Customizing Your Classic Motorcycle

Some steps, such as painting, are possible for amateurs

Custom Motorcycle and Mechanic

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Motorcyclists tend to be individualists, avoiding conformity wherever possible. Being part of a crowd all using the same bikes, with all the same colors, doesn't make classic bike owners tick. But improving a stock bike can be a challenge to a new mechanic, who often is misled by cable TV shows implying it's easy.

For argument's sake, let’s imagine a classic owner who has decided to customize his or her bike. Where should they start? What are the do's and don’ts of customizing a classic motorcycle?

Basic Customization

If you're new to motorcycle mechanics, try to keep your vision and ideas of the perfect custom classic simple and realistic. Cutting and chopping can—and often does—lead to a dangerous motorcycle. Probably the easiest and most noticeable custom job is to repaint the entire bike.

Completely repainting a machine requires a lot of basic mechanical work—removing and refitting panels, etc.—but it's typically within the capabilities of most home mechanics.

Looking at the Honda in the photograph, it's easy to see that the owner has not only repainted the bike but also added a few personal touches, such as the painted engine parts (starter motor case, valve covers, and water pipes). The owner also has fitted a custom seat and shortened the fenders. Topping off the customization of the Honda is a two-into-one exhaust system, a set of K&N free-flow filters, a headlight fairing, and a digital instrument cluster.

The good part about the Honda customization is that the owner can easily keep using the machine as a daily ride while slowly making these changes.

One-Off Custom Specials

At the other extreme of custom classics are the one-off specials. These are bikes that are only loosely based on their donor bike, perhaps retaining only the engine or frame. These types of customizations are generally the domain of specialist shops, but it's possible to do this type of work at home if the owner has the necessary tools or access to a specialist for certain work, such as welding.

When considering a one-off customization of a bike, the owner must decide how much money to put into the project—gold-plating the entire bike might be beyond most owners, for example.

For the most part, one-off customizations require that every component of the bike be considered for change. The owner can list all the components and then decide—within budgetary confines—which changes will give the best results. Often an owner will change some major component, such as the front forks, to improve a shortcoming in the original design.

Remember Safety

For example, a Japanese classic from the 1970s might have used a drum brake on the stock machine, but changing the forks to a more modern upside-down configuration might allow room for double rotors and six-pot calipers. However, it must be remembered that the original frame in general and the headstock bracing, in particular, were designed to cope with the stopping power of the original drum brake. The new configuration might impart too much stress in the headstock, resulting in subsequent failure.

The last point brings us to the important issue of safety of custom bikes. Fitting up-to-date items such as brakes can make the bike less safe. Therefore, an owner contemplating a one-off bike with many major changes must consider the safety aspects of not just individual changes but of the collective effects of all the changes on the bike’s performance.