How to Restore a Motorcycle

Before. John H. Glimmerveen

Restoring a classic motorcycle seems like fun, on the face of it. It is, however, a long process requiring dedication, organization, mechanical skills, and some tooling. But, for the most part, it is not beyond the average owner with good mechanical skills to restore a classic motorcycle.

Of utmost importance is being organized, especially if the bike you are working on is rare, with no manuals or parts available. Every restoration will follow a set sequence, often with one section overlapping another. For example, while you're waiting for parts to be delivered, you can concentrate on painting the chassis.

Restoration Sequence:

  • Prepare Workshop
  • Research make/model history
  • Photograph your bike from every angle
  • Disassemble (more photographs)
  • Ship parts for chroming, powder coating or painting
  • Repair/replace wiring harness - test all electrical components
  • Source parts
  • Reassemble

The Workshop

Restoration will require many hours of time spent in a workshop. It makes sense, therefore, that workshop is well lit, have good ventilation and be laid out with safety in mind (see the article on Motorcycle Workshops for full details).


It cannot be over emphasized how important research is. Before buying a classic for restoration, the potential owner must research the make and model to find out if it is worth doing from a financial and time perspective. (Spending $10,000 and 500 hours on a machine that will be worth half that does not make sense.)


The importance of photography cannot be over emphasized. At the time of disassembly it will seem obvious where everything goes, but in a year's time, you're guaranteed to find a doohickey with no recognizable function or place.


What may seem like the easiest part of restoration - taking the bike apart – must be done with one goal in mind: how to reassemble it at a later date. As mentioned, photography is an essential part of the disassembly process, but the mechanic should also consider the condition of each and every component as it is removed from the bike (see the article on engine disassembly). Some parts will be replaced, some restored and some simply cleaned. 


When it comes time to reassemble the bike, it can be very frustrating waiting for parts to come back from plating or powder coating. Therefore, it is prudent to send any parts for plating as soon as possible so as to avoid delays in the reassembly process.


Old wiring can cause all sorts of problems. If there is any doubt about the integrity of the wiring it should be replaced or a new harness made (see how to make a wiring harness). Ensuring good electrical contact will ensure the reliability of this critical system. In particular, the mechanic must prepare all ground connections so as to ensure good connectivity (especially important when the frame has been powder coated). 


Finding rare parts can be a challenge. Visits to swap meets can produce that hard to find component, but it may take a long time and be dependent on luck to a certain extent. It makes sense, therefore, to locate and purchase parts as soon as it becomes clear that the old ones are either missing or are beyond repair. 

Finally, serious attention to detail is critical through the entire process: one loose bolt can cause a breakdown! But the satisfaction of having restored a once forgotten motorcycle to a pristine classic is worth all the effort.