First a disclaimer: when we say ‘restore’, we’re not talking about buying a basket-case 1914 Excelsior and turning it into a concours winner. Anything that old or shonky is a job for professionals or people with excessive spare time and optimism. No, here we’re looking at far more manageable projects that an average DIY mechanic can turn into something they’d be proud to ride to the local bike meet – the sort of tatty 20-year-old bike you can pick up for £1500 and transform into a thing of beauty during evenings in the shed. Let’s call it a restoration-lite. Here are our top tips:
There are few things more dispiriting than working on a bike where there’s not enough room to move round it, there’s poor light, or you’re in such a mess you keep losing tools and parts. If you haven’t got a decent single garage’s worth of dry space, forget it. A heater is worth having in winter too.
With the bike up on a lift, spannering becomes enjoyable. Without one it’s a back-straining horror. You can buy tools along the way, but get the lift before you start.
If this is your first rodeo, for God’s sake don’t buy a pre-Hinckley British bike or an old Italian. Those don’t just need you to be methodical and patient, they require experience – follow a manual with a Japanese bike and it’ll generally all work fine. Do the same with an old Brit or Italian and it probably won’t – you need to know its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Also, old Brits and Italians use a baffling array of threads and bolt sizes which might require a significant addition to your quiver of tools.
Again, if this is your first resto-lite, make your life easier by getting something that doesn’t need an engine rebuild or complete rewire. Saying that, if you can find a bike where the owner has thrown in the towel but you’re confident you know it’s a simple fix – clogged carbs, clogged fuel filter, dodgy kill switch etc – then you could get a fantastic bargain. Be careful though – in general it’s better to pay a few extra quid for a runner than buy something that’ll drive you nuts for months on end.
Your worst case scenario is spending three months bringing the bike back to life, going to tax it and realising you don’t actually own it. Check the VIN plate (on the headstock) and engine number match the registration document and that they haven’t been tampered with – look at some other examples of your bike beforehand to see what a genuine plate looks like. Ideally buy something with a stack of old paperwork.
These are almost always crammed to the gills with helpful and knowledgeable people. Not only that, but all the most common problems with your bike will already have been discussed and solutions offered. Tapping into this wisdom can shave months off a resto.
Buy a Haynes, Clymer or the manufacturer’s workshop effort. The Haynes and Clymers are more user-friendly, assume far less knowledge and have more pics, but the manufacturer manuals have another level of detail. For resto-lite, a Haynes or Clymer should be fine.
Give the bike a deep clean to see what condition it’s in beneath the dust and muck. Then fix a whiteboard up on the shed wall and jot down what needs doing in broad categories – electrics, fuel supply, chassis, brakes etc. At each stage, you can write a shopping list for parts and tools required. Don’t rush off and buy all of it at the start though – it’ll just clog up your shed and you’ll probably forget where half of it is by the time you need it. Obviously the jobs themselves will vary from bike to bike, so we’ll run through the obvious ones…
As you start your stripdown, get in the habit of photographing everything – especially wiring – and file bolts in small plastic bags. You can scribble notes on the bags (eg ‘don’t forget bolt under lower fairing panel’) to save huge amounts of time later.
Most tatty bikes have a worn out battery. If your multimeter (you’ll be needing one of those – they’re £20 or so) reads below 12V the battery is probably toast.
After the battery, the carbs are the number one culprit for non-running older bikes. Even if yours is a runner, it’s still worth cleaning the carbs to ensure peak performance. The manual will tell you what to do – basically strip them down, clean with carb cleaner, and assess the condition. If they need a rebuild you’ll need to buy the gaskets, jets etc.
If the bike has been sitting for years, the tank may be rusty on the inside and you really don’t want this flushing through into your nice clean carbs. Empty the tank, chuck in some nuts and bolts and rattle them round to loosen the rust. Then use a fuel tank cleaner to get rid of what’s left.
While the tank is off and carbs are out, examine the frame for rust. Sand it back to bare metal, then repaint.
They’ve probably been in there for years so replace them.
Check all the lights work, and replace bulbs and fuses where necessary. If you’re getting intermittent faults check where the wiring runs close to the frame – it may have rubbed through the protective sheath and be shorting. If you get stuck, ask your forum buddies – someone will probably be able to help. But if you’re no wiring guru, call in an expert rather than going round in circles for weeks.
Take the calipers out and pump out the pistons – the seals are usually past it on most old bikes. Then drain the old fluid out. Check the pads – they might be usable, but don’t bank on it. Refill and bleed.
Depending on the level of perfection you’re aiming it, scratches can be filled and touched up or you can go the respray route. If you prepare carefully, you can get a decent finish with rattle cans. Don’t forget to use a two-part clear coat on top, otherwise spilt petrol will dissolve your paintjob.
You’d be amazed what tat people pay good money for on eBay. If you’re getting rid of old fairing panels, exhausts, saddles etc, try selling them before consigning them to the bin.
As wit and raconteur WC Fields once said (possibly about a tricky CB750 rebuild): “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it.”