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Motorbikes

Honda 400/4 From Cornwall to St Tropez

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All pics, Leica M3, 21mm Super Angulon f3.4 Apologies for the poor quality of the pictures. They were scanned from prints made from slides!

I remember well when I first fell in love with Honda’s 400/4 Supersport. The time: 1982. The Place: My mate Darren’s garage. The bike: A metallic burgundy model with a Dunstall silencer. I’ve only got little legs so it’s small size appealed. Besides, when Darren ‘borrowed’ the keys from time to time, we would start it up and delight in the sound that echoed off the walls. The streets outside beckoned but the knowledge that we were under age and that the bike belonged to Darren’s mum and if she ever found out… Well lets just say that we never took it out and had to content ourselves by sitting it and revving it up like mad.

It was 15 years until I owned one myself. In between times, a succession of cars and bikes have come and gone. I have happy memories of a Suzuki X7, Kawasaki 400/4J, a 1973 350 and various others. My first bike was a Suzuki AP50 and I passed my test on a Harley-Davidson, one of those little 90cc ones built under licence.

I bought a wreck of a wooden boat in 1990 and if I ever wanted to sail over the horizon I soon realised that every penny I could lay my hands on would have to go on the boat. I found myself without motorised transport for the first time in a decade. I bought a mountain bike and became a boat builder.

Some years and a lot of hard work later I finally set off and sailed west to Cornwall where I met my partner Celia. Then followed a couple of years in London where I worked with my brother. I was to have a company bike and my budget was £400. A look through the classified ads and I soon realised that I wasn’t going to get much for my money.

There was one 400/4 for sale for a bit more than that. I gave the bloke a ring and he said he would ride the bike over for me to take a look at it as he was just around the corner. His name was Rex and he was a gay biker. I think he liked the image of the bike but was hopeless at maintenance so had decided to sell it.

The first thing in it’s favour was that Rex had ridden it there. It had some MOT and tax left, the tyres were legal and all the lights and things worked. The frame and forks were straight but scars showed that it had been down the road at some time on both sides. The amazing exhaust system was rusty, dented and noisy. The fork oil seals were leaking. All the chrome was pretty tired, the red paint was terrible as someone had decided to repaint the tank and side panels and just masked around the Honda badges. I don’t know what paint they used but it was forever rubbing off on my trousers.

From about 20 feet away at dusk, there was just enough chrome to make it look alright, get any closer and you would see; the ripped and rusty seat, the dents in the tank, the broken side panels and bent clocks. In fact it was a dog. When I first rode it I was not impressed. There was loads of play in the gear lever and the chain was slack which made the gearbox feel terrible. The front brake didn’t work and the bike wandered about a bit. That’ll be worn swinging arm bushes then!

It really depends how you look at it. I thought; it’s taxed and ticketed for a while, it runs and it’s actually very original and besides I was too busy to spend the time trying to track down a bargain. Despite the state he was in he omitted a nice vibe. I know that seems ridiculous but I’m very sensitive to these things. It’s the same with boats. You could be sailing on the most extraordinary  classic yacht, restored to an as new condition ‘no expense spared’ keel up rebuild that took a team of shipwrights two years to achieve. But if the vibe isn’t there, then there’s something missing, and that something is important.

For two years I rode it about London and made a couple of trips to Cornwall, usually in February. If you’ve ever ridden a 400/4 you’ll know that on a twisty B road they are fantastic but on the motorway they are utterly soul destroying, revving it’s nuts off in top and only doing about 70mph. The only good thing I can say is that it is economical and I often returned 50mpg. In that time I did what I had to, tyres, chain and sprockets, a service, new points, new fork oil etc but he still looked a mess. This however was an advantage as a dog does not attract attention and no one tried to nick him during two years in Brixton.

I continued to improve the mechanics of the bike, who we called Rex after the guy we bought it off. It seemed to suit him, and he’s definitely a he, not a she like my boat. Funny that. So Rex’s engine came out and was found to be very original inside. I decided to rebore him and gave him a set of once oversize pistons. The speedo says that Rex has covered 44,000 miles and if that’s true, on the original pistons, that’s not bad at all.

A new cam chain and followers, a new primary drive chain, new gearbox bearings and seals, big ends and crank bearings, all you could wish. After the motor went back into the frame I tuned up the carbs and got them synchronised nicely. I changed the swinging arm bushes and that made a big difference. The front brake was horrid. In the end I bought another calliper from a breakers, along with a set of forks and a front mudguard. That meant that the front end looked almost respectable but the rest was still awful. He went better and started easier but was lumpy and snatchy at low speeds. Setting up the timing requires patience and precision.

One of the last things I did before I stopped working with my brother was to buy new rims and spokes. I polished the hubs and sent the wheels off for building. Nice. Still a long way to go but getting there. I rode Rex down to Cornwall and stuck him in Celia’s dad’s garage. I covered him in waxoyl, drained the carbs and disconnected the battery that I knew would be ruined the next time I saw him. I covered him and left him to Falmouth’s damp salty air.

We went sailing again. We crossed to France and spent a few months heading south on the amazing canals there. We finally came out in the Med and decided to winter in the little seaside town of Bandol, whose claim to fame is Rosé wine. It was sunny and windy there. The next summer we explored the whole south coast of France, met up with mates and basically did bugger all. Then the following summer we sailed to Italy, Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica and back again to what has become our regular winter haunt a few miles from St Tropez. In 2001 we sailed back to the UK to see what all the fuss was about at the 150th anniversary of the America’s Cup, see some mates, and joy of joys, get Rex out and go for a ride.

