He wanted a project bike and found just what he needed lying under an old tarp.
During a phone call from his home in Kamloops, British Columbia, Rodney Findlay confirms our hunch—the 1971 Honda SL350 cafe into which he has invested some 300 hours of build time definitely does have a Norton influence. The Dunstall-looking pipes and humped solo seat are the tells but the main focus he says was simply to build a bike with classic cafe racer style.
It’s an interesting interpretation of the original design.
The SL350 was nothing like this when Honda first presented the bike in 1970 as a dirt-dedicated enduro variation of its CB350. The factory set up the SL with aggressive rubber, high-mount fenders, bulbous fuel tank, long bench seat and a choice between three colours. Equipped with a 30-horsepower 325cc OHC parallel twin, two Keihin carbs and a five-speed transmission, it was a kickstart-only motorcycle perfect for town and country.
This particular unit fell into Findlay’s capable hands in bone-stock condition. That’s not to say pristine condition: it had spent the previous 25 years resting under a tarp. “A family moved up here from California and brought the bike with them,” he says. The bike still had its original tires, a California plate, and about 4,000 miles on the clock. A machinist by trade and an award-winning custom bike builder, Findlay was tipped-off about the bike by a co-worker who had seen photos of Rodney’s custom work and thought he might be interested in the Honda. The co-worker was correct. Findlay had been mulling over the idea of building a cafe racer for his 17-year-old son and this long-neglected SL350 would be just the ticket as a donor bike.
“He [the co-worker] brought it over and as soon as he pulled it off the truck I knew exactly what was gonna happen to it,” says Findlay. Prior to the future SL350 cafe entering his life he had already been researching cafe racer builds and styles while keeping an eye out for potential conversion candidates such as older Yamaha 650s. Customizing Japanese motorcycles would be a new adventure for the builder, whose custom work on Harley-Davidsons had previously earned Best of Show hardware at prominent events such as Calgary’s World of Wheels.
A performance enthusiast, Findlay will often fit Japanese components such as Suzuki GSX-R brakes and suspension to his Harley projects so he wasn’t a complete stranger to how parts non-availability might possibly be an issue for a 1970s-era Honda. While the Big Twin aftermarket has entire libraries of parts catalogues, sources for vintage metric bike parts have only recently started to flourish and Findlay understood he would likely have to fabricate a lot of his own pieces. Which was fine.
Starting with the basics he completely stripped the motor and transmission, discovering seized rings, mouldy carburetors, and the general state of decay you might expect to find in a vehicle that’s been outdoors for a quarter-century. Other than that though, no problems.
He cut the whole frame apart from the backbone down and rebuilt it, sandblasted covers to a mirror finish, built brackets and drilled holes for the stock fenders which he cut down and reshaped. With the SL’s original enduro configuration, the fenders were turned backwards “like a duckbill,” says Findlay. “I thought, well, these are stamped aluminum fenders, I’m gonna see if I can use them.” So he cut the originals, TIG-welded them for a new appearance, and drilled holes to remount. The side panels incidentally are borrowed from a CB450 while the fuel tank is a CB350 item sourced from a vendor in Williams Lake, BC.
And while the rims are still the stock units, they were the recipients of particular attention. “I took every spoke out and polished them,” says Findlay. “I got probably 40 hours in each wheel just polishing them. Then I bought a powder coating machine and powder coated them all and cured them in the oven.”
Outlets such as Kijiji and eBay proved useful when it came to sourcing components such as lights, new Mikunis, handlebars, the saddle, mirrors, muffler cans (the rest of the exhaust system he hand-built) and even the rear shocks with piggyback reservoirs.
Mounting the kickstand also required creativity. Originally, it was situated at the back like a proper dirt bike, but Findlay wanted to place it in a more forward position, like a Harley. “So that was quite the chore to make sure it fits underneath the foot peg and folds up properly,” he says.
Now that he had completed the motor work, wheel work, powder coating, wiring and fabrication, it was time to consider paint. “I seriously went in to buy some kind of silver and started looking through the paint chips,” he says. “And then I thought, ‘you know what, I should do something like Jaguar British green.’ Then I came home and sprayed all the green and thought, ‘it needs something darker, it needs some charcoal or something.'”
The co-worker who had first approached Findlay about the SL350 knew about the bike because it was stored at his father’s house. “He [the co-worker’s father] came over and looked at it,” recalls Findlay. “Then he said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that’s the same motorcycle.'”
And now the reborn SL350 cafe reportedly runs as sweet as it looks. “The thing starts first kick, it’s light, it’s easy to handle, it’s comfortable. It just runs amazing!” Findlay says.
The one question yet to be answered: Does the 17-year-old still get the bike?
• John Campbell Canadian Biker Issue#354