Three roads to vintage motorcycling
These are prolific times for classic bikes. The recent Quail Motorcycle Gathering showcased 115 years of motorcycling, from a 1902 California motor bicycle to a 2016 Yamaha FZ07 street tracker, and the record crowd proved that collector bikes of all stripes are growing in popularity – from vintage motocrossers to streetbikes, racers and customs, and from Japanese to European to American – and everything in between. Moreover, entries included dusty survivors, well-preserved originals, letter-perfect restorations, and a slew of custom and modified bikes. Which brings up an actual important question: What’s the best kind of old bike to get, anyway? Here’s one vintage-bike addict’s assessment of whether to go original, restored or modified.
Barn finds are cool, but you can’t do much with them without disturbing their “rust equity.” A good alternative to the period accuracy of a barn find is a well-preserved and usable original. The pros are that your riding experience will be just like 1955 or 1965 or 1975, but the disadvantage is that after so many years, even highly original bikes can need significant refurbishment. And to preserve the originality here, you’ll need costly NOS (new old stock) parts. Reproduction parts are a viable alternative, but with every re-pop part used, the originality drops. In my opinion the best path is patience until you find a low-mileage (under 10,000 miles) original that’s been cared for responsibly. Two quick picks: The elegant Honda CB500/CB550 Four and the simpler Yamaha R5/RD350 two-stroke twin, both of which are totally useful, plentiful and reasonably priced.
Go Full Resto
Besides the word “original,” probably no term in the vintage hobby is sketchier than “restored.” The reason is interpretation. Does “restored” mean the tank and side covers were hung from an apricot tree and painted rattle-can red, with new tires and a seat cover finishing the job? Or does it mean a Pebble Beach-quality restoration performed by an acknowledged marque expert? As such, buying a restored bike – or else taking on a restoration yourself – merits great care. I like author Stephen Covey’s phrase, “Begin with the end in mind” here. Define your desired end result, including the quality, how much you want to spend, and what you’ll do with the finished machine. These factors should then guide your project. One bit of advice: Apply your standard evenly throughout the project. Perfect paint and tired aluminum or plating don’t mix well.
Accelerating in popularity among Millennials, building a café racer, bobber, chopper or some other creation from a donor vintage bike is parallel, I suppose, to getting inked. (Said the guy with no ink.) Dismissed by some of the old guard, customs are nevertheless a viable alternative portal into the classic-bike space, and they offer unparalleled freedom of expression. First, you can start with an incomplete rescue bike or even a pile of parts at low cost. Second, you don’t need to locate and pay for the Exact Correct Parts. So that Ducati 350 Scrambler donor bike lacks a front end? One from a Suzuki GT380 will work great! And third, you get to build your bike your way, to your standards. The only downsides to customizing are sacrificing an original bike (that’s between you and your conscience), encountering build challenges beyond your scope (actually great learning moments!), and that sometime down the road, a buyer won’t see the same value in it that you do.
At the end of the day, vintage bikes are just like art. Some folks worship the French masters, some dig Etch-a-Sketch drawings and some like flinging tomato juice onto canvas with a side-valve Harley snorting nitro and wearing a paddle tire wrapped in chains. There’s no right, and no wrong here, so do what you love. Just do it with clarity of purpose. Amen.