Making the grade
Just another evening in the City College of San Francisco motorcycle restoration class.
How do you learn the art of classic motorcycle restoration; how to tune a carburetor, assemble a bottom end or read a spark plug? Some of us were lucky and had a wizard uncle, the guy who could make anything run and shared his secrets. Some of us spent our teenage years trying to work on wrecks, ruining a lot of parts in the process. And some of us have never tried to get our hands dirty.
But some of us, maybe a little bit more organized, took a small engine repair class in high school or at a local junior college, although the class was probably more about lawnmowers than we would have liked. Some junior colleges go a little farther and offer courses in motorcycle repair. These classes are generally supported by the local dealerships, and are intended to train students for a career working on modern motorcycles.
As far as Motorcycle Classics knows, there are only two college classes in the nation that will teach you to restore an old motorcycle. One is at Central Carolina Community College in North Carolina), and one is at City College in San Francisco.
For the last five years, Dave Miller has been running an independent study class at City College. Dave has been teaching auto mechanics for many years, but he’s always enjoyed riding, repairing and restoring motorcycles. He commutes to school on a 1971 Triumph Bonneville.
The class was actually the idea of Mike Lowther, a friend of Dave’s. “Mike works for the district and pitched the idea of a motorcycle class to the administration,” Dave explains. “They said we could do it if I could find a way to finance the equipment I needed. I sold a Suzuki 750 to buy tools, and negotiated for a space. City College decided to try it as an experimental class. On the first day of signups, 150 people wanted to take it.”
You have to be a California resident to apply for the class, but once you’re accepted you can bring in the rusty ruin of your choice and Dave will teach you to restore it back to stock condition. You can also choose to customize a motorcycle for showing or racing. City College offers an introductory class in motorcycle design and maintenance (a prerequisite for all other motorcycle classes) and classes in tune-up and service, custom design and assembly, custom metal fabrication, custom painting and welding. CCSF’s classes are, to put it mildly, popular, and Dave recently had to hire a second instructor, Lisa Duke.
Motorcycle classes are held at the CCSF Evans Campus in an industrial area of San Francisco, in a building that used to be a bulk mail facility. Even with three quarters of the ground floor used for car repair instruction, the motorcycle area is much larger than most shops.
Chain link fence divides the space into smaller areas, lifts are scattered around, workbenches, cabinets and broken motorcycles line the walls, and the room dividers are festooned with exhaust pipes. There is a tool room with specialty tools, cabinets full of manuals covering many different motorcycles, and a parts washer. “But most important,” student Stewart Ingram says, “is know-how and a shoulder to cry on.”
Stewart is a collector who has learned to work on his bikes (he now has 22) through the CCSF program. “I bought a 50cc Honda step-through when I was 12. Then I saved up $140 from my paper route and bought a Hodaka. I saw an Italjet when I was a kid — I never got the picture out of my mind,” Stewart says.
At age 50, Stewart’s clearly no longer a kid. But he remains a kid at heart, and better yet, now he has a good job, which finances the purchase of more motorcycles. “I got involved with the vintage lightweight community. Some guys said, ‘We’re going to Italy, want to come?’ How could I say no?” But owning beautiful, little Italian bikes is not a bed of roses. “Old Italian bikes break a lot, but no one will work on them,” Stewart says. “There’s no manual, and you can’t get parts. The only solution has been to learn to do it myself. For some reason, I picked up a City College catalog, and saw ‘Beginning Motorcycle Repair.’ I ran down and signed up.”
The beginning class teaches the basics of how a motorcycle works and how to troubleshoot. Typically, there are 20 students in each beginning class. Students are allowed to take the Independent Studies course (where you are guided to restore the basket case of your choice) after they have completed the required prerequisites and when the instructor feels the student is ready to tackle a restoration project. “The classes have a great composition of young kids with crotch rockets and older guys with BMWs and Harleys,” Stewart says. “And it’s not just guys. There are always quite a few women in each class.
“I met Dave when I had a problem I couldn’t solve and Lisa, the beginning class instructor, couldn’t solve,” Stewart says. “I was trying to remove a crankshaft and it wouldn’t cooperate. Lisa called Dave, and he said, ‘sure, bring it in.’ He had it figured out in an instant. He was so casual about it — he acted like he was tying his shoes. Dave has the gift, like a great pianist or a skilled surgeon. I think you are born with it,” Stewart says.
Stewart’s latest class project is the restoration of an English Rickman Metisse motocrosser, originally built in 1970 and powered by a Japanese Hodaka competition engine. “They only made 200 of these Hodaka-engined Rickmans,” Dave points out.
