Ohio’s Mark Colasante builds a 550/4 dream machine…
When it comes to Honda’s four-cylinder machines of the 1970s, the CB750 has always received the lion’s share of the limelight. It was a groundbreaking machine — the “original superbike” — but we’ve always had a soft spot for its middleweight sibling, the CB550. It was 80 pounds lighter than the 750 with an oversquare engine, which made a solid 50 horsepower:
“The compact unit helped the bike to have a lower centre of gravity, as the engine was significantly lighter than that of the CB750/4, the handling of the CB500/4 and the later CB550/4 was livelier and it was a much easier bike to ride.” —Classic Bike Guide
Our new friend Mark Colasante (@markmoto550) is a 55-year-old CEO whose motorcycling history began on the lawnmower-powered minibike his father built him when he was 10:
“I still remember the day when the throttle got stuck in our backyard and I got to experience my first and hopefully last high side crash. But that didn’t stop me.”
Mark has owned both dirt and street bikes in his day, including a Suzuki TS185, Yamaha YZ250, Ducati Monster, and new Triumph Bonneville. Back in 2013, he bought the 1975 Honda CB550 K1 you see here, intending to build a classic cafe racer.
“I built this bike because it’s been a dream of mine to build a cafe racer motorcycle. I remember when my brother and I were teens, and I would drool over bikes of this style in magazines.”
As it has a way of doing, “grown-up life stuff” kept getting in the way until 2020, when Mark suddenly found the world slowing down a bit around him — prime time to complete the project.
“When the pandemic came around and the world slowed down a little bit, I figured it would be a good time to pull the bins of parts out of storage, get into my own little world for a while, and get to it. So that’s what I did.”
Within the cozy environs of his 1893-built house, Mark has a deceptively well-kitted shop that includes a 7.5 HP compressor, paint/Cerakote booth under the basement stairs, sand blasting and vapor blasting cabinets next to the washer and dryer, and a CNC machine in the basement!
He put all of that kit to good use for “Project Clean Slate,” transforming this bike into a CB550 cafe racer that eschews modern front ends and mono-shock setups in favor of a classic, timeless aesthetic. The work was extensive, which Mark details below, and no detail was left untouched — a ethic and philosophy he learned from his father:
“My philosophy was that while each individual detail may be insignificant, it’s the sum of those details that will make all the difference. I credit my approach to working on this to my father, who taught me to work hard, learn as much as you can about what you’re doing, give it your best effort, and always take pride in what you’re doing.”
The result is one of the cleanest, best-executed CB cafe racers we’ve ever featured. Below, we talk to Mark for the full details on the build, and you can see the build in person come November at Fuel Cleveland 2021!
Honda CB550 K1 Cafe Racer: Builder Interview
• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
I’m 55 years old and have lived in Columbus, Ohio for the past 37 years. I grew up outside of Cleveland in a town called Chesterland. Professionally, I’m the CEO and co-founder of an eLearning company. As hobbies, I enjoy motorcycles, competitive shooting sports, and golf.
My first “motorcycle” was when I was about 10 years old. My dad built it using one of those old school minibike frames and a Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engine. I still remember the day when the throttle got stuck in our backyard and I got to experience my first and hopefully last high side crash. But that didn’t stop me. From there, I had a Suzuki TS185 and Yamaha YZ250. I didn’t get my first street bike until I was 35, which was a Ducati Monster 600. A few years later I bought a 2008 Triumph Bonneville T120.
My shop is a combination of the basement and single car garage of my home in a small historic area next to downtown Columbus, OH called German Village. My house was built in 1893, so it isn’t all that well suited to building a bike. Despite that, you’d never expect that I have a 7.5 HP compressor, paint/Cerakote booth under the basement stairs, sand blasting and vapor blasting cabinets next to the washer and dryer, and a CNC machine I built down in the basement.
The first months of my build were spent in the basement cleaning parts, vapor blasting, Cerakoting engine cases and other components, completely rebuilding the engine and polishing aluminum more than I ever care to do again. I ceramic coated all polished aluminum with the intent of having to keep its shine maintained.
Once Spring started coming around, I got the fully assembled engine up to the garage. From there, I finished welding the frame modifications and TIG brazed some of the nasty scrapes and gouges that were there when I bought the donor bike. Once all the parts were fully finished, I assembled the bike in the garage. I don’t have a lift; just front and rear paddock stands.
• What’s the make, model, and year of the donor bike?
1975 Honda CB550 K1.
• Why was this bike built?
I built this bike because it’s been a dream of mine to build a cafe racer motorcycle. I remember when my brother and I were teens, and I would drool over bikes of this style in magazines. I bought the donor bike in 2013 and never did anything with it because work and other grown-up life stuff always got in the way. But, when the pandemic came around and the world slowed down a little bit, I figured it would be a good time to pull the bins of parts out of storage, get into my own little world for a while, and get to it. So that’s what I did.
• What was the design concept and what influenced the build?
I didn’t have a hard and fast design all mapped out going into the project, and I didn’t use any type of design software to mock it up. I just had some design concepts and principles that I wanted to work within. Number one was that it needed to look like a classic cafe racer. I wanted it to have more of an elegant than aggressive appearance. That meant no front-end swaps, monoshocks, or other modifications of that nature, even though those would improve overall performance and handling. That just wasn’t the look I was going for. I wanted a clean, classic look. That meant hiding as much wiring as possible, polishing things up to the best of my ability, coming up with a vintage paint design and colors, keeping the lines simple and getting rid of anything that wasn’t necessary. At the same time, I wanted it to be reliable and have good performance based on its stock engine configuration.
