Real Life Wrenching: The Cost of Project Bikes

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Lankford
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I met a young woman this week who had ridden her thumper from Arizona to Canada, and back down to the Bay Area. Her bike had started leaking gasoline from the carburetor, but being on the road and having few tools, took it into a shop. They charged her $250 to replace a single needle on the single carb, which probably took about 10 minutes and the same amount of money to replace. And it didn’t even solve her problem – it was probably nothing more than a stuck float. If that doesn’t sound like highway robbery, I don’t know what does. There are plenty of great, fair mechanics out there, so if you’re one of them, please don’t take this personally. Just saying … 

Maintaining or even customizing a motorcycle doesn’t have to cost a fortune or be an “expensive hobby.” Having a set of tools is the only potentially expensive hurdle, but that brings me back to my first article.

We have a number of project bikes at Re-Cycle, the co-op garage where I work on my bikes. All of these projects were either free on Craigslist, donated to the garage by local bikers, or picked up for dirt-cheap. Search “project” in your local motorcycle listings and you’ll see what I mean. It’s amazing how many decent bikes are abandoned or sold, and just sat around for too long, needing little to get running again. 

Mostly 80s model Hondas, Yamahas and Kawasakis, Re-Cycle bikes are given new life and sometimes, completely new identities. When you’re dealing with a bike that doesn’t hold much value in it’s original form anyway, you have all the freedom in the world to get creative. Some make great bobbers, rat bikes, cafes, faux flat track racers, anything you can come up with. Be open-minded. 

Liza, the founder of Re-Cycle, generally estimates that it will cost about $300-500 getting a beater bike back on the road. That’s new tires, a new battery, a little paint and other various purchases. Just be wary of back registration fees. If the bike is current, or out of the system, you’re good to go. And check that it at least turns over. If it does, a little problem solving will have it running with relative ease. 

Here’s a prime example: A girlfriend of mine adopted a 1980 Kawasaki LTD400 that had been dubbed “Rusty Kitty.” She had been ignored for a long time, was completely rusted out, and wouldn’t start. And let’s be honest – she wasn’t the prettiest bike on the block to begin with. But she had a world of potential. Turns out, a simple carburetor cleaning and rebuilding the starter (which is quite simple even for the average Joe) had her running like a gem. A wire wheel and heavy cleaning removed much of the rust and grime. And for the bikes’ lack of style – well – that was simple enough. 

My friend chopped the seat pan and rear fender, added a bobber seat, funky retro tail light and some flat black paint, and what was once an ugly Betty is now turning into a sweet little bobber. It’s taken several weekends of work, but it didn’t cost more than hours spent, the can of spray paint, tires and a new battery. Not bad at all. 

Other current projects at the garage include Schwinny, a 1981 Honda CB900C; Hank, a 1982 Yamaha Maxim 750; Trip, a 1979 Yamaha XS 750; and Scooter, a 1981 Honda CB400T. And of course there’s Rat, a 1979 Honda CB750 rat bike that’s tons of fun to ride. We have a slew of ideas for these bikes, and have gotten inspiration from other classics, searching the Internet for bikes of the same model that have been customized, or just by staring and thinking up fun ideas. If you’re on a budget, it’s absolutely possible to create a great bike on a dime with a little imagination and wherewithal. You might not love what the bike looks like to begin with, but you can make it into almost anything you want. So just go for it. 

My Bonneville restoration isn’t going to be cheap – let’s face it. I’m at terms with the fact that I’ll put a reasonable amount of cash into this particular project along the way. Doing a complete re-build on a classic British bike is just going to cost more. But by staying creative and doing the work myself rather than farming tasks out, I’ll significantly reduce my financial investment. It just means I need to invest more time – but that’s where all the fun is. Knowing that I made this bike myself will be priceless. In the meantime, I’ll also be keeping my eye out for beaters with potential. 

Feel free to watch my progress on my Triumph Bonneville and general musings on co-existence with motorcycles on my personal blog, The Bonneville Experiment. 

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