Common Tread

Why I bought a vintage Honda as my first bike

Sep 10, 2015

On a frigidly cold day in February, I drove a few hours outside of Philadelphia to check out a 1973 Honda CB350 Four that I had no idea how to ride, let alone repair.

When I first saw that motorcycle, I wanted it.  It barely started because of the cold, and the snow drifts were so high outside the garage that there was no way the owner was going to be able to ride it to show me that it was actually in decent working order. I gave her a deposit on the spot.

Everyone told me that buying a vintage motorcycle as my first bike was a terrible idea. Spurgeon, in his previous article, was right: I had no tools, no garage, no wrenching experience. Hell, I didn’t even know how to start a motorcycle. What was I thinking?

The Honda has an electric starter, but the kicker actually works just as well. Plus it looks cool. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Working around motorcyclists every day at RevZilla had brought up my decade-old longing for a bike. There were a lot of things I didn’t want in my first motorcycle. I didn’t want something new. I didn’t want a sport bike (sorry, Ninja 250). I didn’t want something too big.

Despite knowing what I didn’t want, I was overwhelmed by the options out there. Everyone had an opinion: that’s too small, that’s too big, you’ll outgrow that, that has too much power. I realized there was no “right” first bike; I’d have to make up my own mind.

No parking, no problem. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

One co-worker suggested I get an old Honda CB, and when I saw the style, I fell in love. I’m a history nerd, and I have a love for things far older than me — with the exception of gentlemen, thankfully. A few other people around the office told me it was a terrible idea. I have a serious stubborn streak. When I get a hankering for something and someone tells me it’s a bad idea, it almost guarantees I’ll follow through. I started looking exclusively for 1970s Hondas. At that point, I was somewhat aware of the work that an old bike would need. It didn’t faze me. I saw it as a challenge.

When I finally brought my bike “home” to Spurgeon’s garage, I realized the amount of effort that would be required. I’d already made it that far (“that far” included a harrowing five-hour journey from New Jersey to Philadelphia through a blizzard with my bike on a trailer), so there was no turning back. The day Spurg and I wrenched, we tore apart the carbs for a light cleaning, and he helped me get the front brake in somewhat working order, though that brake caliper is a story for another day. He helped get the bike running, and then I was on my own.

Chasing daylight. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Over the next couple of months, I did things and learned things that I never dreamed about, all because of my bike that I call Millie. I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation class and got my motorcycle license. I learned about the horrendous charging systems these old bikes have. I learned what a torque wrench is. I borrowed a hammer drill and successfully installed an anchor lock in my sidewalk. I got the stator and field coil rewound, and I took my bike to a shop for a tune up, new spark plugs, and to work out a few other issues. I bought tools. I now own far more of them than I ever thought I would want or need. I hauled the bike to my home state and my dad and I had a grand old time tearing apart my front brake caliper. I’ve made new friends, gotten my hands dirty, and learned a thing or two.

On my own with my bike. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

There aren’t many things in life that are better than riding, but the work and time I put in to get that bike on the road made it even sweeter. I’ve spent the summer riding around Philadelphia and the surrounding areas, building trust and confidence with my bike and with myself. I’ve spent time hanging out with mechanics and asking a billion questions. I’ve gotten oil stains on the cuffs of all my jeans that will never come out. I’ve stalled my bike in the middle of the night in an area of Philadelphia that isn’t necessarily pleasant and somehow managed to get it running again, thanks to my kickstarter. I’ve learned how much choke she likes, how long it takes her to get warm, and that she’s got a thirst for oil. I’ve pushed that bike farther than I’d like to admit, and I’ve dropped it a couple more times than it deserves. I’ve experienced the terror of merging onto a Philly freeway for the first time and the subsequent realization that I love to go fast. Despite the frustrations, the time, the money, and the hassles, I’m smitten.

After leaving RevZilla at the end of the day it's great to blow off some steam before heading home. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Why did I decide to get a vintage bike, even though everyone told me not to? You could say I did it because I wanted a challenge. You could say I did it because I don’t tend to take the easy way when it comes to most things I do. You could say I did it because I just like the look of it (that little black tank, the sleek seat, the Clubmans, those four cylinders leading to that four-into-one exhaust — who wouldn’t swoon?!). You could say I did it just to prove that I could. You could even chalk it up to stupidity, or at best, ignorance mixed with a good dose of stubbornness. Regardless of why I bought that bike, I wouldn’t trade the experience of owning a vintage motorcycle for the world.

I don't want my mom to think I am reckless, but there is a difference between reckless and enjoying a little bit of speed. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

P.S. — As Spurgeon mentioned in his article, my mom didn’t know about my motorcycle for a long time. My older sister gleefully spilled the beans soon after his article came out, but I dared not utter the word “motorcycle” for months. Eventually, I sent my mom a photo of me and Millie along with a link to Spurgeon’s article. Is she thrilled about it? No. Does she worry? Of course. But, in the end, she sees how happy this experience has made me, so she accepts it.

Mom, if you’re reading this, please ignore the stuff I said about freeways and going fast.