Blog Excerpt: Hundred Dollar Honda

The following is a compilation of the first few postings of a blog from 2005 called "Hundred Dollar Honda" by Bill Kopp.


So my friend Dave got a motorcycle today. Well, sort of.

01 February 2005

It all started more than nine months ago; it was one of those shaggy dog stories that's just too far over the edge to be believable. Dave was working for a renovation contractor, doing some work in an old building downtown. At one time the building was owned by a foundry, a smelter...I dunno...something to do with metal. At some point in history the place was ceded to the next-door neighbors: an African-American church.

The saga of a man, a motorcycle, a nonexistent budget, and nearly total mechanical ineptitude. Lavishly Illustrated.
Anyway, this place was shuttered some time in the mid- to late-1980s. Some time prior to that -- actually, in 1984 -- a motorcycle found its way into the building. Two decades-plus later and we can only speculate, but we know this thing was rolled in and parked in '84. The tag is still on it. The keys are in the ignition. The inspection sticker is valid through July 1984.

The thing is covered, and I do mean covered, in bird shit. Petrified, putrified, bird shit. An inch thick in places. The tires are oddly worn, and are flat and off the rims. The motor is caked in grease and grime, and there's a thick layer of greasy dust coating the whole affair.

honda-fender01 But under all that is a real bike. It's a 1971 Honda CB450, a double overhead cam model in dark blue. There are a few dings on the massive fuel tank, but it looks like the thing was never dropped during its nearly 12,000 miles of travel between '71 and '84.

The owners of the building -- the church elders, I suppose -- knew of the bike, but apparently nothing of its history. Somehow or another they promised Dave that when the project was complete, he could have the hulking steel beast. For free! Too good to be true, we all said. We took to teasing Dave at every opportunity. "Did you ride your new bike over here today?" we'd mockingly ask whenever we'd see him. "You'll see," was his stoic reply.

The project completion date took many, many months to come, but when the time arrived, the church folks were good as their word. Today they gave Dave the mysterious bike (sans title of course).

honda-pipes01 So Dave and a friend loaded it onto a trailer -- on its side, like a dead horse -- and trucked it over to my place. I had expected something a bit nicer, but I must admit that even as they rolled this half-metal-and-half-bird-shit thing off the trailer, my heart raced.

I had wanted a motorcycle for about a year.

08 February 2005

Scarcely a day went by without my thinking about a bike. I had never actually ridden one, but I'd been close. A few years ago my wife and I decided to buy his-and-hers 50cc scooters. Living in a small city and working at home, for us scooters were a practical consideration. Great on gas mileage (about 100mpg), easy to handle, no gears. Neither tag nor license were required, earning scooters the sobriquet "liquor-sickles." I went to great pains to make the distinction between mopeds and scooters, but the difference was lost on most onlookers. When we first got the scooters, they turned lots of heads. People would smile and wave; no kidding, even in 2003. By 2005 they're everywhere in our mountain city, and nobody seems to notice them.

honda-tank-after02 This "nobody" includes automobile drivers. One has to be careful on a scooter, gliding through traffic at speeds of up to 47mph. In many ways, a scooter is a great precursor to a motorcycle. You get road experience (I've put more than 3000 miles -- all local -- on mine in just three years) without the added distraction of shifting. And you get the added bonus of feeling like you're in a 1960s romance film set in Italy, or -- if you have wilder fantasies -- you're an extra in Quadrophenia, riding alongside Sting's "Ace Face." Me, I opt for the latter, even owning the big olive parka.

I've gone on day-trips with my friend Mike. He rides a 1972 Honda CL350, a "scrambler" much like the one he (and seemingly every other kid) owned in early 70s southern California. I can just about keep up, if he lets me. It's a lot of fun, and quite an inexpensive form of recreation. I've gone on a number of rides with my wife, too, but I am left with the feeling she's doing it more for me than for herself.

My wife is not in favor of her [deleted]-year-old spouse owning a motorcycle. Last summer she went so far as to suggest a sports car instead. This was remarkable because we're not the "negotiating" sort of couple. We generally discuss things and come to a consensus. But where a motorcycle was concerned, we were both immovable objects. I wanted one, and she didn't want me to have one. When she offered buying a little Mazda Miata, I said, "what motorcycle?" and promptly forgot all about my two-wheeled fantasies.

honda-wheel-dirty For awhile, anyway. When Dave mentioned he'd be getting the old cycle "soon" (this was still several months ago) I offered to store it while he worked out more permanent accommodations. The time passed, and when he called last week to say "any day now" I found myself unable to think about much else. In my mind's eye I could see the gleaming bike, perhaps with a few cobwebs, standing mightily in my garage. I would invite my wife into the garage to behold the sight. I'd invite her to sit on it, just for a moment. She'd mount it, grab the handlebars, and look wistfully into the sky. She would look at me with a soft, tender smile. "Weeeell, I guess it'd be ok if you got one of these too."

