Get Upside Down on a Vintage Motorcycle

There’s an event called the Vintage 1000 whose stated goal is to get a dozen people to ride 1000 miles of the Trans America Trail on 1981-and-older motorcycles, with an extra (optional) challenge of putting that bike together for under $1000 total. I did it.

1972 Honda XL250, as-purchased for $80

1972 Honda XL250, as-purchased for $80

The bike was a 1972 Honda XL250, the first year for that model. I bought it out of a storage unit from a friend of the shop, and I had to fight and beg to get the price down to $80. It had the wrong fuel tank, a terrible seat, bent forks, no headlight or gauges, no kickstart lever, and a raft of other problems. I overpaid by $80, but somehow that’s how it goes. At least I knew the engine wasn’t seized.

Paying dealer cost for new parts, I replaced the front brake shoes, rear brake shoes, brake and clutch cables, tires and tubes, chain and sprockets, battery, wheel bearings, steering head bearings, fork seals, and grips. Through eBay, I sourced new-old-stock valves for the engine, a gasket kit, first-overbore piston rings, a correct fuel tank and front fender, new seat cover, and one rear wheel spoke. Thanks to Craigslist and the previous owner looking out for parts for me, I drove to Hartselle, Alabama to buy a straight front end (forks and steering stem and incorrect headlight) and two engines, from which I salvaged a straight kickstart shaft and lever.

A small sample of parts discarded to repair the XL250

A small sample of parts discarded to repair the XL250

I spent 40 recorded hours improving the bike. The engine had massive, 60% leakage past both the intake and exhaust valves; fixing that problem was a big chunk of the time, but honestly even with a good engine the bike would have consumed at least 30 hours of effort. All those brake shoes and seals and bearings take time, and everything was crustier than most any bike we take in for service in the shop. Just removing the swingarm pivot bolt for cleaning and lubrication took an hour of persuading, both gentle (chemical+heat) and forceful (large hammer, full swing, times fifty).

In the end, I recorded $942 in parts (and $202 in shipping). The bike still needs new rear shocks, another set of rear brake shoes (and probably a new rear wheel hub), a new carb holder that doesn’t leak air, and a fuel valve that doesn’t leak onto the exhaust pipe three inches from the rider’s left thigh. If I sold it, I’d be very lucky to get $900.

My instructor Mike liked to joke that “whatever you pay for a non-running Japanese motorcycle is how much you overpaid.” I’m not sure he was wrong. I’m not even sure he was joking, come to think of it.

Along the Trans America Trail, August 2016

Along the Trans America Trail, August 2016

But here’s the thing. Even though I’m “upside-down” on this bike — i.e. I’ve spent more money (and time) on it than the bike itself is worth, I don’t care! I bought it for the challenge, I bought it because I thought I’d like that model (true!), I fixed it so I could go ride with some like-minded vintage bike nerds on dirt roads for five days and forget about daily life for a while.

This motorcycle, like most motorcycles, was not a financial investment. I hope you’ll keep that in mind the next time you buy a used bike, too. Buy it because you’ll love it and have fun with it, not because someone said you could make money on it.

by Andrew | November 15, 2016 at 9:51 am | Uncategorized | No comments

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Why we stopped repairing Chinese scooters

In the fall of 2014, Nashville Motorcycle Repair stopped working on Chinese-brand scooters. Here’s why.

Imagine Sisyphus, sweating away in Hades, pushing his rock up the hill every day, only to watch it roll back to the bottom, where he’s forced to start over. Now imagine the rock is actually a poorly-made machine that’s always breaking down, and halfway up the hill, you have to stop and pay $150 to get it fixed. Pardon the mixed metaphor?

Valve seat fell out inside combustion chamber.

Valve seat fell out inside combustion chamber.

This is the life of the repairer of Chinese scooters, and it’s unfortunate. It’s not that China can’t make a good scooter — Lance and Yamaha both have good, Chinese-built machines — it’s that the cheap ones are apparently built to appeal to people looking to get a good deal. So they buy a scooter online, and it’s shipped to their home, and they do the final assembly work out in the driveway, and they’ve got transportation!

