Motorcycle Restoration, The Art of Motion

Deciding where to start is the hard part.

Motorcycle restoration is in many ways the perfect hobby, melding an interest in things mechanical, the joy of craftsmanship, the satisfaction of collecting, the excitement of riding and the value of investment. Deciding where to start is the hard part.

A traditional approach has been to concentrate on English bikes of the 1950s and 1960s, especially sporting or racing 500cc singles like the Manx Norton, BSA DBD34GS Gold Star or Velocette Thruxton. At the very top of the desirability heap are Vincents--the 500cc Comet, the 1,000ccRapide and the 125mph-capable Vincent Black Shadow. 

Problem is, the prices of these classics have been rising rapidly in recent years, and they are now out of sight for all but the most well-heeled motorcycle investor. Not to worry, the second rank of English bikes - mostly 650cctwins - are both more numerous and more economical. The best of these are the twin-carburetor Triumph T120 Bonnevilles from 1966 to 1970, any 650 Norton from 1960-1970 and the standard BSA 650, dubbed the A10. More available, if a little less desirable, are the later Bonnevilles, Norton Commandos and BSA Lightnings. 

After this, the list of desirable classic motorcycles gets a lot more confusing, but certainly no less interesting. That's because, as prices have risen, greater attention has been paid to motorcycles that, while reliable, innovative or a pleasure to run, never created the same cult following.  

On this side of the world, a thriving restoration movement exists for pre- and post-war Harley-Davidsons and Indians.

"Bathtub" Triumphs

This list is a lot longer than the ones above, but it would certainly have to include the delightful Norton ES2 single, the enclosed "bathtub" model Triumph Speed Twin or T110, Ariel's fully-enclosed 250 Leader, the Matchless G80CS desert racer, Benelli 750 six, BMW R69S, Ducati Desmo singles; and even early Vespa scooters. On this side of the world, a thriving restoration movement exists for pre- and post-war Harley-Davidsons and Indians. Large clubs are active, much help can be found from enthusiasts and parts are surprisingly plentiful.

Before you decide what make and model you'd like to work on, take some time to review the field. The best way to do this is to attend meetings of your local vintage bike club. In British Columbia there's the Classic Motorcycle Club of B.C., or any section meeting or rally of the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group.

Go to Daytona

For an instant immersion course, go to Daytona (USA) for Bike Week and take in the classic racing on Monday. There you'll be able to walk through the infield pit area and see hundreds of classic and vintage bikes, many being prepared for racing just as they were thirty years ago. Daytona also attracts dealers and individual sellers who show off their bikes at an official auction, various flea markets and outside numerous watering holes.

The next thing to do is to get subscriptions to Classic Bike magazine from Britain and Walneck's Cycle-Trader magazine from the United States. Classic Bike contains excellent articles on individual machines, beautiful full-color pictures and an extensive classified section for parts and fully-restored classic motorcycles. The prices that go with these ads will give a good indication of how popular--and how available--various models are. That's also the reason for buying Cycle-Trader, because Walneck's can give you an indication of what the same models are selling for in the United States. For Canadian ads, check out the Bike, Boat & RV edition of Auto-Trader at your local convenience store.

Finally, once you've decided what manufacturer and model you're interested in, you should join the club that has members with similar interests. There is a club for most popular marques, including Vincent, BSA, Triumph and BMW. In Canada, two very active clubs to consider are the Canadian Norton Owners Club and the Ducati Owners Club of Canada. There are even clubs for specific models, such as the Gold Star Owners Club.

Once in the club, you'll be able to see what bikes are currently for sale, and get the names of club members who know what bikes might be for sale. This is, by far, the best way to buy a specific model. Club members are usually pretty straight-forward when it comes to the value and true state of their machines.

A second approach is to find a motorcycle repair shop that deals with a specific model. These often have basket cases ready for restoration. They can usually be talked into doing the mechanical work, while you tackle the cycle parts and cosmetics. A good example of this kind of business is Ducati Singles Restorations run by Henry Hogben in La Salette, Ontario.

Personal Picks

Ducati singles are actually quite a good choice for anyone to consider restoring because of a quirk in the way they were marketed and sold in North America. Most of these bikes were brought into the United States and Canada in the early 1970's as dirt bikes. The 250 to 450cc scramblers had longer forks, smaller tanks and a some minor frame differences from the roadracing versions, but are essentially the same. They were almost all junked when Japanese two-stroke dirt bikes swept them from competition.

