Everyone’s building bikes, right, but you’re not. “I’d really like to have a project but I can’t afford it.”
Maybe you can, but you need to pick the right bike and have the right attitude.
Yep, it’s still going to soak up your spare cash but with patience and good planning you’ll get a result of which you’ll be proud. You’ll also have plenty of fun and you’ll love riding it around when you finish.
We’re going to make a few assumptions here. We’re not going to build a nut-and-bolt ‘correct’ show-stopper. What we’re going to build is what the industry calls a ‘rider restoration’ – a bike which isn’t going to win at Motorclassica but which will look great, give you plenty to talk about and be a practical ride.
We’re going to use non-original parts when these are easier to obtain and cheaper than the original equipment items. We’re also going to improve on the original when it makes the bike more practical in daily use. The 1972 Norton Commando Combat engine had a life expectancy of 4000 miles – why would you rebuild it to original specifications when there are fixes available which make it 10 times more reliable?
SO, WHICH BIKE?
Read on as we recommend the top-five budget rebuilds, but first, here are some things to think about.
Any bike that sold in low volume in its day is not likely to have an endless supply of replacement parts. Selecting a once-popular model makes parts easier and usually much cheaper to source.
The popularity of the single-cam Honda 750 Four means just about every single component is still available, sometimes as new-old stock or as a pattern part. The original four-into-four exhaust systems used to rust out and, for a while, were incredibly expensive if you could find them. The demand was so strong, though, that pattern Honda 750 Four exhaust systems are now being manufactured and are relatively cheap.
Leg shields for the Honda 50 were unavailable for 10 years but, now it’s a cult bike, you can buy them from Thai manufacturers for less than $100.
Rebuilding a popular or ‘cult’ bike is easier and cheaper so keep this in mind when you’re deciding on a make and model.
Similarly, any bike that has largely stayed in production means parts will still be available. Yamaha’s SR500 was only available locally for four years between 1978 and 1982 but continued to be produced around the world and has just been reincarnated in Australia with the SR400.
Mix-and-match parts for air-cooled BMWs from the /5 series onwards means you can have a BMW that looks like it did when it was first on sale but is still a practical and reliable ride.
Low-volume or obscure models are not only harder and more expensive to rebuild, their rarity doesn’t make them more valuable.
Here’s a good idea…
Pick something that everyone wanted in the day. Yamaha XS650s are cool but the TX500 and TX750 twins that came afterwards aren’t.
What you’re looking for is a host bike which is as complete and original as possible in terms of instruments, switchgear, chassis and bodywork.
If you have the choice of a great engine in a barely-there bike or a complete bike with some mechanical problems, select the latter. Engines can be fixed but the custom seat, sidecovers and tank for a Kawasaki ZL1000 from 1988 will be impossible to locate.
TIPS FOR SAVING MONEY
Step one is to rebuild the engine, right? Well, no, not unless it’s necessary. If the engine in your host bike is running, step one is a complete service and tune. Then do a compression check. If all the cylinders are more or less even (between 130 and 140psi or higher or even lower but at least consistent) then relax. The tune will have set the valve clearances and you’ll know if it jumps out of any gear or anything is particularly noisy. All good? If so, your job is cleaning it, not rebuilding it. If its job will be the occasional weekend ride or a rally with the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club, it’s likely to only be doing low kilometres each year – you don’t need an engine that will survive a Castrol 6-Hour.
If, on the other hand, you have three cylinders at 130psi and one at 60psi, you’ll need to bite the bullet but, if you have to dismantle the engine, it makes it easier to clean.
To minimise cost, just do what you have to – don’t do things that don’t fit the purpose of the rebuild.
THE INTERNET IS YOUR FRIEND
As little as 20 years ago, if you couldn’t find the part you wanted at your local wrecker, you’d probably give up. On top of that, the part you wanted (gold left-hand sidecover for a Honda CB750 Four) was the part everyone else who’d been there before you wanted as well.
The internet has now made the world your wrecking yard.
New instruments for your Yamaha Tenere? You can get them from Greece for $120. Front guard? A place in Germany makes them for the same amount.
Secure buying gets better by the day and MT staff are regular users of the internet to source bits and pieces that are impossible to find locally. If you aren’t on top of the process already, get one of your kids to teach you how to do it.