Sure, the handlebars are wobbly and it’s slow, but it works! And then not much later, these experiences: Cracked piston at 300 miles. Ruined front variator and destroyed crankshaft nose at 600 miles. Dangerously loose steering head bearings at 400 miles. Bad source coil (part of the ignition system) at 800 miles. Stripped bolts at 0 miles, but those don’t matter until you have to take something apart to fix it (50 miles).

We’ve seen a few cheap scooters actually stay running and relatively reliable, it’s true. Generally these are the ones that are ridden every day of the year, not too far, and not too fast.

Metal shavings inside valvetrain of a Chinese scooter

Metal shavings inside valvetrain of a Chinese scooter

But overall, it’s a false economy. We’ve told over a dozen owners of cheap Chinese scooters that they should sell them as soon as possible (before they break again), then buy a heavily-used Japanese scooter from the 1980’s or later. Similar cost as cheap Chinese, and there might be an additional investment to take care of the previous owner’s neglected maintenance. But after that? Gas, oil changes, and tires will be most of what it ever needs.

My friend Mike once said that the bad thing about repairing scooters is that when you’re done, it’s still a scooter. I like scooters just fine, but the reason we stopped fixing cheap Chinese scooters is that when we were done, we knew we’d be fixing some other problem before long, and it was just too depressing. (And several customers never picked them up after we finished.) We’ll leave the Sisyphus routine for that once-scheming king in Hades.

by Andrew | March 1, 2016 at 9:21 am | Brands | No comments

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On replacing complex parts

Lots of motorcycle problems require us to replace the affected parts. Worn out tires, chains and sprockets, crash-damaged levers, leaking fork seals, etc. But there are two items people seem inclined to replace that rarely actually need it: the carburetors and the wiring harness.

Both of these assemblies are pretty complicated, at least in comparison to a tire, a chain, brake pads, or what-not. And that, I think, is the reason people decide to replace them — the foundation to understanding 12V electrics or carburetor theory takes time to build, and without that foundation, the only comprehensible solution is simply to replace the entire system. Don’t do it!

Real example: A customer brought us an early Honda CB750 on which the bike would usually go dead if he tried to turn on the headlight. He couldn’t find the root problem, so he assumed it must be the wiring harness and replaced that. (Not a trivial task by any means, but he did do it correctly, from what we could see.) When he was done, he had a lot of clean, new wiring, and when he tried to turn on the headlight… the bike would usually go dead. The actual problem was that a battery bolt had fallen into the back of the fuse box, causing a short between the headlight fuse and the frame. We ended up replacing the fuse box, since the problem had caused some of the fuse panel to melt away. (It took a while to chase this problem down, but working methodically with the correct wiring diagram will almost always lead you to a solution.)

Carburetor example: A customer had brought us his Yamaha XS650 cafe racer project for us to get the electrics all working. He lives a ways out of town, so when he ran into a problem getting the fuel system working properly, he took it to “some guy” closer to home. The guy, we’ll call him Fred, talked our customer into discarding the original carburetors and replacing them with Mikuni VM34’s. (This is a popular thing to do, but if the engine is stock, it’s almost never really necessary.) Fred then proceeded to “tune” the VM34’s beyond all hope of proper running. We spent two hours and a bit of internet and catalog research to repair all the problems and install the appropriate jets. (Idle speed screws were damaged and driven in tight enough to strip the heads, slides were in backwards, main jets were for another brand of carburetor… Poor things never had a chance!) It rode well enough afterwards that I extended the initial road test by five miles, enjoying the day and giving us a better read on the spark plugs. (Tester’s note: an XS650 with clip-on handlebars and a seat made of half-inch thick foam rubber will shake a body numb in under eight miles. Hopefully the next cafe is closer than that!)

We do sometimes replace carburetors, by the way. We replaced one a couple years ago on a Honda Twinstar CM200T, not because the carburetor itself had a problem, but because the original jet needle was badly worn. The only replacement jet needle we could find was $30 needle shipped from the UK, so instead we got a $25 Chinese-made carburetor from Florida. That Twinstar still had chromed curtain rods for mufflers, but at least it left running properly.

by Andrew | November 27, 2014 at 11:01 pm | Mechanic's Notes | No comments

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Buying a used bike: Honda 599

In June 2012, I bought a new-to-me Honda 599, roughly one week after finding out they’d been sold in the U.S. for two years. In The Rest of the World, it’s called a Honda Hornet 600. Here, it’s the 599, because, supposedly, somehow the old AMC Hornet has a permanent claim on the name. For behind-the-scenes clarity, Honda designates this model as a CB600F, so let’s just go with that. In Honda-speak, CB usually means standard seating position, which is true of this bike.