I washed the Waxoyl off with petrol but despite my precautions with the carbs, I had to remove them and clear the jets. After three years the battery wasn’t even worth looking at. I borrowed a car battery and cranked him until he started, reluctant at first. How I had missed that sound although I think some more of the already patched exhaust had corroded away because he sounded louder with a pronounced backfire on the overrun. A good laugh once in a while but tiresome all the time. I went for a short ride just to loosen him up after his hibernation. He was going really nicely, the weather was fantastic (July) and it was a joy to sweep around those Cornish bends.

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When we got back to the Med we were faced with the same old transport problem. Second hand bikes and cars are too expensive and besides I had a perfectly good bike waiting for me in Cornwall. So I flew back to the UK thanks to Easyjet, then to London and on to Cornwall by train (incidentally the train ticket was considerably more than the flight from Nice).

Gawd knows what I must have looked like when I set off aboard Rex. Not only was I wearing leather jacket and jeans but on top of all of that I was wearing my YELLOW waterproofs from the boat. They are actually the best you can wear on a bike in shitty conditions and being YELLOW means that there’s a chance that the snug, warm and complacent car driver will see you in time.

I broke the journey up into three. I’m not as young as I used to be and three hours on a bike in the UK in November, sitting upright and unprotected in a constant hurricane was enough for me. (Beaufort wind scale: 12 is a hurricane, winds of over 64mph). At least it wasn’t raining and not really that cold for November. It was eight degrees and I was happy to get to Jay and Luke’s house in Totnes. ‘would you like a coffee?’ Asked Luke. What a great bloke! I sat in front of their fire for a couple of hours before I finally warmed up. I tried not to think of the next stage; Totnes to Brighton.

I set off late the next morning as we had all been to the pub for breakfast. It’s always good to fill up before you go a long way in the freezing cold. I was worried though. Rex had started to make some worrying noises at Bodmin of all places. It never got worse, and if I tilted my head forwards a little and pressed my knees into the tank I couldn’t hear it. So this is what I did. If Rex was going to blow up I probably would have left him at the side of the road and simply returned to France (sans moto).

As it happens whatever it was got quieter and quieter until I couldn’t hear it anymore over the normal cacophony of pistons, valves and chains thrashing away. The ride was cold and uneventful. By the time I got to Brighton it was dark and I remembered why I hated riding Rex at night. It’s because his headlight is pathetic. It’s not the original one, more evidence of past abuses. I then realised how tired my visor was, I slowed down and got there more by my senses than my eyesight. A hot bath and some good grub followed.

Brighton to Dover. A piece of cake. The bike going well, mysterious engine noises a thing of the past, good weather still, though cold and only 100 miles. It took a while as I chose to ride on the more interesting B roads. On the ferry, the one way trip for me and bike in November was over £70 and to top the insult off nicely, you don’t get a proper space for your bike, no, it’s stuffed into a corner they couldn’t use for anything other than a bike.

From Calais to Lille to find the train station where I planned to load Rex. After getting lost, I finally found the place, not in Lille but 3 miles south of the city. Not sure how I found it as the signs were very poor and it was getting dark. But find it I did and met up with the only other biker on the train, a bloke called Greg who had a 750 Trial bike. And so we had each others company for the 15 hour train journey. You get a bunk and a half litre bottle of water but nothing else, even the coffee machine was broken. That’s a long time without coffee. Incidentally, the price for one bike, one rider, one way was about £130.

When we arrived in Nice the sun was shining and suddenly I was ridiculously overdressed in all my clobber and I was sweating like mad. I got rolling as soon as possible just to get the air moving over me…aahhhhhh.  I stopped in Antibes and was able to dump all my luggage off to be delivered later. This meant I was able to really enjoy the N98 the coast road to St Tropez. After Cannes it’s just superb, a road designed for the 400/4. If I was rich I would buy the road and race up and down it all day. I finally arrived home relieved to have got there with no major problems.

Celia was keen to go for a burn so we blasted up to Le Garde Freinet, which is another amazing road that goes up and down and left and right in all the right places. That was the end of the exhaust pipe as the baffles blew out. It was now so loud it just wasn’t nice any more. One fax to David Silver and a new one was on it’s way. I received my new genuine Honda exhaust pipe just 4 days later. What a difference that made but oh no, look at  the tank and seat now. Will it never end?

I considered what colour to respray him and decided on a 1971 Jaguar shade of Racing Green. Through my sail maker friend I was able to order up some lovely Rolls Royce Connolly leather, hard to believe it’s real it’s so perfect. Celia sewed it into the lovely seat you see today. It’s a nice match, the paint and the leather.

rexb1

I didn’t want the original Honda transfer, although I am a great believer in ‘Original’, I have no objection to changing things such as paint which can easily be changed. I sourced some replica works stickers through the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club (VJMC) Autojumble and cut off the word Honda to leave just the wings and the HM initials, it just didn’t look right otherwise. It took days to decide where to place the stickers. It’s not an easy thing to do and I must admit that the sticker’s shape doesn’t lend itself naturally to the shape of the 400/4 tank. What you see is a compromise but the stickers were so cool they had to go on. I lacquered over them and so ends the story of Rex.

There’s still more to do (always) but finally I think he’s in nice enough condition for a 25 year old bike. I shall improve him more gradually now. Finally my dream came true, 20 years since I first drooled over a 400/4 I finally have one that I can be proud of even if I am his 14th owner.

Originally published in Tansha, the magazine of the VJMC April 2002.