The ups and downs of owning a classic motorcycle
At age 60, I thought I’d moved on from motorcycling. Over the years I’d rescued a few dirt bikes from the bone yard, restored a BSA Thunderbolt (now hanging on a restaurant wall in Hollywood), scorched some asphalt on a Honda VFR, and built a chopper. Remember king and queen seats?
Fast forward to the fall of 2011 when I looked up from whatever I was doing to take notice of a television commercial. Wow! There was a guy my age, blasting along on his café bike, solo, on what looked like the Bonneville Salt Flats. No speed limit. No lines. I was hooked—again. I have that United Healthcare commercial and Velocity Vintage Motorcycles to thank for what happened next.
And so it began. While paging through old magazines and surfing the Internet to learn more about café bikes, I stumbled onto the Royal Enfield brand that has enjoyed uninterrupted motorcycle production since 1901. Long story short: Eric Engler, owner of Velocity Vintage Motorcycles in Richmond, Virginia, taught me about the brand, pointed out the various models (Royal Enfield has several) and explained the marque’s history, dealer network, etc. Interestingly, Velocity Vintage is the oldest single-brand Royal Enfield dealer in the U.S. with display models from the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. I had stumbled upon the oldest brand and the most experienced dealer. A good omen.
The decision was made to locate a used bike to make room in the budget for the bolt-on transformation that was to follow. Otherwise, the math would have looked something like this: Purchase a new bike and subtract $7,500 from the wallet; toss all the painted metal into the dumpster; subtract another $3,500 for café parts and tires; subtract more for labor.
Eric located a 2009 500cc Bullet (first year to offer EFI) with a bonus–a working kick start! After purchasing the used bike for about $4,200, I left the stock, green Bullet in the good hands of Vintage Velocity. The crew at Velocity is passionate about motorcycles and General Manager Bryan Condra took a personal interest to the project.
The original green Royal Enfield G500 Bullet before the facelift.
The build began with the selection of a café gas tank that fit the frame mounts and housed the EFI fuel pump. (That gas tank cost a lot more than my first bike—a milk crate full of Bultaco 250cc parts.) Next, I chose handlebars that simulated clips-ons. This saved grinding down the handlebar mounts or buying an expensive headlight nacelle and new triple tree. Note that shipping from England takes weeks, so there was a lot of down time in between parts shipments. When the tank finally arrived, we took measurements for the saddle and designed a seat mount that would level the stock V-frame beneath Benjie’s Café Racer’s custom carbon fiber seat that was formed around a Honda CB-350 base mold.
The rest of the parts boxes were unpacked as they dribbled in, swapping steel fenders and side panels with aluminum replacements, and mounting a Smiths “rev counter.” Shorter control cables were fitted to the Ace handlebars, along with a new set of Avon “sneakers” and a larger headlight. The final step of the fabrication was to mount the rearset control pegs. I visited Velocity to sit on the bike while measurements were checked. As it turned out, my feet lined up with the rear peg mounts, thus simplifying the installation. Bryan ordered universal rearsets from Loaded Gun in Delaware and made the linkage in-house.
The shop’s knowledge of the different Royal Enfield frame options saved me $600 by not having to purchase the café parts “package,” and allowed selection of individual parts like the seat, cables and rearsets. While some might have preferred the custom triple tree that allows use of a nostalgic, Triumph-style headlamp bracket, I kept the original Royal Enfield nacelle that looks less bolt-on, in my view, with smooth lines that flow from the headlamp to the tank. Another preference was the Loaded Gun rearsets that allowed custom fitting. They were lighter and cost $250 less than those offered in the “package.”
Connecting the left-side rearset arm for the shifter was a do-it-yourself project, but creating the bent arm for the right-side rear brake benefited from the shop’s knowledge of the forces applied during hard-breaking. If you do this on your own, keep in mind the need for proper material and hardware (left-hand thread); correct leverage angle; and making a proper stop on which the foot control rests—it’s under constant rearward tension from the brake arm spring. Velocity Vintage also made the mount to relocate the rear brake light switch. When I first saw the completed work, I thought the shop had located a custom set made for the Royal Enfield—it looked that good.
And so the project proceeded: Ordering the correct parts, sequencing the installation and, where needed, researching which part matched my bike’s frame. On this last note, the build could have turned south a few times had it not been for the shop’s experience with the various Royal Enfield models. If you choose this same path, you’ll need someone like Velocity Vintage to help navigate around Royal Enfield’s three different frames (GS, C and B) for tank and muffler mounts, triple tree, re-sized cables, rearsets and handlebars.
The project continued in pursuit of practical alternatives to boost performance for the 5-speed, single cylinder “thumper.” The end result?: a 14 percent increase in power from 21.35bhp to 24.35bhp.
The report card — a 14 percent increase in power from 21.35bhp to 24.35bhp.