ORIGINAL VS MODIFIED
The closer to original a bike is, the more valuable it’s likely to be when and if you ever get around to selling it. Sure, the new paint makes it gleam, the seat recover got rid of the sun fade and the four-into-one exhaust system sounds horn but it makes the bike less rather than more valuable. Lightening the bike by removing unnecessary bodywork, removing dags on the frame you no longer need and customising it to suit your particular view on fashion should only really be done if you intend to keep it forever. Potential owners will see all this as devaluing it.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
Once you’ve finished the rebuild, make sure you ride the bike regularly. Bikes in museums which look brilliant often have no engine or gearbox internals – their job is to be looked at, not ridden.
If you rebuild a two-stroke and don’t ride it regularly, the crankshaft seals dry out and will leak on the rare occasion you do actually fire it up, resulting in plenty of smoke out the pipes and the need to pull the engine down again.
If your bike is a four-stroke single and you’re not riding it regularly, follow the storage instructions in the owner’s manual and make sure you leave the engine on the compression stroke so that the inlet and exhaust valves are closed. If you leave a valve open for a year, it will potentially remain open when you try to start the bike.
Twins, triples and fours should have the engine turned over at least once a month to keep the internals from becoming fixed objects. You don’t have to start the engine: remove the plugs, squirt in a little oil and rotate the rear wheel while the bike’s on its centrestand and while it’s in top gear.
All the bikes we’re about to recommend as great budget rebuilds are fast enough and reliable enough to keep up with contemporary traffic so get them out there and enjoy the ride.
5 BEST BUDGET BUYS
HONDA CB750 FOUR (1969-77)
We’re heading to the last-drinks saloon in recommending the single-cam Honda 750 Four as a budget build but, fascinatingly, it’s still true.
Pub arguments will never stop about which was the most significant motorcycle in the period 1900-2000 but the Honda CB750 Four is always there at the front of the field. It takes first place among the MT brains trust.
Its combination of a reliable electric starter, disc brake, class-leading power, no oil leaks and lack of engine vibration shot it out of the starter’s gate in 1969, beating Kawasaki’s Z900 to the lucrative US market.
In all, almost 500,000 single-cam Honda Fours were built between 1969 and 1978 ranging from the original CB750 through the K1, K2 and continuing to the K8. The earliest model is now fetching more than $25,000. It was Honda putting its toe in the water to gauge consumer interest and the first bikes had gravity or permanent mold engine castings producing a rougher finish than later models. As is the way of the world with classic bikes, the first, fragile one is the most valuable.
Australia and New Zealand mostly got K1 and K2 models which sold their socks off and produced headlines in tabloid newspapers alarmed at the 125mph top speed. It was an exaggeration unless you’d ridden the bike off a cliff but the old ‘ton’ was a piece of cake and, more importantly – and unlike Triumph Bonnevilles – you could do it all day, every day, without having to rebuild the engine every second weekend.
What happened to the tens of thousands sold in Australasia? MT’s Guido, who owns a very perky K1, believes narrow oil galleries and a new generation of riders who didn’t understand the value of regular oil changes were the culprits.
Regardless, there are still plenty around and prices range from $3500 for a runner up to $16,000 for a tidy restoration. If you can find a clean, straight, original bike for less than $5000, you’ll be able to build something worthwhile for around $10,000.
If single-cam Honda 750 Fours aren’t worth $25,000 in 2025, come and find me and I’ll buy you a drink if I’m still alive.
WATCH OUT FOR:
Top-end wear through lack of regular oil changes, sloppy chassis bearings through big distances travelled, welded/broken engine cases through the chain breaking and wrapping around the countershaft sprocket, general engine wear (blue smoke from the exhaust under acceleration).
WHERE TO START:
Puds Four Parts in Yarram, Victoria (03) 5182 5704. Andrew (Pud) will have everything you need or will know how to get it at a fair price.
BMW R100 (1977-96)
One of the great mysteries of motorcycling is why older BMWs aren’t more expensive.
Perhaps it’s because you either get them or you don’t, but the airhead models (air cooling although you’d probably include the early air/oil-cooled models in this range) can offer great value for money.
We’ve picked the two-valve models from 1970 to 1996. The early /5 (pronounced ‘slash five’) models are hard to find now and can be a little pricey but there are plenty of /6 and /7 models (1977) still around in remarkably good condition thanks to the integrity of the initial design.
The legendary R90S is outside our price range but became the less-fashionable and much cheaper R100/7 and R100S. The R100R was a ‘retro’ bike when it was introduced in 1986 and the ‘Mystic’ was the last throw of the dice in 1992.
