Motorcycle Restoration Hints And Tips
In a technical sense, “restoration” means returning something corrupted by age or use to its original condition. There are many reasons to do this, ranging from sentimentality (for example, you want your first bike back again) to commercial gain (some restored bikes will increase in value beyond the cost of restoration).
It may simply be that you have some spare time and restoring a motorcycle is a productive way of using it. Whatever your motivation, though, many restoration projects go off the rails because they weren’t planned well. Here are some tips to keep you on track:
Selecting a bike to restore should be based on a bike you like and on the likelihood of you being able to achieve a result. An incomplete 1960 Lilac 250 will probably stay that way, despite your best efforts, because the company no longer exists and the bike wasn’t popular enough in the beginning to have generated a supply of used or new spare parts. A 1964 Triumph Trophy TR6, on the other hand, is well serviced by new and aftermarket bits and pieces to assist the restoration process.
You also need to keep in mind what you want to do with the bike when it’s finished.
If you intend to ride it regularly, you should restore something that is still practical as a road bike: a BSA C10 250 would be dangerously slow in modern traffic, but a C15 would be able to keep up. If your plan is to just trailer your restored bike to shows and exhibitions, practicality is less of an issue.
Whichever bike you select, it should be as complete as possible: body parts in particular can be hard to find, so if you had a choice between a complete bike with a seized engine and an incomplete bike with a running engine, you’ll probably get a better result from the non-runner.
“Provenance” means “place of origin or history”, and the more you know about a particular bike, the more interesting the project will be. “Matching numbers” usually means the engine and frame of a bike are as they originally left the factory. In many instances the number will be the same, but some manufacturers used different numbers on frames and engines.
If the numbers are supposed to be the same but they don’t match, your finished project will not technically be a restoration and the bike will be less valuable.
COUNTING THE COST
A common problem with restoration projects is that owners tend to budget only for their favourite part of the bike, not the whole thing. A fully rebuilt and gleaming engine is just the start of the financial drama.
Most first-time restorers have a time-line determined by buying the parts and services they need as they can afford them: the tank and sidecovers will be painted when you can save the $900 needed for the job. The overall cost of a restoration will vary depending on which bike you choose: if it’s a 1954 Vincent Rapide, it will clearly be more expensive than the restoration of a 1972 Honda SOHC 750 Four. As a rule of thumb, a restoration will cost approximately what the restored bike is worth on the open market.
In the case of the Honda Four, it’s now about $14,000. Something to keep in mind is that it takes just as long to restore a bike with limited or no potential as a collectable (a Yamaha TX500 would be an example) as it does to restore a bike which will increase in value. The rarer your restoration project is, the more time and money will be consumed in the restoration process.
Keep in mind that it will cost you more in the long run to restore a bike in the condition of a complete but rusty basket case than it will to buy the same model bike in good, running order. The basket case may initially be cheaper but will not be as cost effective as cleaning up an already fairly straight example, but note what Kiwi restorer and former racer Graeme Crosby has to say on the subject.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Melbourne restoration expert Jon Munn of Classic Style Australia in Seaford mostly does what he calls “rider restorations”. This means getting the bike to a state where it is mechanically reliable, clean and straight but not necessarily “nut and bolt” original.
An unmodified 1972 Norton Commando Combat engine has a life expectancy of less than 5000km, so nobody in their right mind would rebuild one to its original condition – the modifications which made it more reliable would always be used. A ‘rider restoration’ is the most common form of restoration, so we’ll concentrate on that.
Rather than learn the dark art of wheel rebuilding yourself, or acquire the equipment necessary for chrome plating, most restorers make heavy use of outside experts. Your job is to dismantle the bits to be sent out and do the reassembly when the parts are returned.
If the engine in the host bike is in good condition and isn’t blowing smoke, there isn’t any need to pull it apart. Chances are you’ll only be doing small distances and a reconditioned engine isn’t necessary.
The whole engine can be bead- or aqua-blasted (once you’ve plugged up the exhaust and inlet holes) to make it look new. If engine work is required, of course, you won’t have any option but to dismantle it.
While pulling the bike apart is the easy bit, you need to plan how you store the parts so that you remember how they go together again.
MT’s Rob Blackbourn, who did a ‘rider restoration’ on a Suzuki GT500, made great use of digital pictures to remind him where the wiring loom had to go on the frame and things like that.
Once the bike is dismantled, the individual components can be attacked. The frame will go out to be powder-coated or repainted. There is some debate over the merits of both processes. Painting probably looks better but it’s very easy to chip and crack as the rest of the bike goes back together.
Powder-coating gives you a bit more flexibility.
Next the painted components (tank, guards perhaps, sidecovers, instrument nacelle etc) go off to the paint shop. The chromed components (mudguards, chainguard, ’bars, headlight rim, wheel rims, exhausts etc) are dispatched to the chrome platers. The cleaner everything you send out is, the cheaper the process will be.
Other specialist tasks may include instrument repairs, wheel rebuilding, having the fasteners (nuts and bolts) re-plated and the creation of an appropriate wiring loom if a new original isn’t available.
The seat will probably need rebuilding and recovering and you’ll need to spend plenty of time polishing the metal components of the bike that aren’t being replaced, including the brake hubs and suspension components.
A good way to manage all this is to keep records in a notebook.
Get advice from other riders/restorers or owner’s clubs on who the best businesses are for the various tasks. Record the internet contact addresses of businesses overseas that specialise in your make or model. As well as spending lots of money, you’ll end up meeting plenty of people who share your interest and passion.
