Another Man’s Treasure: 1978 Honda CX500 Cafe
An odd-ball relic is transformed into the belle of the ball
Will Nicholson’s 1978 Honda CX500 Cafe Build
The first step is sometimes the hardest one to take. We tend to assume that the people accomplishing great things are experts, well-trained in their fields. Intimidation kills inspiration, but the truth is those experts were once green and inexperienced. They simply were inspired to jump in and got their hands dirty.
Will Nicholson went for it. Never having so much as turned a wrench on a motorcycle, he went to work creating a beautiful café racer. Judging by its clean lines and the obvious attention to detail (note the leather lever covers), Nicholson is putting his industrial design degree to good use. He has an obvious talent for aesthetics.
At the ripe old age of 24, Nicholson, a New Zealander, found inspiration in a neglected and rejected 1978 Honda CX500. The bike had started life as the possession of a now-elderly lady in a husband-and-wife riding tandem. Perhaps they were every-day riders, or maybe weekend warriors; details are sketchy. When the wife became a widow, the CX took up residence in her yard. There it sat, slowly succumbing to the ravages of time. Another would-be builder picked up the bike for a song, but he never found the motivation to start the café project. Nicholson didn’t just purchase the old Honda; he rescued it.
“I have always wanted an old bike,” he says. “I really enjoy bringing life back to old things.”
The CX500 was never a popular bike, but it is bullet proof. When the oddball Honda was young, the superbike was a new invention. Inline fours were all the rage, and the Kawasaki KZ1000 and Suzuki GS1000 ruled the road. The transverse V-twin engine on the CX doesn’t look so strange to modern eyes, but the masses deemed it too weird and underpowered at the time of its introduction. It sold meekly, but darn if it doesn’t make a sexy café racer. Quirky is the new black.
“I started looking at old Hondas and Yamahas,” says Nicholson, “but I stumbled across this CX, and it was in my price range. The layout of the CX intrigued me… I love the concept; transverse V-twin, water-cooled, shaft drive, electric start, all on a bike which was manufactured in the 70s! I think they were quite innovative bikes, but aesthetically not very clean.”
And therein lay the other reason for the CX’s flat-lined sales in its short production run of five years. Big Red borrowed proven, reliable concepts from other manufacturers and packaged them in a responsible-looking motorcycle. But, practicality was a tough sell in an era when the first road rockets were setting streets on fire. Nicholson was able to transform the CX from water buffalo to super model while retaining the components that made it so trustworthy.
“The CX purists will hate it,” he says, “but I don’t think the factory bikes are particularly beautiful.”
Nicholson’s experience in motorcycling has been brief, but his love of all things motorbike has been a lifelong infatuation. He only started riding a few years ago, earning his stripes astride a Kawasaki Ninja 300. The impetus for his first restoration project was the boredom inherent with moving to a new town for work. The year-and-a-half-long CX build was as much learning experience for him as it was busy work in a strange town.
“The whole project was something quite new to me,” says Nicholson. “I learned a lot of new skills.”
Look at his Nicholson’s handiwork, and what you notice is what you can’t see. Not a wire protrudes to detract from the carefully revealed frame. The open space beneath the seat gives the CX a ghost-like, ethereal quality. Such understatement is hard for even experienced builders to accomplish.
“The original wiring loom was toast, so I made an entirely new wiring loom from scratch,” Nicholson says. “While this might not be much of an achievement for an auto sparky (auto electrician), I had almost no prior electrical experience. I’m happy that all the wiring is hidden well out of view, including the battery and charging system.”
Despite its finished appearance, Nicholson says he is planning to add more modern touches to the CX. He is looking into crafting a carbon fiber rear mudguard, and the fashionably wrapped exhaust still needs bracing. “I would (also) love to do a EUR front-end conversion,” he says. “Something like a CBR600RR or a GSXR front end, which are pretty much bolt-on and have superior suspension and braking power.”
If you’re whispering to yourself right now for Nicholson to stop where he is, you’re not alone. As an observer, talk like that is frightening when the current result is so stunning, but such is the way of the creative mind. Artists don’t finish paintings, they give up on them. “I am a constant tinkerer,” says Nicholson, though he admits the next project is already calling to him.
“I have been thinking of what’s the next project for a while,” he says. “I’d love to do a Ducati SuperSport, but I’m also thinking of a project car… One thing I am sure of is that it will have wheels and an engine!”
Nicholson has time. He’s young, and he’s on a new adventure, having moved to London with his girlfriend to pursue careers and life. His otherworldly CX is back home, safe for now from his fidgety hands. Nicholson is without garage space to start anything new, but that didn’t stop him on his first restoration.
“By no means (did) I have a fancy workshop,” he says. “I was often working out of friends’ garages and on the living room floor… It was truly a backyard build.” As such, Nicholson sends thanks to his friend, welding guru, and garage-space lender Anthony Powell. “Cheers mate,” he says.
When confronted with the option to hold on to soul-crushing conformity or risk failure pursuing soul-stirring individuality, Nicholson chose to take a shot — to see what he could learn. “I set out to make a very clean, simple bike that keeps hints of its era, with some modern touches,” he says. “I’m proud of what I achieved on a tight budget.”
Be sure to check out Wills work. All the images in this content and the video were made by Will himself.
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