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Restoring a classic bike may not be as hard -- or as pricey -- as you think

Nov. 29, 2006 - 02:22PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 29, 2006 - 02:22PM  |  
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So, you're ready to buy a motorcycle, but sticker shock sets your head to spinning.

You don't have to buy a brand-new bike to hit the road. If you're familiar with motorcycles -- or own an old one -- and know a bit about tinkering with them, you can restore a classic for less and have fun doing it.

That's what I did, and the payoff was more than just money saved. The satisfaction of completing a major restoration and driving a classic bike is worth all the sweat equity.

I spent about three months last winter restoring my 1973 Kawasaki Z1900, the first big-engined, big-power Japanese "superbike" with dual overhead cams instead of just a single overhead camshaft. With 82 horsepower, 12-second quarter-mile capability and a 130-mph-plus top speed, these bikes are still formidable performers 30 years after their debut.

This bike is my ongoing "ride while you restore" project that involves attacking one area of the bike at a time -- then putting it back together and riding it until I save enough money to move on to the next area.

This approach can be less daunting than an all-at-once disassembly -- which often results in a pile of unlabeled parts decorating the garage and a never-finished motorcycle project.

It's also more manageable financially to spread the cost of rebuilding the bike over a period of months or years than to dig deep all at once -- especially since replacement parts for an old bike can be incredibly pricey. For example, a new set of genuine Kawasaki spokes to "re-string" the wheel on the KZ costs almost $200; a replacement brake rotor to replace the scored original came in at nearly $400; you don't want to know how much new brake lines sell for -- if you can find them.

The best part is that most of the work involved in a project like this is relatively easy and can be done at home without special tools.

And if you don't mind spending a little sweat equity, you can save a pile by cleaning up and polishing the parts you have rather than sending them out to be chrome-plated or buying new (and usually expensive) replacement pieces. Aluminum or stainless-steel parts usually can be brought to a mirrorlike shine with a little time on the buffing wheel -- followed by hand-polishing with a cotton rag and a product such as Blue Magic metal polish or Mothers Mag and Aluminum Polish.

That was my goal: to bring everything back to "as new" condition functionally -- but also to retain a patina of age cosmetically. I achieved this by reusing as many of the original fasteners as possible -- and most of the original chromed or polished aluminum pieces, such as the fork ears that hold the headlight in place.

These parts were machine-polished on a buffing wheel to clean them of surface scratches, then hand rubbed with metal polish to restore a high luster. The finished parts sparkle, but they also have "history." The overall effect of polishing/refurbishing original stuff is great. The bike looks immaculate but not new. Many restorers prefer this approach to replacing everything with a brand-new part.

Some parts -- like the KZ's front wheel -- were rebuilt/refurbished using a combination of new and original parts that have been cleaned up. For example, it's often easier and less expensive to buy a new rim and have it respoked than to send out a rusty original to be cleaned and rechromed.

In the case of the '76, a New Old Stock (original Kawasaki) rim was fitted with fresh stainless-steel spokes that look "factory" but won't rust or discolor as rapidly as the originals. The original aluminum hub, though, was reused. Like the other shiny pieces, it was machine-polished before being fitted with a new wheel bearing and grease seal.

The brake system also reuses as many of the original parts as possible -- including components like the master cylinder and caliper -- both of which were rebuilt using kits available from Kawasaki. All the hydraulic lines were replaced with new ones, however. -- It's just not safe to reuse old lines that are dry-rotted on the outside and probably rusty and contaminated on the inside. Any brake line more than 20 years old is probably junk and should be thrown away for safety's sake.

The front end of the old KZ already has been functionally and cosmetically restored to a show-quality level of detail. It is once again safe and pleasant to ride.

This makeover included:

Rebuilding the front forks with new springs, tubes, seals, dust covers and polished fork sliders.

Rebuilding the front wheel -- including new spokes, rim, polished hub and new front wheel bearing and grease seal. Also rebuilding the back wheel and drum, including swing arm.

Rebuilding the front brake system -- including new/rebuilt caliper, rotor and master cylinder. All flexible and hard hydraulic lines and fittings were replaced with new parts.

Painting all brackets, "Triple Tree" and frame the correct semigloss black. All bolts, fasteners, aluminum and chrome-plated parts were polished.

Removing and polishing the engine casings.

Disassembling, cleaning and reassembling the instrument cluster.

The total cost involved was about $1,500 -- mainly to replace original parts that could not be rebuilt or restored with "New Old Stock" genuine Kawasaki parts from the dealer (when available) or high-quality reproduction pieces from the aftermarket that look and work like factory parts. The only real difference between NOS and reproduction parts is the authenticity factor -- reproduction parts may not have the same stampings or date codes as factory parts. This matters at shows, but it's irrelevant in terms of how the bike looks or runs.

The rest is sweat equity: the owner's time and effort to tear everything down, recondition parts, polish, repaint and reassemble the bike.

And when it's finished, you'll have created something unique -- and kept a piece of the past on the road.

Neatness counts

The key to achieving the Zenlike state necessary for a successful motorcycle "resto" project is to acquire a shop manual, read it, proceed slowly, understand what you're taking apart -- and keep meticulous track of everything you remove and where it goes.

Other tips:

Lay out the pieces on a clean shop towel in a way that indicates how they were fitted together on the bike. Don't throw loose nuts and bolts into an unlabeled coffee cup or strew them across the floor.

Tag pieces with masking tape on which you can write a reminder.

Draw pictures or jot down notes about what you've taken apart, how it fits together and so on. Maybe you think you remember how it all goes right now, but in a couple of weeks, that'll be cleared from your memory banks like 10th-grade geometry, and that pile of odds and ends you've got might never be a motorcycle again.

Know what you can't handle. Some work you likely will have to farm out to pros. For example, it takes special skill and tools to "restring" an old-timey spoked wheel properly. You need a dial indicator -- and the expertise to use it properly. If you don't get it exactly right, the wheel will be out of balance, and the bike will be dangerous to ride. Any good cycle shop either will have a guy capable of doing this for you or be able to recommend one who can. Same thing with rebuilding front forks.

Basically, anything you don't feel 100 percent sure of doing right yourself that involves a functional part is something that might be best left to a pro. But you can reduce labor costs substantially. For example, if you lack the tools or the skill to rebuild the forks yourself, you can save money by removing the complete assemblies from the bike and taking just them -- rather than the whole bike -- to the shop. This way, you won't have to pay the shop to disassemble the front end, remove and reinstall the forks.

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist who has covered the auto industry since 1992. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, among other publications. E-mail him at

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