Cambodia CB400SS Shedbuilt
By Gareth Charlton - 27 Dec 14
If we were to do a pie chart depicting the country of manufacture for all of the donors on the 'Shed, then the greedy amongst us would definitely be reaching for the slice from Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun is the big daddy of the custom scene, but it can be a selfish parent, often keeping the best toys for itself. Fabulous small capacity machines such as the Honda FTR223, Kawasaki TR250, Honda CL400 and (for a long time) the legendary Yamaha SR400 were kept within Japanese shores. A few would get out, we would catch fleeting glimpses of rare grey imports and wonder for days what that beauty had been. This lovely CB400ss is one such machine that slipped the borders and made a new home for itself, in Cambodia. The owner of this machine, Dutchman Brecht, started out riding and repairing vintage 50cc Honda’s like the Super cub and Benley, of course as he grew he progressed onto bigger bikes, until in 2011 he moved to Cambodia. "I landed in some kind of heaven. Honda Super cub's in abundance! I bought one the first week I arrived and it never let me down since. They are unbeatable in the dense city traffic. I started to miss something though…" A few excursions into the dense surrounding jungle on a hired dirt bike reminded Brecht that their is no replacement for displacement and he began the hunt for a new big bike. "I wanted a versatile bike which would be nimble enough to ride as a daily commuter in the heavy traffic in Phnom Penh but big enough to feel like a “real” motorbike, to use on weekend or daytrips into the stunning countryside. The starting point I decided on was a Honda CB 400SS, It is a 2008 retro model. The engine is the same as on Honda XR400’s, which are widely available here. This means that although it was a “rare” bike, parts wouldn’t be a problem." Brecht sourced a tidy machine that had just come in from Japan but was not yet registered. "After the usual haggling it was mine. Well... sort of, because on paper it was no-one's bike yet. Luckily the owner of the shop had an uncle-of-a-brother-with-a-neighbour-who-knew-someone who could help me out with the registration. The day I picked up the registration card and my new license plates I was as happy as a kid. The officer told me it was the first cb400ss ever registered in Cambodia." Despite his nationwide uniquity, Brecht, inevitably, had an overwhelming desire to tinker. Honda had the little CB right on the money stylistically as it rolled off the production line, I would wager a fair few European customers would snap up one of these machines in factory form if it was introduced to the market tomorrow. Nevertheless Brecht had his schemes, he wanted to add a dose of street-tracker to the retro base with the proviso that it would be an all-Cambodian build with no brought in parts. "The nice thing about Cambodia is there is a lot of craftsmanship. Everything gets repaired until infinity. The problem is that all workshops have their own skills so it was hard to find a new shop for every task and to find the one shop which was actually good. But I started to enjoy riding around in parts of town I’d never been before to find all the places. It also makes some good stories." The first problem Brecht encountered was where to carry out the work, he lived in a second floor apartment and had no tools or a place to work. "I decided to just start riding it and change things on the go. Up to when I had it painted, it was a rolling project for about two months. It was probably a very inefficient way, but it worked for me. It helped in testing the things I changed in real life conditions." Many parts of the process took more than one attempt, Brecht found it difficult to comprehend chopping a perfectly fine frame or dismantling a serviceable wiring loom and because of this, caution got the better of him. Eventually he courageously cut and delved deeper to gain the results he was after. With a friends grinding and welding equipment he reworked the rear frame and saddle loop 15cm shorter. He raised the rear suspension 3cm and fitted the original wheel rims with new spokes. Brecht outsourced elements of the build to local craftsmen and each completed component has a story to tell. The original battery box was fabricated by a sheet-metal workshop which normally makes rain-gutters, they were surprised by the request but demonstrated incredible skill in making it more or less perfect at the first attempt, without taking any measurements... The exhaust has its own tale, "I was looking for a replacement muffler when my eye was caught by a guy welding aluminum. He was literally welding back together cracked engines by melting them together and adding chunks of other engine’s aluminum. I was staring at the process for a while, got to talk to him, asked him if he knew a shop for my muffler and before I knew it I left my precious bike there and he would just remodel my stainless muffler to my likings." Brecht had new polyester mudguards made along with a seatpan for the freshly covered seat. Parts such as the bars, the headlight, the blinkers and the speedometer were all discovered in local markets. The red facia of the speedometer was the inspiration for the colour scheme Brecht designed for the original tank. On the recommendation of a friend he approached a local shop for the paintwork and it proved an essential discovery. "They dismantled the whole bike for me, painted all that need to be painted, cleaned and polished every tiny part of the bike and rebuilt everything using fresh shiny bolts and nuts all over. It was amazing how much work they took out of my hands which would have cost me ages to do myself." During the process Brecht discovered quite a custom scene in Cambodia. Local kids are doing awesome jobs on super cubs with very limited resources, expats are modifying bikes and there is even a semi-pro workshop called Moto Cambodge who are hard at work building both bikes and brand. Amongst all of this Brecht has found friends, support and truly skilled practitioners as he crafted his ride. It is, as Brecht acknowledges, not the most spectacular conversion ever seen with many parts on the bike still original and most modifications fairly common practice, nevertheless the pride he takes in his machine and our respect for his endeavours are both sky high. "I enjoy riding it. A LOT. Every kick on the starter, every turn I make, and every gear I shift gives me a grin on my face. I arrive happy at work every morning." Isn’t that what it’s all about?