Fairytale in Steel: From $50 junkyard heap to full-blown Unicorn Chaser…
The Honda CX500 has always been a bit of a strange beast, a liquid-cooled transverse V-twin that earned the nicknames the “Poor Man’s Guzzi” or “Plastic Maggot” in its heyday of 1978-1983. However, today’s builders are resurrecting these shaft-drive twins, transforming them into machines that would surely surprise their original engineers.
Enter Liza Leung, better known as Last Lap Liza, whose lifelong interest in cars burgeoned into a full-blown obsession during her university days, when her part-time job working on them led her heavily into the JDM tuning scene. Motorcycles were a natural progression, and she was soon attending track days and race schools, honing her skills on two wheels. After her partner Rob Forbes (@oldskooltuner) built a CB650, Liza decided she needed a project of her own:
“Enter the CX500, a bike we got from a friend who found it at a junkyard for its worth in metal, $50. It didn’t run, was seized to shit, and was fully faired (yes, windjammer and all), in a breathtaking shade of sun-faded hugh hefner burgundy (The “Plastic Maggot”, indeed it was)…”
Since they lived in a condo at the time, Liza kept the bike at the shop of a friend, Rob Cloutier of Bullit Motorcycle Works, who was very helpful with the build:
“Cloutier, being a seasoned bike builder, and one of the nicest guys I know, helped me get started with the build — teaching me to make decisions by looking at the lines of the bike, how not to mash my hand in a pipe bender (I did it anyway while bending my rear loop), how to shape my seat pan, weld the monoshock conversion mounts (poorly, but he was always there to fill in the gaps of my bubblegum, and inexperience).”
Unfortunately, Cloutier’s shop was an hour away, so it was a two-hour roundtrip each time Liza worked on the bike — now that’s dedication! After the bike was a rolling chassis, Cloutier moved away, and Liza convinced her brother to let her take over half of his garage — also an hour’s drive. Says Liza:
“Now we live in a house, with our own shitty little window-less shack of a garage — but it’s ours, and not an hour away, so I love it.”
Amen to that! Liza was drawn to the ruggedness of a scrambler build — a bike she could rip through town and also find some dirt trails on the weekend. Aptly dubbed the “Unicorn Chaser,” the project ended up involving many of the great moto folks that Liza and Rob had met at events like Canada’s Freedom Machine Show. We came across the bike at this year’s One Moto in Portland, where the 1940s knucklehead piston turned bat holder was a big hit! In the end, the community Liza developed through the build process might be the greatest reward:
“There were a lot of great people involved with this build, each one teaching me something different about every aspect of bike building, and all of whom I now have very close relationships with, due largely in part to this bike. That’s definitely something I cherish. Aside from that, it’s the fact that I managed to wire up this bike with only one small fire under my belt.”
Now that the fire has been lit, the “Unicorn Chaser” is just the beginning for Liza:
“Now I’m splitting my time between 3.5 bikes and I don’t see myself slowing down anytime soon.”
Below, we get the full story on the build from Liza herself!
Honda CX500 Scrambler: Builder Interview
• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
I started out working on cars as a part-time job in university (I was getting my BFA at the time, Bachelor of Fuck All… haha just kidding (but not really) — it was a Bachelor of Fine Arts/Visual Arts). Having had an interest in cars from a young age, this part-time job was where it turned into a full-blown obsession with the JDM modifying/tuning scene. I bought a beat-up old 1991 Honda CRX which I swapped the motor in and built into a track car. After spending a couple of seasons back and forth between the garage and the track, it didn’t take long before the “need for speed” (I actually hate that phrase) led me to my first motorcycle.
I spent the next few years focused on attending lapping days and motorcycle race schools, becoming better on and off the track. I fell in love with the sport. But there was an aspect of building, of getting my hands dirty, of making something cool that was missing from my life. By this point, my partner (Rob Forbes) had picked up his own first bike, but he had decided on a vintage, non-running 1980 CB650 that he was going to transform into a cafe racer (he now takes every chance he gets to warn new riders to never start out with a build as your first bike…haha). Still, it was inspiring to see him turn it from basically nothing, into a physical two-wheeled embodiment of who he is.
Around this time was also when we started going to a lot of custom bike shows too. A few here in Toronto, one of them being the @freedommachines where we’ve met so many of our now close bike friends. And we were lucky enough one year to attend the @handbuiltshow in Austin. Evidently, that same year is when I decided I needed to get a project bike of my own and fuel my inner greasemonkey once again. Enter the CX500, a bike we got from a friend who found it at a junkyard for its worth in metal, $50. It didn’t run, was seized to shit, and was fully faired (yes, windjammer and all), in a breathtaking shade of sun-faded hugh hefner burgundy (The “Plastic Maggot”, indeed it was).
