11 Ways to Upgrade Your Classic Motorcycle

Gear Driven

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Continental ContiGO! motorcycle tires.

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Price and availability confirmed at time of publication. Subject to change, please visit the product website for the latest prices and availability.

From motorcycle carb kits to new motorcycle tires, there are plenty of parts available to upgrade your classic motorcycle. Here are 11 reviews from the editors at Motorcycle Classics:

1. Probably the quickest, most effective way to update your classic bike is to add a new pair of motorcycle  tires. Unless it’s a show bike and you want an old-school tread pattern, update to something softer and stickier. We recommend Continental ContiGO! motorcycle tires, which we’ve put on several bikes with great results. A cross-ply tire designed for all-around use, they’re not as sticky as a track tire but not as hard as an old-style touring tire. The ContiGO! provides a perfect mix of good grip and good water displacement, while lasting many miles. Price: Starting around $70.

2. Many old bikes are still running stock ball bearings in the steering head. Upgrading the motorcycle steering head bearings to tapered roller bearings is, in our opinion, a must. They last longer, handle steering loads much better and generally outperform the old ball bearing setup in every way. We used an All Balls steering bearing kit on our café Honda, and it was excellent. The kit includes bearings, races, spacing washers and instructions for which washers to use. All Balls carries kits for a variety of bikes from the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and more. Price: Starting around $33.

3. Even the best damping-rod hydraulic forks can’t match the performance of newer “cartridge” fork valves, as their fixed orifices limit tuning and response to varying load inputs. YSS PD Fork Valves are available in eight sizes from 17.5mm to 42.5mm to fit a variety of motorcycle forks, and once installed, fork damping can be adjusted to the rider’s preference. The improvement in ride quality is immediate, giving better control over both small and large wheel inputs as the PD fork valve allows progressive fork compression and rebound. Price: $135.

4. When was the last time you checked the swingarm bearings in your old Honda? If you’ve never replaced the stock bushings, chances are they’re worn out. While new stock bushings are available, these sweet C630 nickel-aluminum bronze bushings from Charlie’s Place should outlast and outperform stock bushings. And because they’re shouldered, they’re much easier to install than stock bushings, which can require careful placement. Cost is $60 a set, about the same as stock bushings.

5. Originality might be desirable on the concours circuit, but if you’re actually riding, the original Lucas breaker-point ignition fitted to Brit bikes was far from ideal. Trust us, there’s a reason for all those “Lucas Prince of Darkness” jokes. Although other electronic motorcycle ignitions have been available for years, they’ve had their detractors. Leave it to the Aussies to come up with what many people say is the best electronic motorcycle ignition kit on the market, the Tri-Spark. The kits are marketed in the U.S. by Colorado Norton Works, which also makes a custom single-coil conversion complete with plug wires, mounting bracket and hardware for Norton Commandos (shown). Sweet. Price: Ignition kit, $329.95. Single-coil conversion, $152.95.

6. Lead-acid batteries have been the norm for years, but there are better options. Shorai claims its lead-free LFX lithium-iron motorcycle batteries are the world’s lightest, weighing on average one-fifth that of a similar lead-acid battery. And because they’re acid-free, they can be mounted in any position without worrying about your recently-repainted frame. Shorai claims faster cranking for better starts, faster recharging and they’ll hold a charge for up to a year without maintenance, with two to four times the service life. Price: Starting at $99.95.

7. Long a favorite of riders in the vintage and contemporary race scene, Race Tech G3-S motorcycle shocks are available to fit most classic motorcycles in both standard and piggyback reservoir styles. All G3-S shocks are custom built to the rider’s specification, taking into account rider weight, bike weight, suspension travel and suspension geometry. All G3-S shocks use Race Tech’s Shock Gold Valve technology for superior compression and rebound control, chrome-silicone springs (available in single or dual-rate), and stainless steel upper and lower Heim bearing mounts. Crafted of aircraft-grade billet aluminum, they’re also 100 percent made and manufactured in the U.S. Price: Starting at $699.99.

8. An RK X-Ring motorcycle chain is one of the easier — and cheaper — upgrades you can make to any classic bike with chain drive. Standard chains are fine for average use, but it doesn’t take much exposure before they start to lose their factory lube. That’s because there’s nothing to seal the side plates to the link, allowing dirt and moisture to get inside the chain links, leading to accelerated wear. The RK X-Ring chain uses a double-lipped, flat X-ring (it looks like an X in cross-section), effectively sealing the side plates against the incursion of dirt and moisture. You only oil them to keep the side plates clean, and since they wear less they require far less frequent adjustment. Simply put, an X-ring will outlast any other chain you can buy. A must for serious riders. Price: Starting at $90.52.

