The Wizard of Old Wheels

As today’s motorcycles become more high-tech, the simplicity of a vintage bike becomes more appealing. Among the simplest are Japanese models from the 1970s, particularly the Hondas. That’s why people visit Dave Stefani, whose San Francisco shop looks like a mechanical surgery ward.

By OWEN EDWARDS
Photography by PETER BELANGER and ELI MIKITEN

This Honda 750, after more than four decades of use, will leave Stefani's shop ready for another 40 years. In contrast, today's electronics-filled bikes typically last only 15-20 years. “The old Hondas are nearly bullet-proof,” Stefani says.  photo by Eli Mikiten

According to master motorcycle whisperer Dave Stefani, San Francisco is an old Honda city. And what helps make it an old Honda city for the traditionalist two-wheel set are the wrench-based ministrations of Mr. Stefani and his team of ace mechanics at O’Hanlon Motorcycles, the service shop he runs that is tucked into a narrow side street in the town’s South of Market neighborhood.

On a small cross street in San Francisco’s old indusrial district—now the newly trendy South of Market neighborhood (SOMA)—O’Hanlon Motorcycles is usually filled to overflowing with classic bikes needing a little TLC. Word of mouth has made the shop a popular stop for visiting bikers. photo by Peter Belanger

A romantic aura hovers like exhaust fumes over the old Japanese bikes that Stefani keeps in fighting trim. They were the motorcycles that made riding, or the image of riders, civilized, re-drawing the bandit image of Harley-Davidsons and even the snob value of the tweedy Triumph.

O’Hanlon is well known to connoisseurs (though perhaps now they might be called curators) of 40-year-old Japanese machinery—not just Hondas but Kawasakis, Suzukis, and Yamahas as well.

I am one of those connoisseurs, riding the town’s fabled hills on a now-classic 1976 Honda 400F, a little beauty that I bought in New York City, brand new, with one of my first checks for my writing ($1,500 from Playboy magazine). Without Stefani, that beautiful bike probably would have succumbed to the ravages of time long ago. But thanks to him, it still runs like new, which is far more than I can say for its creaky owner.

Stefani keeps a collection of gas tanks from classic bikes that he has dismantled over the years. He says that the wealth of parts on the internet has made just about anything findable these days. photo by Peter Belanger

A romantic aura hovers like exhaust fumes over the old Japanese bikes that Stefani keeps in fighting trim. They were the motorcycles that made riding, or the image of riders, civilized, re-drawing the bandit image of Harley-Davidsons and even the snob value of the tweedy Triumph, dramatically evoked by films such as The Wild Ones. (Despite the Harley-loving ethic that movie inspired, Marlon Brando is actually riding a Triumph.) A Time magazine headline on a story about Hondas when those bikes became widely popular in the U.S. was “The Mild Ones.”

Luke, Stefani’s Labrador retriever, volunteers as a comfort dog when there are more bikes in the shop than work hours in the week. photo by Peter Belanger

The first Honda imported to this country, the 125 cc Benly in 1960, was designed to make consistent visual sense from front to back, in a way that was rare in motorcycles, where style was almost entirely confined to the gas tank. The trusty little Benly was my second motorcycle, a welcome relief after my very undependable 500cc Triumph, which was easily the most dangerous part of my time in the Marine Corps. Over time, Japanese bikes got bigger and faster, ultimately rising to dominate global racing.

Stefani says that one of the grace notes of 1970s Japanese bikes, like this 750cc Honda, is that once you take the gas tank off, “everything is accessible.” photo by Peter Belanger

“RICE ROCKETS”

The attachment to a good motorcycle can be nothing short of obsessive. For example, because my Honda is now a classic, I’ve had people approach me on the street wanting to buy it, offering up to $2,000 cash on the spot. I’m really fond of cash, but after all these years I could never part with my trusty machine; if I were an ancient Egyptian, I’d request that it be buried with me.

