by Shawn Downey
With the recent explosion of the retro motorcycle market, many people are considering restoring a classic motorcycle instead of spending the $10,000 to $20,000 required to buy a new “old” bike. I am one of those classic bike enthusiasts, and my hard won experience may save the would-be restoration specialist some time and frustration.
The first and foremost step is to find the right bike–one that matches your desired year, make and model and is restorable. I discourage basket cases, because you cannot take a visual inventory of what pieces are missing. This caution also applies to the infamous “90% complete” projects you read about in the newspaper. If it really is at 90%, and if the restorer assembled everything correctly, and if all the pieces are there, why doesn’t the owner turn off Jeopardy and complete the last 10%? The finished bike would be worth a heck of a lot more.
Be sure to perform a compression test on any motorcycle you are considering. It will tell you a great deal about the condition of the internals. A quick comparison to the factory specs tells you if that sound you are hearing is piston slap, bad rings or rings stuck from being inactive for a prolonged period. At no time, never, not today, not tomorrow, not ever do I recommend buying a bike whose internals have been a hostel for rodents. This damage is irreparable. Once they get inside, they turn them into a Howard Johnson’s complete with running water and HBO.
The yearning for a classic bike usually stems from some romantic vision of leather, chrome, steel and girls named Tulip. Your father may have planted that vision with his tales of white-knuckled rides on “motorsacles,” a Lucky Strike dangling from his mouth. Stay true to those visions, and don’t settle for a bike that doesn’t meet your specifications. You’re going to be giving a lot of time and blood to bring your machine back to life, so you better believe in it whole-heartedly. All the jokes and axioms about Lucas electrics (although true) could never dim my belief that Triumph produced the sexiest motorcycles. If Lucas electrics are good enough for today’s Boeing 747s, they are good enough for me. I maintained this faith throughout the five hour ride through North Dakota with only the moon for a headlight. This degree of loyalty will be your savior when the crankcase catches your right hand, and your spouse just left for the 13 hour sale…
The next step in restoration is preparation. Be prepared to spend tons of money. Get a couple of wheelbarrows, and fill them to the top with cash. Now multiply that by two. Don’t go into this thinking you are going to get a totally bitching bike for a bargain. You will make out better than those who wait three years to pay more than the MSRP, but you will not ride away with the wind in your hair for a few shiny trinkets and some beads. Some excellent restoration projects take a wrong turn into crappola-land when the owner decides to budget by using old bolts versus new, spray painting instead of powder coating or chrome paint in place of chrome plating. Like a face lift on a 90 year old, it will show.
The correct tools may seem expensive, but they are a bargain compared to the cost of psychotherapy. The frustrations of not being able to fit or remove a bolt can make you nutty. You need American standard for Harleys, metric for Japanese and most European bikes, and British Whitworth for bikes from the U.K. Do not be tempted to use the incorrect wrench no matter how close it looks. If you do, all your bolts will have the same shape–round.
Use the same wheelbarrow method to budget the time you need to complete your project. My last two-month restoration turned into nine months just to get it on the road. It was longer before I worked all the bugs out. There are endless trips to the bike shop, the hardware store, the auto store, the emergency room (a round triple clamp can lacerate the skin seven stitches long), the coffee shop and the divorce lawyer if your spouse does not share your enthusiasm.
Communication and perseverance are essential when revamping your long lost love. Do not hesitate to talk to the patrons at Bob’s Java Hut or the enthusiasts at the Blind Lizard Thursday night meetings. If someone pulls up on the bike of your choice, go ask them some questions. What is the cure for a faulty clutch? What works best to stop the cases from leaving signatures at every rest stop? How do they discover those troublesome shorts? They may share their personal experiences in getting cylinders bored here or there, or tell you the best place to go for powder coating. Talking with the enthusiasts will probably become a regular part of your week. It is informative and enjoyable. The camaraderie, the conversation, the coffee…
The best part of the project is riding your bike. This is your goal. It’s 3:30am in January, and you’re on a cold garage floor with your hand in the crankcase. You may forget the celestial sound that 25 year old motor makes when going into second gear or the beauty of Theodore Wirth Parkway on a sunny Sunday morning. Don’t despair. Persevere, and you, too, will look at your four inch scar and smile in retrospect while your beauty comes to fire-breathing life on the first kick.