They aren’t slow. Tony Hatton came third in the 1973 Castrol 6-Hour on an R75 behind a Kawasaki Z1 900 and a H2 750. Kenny Blake scored a second with Tony Hatton in 1976 on an R90S and Blake along with Joe Eastmure won the 1977 race on an R100S.
You’d pick an airhead BMW for its comfort, touring ability and low maintenance costs but you need to keep the maintenance up to it. It’s not a model for lazy riders.
Individual BMW R100s can be very different from each other so you want a good one to start with, which might require the help of a BMW tragic you know or one of the shops we’re recommending below.
The international popularity of the airheads means most parts are readily available and fresh barrels and pistons are cheaper because there’s only two of each.
BMW’s with major mechanical problems can seem expensive to fix but if the overall bike is in good condition, you’ll only have to do the job once.
Purists consider the R80 (800cc) airhead to be the pick of the BMW engines from this period but the 1000s are fine and, while a little rougher, are faster.
If you buy one, you’ll have to learn the ‘BMW pause’ during gearchanges – lifting the foot lever half way between the change points and waiting until engine revs have dropped sufficiently to silently engage the next gear.
WATCH OUT FOR:
BMW’s in this era had a car-type clutch and driveshaft coupling. Abuse could lead to the spline on the driveshaft stripping which would leave the engine running well but no drive. It’s an expensive fix due to the labour involved. Gearboxes have a reputation for being fragile but if you understand how they work, they can be very reliable. Check valve clearances regularly (easy to do) and be religious about maintenance schedules.
WHRER TO START:
The BM Shop in Stafford, Brisbane (Chris) on (07) 335 6128. BM Motorcycles in Ringwood (03) 9870 3807. Discount Motorcycle Wreckers, Coburg, Melbourne (03) 9350 4417.
HARLEY-DAVIDSON 883 SPORTSTER (1986-ON)
The first ‘Evo’ Sportster has just turned 30 would you believe, so in some states, including NSW and Victoria, it can now sport club plates, making it cheap to register.
The Sportster value story doesn’t stop there. Even if an original 1986 Evo model proves difficult to find – and they aren’t all that common, because it took a while for the model to gain the wide acceptance it has today – you can certainly pick up a much more prolific early to mid-1990s bike for about $5000. This is probably as low as a well-kept Sportster is going to go price-wise. From here on in, with the model now becoming a fashion item du jour, the only way to go for early model Evo Sporty prices is probably up.
The 1986 model, and its immediate successors, runs Harley’s all-alloy 883cc 45-degree V-twin, with 44kW of power, four-speed gearbox and chain final drive. In subsequent models (1991) these were upgraded to five-speed/belt drive, while the engine, originally offered with a single 36mm Keihin carby, got injection in 2006, but otherwise didn’t change a whole lot for the first two decades of its life.
It’s extremely robust. If an 883 runs fine, with no extraneous mechanical noises, and it ain’t leaking, chances are the motor is good to go.
Like any Harley, the Sportster is built like a brick dunny and many are still in excellent condition, to the extent that they are a viable daily ride. And the bike’s modest performance makes a lot of sense in this speed camera-infested world. You can really enjoy a Sporty at the legal highway speed limit, which is about where its abilities peak. As a tourer, its main limitation is the 8.5-litre peanut tank.
That said, the 883 is well-balanced, low to the ground and very easy to ride. It’s especially popular with women.
Given that there are several hundred aftermarket suppliers of Harley bits to choose from, a simple Sportster overhaul doesn’t have to cost much. Top of the list for the 883, and the most cost-effective way to refresh the engine, is probably a 1200cc conversion kit from S&S, which includes barrels, bolts straight in and costs $1550. The suspension was hopeless from new, so budget for a set of Ikons and some new springs, at around $1000.
WATCH OUT FOR:
As with any Harley, aftermarket mods only serve to reduce its value, and nine times out of 10 they’ve been done badly. So look for one that’s as close to standard as possible. The Evo motor should run very quietly with virtually no mechanical noise. Ticking on start up can indicate a worn hydraulic lifter. The upside of these bikes is easy, cheap maintenance. The chain primary drive and gearbox should be quiet and smooth in operation too.
WHERE TO START:
The country is awash with H-D businesses and the following have very good reputations: SA Choppers, Ridgehaven SA, (08) 8264 2304; Apl Performance Bikes, South Windsor NSW, (02) 4587 7557; Supercycles, Osborne Park WA, (08) 9444 9898; HD Development, Melbourne VIC, (03) 9670 4747.
