Honda CGL125 Desert Café Brat

In February of 2020, our founder Mark was all set to pack up his life in the Middle East. The plan was to head over to the UK, to rebuild a 1984 BMW K100RS and to officially launch Barnfield. Covid put a long pause on that plan but in the meantime, he found a £300 delivery bike that was on its last legs. This is the story of that build.

The desert island.

A bit of background. I was born in Bahrain. I grew up there and moved back to the UK for college, uni and work. I was in Nottingham for 10 years before I met Amy, my wife, and we moved back out to Bahrain to set up a digital marketing agency. We ran that for 10 years before we both completely burnt out. I hadn’t identified how much ‘enough’ was, so the default was always more. 16 hours, 7 days a week at a frantic pace eventually gets you. So we brought the agency to a close and I started consulting. I did that for a couple of years before I realised I wanted to do something completely different. I wanted to make something I could hold.

“It was a frame, engine, 2 wheels, 5 plastic boxes and 1 ammunition box full of random parts.”

In January this year (2020), I flew back to England to find a bike and start the process of renovating it with Matt, a buddy of mine who also used to live in Bahrain. The plan was to come back for a month to test the waters before moving back with Amy in April. Matt and I bought a 1984 BMW K100RS from a Facebook marketplace ad. It was a frame, engine, 2 wheels, 5 plastic boxes and 1 ammunition box full of random parts. We worked on the bike everyday for exactly 30 days and on the day before I flew back to Bahrain we got it started. It fired up first go and we had flames firing out of the exhaust manifold. I was hooked.

The bike.

The plan was to pack up and get back to the UK in April in time to get the bike finished for the summer season. But Covid had other plans and just after I flew back, the world went into lockdown. Amy and I decided to ride it out in Bahrain but I knew I needed a project. After a few false starts, I picked up a little 125cc delivery bike on March 23rd and finished everything off that I could by August the 9th, just 2 days before the packers came in to crate it up along with all our furniture to ship it back to the UK.

The donor bike was a 2007 Honda CGL125 — it’s essentially a CG but with some minor differences. It’s primarily sold in the Asian and South American markets. From what I’ve read, they’re super popular in Peru and Brazil. There’s debate online as to whether they’re Chinese made or not. This bike’s VIN starts with the letter L which is the country code for China. So whether they all are or not, I couldn’t say, but this one definitely was.

I bought it for the equivalent of £300 from a fried chicken delivery driver in a town called Muharraq out near the airport in Bahrain. There are literally hundreds of CGL’s on the island but they’re used and abused until the only place they’re good for is the scrap yard. For most of them, any maintenance is done using a coat hanger or a hammer and this bike hadn’t been touched by a loving hand since it came off the production line.

I started the project out in my garage — it was covered but not fully enclosed. In March/April that was fine but by May the Middle Eastern summer had well and truly hit with full force. This July was the hottest on record and most days were hitting over 42 °C (108 ° F) in the shade. Luckily I finished most of the dirty jobs by mid July and I was able to move the bike into my dining room and into the A/C. I guess that gives the term ‘home built’ new meaning!

“This bike hadn’t been touched by a loving hand since it came off the production line”

Nothing on the instrument panel worked. The down tube was half rusted through. The fairing was all held on with wires. The air filter was missing entirely, the sump plug was only held in place with plumber’s tape and that was what I could see on the exterior. Once I opened up the engine, 5 of the teeth on third gear were chipped, the engine housing was cracked in a bunch of places and the lubricant was more sand than oil.

The investment.

I’d looked online and found Vogue Auto Group had four really nice CG125 bobbers up for sale for £3495 ($4530) each so I decided that was my budget. I was also pretty sure I could come in under that given the cost of the donor bike. Although I did come in significantly under at around £1850 ($2,365), I had to overhaul the engine completely and buy more new parts than I wanted to. My whole approach is to restore and renovate, reconditioning used parts wherever possible but I also expect the end result to be showroom ready. I’d basically committed the cardinal sin of buying a donor bike that was cheap for a very good reason. There wasn’t much that I could save without significant work.

In a nutshell, the list below gives an high level overview of the main work completed.

Frame:

  • Back end cut and rear loop welded on
  • Down tube cut out and replacement welded on with internal support
  • Pillion pegs, delivery box support and various component tabs removed
  • Stainless steel electrical tray fabricated and welded in place
  • Stainless steel battery box fabricated
  • Powder coated

Engine: Wheels & suspension:

  • Replacement 3.25" tyres — rear and front
  • Powder coated wheels
  • Front forks overhauled and powder coated
  • Replaced 315mm rear shocks with 340mm to provide clearance

Seat Tank & Exhaust

  • Replaced tank
  • Body filler to smooth out various elements of the tank
  • Adjusted fuel filler opening to work with replacement CG125 fuel cap
  • Paint, clear coat and decals
  • Cut down exhaust and replaced with shorty muffler
  • Removed air filter box and replaced with conical air filter

Wiring and components:

  • Replaced rear lights and indicators with inbuilt LED strip
  • Replaced front indicators with LED’s
  • Replaced headlight
  • Replaced brake levers
  • New wiring loom
  • New handlebar switches
  • New clip-on handlebars
  • New grips
  • New mirrors
  • New speedometer
  • New brake line
  • New speedo line

The lads.

So I’ve already mentioned that the engine was in a sorry state and this is where being in Bahrain really worked in my favour. Early on in the build, I was able to find a garage that specialised in smaller Japanese bikes.

After I took the engine off the frame, I dropped it off and asked the guys to take a look for me. The next day, I got a call to let me know they’d opened it up and for me to pop down to go through what they’d found. I’d expected them to have taken apart the casings and to have had a quick look but when I got there, each and every component part had been opened up and cleaned off with kerosene.