Of course none of that happened, though my wife is being very gracious in allowing Dave to store the bike here for what looks to be an indeterminate period of time. With the bike sitting there, looking at her every time she passes, whispering to her, "Bill wants a bike," there's no telling what could happen.

Stolen or Not?

14 February 2005

Meanwhile my good friend in law enforcement has offered to run a check on the cycle. I supplied him with the '84 tag number and the VIN number; he's going to check on it and let me know the story tomorrow. I attempted a joke that worked in the phrases "receiving stolen property" and "statute of limitations." He laughed like someone who'd heard it all, many times before. He has a bike too: a 650cc dual-sport.


This evening I...

18 February 2005

...showed the Honda 450 to my fourteen-year old daughter. "Hmm." she said. "It looks like someone dragged it off the bottom of a lake with a crane. All that's missing is seaweed." She paused for a moment. "And there's a LOT of bird poop on it." I jokingly asked her if she wanted to go for a ride. She declined.

A Love Story Begins

24 February 2005

Over the next several days, I found myself developing an emotional attachment to the bike. My infatuation manifested itself in odd ways. First I approached it with a spray bottle of 409 in one hand, a wad of paper towels in the other. I selected a spot on the huge fuel tank, sprayed, and waited. To my mild amazement, a good bit of the gunk came off. While the metal was flecked with pinprick-sized dots of rust, the paint was in relatively good shape. I found out later that the "Polynesian Blue" Honda paint tended to hold its color better than the reds and golds.

Next I grabbed an old, nearly-shot scrub brush. It was the one I used to wash the wheels of my cars on those twice-annual occasions when I would pamper the cars. I brought a couple of old rags and a small bucket of warm water. Fairly gently, I applied water and scrubbed...

A Bit More of the Old Steel Wool

24 February 2005

OK. It was fun the first time. I polished a bit, and found the rust came right off. So it would figure that more polishing means more rust removal, right? Not neccesarily. First of all, it's damn tedious work; I can see why people use electric polishers. I spent an hour today working on the front wheel and part of one of the pipes. Looks better, certainly. But removing the grunge does reveal some imperfections. For example, what I understand is battery-acid damage is evident on the pipes. Not that I mind; I just want it to look as good as it can.

That said, I forsee many hours of labor ahead. And I'm speaking here only of cosmetics.

More on the whole DMV/title issue forthwith.

Stolen or Not, Continued

24 February 2005

It's a long story (which I'll get into soon enough) but neither the VIN nor the tag showed up in the DMV database. The good news is, that means it wasn't stolen. The (possibly) bad news is, the bike seems to Officially Not Exist. Do you think some sort of bureaucratic nightmare might ensue? You'd be right.

Meanwhile I rubbed some more steel wool on the chrome. Surprisingly, a great deal of the rust came right off. And there doesn't seem to be any of the common "blueing" of the pipes. Go figure.

The VIN Saga, Part One

04 March 2005

Time to relate the whole title/ownership saga (to date, anyway). I may do it in pieces, since it's an epic of Homeric proportions...well, ok, maybe it's not.

My buddy in law enforcement had already established -- through checking of the DMV database -- that the bike was neither stolen nor "in the system." We agreed that this was odd, seeing as how the bike clearly had NC tags and inspection decals. He asked me to double-check the VIN. I did, and it was the same one I had given him before. Upon subsequent investigation I found out that Hondas of this vintage in fact have two serial numbers: one for the body (which appears two places) and another for the motor. I couldn't even see the part of the engine where the latter serial number was supposed to be. So with a flashlight in one hand and an old toothbrush in the other, I crouched down and started rubbing the big oily mess in the area where the serial stamp was supposed to be.

In fact it was there. It took a lot of effort to clean it up enough to make it legible. The numbers didn't match, but I now knew they weren't supposed to. I contacted my buddy and gave him the new number. He told me he was almost positive that the engine number wasn't what we needed. Turned out he was right; that one wasn't in the system either.

He told me he'd speak to a guy who was pretty high up in the DMV hierarchy. The thinking was that there might be deeper databases to which they had access. It took about two weeks of back and forth, but we succeeded in establishing that the bike did not exist.