YAMAHA SR500 (1978-82)
Despite their mythical status among riders, large-capacity, single-cylinder road motorcycles are few and far between. Kawasaki never bothered trying and Suzuki’s effort with the 650 Savage was half-hearted (although it’s an excellent base for a café racer). Honda had a go with the flat-tracker styled FT500 and the very nice XBR500. Then there’s Yamaha’s SR500.
A generation waited for Japan to make something like a Manx Norton – something that recreated the glory of racing singles but had Japanese reliability and didn’t leak oil. The release of the SR500 in 1978 was largely a disappointment: its styling was a little awkward, it was relatively slow (140km/h) and by then everyone had forgotten how to use a kick starter.
The SR500 only lasted on the Australian market for four years but stayed in continuous production in Japan and was very popular in Europe, particularly Germany and Scandinavia. It didn’t happen quickly but the model started to pick up cult status and the Australian-delivered versions were snapped up by the custom bike scene who shopped online for the massive array of parts which progressively became available.
Dare Jennings’ Deus ex Machina ‘cultural temple’ put another nail in the affordability coffin when it started modifying SR500s and selling them for $18,000.
The demand for SR500s as host bikes exhausted the local supply and many SR500s and SR400s started arriving from Japan as grey imports. Yamaha Australia recently reintroduced the SR400 to its current range for around $8000 which has taken some of the heat out of the market and made both locally delivered SR400s and grey imports more affordable.
SR500s have never had electric starts so owning one really does connect you to the history of motorcycling.
Almost all of them are customised in some way and there are giant department stores in Japan devoted exclusively to bolt-on parts and accessories. Every single bike has its own story.
Grey imports (mostly 400s) are around now for $3000-4000 in good condition but an increasing number are appearing for less because the trendy owners can’t start them or have moved on to the next fad.
WATCH OUT FOR:
Grey imports need Australian Design Rule approval. Most of the bigger importers looked after this but a small number of SR500/400s arrived here as private imports and you may have trouble registering them. Check the condition of the valve rocker faces and valve stems as poor adjustment in this area can damage both. High-mileage engines may burn oil but top ends aren’t expensive to recondition.
WHERE TO START:
SR500 Club, PO Box 500, The Patch, 3792 (sr500club.org)
Kendo Parts Australia (www.KendoPartsAustralia.com.au)
SUZUKI GT500 (1976-78)
We’ve picked the Suzuki twin here because it was arguably the most robust of the two-strokes available in the late 1960s and ’70s. Suzuki also made 380cc and 550cc triples but more parts means more money for the build so twins are better options.
Suzuki’s first road 500 twin two-stroke broke ground in 1968 and, typical of Japan at the time, the first model was the fastest. It was also the worst handling of the series, something Suzuki fixed in subsequent models (T500J and T500K) largely by lengthening the swingarm. While the models were detuned as they progressed to improve their reliability, they were still fast with impressive torque from low revs and a top speed over the magic ton.
The pick of the earlier Titan models was the T500K but we’re suggesting the GT500 which became available in 1976 because it had a disc front brake rather than a drum, it had electronic ignition rather than points and its tank capacity was increased to almost 17 litres – up from 14L of earlier models. The extra fuel was useful: if you rode an early Titan flat out you could drain the tank in less than 100km.
Two-strokes make good host bikes for budget builds because they have so few moving parts.
The GT500 is a particularly nice bike to ride with good high-speed handling, a comfortable seat, impressive performance and previously unimagined reliability. There were engine vibes felt mostly by your feet but they didn’t kick in until close to maximum speed so weren’t noticeable in daily use.
The simplicity and overall strength of the design has meant many T500s and GT500s survived but prices are now starting to rise. You should be able to pick up a ‘needs work’ example for less than $3000 although clean, original examples can set you back upwards of $6000.
WATCH OUT FOR:
With its mechanical two-stroke oil injection system, T500 and GT500 engines don’t produce much smoke from the exhaust when the engine is at normal operating temperature. Lots of smoke under acceleration from one exhaust usually means the crankshaft seals on that side are blown. Lots of smoke from both sides means the seals on both sides are gone or that gearbox oil is being sucked into the crankcases.
Any of these symptoms will require an engine stripdown but, compared with four-strokes, it’s not a big job. Titans are also known to wear the hardening off fourth and fifth gears so listen for grinding sounds in these gears.
WHERE TO START:
Suzi Parts Australia (08) 8295 1661; Paul Miller Motorcycles (www.ReproductionDecals.com)
Article by Grant Roff and Bill McKinnon