I'm sure most people wouldn't think to take a stock bike and turn it into another stock bike but in a friendly build off that's exactly what Keith Carlson of Indiana did with his 1978 CB550. He had a long time love affair with the CR500's and the 1986 model caught his eye more than any other so he wanted to know what a Honda street bike would look like transformed as a tribute and this beautiful restomod build was born. We caught up with Keith at a local bike night and took his bike aside to get a better look at some of the neat elements of this CB turned CR.
So give us your full name and kind of where you hail from and build bikes.
Keith Carlson and I work out of my home shop called vintage restoration and repair right in Brownsburg, Indiana.
So what would you say your specialty is then?
Mostly 2 strokes. I've built several RZ350's and RD400's so mostly 2 stroke motorcycles. Actually this 550 and my super hawk are the only two 4 strokes that I have. Two strokes are just a totally different experience to me, they are really quick and really light, this 550 though is a bit heavier than my 2 strokes but it is just so smooth I love it.
Yeah every bike has a specific feeling it gives you and the 550 I owned just put a smile on your face every time you rode it.
There's a reason they sold millions of them, they are just great bikes and it's easy to get parts for them today too versus 2 strokes where parts are a lot harder to come by.
Well let's start out with what your overall vision was for the bike beginning the build?
I said to myself, ok, well if Honda was going to build a street bike to look like a CR500 then that's what it would look like and I figured out how to make that happen.
So what year and make did you choose here to put this CR500 tribute together then?
It's a 1978 CB550 and I went with the "Flash red" which is actually Orange but they just call it Flash red, haha....ohh and the blue seat that really stands out and gives it that CR 500 look.
So you mentioned before that you had actually rode this bike on the tail of the dragon is that correct?
Yeah I rode it there and it was great, it was just super smooth you know it's not like break neck powerful to me but Steve Hoy who went there as well, he just kept saying you gotta rev it up higher. I always short shift because I'm used to my 2 strokes so to me it's not like it doesn't feel extremely fast but we rode the heck out of it anyway that weekend.
I feel like the power band is a lot different on the CB550's versus the 750's to where it's all in the top end.
Yeah I totally agree, it's like you gotta get the revs way up there and not having a real tachometer on the bike makes it a little harder to know where it is other than just sound and to me it sounds like I'm really up there but Steve said no you gotta push it harder.
Does that custom exhaust you have on the bike deaden the sound quite a bit?
No it actually sounds killer they designed that exhaust really well. Honestly this bike just runs so smooth it's just everything on it, the brakes even work right but don't over break, just a great set up
I actually owned a 1977 CB550 for years and over other Honda's like 2 cylinders and other 4 cylinders that I rode it definitely was the smoothest and it wasn't like the type of bike to be shredding the tires off of but it just felt good to get it out on the highway and hammer it in a straight line. Its actually the fastest I've ever been on a bike, I had a perfect line one day, no traffic and got it up to 110mph on 70 and held it for a while till I came up on a truck. I actually had the bike for sale at the time and that day after that ride I came home and took down the listing immediately. It was just too fun to let go of.
I totally agree I actually took the interstate to get here today and it's like it doesn't have a hit to it or a slam to the gears, it just kind of feels linear all the way through but just super smooth.
So give us a little more back story on the bike in general.
Well everything has been built on it and it's a replica of a 1986 CR500 which I've always thought was the coolest bike on the planet. So I thought if Honda was doing a street bike just like this what would it look like so that's why it's the same color same seat and same graphics as the CR 500. It actually has the same graphics on the tank but I had a guy redo them to be able to say 550. The bike also has a different Ignition that we've never run before. It's an optical trigger that is a "C5" and that's the only one in Indianapolis with one of those so far that we know of. Steve Hoy of Hoy Vintage bought one for his tail of the dragon bike and I bought one as well just for this to try it out and it has worked really well.
What is the difference between just your standard Dynatek Ignition and one of these newer C5 units?
Well it's strange it's like the timing plate looks like a CPU board, it's round and it's got all these pickups on it then when you set the timing there's an LED light that when you turn it on you set it to top dead center on 1 and 4 and then just rotate that plate until the LED light comes on then tighten it down and
It's all timed.
Wow so then it's set up perfect just like that?
Yeah it doesn't skip a beat it's pretty cool! So anyway aside from the Ignition the whole engines been rebuilt and one of our friends did the fab work on the frame and did just an awesome job.
Who did this work to the frame?
Jimmy Kitisaki, He actually used to work for one of the Indy car teams and he was so particular about having everything be just perfect.
Who did the paintwork then?
Well it's a powder coated frame and the paint was Adam Domingez of DB customs it's called "Flash red" as the stock Honda color we were going for which is actually an Orange.
This front end is actually really cool too, tell us a little more about that as well?
The front is off of a GSXR 600. The wheel hubs are from cognito moto and the rear is a stock rear then the shocks are from Fox then everything else is pretty well stock.
Oh so are the rims here different than a stock 550?
They are, they are just a little bit wider. My goal was to get gold anodized rims at 1st but I went with these and then powder coated them. It's correct to what the bike would be and it matches the exhaust well.
Tell us a little more about the exhaust.
Its moto GP works and it's a guy out of California who just makes a limited run of sets every year then doesn't make them any more when I had my Kawasaki H1 I had his exhaust chambers on it and it sounded wicked. So when I knew I was gonna build this bike I got ahold of him right away. They just sound like no other.
So what was the general push behind building the bike was the tail of the dragon part of the build inspiration?
No not really. At first I bought the bike actually as just a flip it because at the time it was a pretty nice original bike then Steve Hoy was building a CB500 so we thought let's do a build off! One night I was laying in bed thinking about just what I wanted it to look like and it all came to me, that's it and '86 CR 500! I had the front end already and it just made sense.
So you had quite a few of these parts sitting around already?
Well I had the front end ready to go then it's a matter of coming up with the rest of the ideas. So then you find a tail section that fits with the tank and I had built enough of them already where you piece them together this is honestly the 1st inline four one that I have done though.
So what is one of your favorite parts of the bike?
I would say the fabrication of the tail section like if you had the seat off of it if you really looked at the craftmanship it's fantastic. Then if you look underneath it has machine spun plate that you wouldn't notice unless you were looking for it it's based on like a dirt bike idea, this bracket is from a CR450 sub frame then it has part of some Renthall cross bars here so there's little bits and pieces from dirt bikes. The handle bars are off of a KTM, you know, just stuff like that where no one would know that. It's like when you fab something and everything just fits and flows and the welds are perfect it's just a work of art.
So what year did you take this to the dragon?
It was last year and honestly was kind of a toss up because I had built and RZ350 at the same time as this bike and I brought this as a backup and it's a good thing because it handled great.
Yeah this looks like the perfect bike for all of those twists and turns.
We got there the 1st day and I ripped this up-and-down it quite a few times put a couple 100 miles on it then a buddy of mine broke his bike so it became his ride for the rest of the time there.
So after completing the build riding the dragon was really its first big outing then?
Yeah it sure was.
Well thank you so much for taking some time to let us get more familiar with such a unique Honda.
Photos and words by Mike Vandegriff