Opinion: Horrible Halloween

Today is Halloween, and it’s got me thinking about terrifying motorcycles, like the V8-powered Big Brute I rode years ago and which almost killed me. You can read about it here. It’s also got me thinking about scary motorcycle stories, like the Headless Motorcyclist on the Ghost Road, which you can read here. But then I started thinking about horrible motorcycles, and the most horrible motorcycle I ever owned, which gave me perhaps the most horrible shock at a bike shop I’ve ever experienced…

Back in 1982, Mark did all the maintenance himself on his Honda CB350F. That included peering hopefully at the cylinder head.

The Honda CB350 Four was not a bad bike when it was built in the early 1970s, but by the time I wandered into McBride Cycle in 1981, the used model on the floor had been through the wringer. I don’t remember the mileage, but I remember that I bought it from John McBride himself and knocked him down from $1,100 to an even Grand. It leaked oil from the cylinder head right from the beginning, and I then ruined it by mounting a clear plastic windshield on the handlebars. At the time, I was riding several hundred kilometres every weekend between my job near Hanover, Ontario, and Toronto, and the upright position was exhausting on my teenaged forearms. I remember that first winter, trying to kick-start it in November (no electric start, of course), and eventually learning why 20W50 oil is not good for cold weather.

The next year, I ruined it more by removing the windshield and installing lowered clubman handlebars with a bar-end mirror. I left the footpegs untouched and God knows how I managed to ride like such a pretzel, but I was young and flexible back then. One long weekend, I rode from Toronto to Montreal and back via Algonquin Park each way, and when I got home, I saw I’d covered 990 miles (around 1,600 km). So I rode up and down outside the house until I passed a thousand miles, just because.

Ow! Don’t those dropped handlebars make your whole body ache just to look at them?

I dressed like a rocker. I had no choice because I had to wear high leather boots – the cylinder head was now throwing close to a litre of oil all over my left shin between every fill-up at the gas station. Always an optimist, I wiped down my shiny leather boot and considered it a free oil change every thousand miles.

I owned the CB350F for about three years and did all the work on it myself, because I was too poor to pay for a proper service. This helps explain its lack of reliability. I finally fixed the oil leak (mostly) with a new gasket and a bit of smoothing, so then I had to actually change the oil, but I overtightened the drain plug and stripped the metal thread. After that, it blew oil all over the rear tire and I couldn’t rethread the drain opening – I had to replace the entire pan, which cost more than a hundred bucks. At the time, I was earning about $200 a week and paying rent from that on a crappy apartment in Fergus, Ontario.

In any case, I decided the next oil change and service should be done by a professional, so I took the bike to a small motorcycle shop in Belwood, Ontario. I asked them to change the oil and the plugs and set the points gap. Then, as I was leaving, I remembered that one of the indicators was working intermittently. “Can you take a look at it? I asked.

The CB350F may not have been very reliable, but at least it was clean. Well, once anyway.

When I collected the bike later that day, I remember the service guy putting the service order on the counter and going to fetch the key. I was hoping the work would be around $50 (this was 1982), but expecting it would probably be more like $100. The amount on the upside-down order said $676. I was horrified. “Yeah, we spent a long time trying to trace the indicator fault in the wiring harness and eventually just had to rewire it all from scratch,” said the service guy. “How will you be paying – cash or cheque?”

I never took the poor CB350F back for another service. Over time, the splines on its kickstarter shaft wore off and it had to be bump-started every time, and the kickstand broke, so it had to be propped against a wall when parked. It soldiered on as best it could, but I ended up abandoning it in a friend’s farm field near Erin.

Thinking back on it now, the bike itself was not horrible; in fact, I loved that bike at the time with the foolishness of youth. But those bastards in the motorcycle shop in Belwood? They taught me to always get an estimate, and ask to be called to approve an unexpected cost. The shop is long out of business now. Good – it can never shock anyone else.

Mark dreamed of bigger and better things, like maybe one day becoming editor of CMG, even though the Internet wasn’t yet invented.


    • I’d just come back from a trip to Australia, so stuck the sticker there to cover some rubbed-off paint. There’s a San Francisco sticker on the other side, which I also visited around the same time. But no – no story that includes the bike. At least, none that I can publish. Ask me again when you buy me a pint.

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