At the time, we were living in a condo — so I kept it at a friend’s shop, Rob Cloutier of Bullit Motorcycle Works, which was an hour’s drive away — yup two hours round trip, everytime I wanted to get some work done. Cloutier, being a seasoned bike builder, and one of the nicest guys I know, helped me get started with the build — teaching me to make decisions by looking at the lines of the bike, how not to mash my hand in a pipe bender (I did it anyway while bending my rear loop), how to shape my seat pan, weld the monoshock conversion mounts (poorly, but he was always there to fill in the gaps of my bubblegum, and inexperience).
Cloutier moved away after I got my bike to a rolling chassis, but it was far from done. Still living in the condo, I had no option but to beg my brother to let me take over half of his home garage (also an hour away). I spent the next year and a half driving there and back on evenings and weekends, getting this bike finished. Now we live in a house, with our own shitty little window-less shack of a garage — but it’s ours, and not an hour away, so I love it.
One of the most important things Cloutier taught me (as someone who has a hard time deciding on what cereal to eat in the morning, let alone which gas tank I think I want to stare at forever), is that “there’s always the next build”. Meaning that if I didn’t like whatever choices I made for this build, there’d always be another bike to try something else with. I kind of always rolled my eyes at him when he said this, but he knew (even before I did) that this wasn’t going to be my only build. The further I got into the process, the more I wanted to pull my hair out — yet weirdly, the more I kept thinking about ideas I had for other builds. Now I’m splitting my time between 3.5 bikes and I don’t see myself slowing down anytime soon. (If you’re wondering, the half bike is a ‘78 Z50 that I’m planning to build into a mini version of the Unicorn Chaser, the Ponycorn…)
• What’s the make, model, and year of the bike?
Honda CX500C 1981
• Why was this bike built?
Personal. Most of the first answer can probably answer this. If not, I am happy to type you up a second novel (ha, sorry!)
• What was the design concept and what influenced the build?
Visually, the ruggedness of a scrambler definitely appeals to me the most of the custom bike categories; the knobby tires, the high exhaust, the dirt bike style handlebars. But also I really liked the idea of building something that I could rip through town with, but throw around some dirt trails too. Which is kind of funny, because I’ve never actually been trail riding…but I did go flat-tracking one time (so obviously I’m an expert now). Haha, kidding…but I loved it and honestly can’t wait to get my face caked in dirt again.
• What custom work was done to the bike?
-Chopped off that goofy rear end and replaced it with something a little more angled and sleek, with help from Rob Cloutier of Bullit Motorcycle Works who also created the mounting system for the converted mono shock.
-Inverted R1 fork conversion with a Cognito Moto front hub to accommodate the spoke wheel conversion.
-Custom triples and rear spoke conversion rings by Jeff Acal at Middlesex Motorcycles.
-Yamaha RD350 tank (cut and welded onto the original CX500C tank tunnel, welding by Rob Cloutier).
-Custom hand shaped seat and seat pan, with upholstery done by Jeff O’Neill at Perth County Moto.
-Under-tail exhaust system by Scott Cartier at Hindle.
-GL500 crash bars with flushed-in signal lights (with welding help by Cameron Bateman of Romoto Garage).
-Full engine rebuild with rae-san hall-effect CDI conversion, with help from Jordan Mulcock of Gord Bush Performance (who also helped me with a lot of my other hair-brained ideas, like turning a 1940s knucklehead piston into a bat holder, and painting part of my tank with a textured epoxy mix (this was his suggestion and it worked out amazingly!)).
-Custom steel engine skid plate and front headlight/number plate (with welding help from Rob Chappell at Origin8or Custom Cycle Co.).
-Front aluminum fender, handmade by Aaron Richard of Revive Custom Motorcycles.
-Complete electrical overhaul with custom harness, motogadget m-unit, m-button, motoscope mini and m-lock, and electric fan conversion.
-Mikuni VM34 carbs with Uni two-stage filter pods.
-Vapour blasting by Brian Holmes at Rocket Performance LTD.
-Powder Coating by Metal Coaters.
-Wheel lacing help by Jeff Palmer and Zdeno Cycles.
-Technical and moral support, some photography, and the most patient and impatient partner ever, Rob Forbes.
• Does the bike have a nickname?
• Can you tell us what it’s like to ride this bike?
I’m in the final stages of tuning it (and fighting with some electrical issues), but it’s so close… TBA on this one!
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
There were a lot of great people involved with this build, each one teaching me something different about every aspect of bike building, and all of whom I now have very close relationships with, due largely in part to this bike. That’s definitely something I cherish. Aside from that, it’s the fact that I managed to wire up this bike with only one small fire under my belt.
Rob Cloutier @bullit_motorcycle_works
Jeff Acal @middlesexmotorcycle
Jeff O’Neill @perthcountymoto
Scott Cartier @scottcartier_racing
Hindle Exhaust @hindleexhaust
Cameron Bateman @romotogarage
Jordan Mulcock @gordbushperformance
Rob Chappel @origin8or
Aaron Richard @revivecustommotorcycles
Brian Holmes (vapour blasting) @rocket_performance_ltd
Metal Coaters (powder coating) @metalcoaters
Jeff Palmer @crackerjackmechanic & @zdenocycle
Rob Forbes @oldskooltuner