2004 Honda 599The bike was essentially as advertised: the second owner’s cousin had promised he knew how to ride, then promptly augured the bike into the earth, damaging a few things on the left side. Nothing serious. But every used bike needs treatment before it’s “right.”

A short list, for an eight-year-old motorcycle with just 11,376 miles on it:

And after putting the new chain on, I decided I’d rather have new sprockets than keep the old ones for much longer. Another $60 in parts (retail price) and about an hour of labor. Could have saved some time doing it with the rear tire change.

Further examination revealed old damage to the right side of the bike, perhaps from the previous-previous owner. I opted to replace three bolts that suffered the worst damage, along with the brake pedal, which I’d originally thought was just badly adjusted. In addition, the coolant hose sprung a pinhole leak at around 200 degrees, so that was replaced, along with the decorative/protective spring over it.

As long as I was ordering a batch of Honda OEM parts, I also decided to add their “sport screen.” I’d noticed at highway speeds that the wind was doing a good job of pulling my arms out. The small windshield Honda sells did an excellent job of increasing comfort at 70mph, and it doesn’t ruin the looks of the bike.

And then in the process of riding it, I discovered the bike hid a fatal flaw: Every time I rode it, I ended up stinking of exhaust fumes. Low speed, high speed, didn’t matter. I considered various ways to remedy the problem, then decided to sell it instead, after about nine months and 2,000 miles. Funny how one detail like that can scuttle the whole machine. Besides, I needed an incentive to finish my VFR800.

by Andrew | December 28, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Outside Work | 3 comments

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2003 Honda VFR800 running problem

I’ve been making a lot of “cobbler’s son” jokes this week. Of the three motorcycles I own with unexpired tags on them right now, exactly zero are running properly. One of them is a 2003 Honda Interceptor VFR800 with 7,000 miles on it. I bought it from a friend who bought it from a coworked who slid it down Gallatin Pike a solid hundred feet on its left side and then parked it for four years. After I bought it, I fixed a coolant leak (radiator damage from the crash) and then took it for one ride before the rear brake started locking up on me.

And I parked it for roughly one-point-five years, before I finally became so annoyed with myself that I actually disassembled the rear master cylinder, found the problem, and fixed it. (Root cause: someone had reassembled the master cylinder incorrectly. I swear it wasn’t me.) And then rode it for about 30 miles, hoping that it was running badly as a result of being parked too long and there being a bit of water in the fuel. (Did I mention spending 30 minutes to get the fuel cap open? Parking bikes outdoors for too long is bad for them, y’all.)

regulator diagramThe problem didn’t go away, which meant there was something deeper going on. I found cylinder #3’s exhaust pipe to be cold compared to the other three, which suggested #3 either wasn’t firing or was getting too much or too little fuel to ignite. Turns out it was the middle problem. Fuel-injected bikes that run badly and don’t tell you what’s wrong via the “FI” warning light have only a short list of potential problems. Three times, now (twice on customer bikes), I’ve had a Honda run badly as a result of the fuel pressure regulator’s internal diaphragm tearing.

Rather than just failing to regulate fuel pressure, this has the added symptom of dumping a bunch of fuel through a vacuum line and into the nearest cylinder. In the case of the 2002-2008 VFR800, this vacuum line runs into cylinders #3 and #4, which sure enough were the cylinders with fuel sitting on top of the intake valves when I looked inside.

In roughly one week, a new fuel pressure regulator will show up at the threshold, and a small fuel spill and 30-45 minutes later, I’ll have at least one bike that runs well.

And maybe I'll replace the worst fairing damage from the PPO's crash?

Maybe I’ll replace the worst fairing damage from the PPO’s crash while I’m at it.

by Andrew | April 7, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Outside Work | 8 comments

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1977 Kawasaki KZ400, Part 3

I finished the oil and filter change at approximately 11:00 am Tuesday morning, about an hour after I’d promised Michael I’d get to his house. There, we loaded our bikes into his truck and headed out to Rogers, Arkansas for the start of the Ozark Mountain Scramble. We had agreed about three weeks earlier to use his truck because it’s a 550 mile haul, the bikes aren’t especially comfortable for interstate cruising, and one of the bikes (mine) hadn’t been sufficiently tested to be considered even vaguely reliable.

