Rat Bike Cleanup!

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Here’s a video of “after”… the result of several days’ worth of OCD scrubbing and polishing my poor ol’ 1983 Honda GL650 Silverwing.

This is the one bike I’ve got that I’ll ride in the rain – or at least risk riding in the rain. The others are garage queens that only go out when the coast is absolutely clear of weather threats and never, ever get wet.

It’s also practical. Three hard storage bags and 55-60 MPG whether you’re running all out or just knocking around. Shaft drive, two carbs and a drum rear brake. What else do you need?

I’ve had the Honda for about ten years now and it’s among my favorite bikes – ever – because it’s as trusty as a Swiss Watch but more fun because it has a 9,000 RPM pushrod transverse twin, basically a better-engineered copy of the famous Moto Guzzi twin. It feels a little busy on the highway because it’s only got a five-speed transmission, taching around 4,400 at 60. But she’ll do an honest 118 MPH, which isn’t bad for a 650 with Goldwing bodywork and several fewer cylinders.

The bike is also rare.

While GL500s (and the mechanically similar CX500) are still pretty common, the 650 was only made (or sold) for about one year in the United States. You don’t see them often.

It’s actually almost a 700 cc – and has noticeably more power than the 500s. I’ve enhanced it a little bit but mostly left her stock. I’ve entertained thoughts about expanding its capacity to 750 or even 900 ccs, swapping in higher compression pistons or maybe even adding a turbo (from a CX650). But then I think better of it. This bike, like my other bikes, is now an artifact from what Rush styled a better managed time.

Honda designed to just right, as is.

It has no computer; isn’t gratuitously complex. It’s a motorcycle. Brilliantly engineered to be almost immortal. This one certainly fits the bill. In the decade I’ve owned it and been riding it, it has needed fresh tires every so often, oil and filter once year, valve clearance check every other, coolant change – routine maintenance.

Not one un-routine thing has ever gone wrong with this bike. Everything on it except its tires and filters and fluids came with it when it left the factory back in ’83.

Gorbachev. Video Killed the Radio Star. The K-car . . . and how often do you see one of those, eh? Times change. The bike hasn’t – even the Nimbus Gray paint still looks great.

It’s all original. And it gets used.

Although it is now pushing 40 years old, I would not hesitate to ride it across the state – or even across the country (assuming I ever find the time again). People put 100,000 miles on these things, no problemo.

It has no mechanical vulnerabilities that I am aware of.  And if anything did go wrong, it could probably be put right with hand tools.

My buddy Tim – professional mechanic/shop owner – loves fuel injection. But what happens when you’re three states away from your tool box and the ECU bricks? No Thanks. Carbs are mechanical things; you can see (and physically handle) what’s gone wrong – and (usually) correct it with tools, not pulling and replacing parts – assuming you’ve got the new parts. If you’re out of state, you will probably have to wait. Hopefully the hotels nearby are nice.

Anyhow, I figured she deserved a clean-up, a spa week.

Mostly, it was just cleaning and polishing. Which is very Zen – makes you stop thinking about the Free Shit Army that’s assembling somewhere out there…

The one exception being the rehabbing of the “GL650” metal badges on either side of the engine case. These were stained and blotchy; the enameled black inset paint chipped and faded. They looked sorry.

So I took them off the bike, sanded them with 1500 and 2000, some Brillo… and then buffed them on the wheel. I carefully re-painted the black inset by hand; I think it looks almost as good as the original finish.

The one thing left to do is the seat, still original and still covered with its original (and ripped) faux leather, now held together with electric tape – the next best thing in the Guido Gearhead’s tool kit to duct tape, RTV and plastic ties.

That’s coming, eBay willing.

Well, you tell me. Does it look okay?

Or too ok to take it out in the rain?

. . .

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Nice. I have an 83 GL 550 in storage right now. It was running great when I had to store it, but does need paint and a small oil leak fixed. Best $500 I ever spent.

    • Hi Turd,

      Thanks, amigo!

      These are great bikes; I owe my friend Graves (poster here) for getting me into them. He has several. I’ve owned a lot of bikes over the years – like most people who are into bikes – and this one is one of the keepers. I like it enough that when it gets tired, I’ll give it a full mechanical and cosmetic rebop. Worth it. I can see myself riding it 20 years from now… assuming, of course, we are still allowed to ride.

  2. The CX/GL V-twins were fantastic bikes. The Japanese — Honda in particular — let their engineering departments run wild made a number of interesting but limited production bikes in the 1980s. In addition to the CX/GL, there was the NX650, the PC800, the Interceptor 250, 500, and 750, the Ascot, the 700cc tariff-era inline fours, the inline six-cylinder CBX, the CB 900, and the Hurricane. The Yamaha Vision 550 deserves honorable mention too. But all of those old Hondas have their issues — notably weak stators. It’s my understanding that if the stator ever craps out on a CX/GL, you need to pull the motor to get at it because it’s in the back of the case.

    Age-related issues also crop up, notably brittle plastic, hoses, and harnesses. But I agree that the old carbureted bikes are great and if need be you can actually work on ’em — if you can find parts, which is “not always.”

    One of the great things about the GL500/650 is the full fairing and bags. I have a 1997 V-4 ST 1100 that I’m absolutely in love with, and I will never ride a naked bike again after being spoiled by a fully-faired sport-tourer.