My buddy asked the DMV guy what all this might mean. He didn't get a definitive answer. He asked how his buddy (me) might go about getting the bike titled. No advice.

So in the meantime, since this all took so long (not really long, but I was impatient) I decided to contact the DMV myself. My experience was a bit different. First of all, I got to wait on 'hold' for about fifteen minutes. When I finally spoke to someone there, I explained the whole story from the beginning: church, warehouse, bird dropping, doesn't run, not in the system, yada yada. She told me I needed to get a Surety Bond. In simplest terms, the bond would protect the State in the event that I got a title, and then the original owner showed up. As I understood it, the bond wouldn't actually offer any protection to me, but there you go.

Near the end of our conversation, the word "abandoned" slipped from my lips. "Oh, wait a minute!" she interjected. If the bike was abandoned, then a whole different sequence of events would have to be followed. She told me I'd need to speak to the Abandoned Vehicles Division. I tried to backpedal and explain that I wasn't sure if "abandoned" was the right word. She said she's still send me the forms needed if I went the Indemnity Bond route (though she never did send them) and transferred me.

I'll pick up that story when I next post.

The Wheel Deal

04 March 2005

Clockwise from top left:

The Magic Blue Stuff

07 March 2005

Some things are an ever-unfolding series of problems. You find a small problem, dig to investigate, and find much more serious problems below. This scenario is, I suspect, one that is quite familiar to owners of old bikes like the subject of this blog.

It's not always the case, however, that things are worse than anticipated. Sometimes the situation is better than expected. Case in point (albeit a minor one): the tires in the 450 actually hold air. When the hulk was hauled in, the tires were flaccid, empty. All present assumed they were flat. It was only a couple weeks later that I decided to hook up my little inflater to the minivan's thing-that-used-to-be-a-cigarette-lighter and then pump the tires up. Not fully, in case they were dry-rotten and might burst, but enough to make the task of rolling the bike into the sunlight a damn sight easier.

Anyway, that was several weeks ago. Yesterday I got more good news. My neighbor rode over on his bike, bringing a bottle of chalky blue liquid. He suggested that the stuff might clean up the painted surfaces on "my" bike. I told him I had already used some polish, and it didn't do much, but he remained undaunted. He asked me what inconspicuous area I thought we should try first. I suggested the side air intake covers (I think that's what they're called). He sat down, poured some liquid on, and began working on it with an old cloth diaper.

The results were nothing short of amazing. As best as we can figure, while the bike was in storage, it took a good hit of paint overspray. The brown flecks all over the bike (though mostly on the right side) aren't rust; they're very fine paint drops. A good bit of elbow grease and the blue stuff will take them all off. It's going to be a very slow process (hmm...a recurring theme) but the bike can in fact be restored to a very pleasing aesthetic. The pictures may not show just what a dramatic difference our efforts made; I'll try to post some better ones soon. Below: Before and after.

One other item of note: my wife was gone for the day, and while she was gone no less than three of my friends stopped by (two on cycles) to see the bike.

The Long Awaited DMV Saga, Part Two

08 March 2005

So anyway, when I spoke to the DMV, and mentioned the word "abandoned," and got transferred to the Abandoned Division, they told me that the church had two options. Not me, you understand; the church. You know, the guys who gave the bike away. The DMV woman told me that the church could fill out some paperwork, submit it to the DMV, wait about 90 days, and then appear in court and...

Yeah, that's where she lost me. I knew there was no way in hell (pardon the expression) the church guys were going to appear in court to try and settle the disposition of the bike. I began to understand why they gave it away: if someone was willing to take it off their hands, no money involved, then they would be done with it. Makes sense (from a purely common-sense standpoint; no opinion as to the legal ramifications).

In so many words, I told her the church might not want to go to that trouble. Luckily, there was another option. The church (hey, wait a minute -- still with the church?) could call a licensed, bonded towing company. The towing guys could come get this abandoned vehicle, and then they would fill out some paperwork, submit it to the DMV, wait about 90 days, and then appear in court and...

So she had lost me again. My thought: if a towing company goes to this much trouble, there's no way they're going to cut the bike loose to somebody -- me or otherwise -- for, well, for anything close to its real value. They'd want a few hundred for their trouble. In case you've forgotten, gentle reader, at this point in the story this thing is still covered in bird shit and grease, and hasn't been started since the Reagan administration.

