The Honda Shadow Project

In Pursuit Of A Perfect Murder (Part 1)

I punched my alarm clock in its Mickey Mouse face, sure that would silence its rude ringing. Then I realized it was not my now-dead clock, but the phone.

"Josh, Josh, you anyone there...hellooooo," boomed the voice on the other side of the line. "What the hell...who the hell...why the %$#@*& are you calling me at this unnatural hour of...what...9 o'clock in the damn morning?"

"How would you like a new Honda?!" said the voice. Had to be some damn telemarketer. "Do I get a set of steak knives with that, a#%hole?"

"Josh, wake up, you drunken sot. This is Jon Seidel from Honda. This is not a dream or timeshare offer and you don't get any steak knives."

"Jon? Jon is that really you? Let me top 'er off with caffeine and call you back in a few..."

And so began a great adventure, a grand bike building of epic aggravation and loathing. The plot would twist and travel from southern California to northern California to Arizona and some parts unknown. It would involve a fabricator, painter, seat maker, several transporters and no less than three builders. Murder and mayhem would accompany every turn, at least in my bent mind's quest for revenge.

But I'm getting a little ahead of the story. Honda wanted to show to the cruiser world that its bikes could indeed be polished and personalized and built into a ride any bad boy would be proud of. The Japanese have traditionally not been the quickest to catch on to the inscrutable American passion to bend steel and add cool shiny parts to make our motorcycles unique, if not so practical. It's a biker thing.

What Honda also wanted us to know was the buy-in to the cool custom world doesn't have to be something equal to the price our parents paid for their homes. It could start at under $7,000 for, in this case a brand new Honda Shadow Aero VT750, and even you doubled the investment on factory and aftermarket parts and labor, you could still get a badass bike for a fraction of the industry average for badass.

It all seemed so simple, yet kind of exciting; what could go wrong? The deal was to buy the Aero for a buck, which I did before my third cup of coffee, and then remake it into a glorious image of cool. I was asked to use a few Hondaline parts, but mostly would turn concept to reality using some up and coming bright young artsy studs looking to prove their chops on a national scale, and the growing number of metric aftermarketers.

The project was set for a couple of features in Cruising Rider magazine, which fell out of publication before we could finish the paint, much less the bike. I am the erstwhile editor of said defunct magazine, now self-unemployed, and this is my true story.

The Aero is a liquid-cooled, 745cc (45.5 cubic-inches) V-Twin. A smooth shifting five-speed tranny delivers power to the rear wheel via shaft final drive. Nice bit of low-maintenance there, as are the self-adjusting hydraulic valves.

The mid-size beastie is hauled in using a 296mm disc and twin-piston caliper up front, and an old school 180mm drum set in the rear.

The 3.7-gallon tank gives the bike a range of about 130 miles before you're jonesing for gasoline. Fuel is fed to the burn chamber by a refreshingly old-fashioned carburetor, a dying mechanical species.

With an eye toward pimping the Aero, first glance followed the bike's lines into expanding it into a full-blown bagger, which is exactly what a couple of other cruiser mags did given the same project challenge. But there was something about the VT750 that spoke to me differently, kind of like in the old-timey bike whisperer way.

The Aero looks like a big bike at first, especially in pictures with its big fenders and proportionately fat tires and seemingly large tank. But it's not. Wheelbase is only 64.5 inches, the seat hangs just 25.9 inches above the asphalt, and dry weight is a fairly feathery 519 lbs. To turn this bike into a steroidal bagger would force it beyond its natural purpose. Considering the engine size and lightweight chassis, I saw the Aero as athlete, stripping down to naked bone and muscle. The machine looked like it wanted to lose everything it didn't need; it wanted to release its inner bobber.

My build crew agreed. On one sunshiny Southern California day, Jason Wilson of Sacred Steel Custom Metal Works (fabrication), Seth Boldman of Aggressive Designs (paint), Pascal Cooper of RiffRaff Leatherworks (seat, other cow bits), and myself encircled the VT750, figuring how we can make more out of less. I knew this was going to be fun when we all decided that taking stuff off and throwing it away was going to be our design mantra.

There was only one problem--Honda gave us a tight deadline. They wanted to display the done machine at the Honda Hoot, which was only three months away.

Calls went out to Cobra Engineering, Kuryakyn, Thunder Manufacturing, Dakota Digital, Pingel Enterprises, and Honda for parts. Everything went just like clockwork and three years later we were right on time. Well, Honda didn't really make it perfectly clear which Honda Hoot they were talking about. Well, maybe they did, but I'm sticking to my story.

Somehow, the project seemed cursed. All those gathered together at this great creative birth, said, nay, swore, that morphing the stock Aero into one supercool, original, bobber-like thing within the time allowed would be a piece of cake. No worries. The bike was shipped that day to Wilson's fab shop for disassembly. The front fender was tossed, the tank removed for some reshaping and stretching, and the rear fender sliced up. Wilson donated a `50s era cat taillight that looked like it was sitting on the shelf since James Dean died in a ball of fire and Porsche parts. Cool.

Let this be a lesson to you that I have had to relearn many times: Murphy's Law is a scientific fact. Everything that could go wrong, surely did. Initially I thought, damn, I'm good, I've got the power. I'm going to get all these knuckleheads to work and play well with each other, meet an unlikely deadline and slam down a show winner. It would be a glorious victory of man and machine.

It all started so nicely. Cooper did a marvelous job creating a beautifully hand-tooled seat. He also carved his signature skull artwork into a Honda leather tool bag and handgrips, and decided the bike's plastic side covers needed the same treatment. Funny thing, though, got some inspiration from somewhere, perhaps the feline shaped taillight, to etch the name, "Sex Panther" into one leather-clad panel. Must be a French thing. Cooper jumped on the work and finished everything within a couple of weeks.

And then it all went to friggin' hell. Wilson's girl dumped him, his right-hand man quit on him, worked backed up like a blocked sewer pipe and the project was almost instantly knee-deep in poop soon as we started. By the time Wilson was done with his portion, we were weeks behind schedule. But the plot thickens.

Parts then went to paint. You would think it wouldn't take long to spray a tank and a wee little bobbed fender, but then you'd be so wrong. Soon after Boldman joined the project, his business boomed and he had to find a larger location. A year later, Boldman would not finish the work nor give it back, the builder (who wishes to remain nameless) who was going to reassemble everything, add the aftermarket parts and do the requisite tweaking and tuning, dropped out mostly because too much time had elapsed.

Meanwhile, the fabricator and painter, who before this mess were close buddies, now wanted to each other to perform unnatural and mostly impossible acts on themselves and every blood relative, living or dead. No telling what would happen next.

Stay tuned for Part II of "In Pursuit of a Perfect Murder." Will someone get away with a most heinous crime, will the Honda Sex Panther ever be built or will its curse drive everyone who touches to madness?