Restoring a Classic Bike
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 5 THOMAS L. BOWIE
Joint Forces Headquarters
Arkansas Army National Guard
Little Rock, Arkansas
You’ve scoured eBay, read all the classified ads, looked at Craigslist and finally found that classic motorcycle you’ve wanted since you were 17 but couldn’t afford. You were even lucky enough to find one that just needed the old gas drained from the tank, new gas poured in and the engine started. Do you just get on it and ride? Nope!
There are several things you should consider when putting a vintage motorcycle back on the road. First, if the tires are old, you will need to replace them. They may appear serviceable, maybe even look new, but those aged tires are definitely not roadworthy. Rubber deteriorates while in storage, and dry rot and weather take their toll. The older tire technology is also a factor to consider. Newer-technology tires provide better handling and road-holding capabilities. If you’re determined to maintain your bike’s vintage appearance, there are online vendors who can provide you with original-style tires.
The next item on the list is brakes. You really want to be able to stop that beautiful old bike when the time comes. The brakes on older machines don’t have the stopping capability of modern motorcycle brakes. Even if your prize motorcycle has disc brakes, there may be issues with the operation of the brake system. Check the brake system for rust in the fluid reservoir and make sure the hoses have not deteriorated and the connecting fittings are secure and not leaking. Examine the disc for rust and the brake pads for thickness and sticking. Replace any unserviceable parts, making sure you put everything back together correctly.
Machines with drum brakes require even more attention. It’s important to check the shoes for sufficient lining thickness, deterioration and security of the liner mounting to the shoe. Also check the brake drum for glazing and whether it is out-of-round. A new wheel hub may be the order of the day to resolve this problem. Some motorcycles have hydraulically operated drum brakes, so you should check those components the same way you would check a disc brake system. Other vintage motorcycles have mechanically operated drum brakes, so you need to check the condition of the hand levers and brake pedals as well as the rods and cables. Replace any of those parts that are worn or frayed.
Now you’ve got new tires and a brake system that works — at least as well as the older braking system ever worked — let’s talk about lighting. Older British bikes had very poor lighting systems consisting of not much more than a flashlight bulb and a reflector assembly. And British bikes weren’t the only ones with shortcomings when it came to lights. The good news is there are many new halogen and LED replacement systems available today that will fit directly into your vintage bike’s headlight housing. Don’t forget about your taillight, brake light and turn signals — if your classic machine has them. There are LED conversions that will make motorists behind you take notice when you step on the brake pedal.
Make sure you also inspect the frame for broken or rusted welds. It could be a bad day for you should the frame separate when you’re going down the road. Rust or paint can often hide the condition of the chassis. Also check the kickstand to make sure it is properly mounted and maintained. Check the return spring to make sure the stand doesn’t drift down in the middle of a ride, a situation that could lead to disaster.
There are many other items that can be updated to make your vintage motorcycle both safe and dependable. These are the areas I consider the most important, not only to function, but also to safety. Spend some time, effort and money in these areas and you can safely enjoy your newfound treasure.