Shortly after this DMV conversation, I recounted the whole thing to Dave, who was growing increasingly tired of the whole thing. His girlfriend didn't want him riding a motorcycle, and he had neither the time nor the aptitude to get it running. On top of that, he'd never ridden a motorcycle (nor a scooter, for that matter). So he was ready to sell. How much would I offer?

Around this time I paid a visit to the local independent cycle shop downtown. I recited a Reader's Digest version of my story to the owner, and explained that what I really wanted was a diagnostic. I wanted to find out what it would take to get a bike such as this back into shape. She asked me again the make and model, and then replied quickly: "about $500, less if you do most of the work yourself."

That's where she lost me. I began to shake my head, and she caught on immediately, thinking to herself, "oh, you're one of those." Well, maybe she didn't. Yeah, she did, and she was right. I don't even change the oil in my car.

Then came the kicker: "This time of year [February] we don't even take on jobs like that. We could look at it in November." I paused to see if she smiled; you know, she must have been kidding. But she wasn't. "Wait. Let me give you the name of a guy here in town. He works pretty much exclusively on old Hondas, he'd be a lot cheaper than us, and he could work on it a lot sooner. In fact I think he's even got a '71 four-fifty himself." I thanked her for the information, took the number and left.

I did a bit of research, reviewing recently-concluded auctions on eBay Motors, and came up with some useful information. If you were a little -- not even a lot -- patient, you could find a 1971 Honda CB450, in running condition, with a clean title, for about $700. I found a couple specific examples of just such a transaction. What's more, I found one from another potential seller who had one (admittedly in very nice shape) that he had listed for a minimum of $1200. No takers. He relisted it a week later. Not a single bid.

A bit of quick calculation told me that if I took the estimated value of the bike ($700), backed out the estimated costs involved to get it roadworthy ($500) and figured a sum to get the title issue sorted out (assuming I could), I'd have to pay Dave no more than $100 for the bike. Otherwise -- not even taking time and effort into consideration -- I'd be "upside down" on the bike.

So I gathered my eBay examples, and emailed Dave an offer, and explanation and an apology for the low amount. Thus the title of this blog, Hundred Dollar Honda.

Please Hold...

08 March 2005

My life (family, job, community etc.) has somehow gotten in the way of my posting the second part of the VIN/Title Saga. I haven't forgotten, and I will get to it soon. It's a fairly interesting story, and I learned a lot from the experience.

Meantime, here's a photo that (I hope) better illustrates the effects of the blue stuff. Another hour or two of work and the tank should be completely polished. I also got rid of a stubborn decal on the top of the tank. In the photo, obviously the top part is done, and the bottom isn't. The HONDA emblem will require another approach, but should also clean up nicely. The air intake covers look great too, but the (plastic) "450" emblems will probably require repainting. No problem.

One of these days I'll bring the story up to the point where the phrase "Hundred Dollar Honda" makes complete sense. Not today, though.

Notable Quote

09 March 2005

Today I found a quote from Robert Pirsig, elusive author of Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance. I've added it to the bottom of this page. It's quite appropriate, I think, and has the added benefit of having something -- albeit tangentially -- to do with motorcycles.

"To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top." -- Robert Pirsig
...That was one of my favorite books. Also one of the toughest to get through, but worth the effort. It's been a good 20 years since I've read it. Time to pull it off the shelf, I'll bet. I am sure that the 41-year-old me will take some very different things from it than did the college student of 1983.

Plus, in those days, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with motorcycles, so a lot of that content washed right by me. Y'know what? Pirsig and his son Chris were riding a Honda CB305 Superhawk. It was one of the 60s models, with more chrome and the cool kneepads on the tank sides.

Dave Called...

11 March 2005

Wants an answer, understandably. See, I've been sort of putting him off for a couple-few weeks now, ever since he more or less accepted my hundred-dollar offer. At the time, he said "ok," and I replied, "well, I've got to make sure Joan agrees." Any day now. Really. The Envelope, Please... 13 March 2005

My wonderful spouse agreed. Many details remain to be worked out, but with a bit of luck, restoration will begin on my 450 in earnest. I'll also be enrolling in the MSF Beginner Cyclist Course, though that probably won't take place until July or so.


Broke the News...

22 March 2005 Mom and Dad. Yes, I'm 41 but my parents are still my parents. They were, well, dismayed. But they know well enough not to scold me too much. They simply aren't all that interested in talking about it.

My brother...well, I haven't quite worked up the nerve to tell him yet. He will not be so reticent as my parents. He's gonna let me have it, without a doubt. I have no idea how my sister will react. Probably a knowing chuckle.