DOING IT FOR A LIVING
Graeme Crosby runs his own restoration business: New Generation Classic (NGC) Japanese Motorcycle Restorations in Auckland.
Croz specialises in Japanese classics with a leaning towards Kawasakis. He’s in the middle of building 10 ‘made-to-order’ replicas of the Moriwaki Kawasaki he raced in the UK, but has done many restorations, including two-strokes and Honda Fours.
Unlike Spannerman and John Munn, who both lean towards ‘rider restorations’, Croz aims for perfection and will only compromise if it’s absolutely necessary.
MT asked him to share a few trade secrets:
“The biggest decision I have to make about carrying out a good restoration job is what to start with. There are three options. One is to source a donor bike locally here in NZ. I prefer to pick it up in bits – four cartons and a few old, oil-stained nail boxes. As long as you get an identifiable chassis, basic crankcases, cylinder and head along with wheel hubs and a swingarm, that’s a good start and is usually not expensive. The added bonus is that it’s already apart which saves time!
“The second option is to start with a complete bike but, if it’s going to be a ground-up restoration, a lot of parts will need to be thrown out.
“Corroded and un-serviceable parts certainly mount up in a pile next to the rubbish bin and these are parts you’ve actually paid for when you bought the complete bike. The costs to do it this way certainly add up when the donor bike purchase is added to the equation.
“The third option is to source from overseas which sometimes can be fraught with curly problems. California is best [for us] because of the range of bikes available and its location near a seaport serving NZ.
“Most of the bikes there are boulevard cruisers which have never been around a corner in anger, usually with little modification other that perhaps a 4-into-1 but generally with low mileage.
Anything you buy must have a title to export which creates an international tracking system to avoid the stolen bike issue.
“Allow $1200 plus GST to land a bike from the US. Know what you’re buying, get plenty of pictures and get to know the seller as well as you can.
“There are some bent people out there and my first experience was a ’73 Z1 Kawasaki which took 18 months for me to take delivery. That was only after getting the internet fraud squad, local and Californian police involved. That’s another story.
“I use a range of parts suppliers who specialise in aftermarket, new old stock (NOS) and genuine parts to build my bikes. The trick is to develop a business relationship with suppliers you can trust and, even if it’s a little more expensive, stick with them if the service is good. I have great connections from my time in Japan over the last 35 years and work with three major players who supply parts for the old classics.
“What should you consider restoring? I think my pick of the three bikes worth looking at are firstly the early Z1s. These are becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to get but it’s the latter Z900 which I think is the next best option. They’re cheaper to buy and, with less made in 1976, it can only make them more desirable. On top of that, they go better than the early Z1 with its associated carburettor dramas.
“Keep in mind a fully restored Z1 can set you back $30,000 in the blink of an eye – anything less than that involves compromises. They are not cheap.
“The trusty, old Honda CB750, with so many parts available nowadays, is a great option. They’re cheapish to buy and relatively modern for the many baby boomers with fond memories of the past.
“Finally, I would look at some of the Suzuki GS1000 and early GSX1100 models. There’s no time like the present if you’re thinking of buying as they’re not getting any cheaper.
“The most powerful tool at present for doing restorations is the internet with eBay and so many sites dedicated to restorations. Good luck!”
If you want to discuss potential restoration projects and what services NGC can offer, Croz can be contacted via email at email@example.com
READING THE FUTURE
While there’s no doubt some bikes have become good investments and there is a tremendous amount of interest in classic bikes, there are some unanswered questions regarding the future.
Baby-boomers, those of us born after the end of the Second World War, are a large part of the buying public. Will our children be as interested in classic bikes as we are? John Munn has been surprised by the number of younger riders becoming involved in the scene.
“British bikes from the ’50s onwards are practical motorcycles with realistic performance. Young people are getting increasingly frustrated by plastic rockets that are invisible at the petrol station and constantly get them into trouble with the law,” he says.
Another issue is the tightening up of supply. Partly because of the recent weak US dollar, so many people are buying bikes and cars from the US that it’s difficult to find shipping containers. That’s changing a little now as the American dollar strengthens and the price of imports starts to climb. The value of classics is now established in Britain and Europe so there’s little joy in importing from these markets. The supply of classics can’t last indefinitely and now might be exactly the right time to acquire your classic or restoration project.
OUT OF LEFT FIELD…
BSA twins have always been a bit cheaper second-hand than equivalent Triumph and Norton models. The company history goes back to 1906 and it was once the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world, as well as having a substantial racing history with its 500 singles.
The 650 twins (Thunderbolt, Lightning and Spitfire – also the Hornet) from the ’60s are beautiful bikes (especially in red) and are now great buys. They developed something of a reputation for unreliability but modern fixes have eliminated this.
Jon Munn says that reputation was undeserved anyway.
“As long as you change the oil regularly, there’s nothing wrong with the engines.” Could there be a BSA in your future?
Early Z1s are now rare and expensive but Z900s are still around and are a better ride.
Good old trusty Honda single-cam 750 Fours
Suzuki GS1000s and early GSX1100s
Pre-1986 BMW twins (airheads)
Honda single-cam 750 Fours – plenty of parts and a practical ride
Triumph 500cc Tiger/Daytona – sweet engine and cheaper than the 650s
Article by ‘Spannerman’, aka Grant Roff