DIY: How to Restore Vintage Motorcycles

Written by richard a. webster
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DIY: How to Restore Vintage Motorcycles
A pre-1950s Harley Davidson, fully restored, before auction. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

They look at them and think it's a bunch of junk. ... But to us, this is what we grew up on. We would look at them and say, 'Boy, I wish we could get one of those.'

— Jim Downey, president, Mobile Bay Vintage Motorcycle Club

Chris Kelland, owner of Limey Bikes, a motorcycle restoration shop in Austin, Texas, credits his father with inspiring him to restore vintage motorcycles. But it's not the sweet father-as-role-model story you might imagine. "When I was younger, the only bikes I could afford were old ones," Kelland said. "I couldn't afford to pay someone to fix them up, so I had to learn to do it myself. It's something I wanted to learn because my father was as mechanically adept as your average piano. I didn't want to be like him." Kelland's story isn't typical, but do-it-yourself attitudes like his and the affordability of the vehicles are among the factors that have fuelled a renewed interest in vintage motorcycle restoration.

Restoring Motorcycles Vs. Cars

Why restore an old motorcycle when you could fix up an old car, which would give you transportation plus a roof over your head for rainy or cold weather? A vintage bike in running condition costs between £325 and £1,300 and, depending on the condition, several thousand dollars to restore. Car restorations can run up to £19,500.

"With motorcycles, there is so much less to it," said Jim Downey, president of the Mobile Bay Vintage Motorcycle Club in Mobile, Alabama. "I've restored a couple of cars, and it's overwhelming. There are thousands of parts to a car. With a motorcycle you don't need any lifts to get under one. You can take it apart in an evening in your garage."

Restored motorcycles can be as reliable as new vehicles, sometimes more so, Kelland said. He owns a 1976 Yamaha 650, and the only maintenance he performs on it is the addition of oil to the engine and air to the tires.

"I let it sit for six months over winter, and it started first kick," he said. "If they're built right to start with, they can be just as reliable as any vehicle. And I'm sure people would agree who have new cars they've had to take back to the dealer over and over again.

"Plus, the old vehicles have something the new vehicles don't, which is simplicity. It's not beyond the realm of the average home mechanic to maintain these things."

Nostalgia Fuels Some Restoration

DIY: How to Restore Vintage Motorcycles
History is ripe for the pickings. Here, a man sits astride his bike in 1909. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Increasing interest in restoring vintage motorcycles is also a product of the baby boom generation and the arrival of Japanese motorcycles in the 1960s, said Ed Youngblood, a director of the Antique Motorcycle Foundation in Westerville, Ohio.

In 1958, the entire U.S. motorcycle market sold 40,000 bikes. The next year Honda opened its first U.S. distributor and sold 17,000 units of just one model.

"Japanese industry was totally rebuilt after the war," Youngblood said. "The factories were fresh, and they were performing precision manufacturing. At the same time, the British industry was worn out, and they didn't care. They were just building junk.

"So when the Japanese motorcycles arrived in America, the quality was like nothing we'd seen before. And because of the currency exchange at the time, they were astonishingly cheap."

Many baby boomers were in their teens when Honda motorcycles started arriving in the United States, and they bought them in droves. The bikes were a significant part of their childhoods, and now that they are entering their twilight years, they are becoming nostalgic, Youngblood said.

Charlie Lawlor, owner of Restoration Pros in Tempe, Arizona, recently restored a Honda motorcycle owned by a veteran who had bought the bike when he was serving in the Vietnam War.

"The guy is 63, and when you were serving your country you could buy a bike in Japan and the U.S. government would bring the bike back. So he had me restore it. He wants pictures of it with his sailor suit on to bring back the memories from 1966."

It's not only ageing baby boomers who are into restored motorcycles, however. Many of the people who ride Kelland's motorcycles fall into a very specific category: hipsters.

"Most of the kids who ride them here are between 20 and 30 years old, and they want to look cool," Kelland said. "This is the cheapest way of doing it. They can't afford a new bike to make them look cool, but they can buy an old Honda CB 350 that makes them look cool for £975 or £1,300."

Most Popular Restoration Bikes

Japanese motorcycles are mainstays among collectors, but the most popular are the American classics: Harley-Davidson and Indian.

"They are regarded as great classics and representative of an era between the two world wars, when American bikes were very special and different from anything else in the world," Youngblood said. "They were large, luxurious and powerful."

Kelland credits the popularity of the older bikes to the uniqueness of their designs. Unlike new motorcycles, which are based on diagonal lines creating wedge-shaped machines, older bikes were based on horizontal lines and simplicity.

As of 2011, everything is produced to please the masses instead of fulfilling one person's artistic vision, he said. "So you end up with something like the Ford Focus, which is as bland as a vanilla milkshake. It's very accommodating to all, and therefore nothing is done very well. They're not trying to be innovative anymore."

Originality Is Important

Besides affordability, there is a significant difference between car and motorcycle restoration. The car community is big on restoring a vehicle so it looks brand-new, whereas motorcycle collectors prefer to leave the appearance of the vehicle largely unchanged.

"You'll never find a collector who would find a barn-fresh motorcycle and strip it down and restore it," said Youngblood, referring to an old bike found collecting dust in a barn. "Today there is nothing prized more than a bike with the complete original paint. You might have to replace decayed rubber parts, but you don't dare touch that original paint.

"At shows I've noticed collectors walk right past beautifully restored Harleys and Indians and gather around an original machine that sometimes is very, very rough-looking."

Many people find old motorcycles rusting away in someone's barn or garage, a forgotten piece of metal just waiting to be resurrected.

"Recently, I was riding with a friend and we stopped at a motorcycle shop, and in the back was an old 450 CC Honda from the '50s," Downey said. "The owner said, 'It's rusty and hasn't been driven for years, but I'll take £65 for it.' So I bought it."

Different Strokes for Different Folks

At 67 years old, Downey restores motorcycles as a way to fulfil his childhood dreams.

"When I was a kid," he said, "I always wanted one of these, and now I can go out and get them. It's not unobtainable at all, like they were when I was younger."

His sons, however, do not share his love for the vintage models.

"They look at them and think it's a bunch of junk. They would rather buy a new motorcycle. But to us, this is what we grew up on. We would look at them and say, 'Boy, I wish we could get one of those.'

"To us they were beautiful and they still are. It's like a piece of artwork, a sculpture, except you can get on it and ride it."

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