Resurrecting classic Honda bikes for a hobby
|driving.ca 24 Oct 2020 at 06:53|
Since attempting to fit a two-stroke lawnmower engine into a bicycle as a boy, Dennis Firth has spent his life dedicated to resurrecting things—from cars and trucks to motorcycles and just about everything in between.
“I’ve always liked making mechanical and architectural items work and look as good as possible,” the naturally inquisitive Calgarian says, and adds, “There’s a bit of magic in setting valves or ignition points in an engine, but I also remember getting a well-used Gestetner press running. There was a kind of joy in hearing it clicking and clacking along as it ran a big job.”
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While happy diagnosing why an air conditioner or a dishwasher isn’t working, Firth has spent plenty of time lately dedicated to his favourite make and model of motorcycle – Honda CB/CL350s from the early Seventies. He’s resurrected several examples, with many of them moving on to be enjoyed by new owners.
Although his mower engine in the bicycle adventure met with limited success, Firth says he learned a great deal about tools and how to use them in the process.
“My dad was a woodworker, he didn’t spend much time working on the family car, but there were all kinds of tools around, and I had access to them,” Firth says of his initial exposure to working with his hands.
When he was 14, Firth learned his family was moving from Regina, Saskatchewan to Red Deer, Alberta. At the time, in the province of Alberta, it was legal for a 14-year old to ride a motorcycle so long as it was 100cc’s or less. Before he moved, Firth bought a Honda 50 Super Cub. It ran, but Firth says the Honda 50 was his first foray into motorcycle repair. For almost two years, he ran the little machine in all kinds of weather.
“It was great, but the front plastic fender was gone and in cold, wet weather, the front tire would send up a plume of water that would cause the carb to freeze while I was riding,” Firth recalls.
When he turned 16, the Cub was sold, and Firth got a two-door 1962 Ford Galaxie. It was equipped with an inline six-cylinder engine and two-speed automatic transmission. One winter, working outdoors underneath a tarpaulin, he rebuilt the motor.
“I was always tinkering with that car,” Firth says. “It ran, and I was on a budget. It got me through high school, and I planned to go to university to become an industrial arts teacher.”
That didn’t happen right away. Firth spent a year working at Safeway while he drove an older Toyota Corolla 1100. By the time he did get to university, he was driving a 1972 Corolla 1600 and he’d put a 1967 Honda CL160 back on the road.
“I had the Honda as well as a car,” he says, and adds, “I rode the bike a lot because I could park it just about anywhere on the U of A (University of Alberta) campus.”
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial education and began teaching. Firth says he then had a few extra dollars to purchase special tools, such as a flywheel puller, needed to work on smaller-capacity Honda motorcycles. He then began buying, repairing and selling several machines. Later, Firth bought a larger Honda touring motorcycle that led to the purchase of a 2004 Honda Gold Wing. He says he put thousands of miles on the latter machine, both two-up and on several solo adventures.
In 1999, Firth took over teaching auto mechanics at the Airdire Alternative School. At roughly the same time, he began searching for a Honda CL160, but couldn’t locate one for sale. That’s when he chanced upon a 1973 Honda CL350. It was a complete machine, in good shape, and Firth found another identical model for sale in the Bargain Finder. He bought that one, too, and took both apart, using the best components from each to create one very clean motorcycle. “It wasn’t a restoration, rather a high-quality preservation,” Firth says of the completed project.
I don’t see the need for a 5,000 sq. ft. shop.
Since retiring in 2009, Firth has resurrected more than 10 Honda CB350s, and is currently working on two projects. One is a custom CB350 using parts from several different years. He’s building this motorcycle for a good friend. The other is a 1973 CL350 that will have later-model Honda CL360 forks, Yamaha XS650 headlight and mounting brackets and a Honda CB175 gas tank.
“It’ll be recognizable as a CL350, but there will be little differences from stock,” Firth says of his work in progress that he intends to keep and ride.
He does all of this work in a modest but clean and well-lit basement shop that he says is about the size of a bedroom. Here, he meticulously cleans and rebuilds all mechanical components and assembles them into the frame. When the engine, rear swingarm and shocks and front fork triple trees are in place, the project gets carried up the basement steps and lands in the garage. That’s where Firth fits the rest of the components, including fork tubes, fenders, wheels, wiring harness and electrical parts and, finally, the seat and gas tank.
“I don’t see the need for a 5,000 sq. ft. shop,” Firth says, and concludes, “I just work with what I have available, and always remain flexible about things.”