9. If you own a vintage Triumph 650/750, one of the best upgrades you can install is a belt drive conversion kit, like the Deluxe Premier Triumph Belt Drive Conversion kit from M.A.P. Cycle. Compared to a chain, a belt will deliver power to the transmission more smoothly, with lower load shock and vibration for a longer-lasting engine and transmission. The belt drive conversion fits inside the stock primary cover, and you won’t have to worry about oil leaks from the primary cover anymore, as the belt system runs dry. Plus, the belts last three to four times longer than a stock chain. The hardened aluminum clutch basket alone saves five pounds of weight, and the 12-tang clutch plates have eight times more surface area than stock 10-tang plates for longer clutch basket and plate life. Price: Econo Kits start at $550.

10. While the stock carburetors on many bikes work just fine with proper cleaning and tuning, some bikes run better with an aftermarket carb (or two). When it comes to British bikes that came stock with Amal carbs, owners often upgrade for better reliability and usability, improved starting and better performance. Sudco offers motorcycle carb kits for a variety of motorcycles, including Triumph 650/750 Bonnevilles and Norton 750/850 Commandos. Mikuni VM32 and VM34 dual carb kits are available for Nortons, along with Mikuni VM34, VM36 and VM38 single carb kits. Carburetors come pre-jetted, and they include rubber flanges, manifold(s), spare jets and a Sudco Tuning Manual. Throttle cables are also available separately. Price: Starting around $345.

11. Overhauling a Hondal GL1000's four Keihin CV carbs is a pretty overwhelming proposition for the average home mechanic, which explains why so many GLs aren’t running at their full potential.

So while it might not exactly classify as an upgrade, if you own a GL1000, it’ll feel like one after you’ve overhauled your carbs with this motorcycle carb kit. Featuring 69 individual pieces, the GL1000 Master Carb Overhaul Kit from Randakk’s Cycle Shakk is without question the most comprehensive motorcycle carb kit we’ve ever seen. The kit includes everything Randakk’s Randall Washington has learned in 35 years of working on Honda’s now-classic GL. To say he knows his stuff would be putting it mildly, and GL owners benefit greatly from his knowledge. For instance, you might expect the kit to include a full set of jets, commonly included in many motorcycle carb kits. It doesn’t, as Washington has found these can almost always be cleaned and reused.

Instead, he focuses on the things you really need but often can’t find, like all the small fiddly seals and O-rings that go into the carbs, almost all of which are made of high quality, temperature resistant Viton.

Appreciating that the complexity of overhauling the full quartet of carbs has kept many owners from even trying, GL guru Washington has made a detailed three-hour and 16-minute long video that walks the viewer through a rebuild, step by step. One of these days, we’re going to go through the process ourselves, just to see what it’s really like. Price: Kit only, $133.85. Video only, $39.99. Kit and video, $163.84.

richard backus
12/30/2011 5:15:09 PM

I guess it would help if I actually included the link! http://www.motorcycleclassics.com/classic-motorcycle-repair/1973-honda-cb500-4.aspx


richard backus
12/30/2011 5:14:44 PM

Gary, glad to know this was useful to you. Is it a job you can do? That depends of course on your level of experience. If you can replace wheel bearings, I'd say you can do this job. It's not technically complicated, but takes time and patience. We conducted a photo tutorial of the process that might help guide you through. Follow this link to learn more. And John Rodgers was right about the GL1000, we inadvertently said it has Mikuni carbs, and of course it came with four Keihin CV carbs.


gary lewandowski
12/30/2011 1:43:23 AM

Many thanks to the MC staff for compiling this. I have a 76 Honda 750 - 4 and have been putting off doing the steering bearings but now know what to get. Is that a job a non-mechanic can do or should I take it to a shop? I've had the ignition coil and wires replaced already. I put Continentals on about 8 years ago and have been very happy with them, but need to replace again, so nice to know they are still a recommended tire. Great article and I will save for future reference.


john rodgers
7/17/2011 4:50:18 AM

I wish to comment on your gear review of Randakk's GL1000 carb rebuild kit and video. I used this product to rebuild the carburetors on my recently purchased 1976 GL1000 and it is a great deal. One thing I noticed in your review; You refer to the 4 Mikuni carbs on the GL. Sorry, but the GL has KEIHIN carbs.