My father and I repair and restore classic British, European and Japanese motorcycles.
My father actually began the restoration work as a hobby, acquiring motorcycles and restoring them for his own collection. That collection includes the Moto Guzzi above, a 1955 Matchless G80CS and three motorcycles from 1966, a BSA 650 Spitfire MK III, a BSA 175 Super Bantam and a Honda 305 Super Hawk. He took on the repair work to cover the overhead for the garage.
I have a love/hate relationship working on these machines. I love the classic lines, the exposed motors and mechanicals. On the older bikes the polished aluminum cases, copper oil lines, brass fittings and classic graphics like the Matchless wreath or winged “M” make these bikes more mechanical works of art than just simple machines.
Modern motorcycles have fairings covering the mechanicals and have all these angular shapes….more like rocket ships or jet fighters. Big cruisers have the engines either painted black or chromed to the hilt. A little ostentatious for me.
Older motorcycles were pretty simple to work with as well. Yes, bikes back then had tool kits in them. But they were so simple to work with that, if you broke down alongside the road, you could fix the problem or at least repair the bike to get you back home.
Today’s motorcycles with their modern Electronic Fuel Injection systems and onboard computers if the bike dies on the side of the road you’d better have a friend with a pickup truck. In addition you won’t be fixing that bike in your garage unless you have a diagnotics machine that can talk to the onboard CPU.
However a lot of the bikes people bring in to us they’ve picked up on eBay or Craigslist for cheap thinking that they have a deal. The motorcycle was stored in a barn or shed or worse…outside under a tarp. Nobody knows the last time the bike was running or remembers the symptoms that were present when the bike WAS last running.
This is where new bikes have the advantage. You can hook one of them up to that diagnostic computer and know what is wrong in about 5 minutes. With an older bike you have to troubleshoot the old fashioned way. Starting with the battery (the mechanical equivalent of the age old electrical troubleshooting first step “is it plugged in?”) working your way through the coils, plug wires, points, timing, carbs, etc.
Finding shop manuals for these older bikes is the first time consuming part of the process. We conduct an extensive search of the internet for original shop manuals. Though Haines and Clymer both provide manuals for older motorcycles I’ve discovered inaccuracies and discrepancies in both so we get the originals if we can. For some bikes we can’t even find manuals.
In addition, remember the simplicity of repair I mentioned earlier? Well when these classic machines were new, if they broke down it was usually due to only one issue. Fix the issue and you were golden. These bikes are 20 to 40 years old. We usually find one item and repair that then discover something else affecting the performance.
You have to be extremely cautious when working on older bikes. There is nothing like gingerly trying to disassemble an engine and have a cylinder head stud snap off as you’re trying to remove the rusted nut holding the thing together. Let’s not even mentioned tiny springs that go flying across the shop or miniature carburetor jets that roll off the bench and under the tool box. When you break or lose something you may not be able to get a replacement.
If you’ve never cursed you’ve never worked on motorcycles….
Sometimes you will have everything you need for the bike to run properly, good compression, good spark, timing on the money, good fuel flow from gas tank to carb float bowl and the bike still won’t run. It’s at times like this that I bang my head repeatedly against a work bench and blame gremlins….
Consequently that $500.00 “deal” you found in somebody’s shed may end up costing you an additional $2500.00 just to get it running properly.
This is why a lot of dealerships will not work on older bikes. Modern shops make their money on how quickly they can turn around a machine in for repairs and how many bikes they can do in a week. They can’t turn the older bikes around quickly enough due to the extensive troubleshooting and repair process.
New bikes are blazingly fast pieces of modern technology. You can pretty much buy one and go straight to the track. You can use a laptop to map out the bike for existing temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure for the track that day. Old bikes required some individual tuning and innovation to get them race ready.
I’ve heard some young guys make light of older racers accomplishments because the modern stuff is so quick. I would challenge these modern day racers to try and go as fast as the old guys did on these machines with the limited engineering, suspensions and technology THEY had at the time.
That being said however, in my opinion there is nothing like the pride and novelty of having a beautiful, well running piece of motorcycling history. These bikes have character and are unique. You can restore them to original condition, build them into cafe racers and bobbers or build your own piece of rolling artwork.