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Period Roadtests

Martin Hughes was a man with a mission:
build the perfect SL125 - the one and only motor cycle he cares about.
Mission accomplished, as Julian Ryder confirms

Honda SL125

Honda SL125 from Japanese Classics
Used with permission. Author Julian Ryder @ JulesRyder@aol.com
Amazing, isn't it, how certain motor cycles lodge in your brain and won't go away. It doesn't have to be a top-of- the-range bike either, although I confess a long-term unrequited lust for the GSIOOOS. So it is with Martin Hughes, a 32-year-old vehicle technician. Eighteen years ago, his brother-in-law had one of those new-fangled SL125s, Honda's first attempt at what came to be known as a trail bike. To be strictly accurate, there had been other SL models for the States, including a 350 twin in the late '60s, but the SL was the UK's first taste of an off-road oriented Honda. With its twin shocks and relatively low seat height, it doesn't look much like today's trail bikes but if you compare it with an early or mid 1970s moto crosser, you'll see it's a fair enough facsimile.

The SL lasted just three years on the UK market, selling a grand total of 5487 units from July 1973 until it left the Honda UK range at the end of the 1975 model year. The XL250 was launched at the same time as the SL125 but only had its high level exhaust to justify the X'—as in moto cross, geddit? — in its name. The XL125 arrived in 1974, but didn't put a brake on the SL's excellent sales. Those were the days, remember, when the new bike market was big enough to cope with such closely related machines.

The SL125 may have been a new concept to the British biking public, but when a 14-year-old Martin first clapped eyes on an SL125 he was hopelessly smitten. It was everything he thought a bike should be. He took to, er, borrowing it while his brother-in-law was at work and hacking round some local fields.

When he was old enough to ride legally, he had a succession of other Japanese machinery, but at the back of his mind there was always a nagging longing for an SL. He scanned the small ads in the evening paper every night and combed MCN's readers' ads. In February 1990 he finally found a very tired example locally and paid the princely sum of £50 for it. A quick turn around the fields showed that it ran and all the gears were there. Full of hope, Martin stripped the motor down. At this point he very nearly slung the whole lot in a handy skip. The camshaft, which runs directly in the aluminium head, just like on later XLs, had all but eaten its way out, the barrel had been bored to 1mm oversize, and the piston was shot.

Honda SL125

Before consigning the remains to the skip, Martin tried a few speculative phone calls to big Honda dealers and was pleasantly surprised to find that quite a few major engine components were available. He decided to persevere.

And when Martin perseveres, he perse- veres. How about an initial mailshot of 189 Honda dealers for starters? With the self addressed stamped envelopes he included, that came to more than £60. Most dealers simply didn't reply (shame on them: I'd love to name them in print), some quoted out-of-order prices, but some were genu- inely helpful. Martin's desire to build a show-quality bike was unabated.

He cleaned up and repainted the frame and swinging arm, rescued the original yokes and started to try and bring other components up to scratch. Very early on he realised that it wasn't going to work. Despite his work as a skilled vehicle repairer, he wasn't satisfied with the finish he could get on things like the rear brake back plate. How, he asks rhetorically, can you hope to bring something like that up to scratch once it's been pitted by rust? You can't, so he had to find a new one.

It was obvious that his original idea of how long the project would take was hopelessly optimistic, so almost exactly a year

after he'd bought the first SL another one was acquired, minus its carburettor, for £100. The two bikes are identical in spec, but the first purchase, now turning into a show bike, was registered in August 1973, and the second bike was first sold in 1974.

The newer purchase became Martin's ride to work bike after it had been searched for any parts that might be in usable nick. As it turned out, it only donated one part — its tank — after exhaustive inquiries revealed the one new SL125 tank left in the world was in Bolivia but was probably pained blue! That little nugget of information gives you an idea of the magnitude of Martin's self-imposed task and the extreme lengths he went to.