By the way, the tank is completely polished now. I did a bit of work on the frame, and it shines up nicely as well, but doing the whole thing would be a LOT of work.

Also got the shop manual in the mail.

eBay and College

06 April 2005

I listed the scooter on eBay; I'll know by Saturday if it sells. The reserve price is set where I need it. Luckily the scooter is worth quite a lot (much, much more than the 450, which gives one pause...) so we'll see. I know I'll miss it; fun and easy to ride, very economical, and no reliability heartaches. What am I doing???

I also registered for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Basic Rider course at a nearby (well, sorta nearby - 30 miles) community college. That'll happen in June.

My buddy Mike and I might pay a visit this weekend to the guy who restores Hondas. Seems he has one like mine, and two like Mike's. And lots of parts of course.

Belated Update

28 April 2005

Many things have happened since the last post; some are related to the bike in only a tangential fashion.

A very close friend died suddenly; that pretty much took my focus off all things that weren't absolutely essential. Work also got very busy, for which I'm grateful.

The scooter didn't sell on ebay, but I did get a better idea of what the lowballers there were offering. With less effort than I'd normally muster (due largely to preoccupation with Dave's death) I managed to sell the scooter locally; it will have a nice home with an owner who appreciates its specialness (and knows how to ride it).

The day Mike and I went to visit the cycle mechanic, we didn't know Dave had died hours earlier. It was a beautiful day. The mechanic had a couple dozen cycles in and around his barn; uppon driving up I immediately recognized a '69 Black Bomber, the more-or-less prototype of the Honda 450s (though by '71 the 450 was -- stylistically and mechanically -- a "baby 750"). This recognition helped portay me in a postive light: I knew a bit about old Hondas.

He had one very much like mine, but his was a '73. Cosmetically mine is much nicer (as stated earlier, the blue bikes didn't fade but the reds turned pinkish-orange) but his runs, somewhat.

HE was a really nice guy, gregarious and very willing to help. He even offered the use of a trailer if I needed it to get the bike to him. His plan with potential restore-jobs, as he described it, was to get it up there, put some gas, plugs and a battery in it, and crank it up. What happened then would tell a lot about the bike's worthiness for restoring.

The money for the scooter isn't actually in-hand yet; that will come in a few days. I'm making arrangements now to get the bike up to the mechanic. Who knows: tis time next week I might know much more about the state of the 450.

Meanwhile I'm still searching for a good motorcycle seat. My neighbor offered to weld my existing seat pan; I might take him up on the offer. Then I'd take the pan back to the upholsterer, and she'd put new foam on it and craft a very nice seat for me. About $100, which while not cheap, s worth it for the materials and craftspersonship.

It's Aliiiiive!

04 May 2005

My mechanic called today; I was out but my daughter took a message.

It's alive! The bike (or the motor at least; I'll clarify when I speak to him) was running today, for the first time in 21+ years.

In other news, I sold the scooter. Got the price I wanted, one fair to all parties. I plan to keep close tabs on expenses, since now I have an official budget. So far:

Next up: getting the seat pan welded, and then reupholstered. First chance I get, I'm going to take my learner's permit test; my original plan assumed the bike wouldn't be ready until after I took the course. Now I want to be ready.

I'll also look into getting that surety bond.

Here's a pic of the bike at the mechanic's place. I sort-of know the former owner of the boxer at left.

And So Endeth A Tale (sort of)

02 June 2005

The mechanic has been a tough guy to get ahold of. In fact it's taken weeks. So finally I cornered him this week, and he gave me the news: it will cost in excess of $1500 in parts alone to get the bike roadworthy. Plus labor, plus unforseen (but likely) future expenses. Bottom line, it's not worth it.

I'm unavailable for a week or so, but upon returning I will get the bike back here, clean it up and put it up for sale as an untitled parts bike.

Now begins the hunt for an 80s bike. Among those recommneded are the early 1980s Honda CM400 (shaft drive, electric start), the Suzuki GS series (550s, for example) and so on.

I expected to be more disappointed than I actually am. In fact I'm just looking forward to riding. The MSF course begins three weeks from tomorrow. I've sold the scooter and have cash in hand (well, more or less). My eventual purchase will be a solid, reliable bike. With luck I'll have it by the time I've completed the course. We'll see...

2008 Note: Eventually I gave up and sold the bike for $200. By June 2005 I bought a 1981 Honda CB400T Hawk, and took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course. In 2006 I got divorced (not cycle-related; just sayin'). In 2008 I bought a 1973 Honda CB750.