Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Been down this road before

I have always been one to take things apart to see what “makes then tick”, and then, once I figure it out, putting it all back together seems somewhat less important.
I have a particularly bad history in that regard when it comes to motorcycle “projects”, having turned at least 2 running motorcycles into basket cases in years gone by.
The first time it was a Norton  of indeterminate vintage. Well not so much indeterminate as varied. The 500cc Atlas engine and Roadholder frame were from two different bikes, possibly of two different years, both of which were previously imported (apparently without any ownership papers) from the UK. The headlight was off an early 005 Honda or Kawasaki, and the rest of the bike was a dog’s breakfast of bits and pieces cobbled together in a loose approximation of what a real motorcycle should look like. But it ran – sort of. The problem was getting it started. The kick start didn’t function at all so the starting routine consisted of a running push with a side-saddle leap just as you popped the clutch in second gear. If you didn’t overdo the leap and high-side (very embarrassing), and you timed the clutch release perfectly, banging noises would begin to emanate from the general vicinity of the engine. And if you then were able to gently feather the choke just right, it would start to produce serious amounts of smoke, and possibly even carry you a mile or two down the road before something important fell off resulting in a side-of-the-road repair and another chance to practice the running start.
I loved it!
So with visions of an immaculate restoration a deal was struck and I dragged it home. I rode it for a brief while and then stripped it down to the frame – which for that vintage of motorcycle involved little more than removing the tank and fenders, and taking the engine out. And that’s how it sat for the better part of a riding season until a friend with more stick-to-itiveness when it comes to these projects made me an offer to remove it from my basement, along with all the sundry parts I’d been accumulating. I have long suspected that Miz Liz may actually have provided him with the money just to get it out of the house, but whatever, it was gone, she had her laundry room back, and I had some cash in my jeans.
There have been other examples since, but you get my drift.
When I picked up the ‘81 XL500S I knew it needed a lot of work, but this time was going to be different. I was only going to do what needed to be done to, first of all, get it running. Then and only then would I start making any kind of changes or doing any cosmetic work. I figured that by DSCN0358keeping the bike no more than 1/2 day away from rideable condition, I could keep the project moving forward and not get in so deep that I lost interest because there was just too much to be done. Great idea, eh? I thought so too.
But then the first problem I encountered was that it needed an exhaust system which, as it turns out, is nearly impossible to find for that vintage. And while I was unsuccessfully (so far) scouring the internet for exhaust parts I decided that I didn’t like the look of the front end with the headlight and all the stuff hanging off the triple trees like steering locks and horns and reflectors and brackets for this and that. So I pulled the entire front end apart, cut and ground off the brackets I didn’t want there any more, and repainted the scars.
While I had the front end all apart I figured I might as well look at the steering head bearings. (Do you see where this is going?) They felt okay, but on removal and closer examination the races were slightly pitted. They would probably have been okay for a while, but in the process I dropped a few of the steel balls, of which two promptly rolled into another dimension. So now I have to replace the bearings – special order - $46.00 – be in in a week.
But that’s it! I’m not going to take anything more off the bike until I get the front end back together. That will take some time as I have to manufacture a new bracket for the speedo, acquire a set of headlight arms, paint a few small parts, and get the new steering head bearings installed. But that’s okay as I’m still working on the exhaust. The current plan is to modify a tractor exhaust to fit. It’s the right general size, and with a bit of tube bending and welding it should work just fine even if it does say John Deere on the side.  But I expect that will be a whole other story.


  1. The "road" in the title of your post is one I've been down many a time myself. It's downhill for that first section, so there's a brief, exhilarating rush until you get to the bottom, where the boxes of unlabeled parts lie scattered around the garage floor. It's all uphill from there--there's no more rush, just a long, hard climb to a finished project.

  2. My brother has a ton of 'unfinished projects' - except they're cars, not motorcycles. I have no desire to restore old motorcycles - I'm more into ridin' than wrenchin'

  3. Dear Canajun:

    The hair went up on the back of my neck... As it usually does when a rider writes a line that has the word "down" in it.

    Then I realized you were speaking metaphorically. I have no desire to screw around with the mechanical stuff on my bike. I have a great mechanic, who is a legend in national (US) BMW circles, and I wouldn't do anything that would result in me showing up at his garage with my bike in a basket.

    And my thinking behind this conclusion is because I suck at fixing stuff. I hsve two remaining cosmetic projects for this winter.
    1) Mount and connect the Steble/Nautilus compact airhorn I purchased for this rig -- two years ago...
    2) Pull the headers off and get them jet-coated black. (This is subject to economic developments.)

    And you can bet, I'll have a couple of good friends who know their shit about this doing the wrenching.

    Fondest regards,
    Jack • rep • Toad
    Twisted Roads

  4. So far I have refrained from wrenching on my bike during this snowy season. It's tempting to find and repair the latest spot it has decided to leak oil from but I have decided to just let it go. Not leaking that bad anyway. Hope you finish your project before riding season hits you.

  5. Jerry - Well put. It is a hard climb back up, but in my case I've found it easier to do a number of short hills than one long stretch. Hence the 1/2 day from rideable target.

  6. Ken - I don't think I'd ever do this to my main ride as I'm more into riding myself, but the winters are long up here and I need some excuse to escape to the garage on occasion.

  7. Jack - Having a few good friends along to help is fine, as long as you let them do all the work. The minute you pick up a wrench, said good friends turn into the worst kind of hecklers - the ones who know you and can inject insightful personal comments (you know the kind) into their pithy observations of your wrenching style.

  8. Danny - "It's not that bad" is the best reason for not doing something on your bike, because as soon as you start that it turns into a "While I'm here I might as well...."
    Anyway since this isn't a "proper" restoration and all I want to do is get it on the (dirt) road this summer I expect I'll be done in plenty of time. Assuming I can get my tractor muffler to fit.

  9. Interesting reading, I gave up trying any repairs and maintenance long ago, I hate punching engine blocks! Now I pay for good repairs and services, interesting recipe for the cleaning fluid I will definitely give that a try. I enjoyed the read, cheers Bro.

  10. Andrew - Thanks for stopping by and commenting. How's the Sturgis planning coming?

  11. You might be pleased to hear that that collection of Norton parts, suitably sorted, eventually went to the Hodge Brothers, well-known VRRA competitors of the era. Young (then) David Hodge made the '88 Dommi fly!

    Now, your SO did once give me some money, but it wasn't for taking the Norton (and that nice work stand) out of your basement!

  12. David - I'd forgotten about the work stand. You DID get a deal! lol


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