I realized a few months ago that I have an almost irrational, bigoted hatred for the bike that many dispatch riders refer to (affectionately?) as “The Plastic Maggot”. Because I’m an intellectual, and I don’t lead an unexamined life of quiet desperation I have kept coming back to this hatred every time I would see one of these bikes online. And the more work, and the better the quality of work and amount of time and money put into it, the more it annoyed me. So, since these bikes seem to be a plague spreading faster than Ebola is in Africa right now, I figured I better share my conclusions with people. Maybe I might just be able to save some poor young ambitious kids from starting down this worst of all possible motorcycle project pathways.
There she is in all her glory. The bike which may have literally delivered a billion packages around the world in the past 35 years. These bikes were so unloved they became the favorite of motorcycle messengers worldwide once they entered the used market, often times at prices that could barely buy a week’s worth or groceries in the 1990s.
Firstly, why I hate them:
They don’t do anything well.The German Honda ad says its a great all-arounder, but the CB400/450 or CB650 that was sold right next to it at your local Honda dealer was an ever better all-arounder. Now 35 years later looking in the used bike classifieds its a duck-billed platypus, evolutionary dead end of a bike, and better bikes out number it in the for sale section like 10 to 1.
It’s top heavy. Its just plain heavy (compared to other 400-500cc bikes of the era). It doesn’t have a lot of low end torque. It doesn’t have a lot of top end power. Its slow. Its frame is flexible. It doesn’t handle. Its complicated. Its water cooled. Its shaft drive.
And finally, to my eye, its ugly. My favorite version (besides the oh so 1980s TURBO versions) is that red bone stock version with the mini fairing above. Any time or money spent on making one of these look more “cafe racer” is like time and money spent dressing a fat hairy dude up to look like a beauty queen. In the end its just a dude in a dress, and I’m not into that.
Now, a little justifications for all that blather, you can do your own googling for my sources. At the same time the CX500 was for sale the SOHC CB650 was for sale next to it with nearly 20 more horsepower and weighing just 3 more pounds. The CB400 was also for sale, with just 5 less horsepower and weighing 50 pounds less, FIFTY POUNDS!!!. Either of these bike would have been a better choice at the time, and now after 30 years of a neglected cooling system are likely going to need 1/4 of the work to make it a reliable daily rider. And that is just Hondas. There are Suzuki GS400/425/450 twins, and GS550 fours. Yamaha bikes in all displacements and configurations, and Kawasaki KZ300/400/440 and 750 twins (if you aren’t in America drop the Z from the name), and KZ550/650/750 fours which were not only better bikes right out of the gate new, but enjoy better support if you wish to make them faster.
Now, why they make lousy cafe racers,
In order to determine this we need to define cafe racer. In my mind a cafe racer was just a street bike, stripped down to the bare minimum legal necessities to make it faster, then modified to improve the handling and performance. Back in the day when the term was coined (the late 50s), they were British bikes for the most part, because the Japanese were still digging out from WWII. If you are a fan of old magazines you will see it applied to things like modified CB750s and Kawasaki Z1s in the 1970s, as well as other smaller displacement bikes. Today it seems to apply to things that are more like choppers with less rake to them, but the majority of them are still based on 1970s and early 1980s bikes.
Some of the major visual design elements from back in the day are a cut down, flat (skate board) or humped (bum stop) seat. Lower handle bars, either flat, drop bars or clip-ons. Flyscreen, front number plate, bikini fairing or frame mounted half fairing. Megaphone exhaust. Then everything else minimized.
Lower suspension, wrapped headers, Firestone tires, all that crap is modern fashion, not vintage function.
Back when cafe racers were racing between bars and cafes there were no water cooled bikes. The closest would have been the Suzuki GT750 “Water Buffalo”. Now if you made a GT750 cafe racer that would be awesome, and I would give you all kinds of mad props for it.
Honda did come out with the GL1000 about the same time, but that was another bike that was never meant to be a sporty bike. It was a little more powerful than the CB750, but a whole lot heavier and complex.
All these bikes have a classic look to them. The CX500 was made to be the bike of the future, it is very 80s styling. You basically have to toss out everything and start over in order to get they 1960s look everyone is going for. The CX500 looks similar to the Moto Guzzi V-twin, but without the cooling fins that give those bikes their classic look. Most bikes of the era are chain drive, which lends itself well to changing gearing so you can get better acceleration at the expense of fuel economy and relaxes cruising, but not the CX. Most of these other bikes had a spoked wheel version from the factory, or since they are chain drive, can be converted with a hub from a more modern dirt bike, or a custom machines hub. The CX requires you to find an old GL1000 rear wheel (if memory serves) or stick with the Comstars.
So there you have it. In short the 4 reasons not to build a CX500 cafe racer 1) Water cooled 2) Shaft drive 3) The lack of frame, and extra weight of the water cooled motor makes them irredeemably lousy, unless you plan on making a new chassis, but then you will have all that weight. But it all comes down to 4) Its so far from the look and function of a cafe racer its like starting to climb a mountain from the bottom of a well, in comparison to other bikes of the era.
Any time, money and effort put into a CX500 Cafe Racer would get you so much further if applied to any other model bike it’s not even funny. Do yourself a favor and ride a bone stock Honda CB450 Nighthawk, Suzuki GS450E or even a Kawasaki GPZ305 before you dump thousands of dollars into a “Plastic Maggot”