A signature manufacturing feature of older Hondas is the thickness and resilience of the chrome. photo by Peter Belanger

Let me digress for a moment to salute the great pioneer of Japanese motorcycling. Soichiro Honda began making motorized bicycles in 1949, calling his first model the D Type, propelled by war surplus 50 cubic centimeter generator engines. As early sales, and a large loan from a U.S. bank, gave him the cash to expand, his company grew quickly, expanding into automobiles and eventually all sorts of motorized machinery. Within 10 years, Honda was the largest motorcycle company in the world, and its founder was already building bikes good enough to compete in international racing. (Today, almost six decades later, Honda is the world champion at Moto GP, the top-level motorcycle race.)

One day in 2001, over a beer, the bike shop's original owner, James O'Hanlon, told Stefani that he was planning to sell the garage and move to Vermont. “And I want you to buy the place,” he said. Stefani was driving a cab at the time, and the city's taxi industry was already tanking. So he happily accepted the offer. photo by Peter Belanger

In 1959, the first Hondas were imported to the States (although Yamaha beat them, having started selling bikes in this country a year before). Suzuki and Kawasaki soon followed. Simply because of proximity to their manufacturing centers, British motorcycles such as Triumph and BSA were the machines of choice on the East Coast; meanwhile, with easier access to shipments from Japan, California riders were inclined to go with what became known as “rice rockets.” Stefani believes the Europe versus Asia dynamic still prevails. “On the East Coast,” he says, “a lot of the maintenance and rehab work keeps old British, German, and Italian bikes running. Out here, the sentimental favorites are mostly Japanese.”

Throughout the shop, sets of precision tools—some inherited from the shop’s original owner, others bought or scrounged over the years—are kept as carefully arranged as a surgeon’s equipment. photo by Peter Belanger

SINUOUS SCULPTURES

With its 400F model, Honda lowered the handlebars, added a stylish gas tank, then gave the bike its most elegant and distinctive feature: a set of pipes sinuously sculpted as a four-into-one exhaust system.

Since Stefani and I own the same classic Honda (something I didn’t know until interviewing him for this story), let me digress again with a few facts about the 400F machine that won my heart so many decades years ago. This sleek little bike was introduced, in 1975, at the Intermot show in Cologne, Germany, as a re-design of a slightly smaller four-cylinder model.

Along with boring out the cylinders, Honda lowered the handlebars to get some café racer elan, added a stylish gas tank, then gave the bike its most elegant and distinctive feature: a set of pipes sinuously sculpted as a four-into-one exhaust system. This curvaceous detail is what I fell for instantly when I walked into the small Honda dealership on 14th Street in Manhattan with a little money to burn.

Compared to car engines, high-revving four-cylinder motorcycle power plants get a lot of speed from an economy of scale, making Dave and his crew more like watchmakers than mechanics. photo by Peter Belanger

With 37 horsepower and a weight of almost 400 pounds, the bike was not as fast as the Kawasaki two-stroke machines of the same years, but it could break 100 mph, just barely, if the rider ducked under the wind. As a result, it wasn’t a particularly good bike on the racetrack, though a re-purposed model did win the 1980 small bike class on the Grand Prix circuit.

Despite its good looks and adequate performance, the 400F was not a sales success in the U.S., and after three years Honda stopped production. But yesterday’s flop often turns into today’s in-demand rarity, so Stefani and I are not the least bit sorry that production was limited.

However complicated a repair or renovation may be, Stefani starts with the basics: removing, inspecting and, if necessary, replacing a bike’s spark plugs. photo by Eli Mikiten

Despite the superior engineering of today’s sport bikes, the Japanese motorcycles of the 1970s have a certain cachet that is continuously appealing. Among other things, the motors are relatively simple, and they’re easier to work on than today’s computerized bikes, with their sheathed and streamlined designs.

Proof of the allure of old bikes in the Bay Area can be found in an annual event called Moto Melee, a three-day, back-roads excursion for bikes built, in any country, prior to 1971. The founders of the Melee, Jeff Guzaitis and Harley Welch, pretty much state the city’s old biker creed: “What’s that you say? You ride your old bike but are ashamed of its shabby appearance. Maybe it has three different shades of primer, or pipes made out of old coffee cans. Hey…we understand, a lot of us ride those too.”

