Modern Apple tech meets a retro Honda for a match made in high-speed heaven

Two guys in Portland, Oregon, itching to take the blank slate of a 1973 Honda CB750 to another level of technological performance, have come up with an iPhone app that may actually help bring many vintage and custom bikes into the modern tech age.

In a way, it marks a return to form for the neglected but complete bike. In the 1970s, Honda motorcycles were wonders of innovation and performance, with powerful, oil-tight inline-four cylinder engines when everyone else’s slower two-banger bikes were marking their territory with seeping petroleum.

“We love to actually do things with our hands, we don’t always get to do that here with the work we do”

Hondas also had tech perks like disc brakes when most brands were still rocking low-fi drum brakes. They were icons of reliability when many brands’ bikes were, let’s just say, “temperamental.” With those attributes, Hondas sold like crazy from the 1960s to the 1980s, while many consider the 1970s their golden age.

Four decades later, many of those bikes continue to ply the world’s roadways, kept alive by dedicated owners, vintage-bike lovers and a young tech-savvy generation rediscovering the “classics” their parents saw the country on.  Customizers are also rapidly turning the old Honda UJM standards into rip-roaring cafe bikes with concourse-levels of refinement and innovation.

But it was, after all, still the analog 1970s, and despite all the advances Honda brought to the motorcycle industry (and there were many), they are still creatures of their technological times, with not a single bit or byte moving through their wiring harnesses.

Lewis and Grubb talk to Digital Trends about the bike and the app

The bike

Justin Lewis, Director of Strategy and Associate Creative Director Toby Grubb of Instrument, a Portland-based digital media company, began working to remake a 1973 CB750 in the fall of 2012 after liberating it from a shed where a business partner had stored it, according to Lewis. 

Lewis took the bike apart, “stripped the thing down to absolutely nothing,” he said. He and Grubb then started sketching out ideas incorporating concepts from their work at Instrument (see photo gallery above). It was also a respite from time spent in front of a monitor and keyboard. “We’re a digital agency, we love to actually do things with our hands, we don’t always get to do that here with the work we do,” he said.

Portland is a mecca for all things two-wheeled, whether it has an engine, pedals, or both.

Grubb, who sketched out the bike’s lines and helped fabricate the literally “Made on a Mac” tank and tail section, incorporated tower case pieces, shapes and other bits from modern Apple computers, including a very trick rear LED taillight that shines brightly through a metal mesh that any user of a modern Mac tower will recognize.

The finish on the tank, tail section and engine closely matches the brushed aluminum finish of the original towers. “The bike really came together in the final moments, we’re really happy with how it turned out,” Grubb said.

Other trick bits of kit include a custom light-gray solo seat, a Mac patch panel with a power button, headphone jack and a USB port, and a sculpted gas tank made from Mac tower panels that carries over some design cues from Mac laptops. The tail section housing the taillight also holds the bike’s oil tank and has a slick remote release from a Ducati for access to the light and oil tank. 

Trendy black wheels, a reworked slotted front disc brake, a LED headlight trim ring insert, cafe-style drop bars and velocity stacks on the four carburetors help round out the lightweight, go-fast look of the CB750.

Local vendors and artisans from Portland to Seattle also contributed to the project.

digital db750 build instrument outpost slide 40

Last February, after a string of late nights working to get the bike ready, they brought their creation to the highly-regarded One Motorcycle Show in Portland, where its blend of app tech, vintage soul and unusual style had many show-goers talking – and asking questions.

Some context: Portland, despite it’s fairly damp reputation, is a mecca for all things two-wheeled, whether it has an engine, pedals, or both. The city is dotted with custom bike shops for both cyclists and motorheads, to say nothing of the multitudes toiling away in their garages under clip-on lights, fueled by cases of Pabst and music blasting from old boomboxes hooked up to their phones. 

Local rider and wrench-spinner Thor Drake created the first One Show in 2010 as a fun, not-very-serious and low-profile event to show off customized bikes built by local builders, no matter how rough or odd they were (this is in Portlandia, after all). Vintage bike owners and a local high-profile ebike maker also joined in to add some shine to the show, but the vast majority of the bikes were customized real-world runners the owners rode. Often.

digital db750 build instrument outpost slide 42

Over 1,500 people showed up to the essentially unadvertised event.

By 2013, when Lewis and Grubb put their CB750 on display, the expanded show – which is still free to attend – packed over 10,000 people into a cavernous Northeast Portland warehouse and was getting international press. Coffee table books are also in the offing. The One Show had arrived.

So had the DCB750, or Digital Craft Bike, as Lewis refers to the heavily reworked Honda.

The App

The real centerpiece of the bike, however, isn’t the Macintosh-inspired custom bodywork. It’s an iPhone which hosts an in-development app that’s neatly nestled where the bikes speedometer, tachometer and idiot lights used to live.  

The ability to charge the phone and listen to music while riding were also impetus to utilize the iPhone to a larger degree.

The idea to replace the standard instruments with the phone app was partly borne “out of pure laziness” Lewis says with a laugh, recalling the daunting prospect of re-installing all the instruments, which he said didn’t really fit with the lean look of the re-skinned bike anyway. The ability to charge the phone and listen to music while riding were also impetus to utilize the iPhone to a larger degree.

The app, which Lewis said they will “probably name an hour before we submit it to the Apple app store,” uses a sensor on the bike to send speed information to the phone via Bluetooth. The phone’s display shows the bike’s speed, which overlays a moving map showing the rider’s location. A headphone jack near the bike’s seat allows the rider to plug in for some tunes.

Lewis said users could probably talk on the phone while riding using the Apples’ or another brands earphones and mic, but that was not a focus of the app’s functionality.

Early versions of the app used the phone’s built-in GPS for speed information, but under 20mph, Lewis said it could get a bit erratic. A set-up using an Arduino sensor linked to the phone was much more accurate, but also limiting due to the single channel of information reaching the phone.

digital db750 build instrument outpost slide 41

To use the app, riders simply tap the screen and the speed display is replaced by a detailed map. Tap a different spot and the bike’s odometer and other data appears. The latest version also shows the rider’s compass heading.

Lewis hopes to expand the app’s repertoire in the future to include a tachometer (engine speed) readout, and information such as miles-to-go on the gas left in the tank, as well as trip-meters and even more information. Instead of a sensor, users can also just use GPS, which Lewis says is accurate above slow speeds.

Much of that information will require more or different sensors that aren’t on vintage bikes, so that will be where the associated cost of the app – which Lewis says will likely be free – will come into play.

It could be a different story for more modern bikes that get turned into stripped-down street machines.

With a simple go-between module in the wiring harness similar to what is being used now to hack (or shall we say, “modify”) fuel-injection maps, the app could conceivably plug right in to the modern data path and show speed, RPMs and any number of other performance factoids floating around in today’s increasingly digitized motorcycles.

Lewis and Grubb have not yet set a hard deadline for releasing the app but Lewis said it should be available “in the next few weeks.” He said if the app becomes popular enough, they may consider releasing an Android version.

“More than anything, we have a lot of interest in kind of releasing… this beautiful app and hopefully have some people go on a ride with it and give us some feedback on how we can make it better,” Lewis said.

(Images © Instrument)

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