When Motorcycle Repair Becomes Motorcycle Restoration

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Photo by Motorcycle Classics staff
Editor-in-Chief Richard Backus' Laverda also went through a motorcycle repair/motorcycle restoration arc.

For my money, part of the reward of owning a Norton Commando is getting to work onit. By nature I’m a bit of a tinkerer, which makes me a perfect match for old motorcycles. Forty-plus-year-old machinery of any kind requires a lot of upkeep, and if you don’t like getting your hands dirty, classic bike ownership can be a bit of a challenge. But there’s a huge upside, and that’s the relative ease with which you can work on old iron. Compared to a new plastic-enshrouded Yamazuki, getting to the spark plugs and carburetors(!) on a Norton is a veritable snap. Yet there’s an oft-ignored peril in classic motorcycle repair, one I routinely fall victim to: the “while I’m in there” syndrome.

The subject came up while speaking with fellow Anglophile Tim Ware, who’d called to make sure I was aware of the journeys of a certain John Young. Young, a 60-something native British bike fan, brought his 1968 Triumph T150 Trident all the way from England to the U.S. so he could compete in the semi-annual Iron Butt Rally, which challenges riders to cover 11,000 miles in 11 days. John did it. On a Triumph built 43 years ago.

Tim also owns a Trident, a 1975 T160, and as we talked Brit Bike our conversation turned to things we do to keep our bikes running, and the seemingly unavoidable mechanical tangents we follow in the process, the things we do “while I’m in there.”

“While I’m in there” can take many forms and have many consequences. Sometimes, the consequences are immensely satisfying; discovering that the pinch bolts on one of your fork legs are loose before your next ride is certainly better than discovering it while you’re riding.

Other times the consequences can be more complicated, as my pal Ken is discovering, undertaking what was supposed to be a simple re-commissioning of his 1974 Norton Commando. Ken’s Commando almost perfectly encapsulates “while I’m in there” syndrome. When he started his redo, there were no plans for a motorcycle restoration of any kind. This was going to be a straight-ahead, only-fix-what-needs-fixin’ job. Ken’s put lots of happy miles on his Norton, and it was ready for a good dose of TLC. Ken mapped out a basic approach for the project but once he got started, the map got tossed away.

The wiring harness on his bike was toast. Easy enough, but once that was off, boy, you sure could see how rough the frame looked. Ken had already decided to replace the tranny bearings, and now with a dinged up frame confronting him, along with a dirty engine needing a little spiffing up, it seemed only sensible to strip his Norton down all the way so he could repaint the frame, “while I’m in there.”

Pulling the exhaust off during the strip down, it seemed silly to think about putting it back on. Old, dinged and dirty, and a cheap repro to boot — might as well get a new one “while I’m in there.” Pulling off the front end revealed headlamp ears of different types, definitely something to replace “while I’m in there.” The headlamp shell was a little battered, too, probably ought to go ahead and replace that “while I’m in there.” And the paint job, which had been considered fine, suddenly seemed tired, what with everything else getting cleaned up.

A two week project has become a two month labor, and Ken’s Norton is receiving an almost complete resto. But I don’t think Ken cares, because at the end of the day he’ll have a well-sorted, beautiful looking arid beautifully running Commando. Which, of course, is all he was trying to achieve, while he was in there. MC

  • Updated on Sep 1, 2011
  • Originally Published on Jan 1, 1753
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