The Day the Honda Died

You meet a lot of roadkill when riding on a highway’s hard shoulder – dead furry things, torn tires, and I think I even saw a pigeon.

What granted me the unexpected opportunity to putter along on the side of I-96 at 40 mph last night? My beloved 1972 Honda CB450, or, more accurately, my neglect of said motorcycle.

Let me back up a bit.

A family friend gave me the bike when I was 15. It was dirty, a bit worn, and painted a lovely metallic brown. My dad and I spent a winter disassembling, cleaning, and generally restoring it to rideable condition. The tank and side covers got a coat of candy red paint and it was ready to go.

Since getting my cycle endorsement at age 19, I’ve taken it out a few times each summer – just enough to remind myself why it’s almost pointless to ride in southeastern Michigan. Because I ride it so infrequently, maintenance has consisted of checking the tire pressures before each trip, and adding fuel stabilizer to a full tank of gas when storing it for the winter.

Last summer, I made the bold decision to ride the bike 40 miles to work. This was, incidentally, the first time I’d tried riding it long-distance at sustained highway speeds. Everything was going fine until I was almost at work and the bike began to bog down. I took surface streets back home that evening and never determined the source of the problem. Then it sat again all winter.

Fast forward to this spring. I’m taking the bike out for a ride to attempt to recreate the problem. After a while I do, but this time it completely dies. I’m on the side of the highway, about a mile from my exit, so I manage to get it fired again and keep the revs up so it stays lit. I dodge the aforementioned shoulder items and make it safely off the freeway. Then the bike gets really upset.

Pop, sputter, sputter, pop, sputter, pop. It’s backfiring. I see a driveway to a U-Haul/self-storage place and I take the opportunity to pull off the road. Not a moment too soon because that’s when the final death pop hits and my CB450 (most likely operating as a CB225 at that point) becomes a CB0. It won’t turn over, not even with the kick-start. It’s seized. I feel stupid.

A few phone calls, a text message, and an e-mail later (isn’t modern technology wonderful?) and friends arrive with a pickup to rescue the Honda.

A quick inspection revealed one cold and one warm exhaust pipe (leading me to the CB225 theory) as well as the saddest looking spark plug I’ve ever seen. It’s the black one pictured here and has a smashed electrode, as well as a nick in the bottom rim. Apparently the bike had been burning oil during all of those short summer trips, and, as you’d imagine, that took a toll on the internals. Whoops.

There is a bright side to all of this, that being my continued existence. If the bike had died a few minutes earlier and locked the rear tire, I could have easily become a hood ornament.

So now I’m scouring the Web for a replacement engine. I haven’t had the chance to open mine up, but I can’t imagine things are too happy inside after running with little to no oil for who knows how long, and given the condition of that spark plug. I have to look at all of this as a (truly embarrassing) learning experience, and I thank my lucky stars that I’m not roadkill myself.

(Donor bike whereabouts are welcome in the comments.)