  3. Reading this article makes me miss my bike. I started riding on a ’78 Honda Hawk in 1987 and moved up to ’82 Yamaha Maxima 650 several years later. I lost interest in it 22 years ago and sold it to a friend who had been bugging me about the 82. I’ve held on to MC license since then and may eventually get back in the saddle again. But now at 50 years of age, I’ve married later in life with 4 chihuahuas, 1 wiener dog and never ending bills . I may still ride again only if I can distract the miss’s and sneak the motorcycle in without her noticing.

    • Hi Allen,

      She might like a bike like the GL…. very non-threatening. It’s not obnoxiously loud and it has a friendly vibe. Key thing – learned the hard way – is to coax her gently and ride it very, very moderately when you first take her with. Also, point out the tremendous savings. A bike like this can be bought for around $2,500 in very nice cosmetic and excellent mechanical condition and it will get 50-60 MPG, better than most hybrids that cost $24k-plus.

  4. Find a furniture reupholster locally for the seat. Sure, it’ll be more money than the “new old stock” on eBay but the eBay find will probably be just as rotted. With a nice leather saddle bringing it back just means some conditioner and a little elbow grease. And the wear will make the patina look better over time anyway.

    • Hi RK,

      Yeah, I’ve been considering that… vs. an OEM “correct” replacement cover… the leather is probably the way to go, even though it’s not “correct,” for all the reasons you’ve stated.

  5. That hand work looks great! Good job

    I see a lot of motorcyclists around here these days, but not many bikers if you know what I mean (and I’m not talking 1%-ers). Me, I’m dyed in the wool. Started riding in the mid 70’s and never stopped. Still ride literally every single day year ’round. Not too hard down here in coastal SC, hurricanes excluded.

    Eric, I remember that bike; a buddy had one. I used to give him what-for because I figured if you didn’t ride H-D you were some kind of rice-burning traitor (yeesh!). Flash forward to 2005 and I dumped the Harley and went with an ’03 Honda VTX1300S V-twin and I’ve never been happier. Half the money, twice the bike, and it’d probably ride to the moon and back. All old school tech, which is refreshing for a bike of that vintage and good for an old school rider like me. I even took to the shaft drive quicker than I thought I would. Really good for the sandy dirty road conditions around here. I do all the work on her myself, though I’m just a shade tree mechanic. Makes me feel connected.

    Sorry for the ramble. I just love chatting about bikes, especially older ones. (If my kidneys and back could take it I’d go for one of the old chopped hard-tails from my youth!)

    Keep the faith, and keep the rubber down. Here’s to our two wheeled Red Barchettas!

  6. eric, I really enjoyed this rant, whatever it was. You probably don’t think of an old trucker being a bike fan but I loved the old Honda’s. I loved the old bikes of most every sort.i loved the old Brit bikes. .I bought a new Norton Commando one Friday. I was going to pick it up with a friend to drive my car. An old asshole neighbor who hated me for being a long haired cowboy called the cops on me that night telling them I was being ripped off because a good friend he also hated always parked in the alley had dropped by.

    Cops arrived and came into my house causing us to meet guns to guns.

    Turned out they were young like me and didn’t really mean any harm to me.

    Problem was they called in and “detectives “responded.

    We had a pot pipe but nothing to put in it.

    They took it with them to not get me busted.
    I owe those guys to this day cause pot6,which I didn’t have, was 6 felony at that time.

    The problem being the “detectives” arrived and took an unmarked bottle of legally prescribed sleeping pills in an unmarked bottle.

    I had a few in the bottle but the rest in the bottle with the prescription.

    Of course this was merely harassment but I had to fight it with a lawyer through the court system along with my girlfriend who was also charged.

    We weren’t charged till Monday since it took them that long to figure out a charge.

    I saw the writing on the wall well before we had charges brought against us. Oh yeah, they charged everybody there.
    That was the end of my Norton.

    I had the money to pay for it till I had to pay for a lawyer for bofus for a charge that wasn’t even a crime. It was half the cost of the bike.

    I was lucky a guy I worked with told me the cops were on the premises about to tag me.
    I drove my Malibu Sport through over 3 feet of water to escape.

    Went directly to a lawyer and he accompanied to jail.

    The piggos were greatly disappointed they didn’t get their shot at me without legal counsel (not getting my àss beat).

    No good deed goes unpunished. I was on the shitlist because I helped organize war protests.

    Nothing has changed. My FBI record will endure long after I’m gone.

    • Thanks, Eight!

      I love the old bikes, too. They have an approachability that’s lacking in the new stuff – which has become much like cars: Expensive and overcomplicated, with lots of pre-emptive electronic nannying.

      My old bikes just do what I ask them to. No linked brakes, no ABS no traction control. Nothing to “program.” And yet, the carbs react just as snappily as EFI – I think even more so. There’s a different feel to it. And there is Zen to be found in taking apart a Mikuni on the bench and looking at all the bits and pieces, cleaning everything up and then putting it all back together. What do you with an injector? Take it off, throw it away – install a new one. No tactile engagement; sex with an appliance.

      The bikes I have now are the Keepers – the ones I have had a long time and will hopefully keep as long as I am not six feet under. But I must find a worthy apprentice to transfer them to at some point over the coming decades, if I don’t manage to have a (worthy) progeny of my own.

      I felt a pang of pain – and anger – about the Norton.

      Got damn them all.

  7. Looks great! Definitely the kind of bike that is not only fun to ride, but rewarding to work on and cleans up nicely. Not exactly a ‘rat bike’ when compared to what those often look like in the hands of the ‘In Rust We Trust’ crowd. I’d love to have the garage space for a bike like this one. Keep up the great work 🙂

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