A competent welder, working from a pattern, can create an exact duplicate of the factory road frame using the scrambler frame. The extra long forks can then be shortened.

The same general situation exists for Gold Star singles, many of which were sold in the States as dirt bikes, and also for many British 650 twins. The dirt models are no longer much valued, while the road versions, particularly in the case of the GoldStar, are highly sought after.

Another interesting bike is the Ariel Leader and its stripped version, the Arrow. These feisty 250 two-strokes are now considered to have been twenty years ahead of their time. They were never very popular in Canada, although there is a thriving restoration business in them in Britain.


You have probably been wondering if Japanese bikes make the cut. Ten years ago, the answer would have been no. Today that's all changed with more and more collectors looking to Japanese models for their inspiration. Japanese manufacturers turned out tens of thousands of machines that are now considered classics. On the top of my list would be such models as the 6-cylinder Honda CBX, the Suzuki GS1100SZ Katana, the 1981 Yamaha XV920R,Yamaha RZ350, Kawasaki H2, and any Kawasaki 550 GPz or 750 GPz. Many more models could be added, including the Honda and Kawasaki turbos.

The Basics

The three essential ingredients in any bike restoration project are an engine, a frame and a manufacturer's parts book. The engine and frame are the heart of the project; the parts book, with its exploded diagrams, is the brains. Let's assume you have these three things. The first step is to haul the motor off to an engine shop that specializes in completely rebuilding your type of motor.

If your budget doesn't allow for this, go round your area and ask the mechanics at the larger Japanese motorcycle dealers if they know a specialist restoration mechanic in your area. Often the most wonderful experts can be found in the strangest places.

It should be obvious why you need to have a 30-year old motor rebuilt, but there is a not-so-obvious reason as well: Getting it clean. The head, barrel and case have to be bead blasted and all the bright metal parts have to be mechanically polished, and this is the time to get it done.

While that's underway, you can get started on the frame and swingarm. This should be sandblasted and then examined for cracks, twists, missing tabs, extra holes, and battery acid damage. If any welding is needed, get it done now. A good tip at this point is to dry assemble the bare frame with the newly rebuilt engine. Assuming it fits, send it out for powder coating or painting with industrial polyurethane. Stove enameling was the method used by most manufacturers, but it's very hard to find a source for this process today.

At this point you'll be starting to think about what kinds of nuts and bolts you're going to use. As with all aspects of motorcycle restoration, there are more than two schools of thought about this, too. Traditionally, most engine and frame bolts were cadmium-coated steel. One hundred point restoration judging will require the same kind. Unfortunately, cadmiumized bolts will eventually rust if put away damp, so many people prefer using stainless steel.

Most of today's stainless nuts and bolts are in American sizes and threads, while all the original bolts were in British ormetric sizes. You'll have to decide for yourself. My personal preference is to replace every nut and bolt I can with the closest available size in stainless steel, except engine/frame studs which must be in the original size and metal to avoid vibration damage.

The next two things to worry about are the shocks and forks. The shocks are easy because you can buy brand new replacement shocks for most classic bike styles. Forks are another matter. Assuming you have an intact set of correct forks, you should check them for straightness and excessive wear. If either needs fixing, send the forks to a fork specialist. This is one case where air shipping the part to England is a realistic proposition.

Rear hubs for most English bikes are easy to find, as are front brakes. Steel wheel rims are harder because most have been destroyed over the years by rust. The easiest, and most attractive solution, is to order a set of alloy rims, such as those made by Akront and a matching set of stainless steel spokes and nipples. Table top wheel lacing is a realistic possibility for most people, although final balancing and run-out correction is best left to an expert.

What rubber?

Conflict between traditionalists and pragmatists can be expected over the right kind of tires you should fit. Many traditional tire types are now available, so these should be considered. My preference is to buy the closest available size in a modern tire, preferably from the same country as the bike. My preference is to buy the closest available size in a modern tire, preferably from the same country as the bike. The same argument will take place over hand grips. Your choice is to opt for the original look in hard rubber or to install vibrating-absorbing foam grips and ignore the critics.

