on a Tuesday.* I am not a patient man.

I’m not a particularly strong man. I have returned jars of pickles because I couldn’t open them. However, give me a screwdriver and I will destroy the heads of screws, twisting and rending the metal with the mild torque from my small-but-hairy hands.

If only I were as tough as these little screws. If only I were as tough as these little screws.

Clever people, those Japanese. They really didn’t think anybody would ride a Honda enough miles to wear out a clutch or front sprocket, so why make the screws removable? Heck, why not just use rivets? I personally think the heads of these screws are designed to strip out as punishment for American motorcycles being so large and noisy. Either that, or the guy who designed these screws owned property in Nagasaki in 1945.

Three weeks later, the frustration had faded from my mind enough to make me want to take another stab at those screws, so I pulled out my trusty old impact driver and hammered away. And hammered. And hammered. After an hour of hammering with three different kinds of hammers, I realized you have to push the driver towards the screw and take up the slack in the spring, otherwise it doesn’t work. With that in mind, the stubborn screws fell to my will, one by one.

This Supertrapp might be worth more than the entire bike. This Supertrapp might be worth more than the entire bike.

Until the last one, that is. Number 26 (or whatever number it was) wasn’t moving no matter what, as I had disfigured his cheesy little head with all kinds of screwdrivers and hammers. It wasn’t moving, nohow. I could practically hear it singing “We Shall Overcome” in a tiny metallic voice as I slammed the hammer onto the head of the impact driver to no avail.

Phillips head screws were designed not to be easy to remove, but easy for assembly line workers to install. Stick a Phillips screwdriver into a Phillips screw and it almost magically winds up correctly aligned, where a slotted screw needs to be carefully aligned and held just right, or the screwdriver slips and jabs a supervisor in the neck. Hey, it was an accident. However, try to get a Phillips-head screw unscrewed, and you will more often then not end up with stripped slots.

I made a call to Ohanlon Motorcycles in San Francisco. Dave Ohanlon has been working on 70’s Hondas for many years, and has dealt with millions of these stubborn little guys. Chris, one of the mechanics there, told me to make sure I had three things in my toolbox to get these screws off. One is a big can of penetrating oil. Spray this on before you attempt un-screwing, and then give each screw head a nice whack. The next thing you’ll want is a good-quality (and we’re talking Snap-On or some other professional-grade manufacturer) #3 Phillips screwdriver. Using the wrong-sized or crudely-made screwdriver will almost certainly strip out the slots. The last line of defense is an impact driver. They are cheap and infinitely useful.

Chris also said a lot of guys just replace these screws with Allen head fasteners: whole sets of them, pre-sized for various 70’s and 80’s Japanese motorcycles, are available on eBay and other sources. However, this seems kind of unsporting to me. If I see a guy with Allen head screws on his old Honda, I’ll secretly scoff at his lack of will. Beaten by some little fasteners, huh?

All else had failed, so Mr. Screw, meet Mr. Dremel.

With a cut-off wheel installed, it was time to get all Medieval on stubborn #26. Metal shrieked and sparks flew as I carved into the screw head. Finally, after three cutoff wheels broke and went flying across my garage at supersonic speeds, barely missing my head, (wear safety glasses!) the screw gave up the ghost. The covers were off. Free at last!

Who's laughing now, #26? What's the matter: lost your head? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha Who’s laughing now, #26? What’s the matter: lost your head? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha

My clutch plates were indeed worn past their service limits, but everything else looked OK. Even the clutch springs had life in them. I replaced them anyway with sturdy Barnett units, stacked the clutch pack back together and buttoned it all up. I then noticed a missing spacer thingie, and took it all apart again. After buttoning the motor up (again) and getting the exhaust system back on, I noted a suspiciously oily washer sitting on my bench. Was it supposed to be inside the bike, rather than outside? Or had it just been there since the last time I “fixed” something myself? Who knows. The only thing (to my way of thinking) would be to start the bike and see if the clutch worked.

After some half-hearted poking around with the electrics, in which I decided the best thing would be to replace most of the wiring harness and just try to return everything to stock, I slapped the seat and tank back on and rolled the bike outside. In the gentle rain, I shoved on the kickstarter, over and over, gently muttering “come on, come on” under my breath. Finally, the old Honda fired up with a rattly, wheezing sigh, like a nursing home patient enjoying a cigarette.

After letting it warm up for a few minutes, I pulled in the clutch — which now had a nice, smooth feel to it — and put the bike into gear. There was no dragging, or jerking. I released the clutch and the bike eased forward, with no pitching or juddering. I headed up the block, shifting up to third and then back down. Perfect!

So now it has a good clutch. It still needs a few things, like sidecovers, new shocks, a fork rebuild, steering head bearings and swingarm bushings, a tail light, turnsignals, horn, starter button, front and rear brake rebuilds a new front tire, new tubes front and back, and a functioning headlight. The camchain is noisy and who knows when the valves were last adjusted. The points are pitted and worn. It will probably take me years to finish all this stuff. And at the end of it all, I’ll have a slow, buzzy, uncomfortable deathtrap that I’ll know how to fix.

It all makes about as much sense as riding a motorcycle.

Coming next: Brakes, tires and suspension.

*Incidentally, I highly recommend watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood at any time of the day. He was such a nice man.