A few years ago I was doing design work on some clothing with the guys at Icon. They have a facility in Portland, Ore., where they work on clothing designs. When they start to feel a little burned out, they head out to the attached garage and work on their bikes. This, of course, gets their “creative juices” flowing again and they march back inside, ready to, well, create. I’ve got several good memories from that trip, but one of the things that stuck in my head was the 1976 XS650 bobber that one of those guys built.
He had taken a bike that he’d only paid a few hundred bucks for and turned it into a really cool daily rider. He kept the stock seat on the bike, repainted the frame and added some drag bars. The guy also changed out a bunch of parts — even making many of the parts himself. It was a bare-bones bike, but it had a great café-style look to it.
Seeing that bike sparked my interest, and since then I have taken it upon myself to build quite a few of these cheap metric bobbers. If you’re on a budget, and you like being mechanically creative, this is something you might want to try. All the bikes I built sold for a profit, and for the most part, I enjoyed building them. It has developed into a regular hobby, and nowadays I find myself happily bouncing from one project to another.
If you take the time to check out your local Craigslist site, you can usually find a bike listed for under $500. I’m usually looking for something that has mechanical issues that I’m familiar with. In other words, something I can fix. That would include a bad clutch, a screwed-up starter or maybe jetting issues. All these things are fairly easy to fix, and can be done on a tight budget. Besides, it’s challenging to find bikes that I don’t know too much about, because by the end of the project, I generally know the bike well.
While I’m figuring out in the back of my head what I’m going to do with the look of the bike, I’m going over the mechanics to make sure everything works properly. It’s a good idea to check everything out while the bike’s in its original form. That way, if you’re adding parts or taking them off, it’s easier to keep track of your progress. I used to help repair bikes at off-road events, and the first thing I would ask a guy bringing me a bike with problems was, “What was the last thing you worked on?” And that would be the first place I’d go look for the problem. This step will help you quickly track down issues you run across while building the bike.
Once I have an idea in mind, I just get started — remembering to keep things simple. If the work gets too complex, my little project turns into a big one, and that usually means more money. For example, I’ve never been any good at painting, so I tend to grab up a rattle can of black for my bikes. I build most my parts out of scrap and, on occasion, I use parts removed from previous builds. I then pour over my J&P catalog to find my turn signals, handlebars, headlight and seat.
Doubtless, you will run into problems as you go along, but if you stay flexible with the project, it usually turns into something you can really enjoy. It’s the little things you do that can change the look of a bike. Simple tasks, like modifying the fenders, relocating the headlights and turn signals, or changing the bars and seat. Surprisingly, all of these minor changes can have a dramatic effect on the look of the bike. Just be sure to take the time to check the clearances on all your modifications. You don’t want to end up lying in a hospital bed because your handlebars hit your tank while making a sharp high-speed turn, or your new fender rubbed a hole in your rear tire. Double-check your modifications before heading out on a long ride!
Once I finish a bike, I enjoy the hell out of it for a year, and then I sell it the following season. The profit from that sale usually gives me enough cash to build the next bike. If you like being creative and fiddling around with motorcycles, this might be the hobby you’ve been looking for. You’re bound to improve your mechanical skill set and best yet, you get a new bike every year. And that beats stamp collecting hands down.