By this point, the importance of a working center stand will be apparent. With the forks, swing arm, and wheels installed, your bike can now stand on its own if you have a center stand.

The next steps are finding, sandblasting and repainting the fenders, tank and other bodywork, such as side panels. Unless you are in the autobody business, get this professionally done. Poor paintwork on motorcycle body parts, especially the tank, can ruin an otherwise outstanding restoration project. For many machines replacement body parts can be obtained in England, as well as tanks, exhaust pipes, mufflers, headlights, seats, decals and wiring harnesses. Other sources of supply are C&S Classic Vehicles in Sidney, B.C; British Cycle Supply in Nova Scotia, British Only in Detroit and Accessory Mart in Cincinnati, Ohio.

When original, or original pattern aftermarket parts can't be found, there still is a chance you can get a fiberglass or alloy version. Your fellow club members will usually have a line on where these, and other hard-to-find pieces, can be obtained.

One nice thing about motorcycle restoration is that if you've had to cut corners to get your bike on the road, you can always go back and replace second-rate parts with genuine originals once you have the money or find the parts. Obscure sources of Original Equipment Manufacture (OEM) parts are continually popping up. I once was shown into an otherwise unmarked store in rural Michigan to find scores of rare motorcycle and engine parts, including Gold Star cases and barrels, as well as hundreds of Lucas electrical parts in their original red and black boxes. No doubt there are other treasure-troves waiting to be discovered.

Another route

If your passion is a fairly recent Japanese model, you may have a restoration route that any English bike fanatic would die for: The motorcycle factory itself. Honda has the best reputation for supplying new parts for old models, Suzuki and Kawasaki aren't quite so good, and Yamaha trails the pack.

One Honda dealer told me this story: He needed a carb for a 1963 125cc Benley. Hoping for the best (though expecting the worst) he put in the order and waited 18 months. To his amazement, the carburetor finally arrived. The unit showed file marks you wouldn't normally see - it had been built by hand!

Because the situation is so variable, you should phone around various dealers, including those out of province (or country), if you have trouble sourcing a part. The piece you want may very well be on some dusty shelf on the other side of the world. Another source that shouldn't be overlooked are the motorcycle salvage dealers. Many valuable Kawasaki two-stroke bits are currently resting in scrap yards across the country. If you can order from the factory, buy up all the plastic bits, bodywork, a spare tank and high-use items you can. Don't worry about the price; the cost of an aftermarket replacement 15 years from now will be more and the value will be less. After all, how can anyone argue about an original Yamaha part on a Yamaha?  

Remember, unlike almost every other hobby involving restoration and collection, when you're finished you get to ride it!

If all this sounds like a lot of work, perhaps motorcycle restoration isn't for you. There's no doubt it can be a picky and expensive process, with considerable disappointment along the way. If, on the other hand, the sound of a classic bike engine rattling your garage windows is music to your ears, take the plunge. Remember, unlike almost every other hobby involving restoration and collection, when you're finished you get to ride it! That's when the fun really begins, scattering leaves on a two-lane ribbon of asphalt, an exhaust note sweetly ringing in your ears as you tuck close to your tank and sweep a perfect apex on the next corner.

If you've done your restoration right, you'll be transported back to the 1950's, 60's or 70's when both the bike, and you, were young. Not a bad feeling. And at the end of the day, as you pause to turn off the light in your garage, it's nice to know your pride-and-joy appreciating faster than your mutual fund.

--Frank Hilliard

Originally published in Canadian Biker Magazine.Copyright © Frank Hilliard 1995

Contact Info:

Accessory Mart
Box 26116
Cincinnati, Ohio
(513) 871-6622

British Only
Garden City
(313) 525-1980

Ducati Singles Restorations
General Delivery
La Salette, ON
Canada N0H 1H0
(519) 582-2153

C&S Classic Vehicles
9362 East Saanich Rd.
Sidney, BC
V8L 1H9
(604) 656-9979

British Cycle Supply
Box 119 
Wolfville, NS
Canada B0P 1X0
(902) 542-7478

Walridge Motors Limited
#6C - 5 Routledge St.
Hyde Park, ON
Canada N0M 1Z0
(519) 641-2770

British Isles Motorcycles
Box 821 Duncan, B.C.
V9L 3Y2
(604) 746-5011


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