Honda SL125

To start with, the restored frame, yokes and swinging arm were augmented by front and rear suspension and mudguards and a wiring loom. The loom cost just £10 from David Silver, the Honda old spares specialist in Suffolk, and saved an awful lot of work. The other main suppliers of new spares at affordable prices were Park Motorcycles of Manchester and John Groom- bridge of Heathfield in Essex.

The original crankcases and crankcase covers were restored and when a cylinder head turned up for £25 the motor was assembled and painted in smooth-finish Hammerite silver. "It looks right," says Martin with some understatement. The head, cam, barrel and piston were replaced with new parts because they had to be. A new crank was fitted because one turned up at silly money, the original gearbox was re-used and the clutch came out of the second SL. While assembling the engine, the first serious hold-up was encountered: the original selector springs showed signs of imminent failure and the new parts took weeks and weeks to arrive. But so far, not too much money had changed hands. That would change.

Martin had tried fitting some of the used parts he had acquired over the months, but somehow they just didn't look right. Only a front brake and hub cleaned up to his satisfaction,everything else was sourced as new parts. As the guy on the spares counter in Oswestry Motorcycle Centre said as Martin appeared yet again to order some nuts and bolts: "Goin' a bit daft, you..." Meanwhile he had the hack to go to work on. It's still only done 4000 miles and ticks along delightfully on its claimed 12bhp (pre-12bhp restriction days, don't forget) with enough grunt to be fun on easy trails. Like the other 'trail bikes' of its day, it doesn't feel too divorced from the tarmac, but I wouldn't trust the original tyres too much, especially in the wet.

But Martin's overtime was paying the bills, so as and when stuff became available it was bought and bolted on: exhaust system, chainguard, rear light, new clocks to replace the originals which were going to be left on, switchgear.., they were all found. After the hiatus with the gear selector springs, the next components to bring the project to a near halt were the chrome fork leg shrouds that fit between the yokes and double as headlamp brackets. Martin has ten sets in his garden shed as testimony to his desire for perfection. The hack bike got a set of bent ones!

I never cease to be amazed how you can buy something like a crankshaft with ease for a project like this but be totally unable to find something like a front number plate mounting bracket, another component that proved to be totally impossible to source. I thought they were simple right-angled brackets that could be bent up and chromed, but I was wrong. They are complex pressings that bolt to the mudguard and hold the number plate between two vertical flang- es. The man who finally found a pair was John Wyatt, a stalwart of the classic Japanese scene. If those brackets were the most difficult components to find, the most ex- pensive was - predictably enough - the seat, which set Martin back £108.

The one insoluble problem was the tank. After having his hopes raised by a London dealer who mistakenly thought he was talking about the TL trials bike, Martin had to press the tank off his working bike into service. After minor metalwork it was sprayed Vauxhall Astral Silver to give a very good match to the Honda-painted mudguards and side panels. "You can get away with a lot with light metallics," says Martin as the day job makes its presence felt again. That just left the tank transfers, which proved to be totally unobtainable,

although the side panel figures arrived in very short order via the Oswestry Motorcycle Centre. There was only one thing for it: commission a batch from a company called Computer Print Sign Studio. Careful tracing and measuring plus a chunk off the working bike's tank for colour matching, and the minimum order of ten sets of left and right-handed tank stickers were Martin's for £160.

If you're going to any of the major classic shows in the near future you can expect to see Martin's SL125 there. His original objective was to build a bike for showing and he now declares himself satisfied with his first bike restoration. He's spent over 1000 man hours working on the bike, and that doesn't include the letter-writing and paperwork. His bank balance has been de- prived of approximately £2500 over the last two years as he assembled what is effectively a new motor cycle from individual parts.

The result looks like it was spirited from a Honda dealer's showroom circa 1973. It's not over-restored, it looks, quite simply, right. And for those who tutt-tutt at the thought of a bike that's never ridden, there's the working SL that takes Martin to work every day. His bikes are proof that it's not just the big bikes that people remember; and that a bike which displaces 125cc is every bit as much a Japanese classic as a lOOOcc four. •

If you need work done on your classic machine, from basic service to full rebuilds, contact me, I can help.

Period Roadtests

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