So far, Stewart has assembled the bright blue fiberglass tank and side panels on the nickel-plated frame and installed the bottom half of the engine. “We do frame repair and engine rebuilding here, but we have to send out for nickel plating. There are heavy EPA issues,” Dave adds.
School of hard knocks
It is a cold, wet night, but several class members have ridden in, parking their bikes next to the chain link fence marking the motorcycle area. Class members range in age from late teens to late 50s, but all share an enthusiasm for getting their hands dirty. “It’s really easy to give up,” Stewart says. “A sane person maybe wouldn’t do this. You have to be determined to see a project through.”
At only 18, Andrew Kutches is one of the younger class members. “I took this class because I was looking to learn about motorcycles,” he says. “I have a 400 Honda Four. I’m planning to completely change the bike back to stock. Stock and classic,” Andrew continues. “I am never leaving this class. The teacher is great, and very patient. I am a hands-on learner, and he makes sure you learn. It’s a very valuable experience.”
Nearby, Larry Gardini, 53, is wearing a Dirt Devils T-shirt and working on a BSA B50. Larry and Ivan Thelin, who is building a 1965 Triumph 500, are old flat trackers, and Larry used to own a race team. They race in the vintage flat track class at the Lodi Cycle Bowl, a one-third-mile short track about 70 miles southeast of San Francisco. The two have recently convinced Dave Miller to join them. “We’re going to have an old fat guys class,” Dave jokes. Ivan, age 46, has been running a 250cc Harley Sprint at Lodi, which sits in a corner, awaiting teardown.
Although all sorts of bikes come through the class, most students turn up with older Japanese motorcycles. Patrick Moore, 26, and Dan Vasquez, 24, are struggling with a bank of four carburetors on a 1983 GS Suzuki. It takes several minutes for them to figure out why it is refusing to rejoin the engine. “It’s being a pain,” Patrick remarks as they finally slide it into place.
“I found out about the class from craigslist,” (an online bulletin board at www.craigslist.org), Dan says. He likes to rebuild old bikes, and he was looking for a likely candidate. Instead, he found this class. “I am now much more competent on bikes. Dave is an awesome teacher.”
When prompted, Dan thinks about why he enjoys his hobby. “There is something about old bikes,” he says. “I drool over the Triumph Dave rides every time I come here. If I had money, I would buy an Indian Chief.”
Larry, the racer, has his own perspective. “It keeps me from watching TV two nights a week. I’ve been around motorcycles for years. But every night I’m here, I learn something.”
Each student taking the independent studies class is expected to work on their project until they get stuck. “Then Dave will unstick you,” Stewart says. “Dave doesn’t say, ‘You can figure it out.’ He helps you work towards a solution. My eyes are bigger than my abilities,” Stewart continues. “I’m just completing an overhead cam 175cc MV Agusta. It was never officially imported to the United States, so there are no parts here. There was a manual — in Italian. I had to pay someone to translate it. It was a huge project, especially stripping the bodywork down,” he says.
Not all class members are interested in exotica. Mark Shaffer, now in his late 40s, was working as a motorcycle messenger when the CCSF building was a direct mail processing center. He is still working as a motorcycle messenger. You would think after riding 40 hours a week in all sorts of weather he would not be interested in motorcycles after hours, but here he is. “I am delighted to be working on project bikes and to be learning more theory,” Mark says. He would like to resurrect his all-time favorite messenger bike, a late 1980s Honda GB 500. “I would like to get a liquid-cooled engine from an XR 650 R [Honda] and put it in the GB frame.”
The reasons these students enjoy Dave’s classes are as varied as the students themselves. And there are many reasons to learn to do repair and restoration work yourself. As the prices of classic motorcycles increase, a basket case may be all many of us can afford. And those of us who own an old oddball model may not be able to locate a locally based mechanic with any familiarity with the brand. But perhaps the best reason is the pride and satisfaction you get from saying, “I got it running again.” MC
Who: Evans Campus of City College of San Francisco
What: Classic motorcycle restoration classes taught by dedicated professionals
Where: 1400 Evans Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94124, near the Cesar Chavez freeway exit
When: Classes are limited to California residents, and take place Tuesday and Thursday, 7-9 p.m. and Saturday mornings.
Contact: www.ccsf.edu, or call (415) 239-3000
Restoration U.: Central Carolina Community College has partnerships with Harley-Davidson (it’s part of Harley Davidson University) Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda. The college, as part of its general motorcycle mechanics program, teaches restoration skills. Go to www.cccc.edu/Programs/Motorcycle_Mechanics.html or call 1-800-682-8353, or write CCCC, 1105 Kelly Drive, Sanford, NC 27330-9840.