Stripped to its bare essentials, a small four-cylinder carburetor, undergoing a total overhaul at the gloved hands of Stefani, reveals the less-is-more approach to Japanese machines. photo by Eli Mikiten

A MOTORCYCLE’S PHYSICAL THERAPIST

At this writing, I have my bike (a now rare 1975 Honda 400F) at Dave’s shop for the full range of physical and intestinal therapy. My request was simple: Please keep old faithful running as long as I am around to ride it.

Let it be noted that if any of the bikes ridden in the annual Melee have been restored and serviced at O’Hanlon, they do not have exhaust pipes made of old coffee cans. Riding up to the O’Hanlon shop, the first thing any bike gourmet notices is a parked line-up of 20 or so Japanese machines of various ages and states of health in a chorus line of aging and ailing beauties.

Although the lineup changes as Stefani and his mechanics return the reanimated machines to their owners, the row seems never to grow shorter. At this writing, I have my bike at Dave’s shop for the full range of physical and intestinal therapy. My request was simple: Please keep old faithful running as long as I am around to ride it.

The straight forward mechanics in the old Japanese bikes simplified the art of motorized, two-wheel design. photo by Peter Belanger

The O’Hanlon shop services anywhere from 80 to 240 bikes a month, depending on the number of mechanics working at any given time. In San Francisco, there are no slow seasons like there are in other parts of the country, where sleet and rain drive people indoors, or into their cars. Still, the O’Hanlon shop sits in one of the last gritty, semi-industrial neighborhoods of an increasingly upscale city, so his patients have to be locked inside every night. Getting as many as 50 bikes into a shop that’s not much bigger than a standard home garage takes some “spatial organizing,” Stefani says, “but we always figure it out.”

For a restoration job to run efficiently, Stefani has found that a well-organized set of tools is key. photo by Peter Belanger

Whenever I’ve been at his shop, people frequently show up, on foot, to ask Dave questions about their bikes. Their machines may be sitting in a garage in Texas, but word-of-mouth has sent these pilgrims to O’Hanlon’s. Dave, assuming the tutor’s role, patiently answers despite the fact that some shop in another state will get the work.

Stefani was a gas station attendant, an air-freight sales rep, and the sales manager at a women’s sleepwear company before he found his calling as a bike whisperer. On days when the shop is closed, Stefani frequently comes in anyway so he can work in peace. “I love it when no one else is here,” he says. “Those are my Zen days.” photo by Peter Belanger

CARBURETOR LOVE

When Stefani first got into this business (back in the early 2000’s, as a customer of the previous owner), he put some limits on what he felt he needed to know. “I’m a Luddite,” he admits, with the quiet pride common among us Luddites. “I like carburetion, even though fuel injection is a superior system. None of the new kids really understand carbs—it’s a dying art—so the carbureted bikes are the ones I prefer to work on.”

Dr. Stefani is called to surgery. The patient: an ailing carburetor.(Click on any photo below to enter full-screen slideshow)

Like any dedicated craftsman, Stefani remembers his best work, and he has a quick answer when I ask him about his favorite recovery to emerge from his intensive care unit. “It was a 1972 Honda CB750,” he says. “We did a total engine, carburetor, and suspension rebuild. From the tires up. Then the owner took his bike to a body shop to do the frame, wheels, and gas tank. He ended up with a brand new old Honda.”

And off it went to navigate the hills of an old Honda city, another gleaming graduate of O’Hanlon prep.

Owen Edwards, a frequent contributor to Craftsmanship Quarterly, has been arts editor of Saturday Review, executive editor of American Photographer, managing editor of Cosmopolitan, founding editor of Parenting, and a columnist for GQ and Smithsonian.

Peter Belanger is a commercial photographer based in San Francisco. Eli Mikiten, a student at the San Francisco Waldorf High School, is apprenticing with Belanger.

© 2019 Owen Edwards, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 10, 2018

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