The guys are all from Pakistan. I found out that the CG is super popular over there because of the fact that it’s essentially bullet proof and because it’s simple and affordable to maintain. One of the team, Farmaan, had completely overhauled his own bike back home and understood what I was trying to achieve. Or at least, over time he did. The whole café racer, bobber, brat etc scene was new to them so I don’t think they really ‘liked’ what I was doing but they understood I was trying to create something high quality.

I bought a whole bunch of new components online. Like so many others during lockdown, I was hit by slow postal services. It took nearly a month for everything to arrive. Luckily I had plenty of other jobs to be getting on with. Pretty much all the components that have given the bike the look and feel I was going for came from overseas — the headlight, rear loop, grips, handlebars etc. Anything else, I was able to source locally — the suspension, brake and clutch levers, various seals etc.

The lows.

The petrol tank from the original CGL didn’t reflect the look I was going for. It needed replacing anyway but my options were limited over in Bahrain. I did manage to find a tank that was a much better shape from a Chinese CG rip off. The only problem was that the fuel cap was rectangular and fixed onto the tank with a hinge — so that had to go. I couldn’t find a direct replacement cap so I ordered one from the UK.

While I was waiting for it to arrive, I got on with body filling the rectangular dip on the top of the tank and sanding everything down ready for painting. It wasn’t until I’d spent 20 hours plus on preparation that the cap arrived and I found out that I’d need to cut out and reconfigure the hole for the cap to drop into. That was fiddly but not as tough as I thought it would be — I was able to get my Dremel in to cut out what I needed to. I dropped the cap into place and twisted it round. As I did that, I heard a ‘click’. After that, the cap wasn’t going anywhere. One of the spring loaded tabs that pull the cap down and make it airtight had dropped into the space I’d cut out for the locking mechanism. I thought I was going to have to get the angle grinder and cut out the top of the tank. Gutted.

I gave myself a moment to take a few deep breaths (after freaking out, swearing at the top of my lungs and calling myself an idiot) and realised I could get just enough movement that if I could jam something thin but solid against the spring loaded tab so that it was fully pushed down, I could potentially get the cap to rotate again. Rummaging through my tool box, I found an old junior hacksaw blade. 20 minutes of frustration later, I managed to twist the cap off again. I got straight in with the Dremel again, cut out a little tab and bent it in to create a stop which has, so far, worked a treat.

The highs.

Collecting the parts from the powder coating workshop, seeing the lights work for the first time, hearing the starter motor turn over. These are just a few of the high points but the day before I had to crate it up to ship back to the UK, I got up at 4am to walk the bike round to an archaeological dig about 10 minutes from where I was living. Getting up at 4am is never fun but I did it to make sure I could take photos during the golden hour as the sun rises, when the light is a little bit mellower and casts long shadows. The sun comes up and sets at breakneck speed in Bahrain so I actually only had about 10 minutes but when I got home and checked out the shots, I was stoked. They’ve turned out really well and are a great keepsake to finish the project off on a high.

The results.

From an aesthetic perspective, I’m definitely happy. It’s turned out exactly as I imagined. But because I was shipping the bike back straight away, I haven’t started it yet. I ran out of time to deal with any major issues so I won’t know if I missed anything until it arrives back in the UK in a few months time. I also don’t know how it’ll handle given the bigger tyres, the clip-ons and the battery placement. I know I need to look at rear sets — with the standard footpegs and the lowered steering, I’m going to look a bit like Pink Panther in his sportscar. Oh, and disc brakes on the front — that’s next on the list.

Now that I’m back in the UK, I’ll be getting back on to the K100. I hadn’t seen it since the end of January and just popped my head into the garage yesterday. That thing is huge. I’m so used to seeing the CGL125 that the engine looks so alien to my eyes.

I’m looking forward to using the knowledge that I gained during this build to avoid making some of the same mistakes. I’ll be waiting until the very last minute before I powder coat anything. Some of my most frustrating moments came from trying not to scratch the engine, frame or wheels whilst also trying to get the job done. I must’ve put the exhaust on and taken it off again at least 10 times trying to get everything to line up and ended up with some damage that I could’ve avoided if I’d gone through that process first.

These builds are a big part of being an authentic part of the community I’m looking to serve through Barnfield. Ultimately, I’d love to have a workshop that people can come and visit. Where they can get their hands dirty, maybe clean a throttle body, or help solder a wiring loom so that they can become a part of the bike’s story. I’ve always got my eyes peeled for the next project.

I’ve met some awesome people through the process already — Trevor Ditson @ditstang, Tim Somers from @thepowerbrick, Fredrik from @paalmotorcycles, Struan from @remotorcycled_ and Johnathan from @mycaferacerbrat to name just a handful. I’ve been amazed at how friendly and happy to help people have been.

The conclusion.

The fear of being locked down with nothing to show for it was my main inspiration. It’s a bit of a mixing bowl of styles. I wasn’t planning on going down the café racer route initially. My plan wasn’t ever to modify the engine to try to get it up to 100MPH so it didn’t feel authentic. I’d initially bought clubman handlebars so that the front end would be a little bit higher, more like a scrambler. But I wasn’t keen on the balance of the bike so I went for clip-ons in the end. My options for tyres were limited so although I like them, they’re more chunky than I would expect to see on a brat. At the end of the day, I pulled in design inspiration from all over the place but the goal was to keep things minimal. Given where it came from and where I built it, I like to think of it as a Desert Café Brat.

For now, the bike is staying with me. I only got to spend 2 days with it before it got crated up and put on a ship but it represents what I was able to achieve during a 4 month lockdown during a very odd year.

Originally published at https://www.barnfieldcustoms.com on August 8, 2021.

We craft limited edition jackets. Modern classics inspired by heritage workwear, military uniform and café racer culture.