Classic Motorcycle Projects Run Amuck

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus
article image

Lovely to look at, but sometimes hard to keep on the road.

Call it eternal optimism or just plain stupidity, but even though years of experience suggest otherwise, I still launch into classic motorcycle projects assuming everything will go according to “plan.” I mean, what could go wrong tearing apart a 30- or 40-year-old bike, right?

The latest little “deviation” from plan started with a suspension project on my 1983 Laverda RGS. Last October I rode the RGS to Alabama for the annual Barber Vintage Festival. The 1,600-mile round trip ride went swimmingly and the Lav ran great, but the suspension seemed lacking in control and comfort, not particularly surprising given the bike’s age (almost 30) or mileage (66,000 and counting).

At Barber, I got to talking with Race Tech vintage motorcycle suspension guru Matt Wiley about my suspension woes. No sweat, Matt said, let’s strip it, clean it and upgrade it to Race Tech’s emulator valves (so-called because they emulate modern cartridge fork valve technology and let you tune the damping curve). Cool.

Back home, I waited until the end of the riding season to strip, clean and ship the fork internals off to Matt to perform his magic. I’ve installed Race Tech emulator valves in a BMW, but Matt said he wanted to do this one himself so he could have some fun upgrading the fork legs with hard-anodized insides and powder-coated outsides.

That was in early January, and I wasn’t in any rush, figuring I’d use the winter down-time to take care of a few other related issues, like stripping the steering yokes to powder-coat them and replacing the steering head bearings. And with the bike stripped down naked it was also a good time to pull off the valve cover and check the valves.

A couple came up tight, which is a bit of a bummer on Laverda triples because it means removing the cams to replace the adjusting shims under the cam buckets. Cams off, everything was going normally until a close look at the exhaust cam revealed a lobe was starting to shed material. Damn. That’s not only weird, it’s expensive.

A call to Laverda guru and pal Scott Potter resulted in a set of milder F1 cams to replace the hot 4Cs in my RGS (who am I kidding; I don’t really go fast). Matt was making progress on my forks, so I was starting to get anxious to get the top end buttoned up and move on. But evidently the motorcycle gods didn’t want me to, because torquing down the very last camshaft support, the very last nut, the stud pulled. Lovely.

That meant taking everything back apart, removing the stud, and oh-so-carefully drilling out and rethreading the stud hole to accept a thread insert. Not really the kind of job you like doing engine-in. Luckily, everything went perfectly, and finally I had the cams back in place and all the valve clearances set. In the meantime, the forks and the new Race Tech G3-S shocks I’d ordered arrived from Matt. I was really anxious to keep moving, because spring and the new riding season were right around the corner.

Life was good. The engine ran beautifully, the new cams giving a little more torque down low where you really use it. The suspension went back together perfectly, and now performs even better than it looks. The back end, formerly wooden and disconnected, is smooth and responsive. And the front, which used to pogo on rough surfaces, is smooth and controlled.

Nice, but there was a new hitch. I thought I’d noticed a hint of clutch slip riding back from Barber, but now the clutch was letting go if I really got the engine singing. A call to Laverda parts meister Wolfgang Haerter netted the necessary clutch plates, and two weeks later it was back together, running and riding perfectly. Finally.

The point is, you can’t really anticipate this kind of stuff. The goal is to get it back together and ride another day. And if you do, then I guess it all went to plan, after all. — Richard Backus

Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine Featuring the most brilliant, unusual and popular motorcycles ever made!