I owe special thanks to a few builders that inspired me with their outstanding builds; @089moto, @thirteenandcompany, and @kottmotorcycles. I made it a point to not copy their work, but I think my build reflects some of their influence, coupled with my twist on some of their innovative ideas. That’s meant as a compliment and appreciation of their work.
• What custom work was done to the bike?
Frame modifications performed by me. All unnecessary tabs and mounting points removed and blended in. Small LED taillight/brake light integrated into the frame hoop.
Electrical system and wiring harness performed by me. Completely eliminated the OEM system except for the stator and field coil. All wiring harness connections are crimped and soldered. Waterproof Molex connectors used throughout. I wanted my electrical system to be as bulletproof as possible, yet still serviceable should the need arise. Used Motogadget m.unit Blue, Chrono Classic gauge, m.switch mini switches, m.blaze bar-end signals, Antigravity 8 cell battery, and Rick’s reg/rec. OEM points system replaced with Dynatec ignition and coils.
Gauge mount cut on my CNC machine, formed on my metal brake, then Caerakoted in Graphite Black.
Sand blasted the finish off the original tank badges, sprayed them in silver, then filled in the letters and background by hand using a toothpick and thinned out paint, allowing it to flow to a smooth finish.
I ditched the idea of a clunky rear brake switch and came up with the idea of using a waterproof reed switch and earth magnet on the rearset. You have to look pretty hard to even see it and it works great.
I also added a rear brake pedal return spring on the inside of the rear set to give the pedal a more positive feel.
Engine and carburetors completely restored and rebuilt by me. Everything cleaned, vapor blasted. Cerakoted engine cases and other components in Transfer Gray. Pistons topped with Piston Coat and skirts with Micro Slick. For my first engine rebuild, I was satisfied with the results. 163-167 psi compression across all cylinders (target was 170 psi) and leak-down ranging from 2%-3%. I’m thankful to Matthew Bochnak of How To Motorcycle Repair, not only for his great plans on how to build a vapor blaster, but I also learned the basics of engine rebuilding from his Patreon videos. It was a great to have all the basic info in one series of videos to give me the foundation I needed to do the rebuild.
I disabled the front suspension damping by drilling larger holes in the dampers. Then I used Racetech springs and emulator valves to handle the dampening. I set the preload to my liking using spacers.
I cut the headlight brackets shorter, drilled new mounting holes and refinished the ends. This allowed me to pull the 7” Lucas style headlight bucket closer to the stem for a more streamlined appearance.
Trimmed the rear sprocket chain retainer plate to allow more visibility of the sprocket itself yet maintain the correct spacing of the wheel on the axle. Laced up my wheels with D.I.D rims and Buchanan spokes and balancing weights. All cables custom built by me using Venhill and Goodridge components.
Rebuilt and refinished the front brake caliper using a phenolic piston, anti-squeal pads and drilled disc from Godffery’s Garage. Master cylinder and clutch lever are from Kustom Tech.
Custom aluminum seat cowl, pan and electrics tray: Had a great experience working with @mifune_werx, who is local to me. I wanted to keep the cowl as low as possible but still make sure that everything fit underneath it and the seat, without anything showing under the top frame tubes. He nailed it. I haven’t seen cowl just like this one and probably never will. I like that.
• Does the bike have a nickname?
Sometime during the process in the basement while obsessing over the details, I started saying to myself, I better keep working on Project Clean Slate, or it won’t be done by the time Winter rolls around again. I think I came up with that nickname since it is a pretty clean build, it is a slate blue, and it’s also a fresh start for an old, neglected classic. I’m getting closer and closer to being an old classic myself, so in some ways it feels like a fresh start for me too. The entire process and the end result bring back great memories of my younger days, along with a healthy dose of renewed enthusiasm for something I’ve always been passionate about but had almost forgotten about too.
• Can you tell us what it’s like to ride this bike?
Hot or cold, this bike starts instantly with a short press of the button. At 5’9” and 165lbs, this bike fits me just right. The riding position felt natural to me from the very first ride. The gearbox is silky smooth. I’ve yet to miss a shift on it and I don’t have to force anything. The rearset linkage provides nice leverage, so the shifts feel effortless. I have the baffle in the exhaust, and I just love how it sounds. It’s not too loud, but you certainly know if I’m coming or going. The suspension is better than the OEM and that shows on the road. I’m working on a fork brace now which will improve handling even more. The brakes are as so-so as the day it was first built in November 1974. I may improve on the brakes in the future, but I won’t do anything there at the expense of losing its vintage appeal.
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
I’d say the dedication and patience I put into the project. If I ever felt like I was about to cut corners because it would be easier and save time, I would just stop working on it for the day. I always felt like I’ve waited this long to do this, don’t rush it and end up regretting anything. My philosophy was that while each individual detail may be insignificant, it’s the sum of those details that will make all the difference. I credit my approach to working on this to my father, who taught me to work hard, learn as much as you can about what you’re doing, give it your best effort, and always take pride in what you’re doing.