View from Tilly, AR

The Scramble was three days of riding the curvy, scenic, and surprisingly clean roads of Arkansas’ northwest quadrant. The Ozarks may not count as mountains by the standards of the American West, but what they lack in altitude they make up for in density of twisting roads that are lightly traveled.

The Scramble was also three days of all sorts of things going wrong — all but the crashes being an expected outcome of the rules. ($1000 total cost of the bike and preparation, 1980 or older, 750cc and smaller) To iterate:

I’m sure I’ve left out other mechanical hijinks, but I think this backs up my take on the Ozark Mountain Scramble’s theme: worn out old bikes, resuscitated cheaply and made rideable, but not so reliable as to eliminate the surprises and challenges of fixing them on the side of the road and in hotel parking lots.

Additional photos on Flickr.

by Andrew | July 18, 2012 at 12:24 am | Outside Work | No comments

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1977 Kawasaki KZ400, Part 2

I’ve lost track of how long the KZ400 spent on the other side of the shop, collecting dust, before I got back around to working on it. I do know that I finally got back to it on a Monday, eight days before the event I was preparing it for.

The last minute work included some straightforward bits: replacing the fork seals, affixing an Emgo replacement headlight and shell, adjusting the valves, changing the oil and filter, replacing the hand grips, and installing a new chain and sprockets.

The more difficult work included repairing an enormous hole in one exhaust pipe, right up at the cylinder head. A previous owner had apparently applied window glazing putty to the hole to seal it up. I have no idea if that actually worked, but it surely fell out when I bolted the exhaust back on. I had Stan Pugh come by (this was very last minute), and he spent at least an hour welding and grinding and welding again. This was not a “clean” fix, because the edges of the hole were terrifically rusted. But for the Ozark Mountain Scramble, you patch things up well enough that they’ll work for 600 miles, and you cross your fingers. (That was my take on the ethos of the event — others had much cleaner bikes than I.) After welding the exhaust pipe hole shut, we also banged on the muffler to help it clear the rear brake arm. It didn’t take much, and the rear brake could be applied and released normally after that.

I never did sort out why the handlebars and front axle weren’t parallel, but once I proved to myself the bike would ride in a straight line regardless, I left it alone. What I did figure out was a way to hold saddlebags to the KZ400’s original luggage rack. It seems this bike was a KZ400 Deluxe, which came with a windscreen, rack, and saddlebags. Only the rack remained, but I remembered I had a pair of Honda Silverwing (GL500) saddlebags in my basement. They hooked over the rack in two places, then a tie-down strap got them away from the rear shocks, and a few large zip ties held them to the rack well enough to prevent bumps from kicking them off the rack.

 

A lunchtime road test of the bike showed that it was tracking pretty straight, but the engine wouldn’t idle normally. Instead, once it warmed up, the engine wanted to race to something sounding like 5000 rpm. Sometimes I could bring it down by using the clutch to slow the engine. Sometimes that wouldn’t work. I confirmed the problem was most likely a vacuum leak, then decided there wasn’t time to address it properly. (I recalled the hateful job of putting not-quite-fitting carbs back on the engine and didn’t really want to repeat the experience.)

The same treatment was applied to the clattering cam chain, but less out of laziness than out of fear that removing the cam chain tensioner would expose worse problems. Better to leave it until after my return from the trip.

I never did treat the fuel tank. I decided instead to put gas in it, see if it leaked, and deal with any loose crap in there by adding a small fuel filter to the system. (Keep that in mind for later.)

I did, at some point, put new float valves in the carbs, and those worked great. It’s nice knowing that if you forget to shut off the fuel petcock, you probably won’t come back from lunch to find half a tank of fuel underneath the bike. I also tried replacing the carb holders (rubber boot between the carb and the cylinder head), but the ones I got weren’t a correct fit. (So I did try to resolve the vacuum leak once, at least.)

I never did figure out why the luggage rack looked crooked relative to the rest of the bike. Given the bike’s handling, there’s no reason anymore to think that it was crashed badly. Perhaps it was just dropped, bumped by a car, or generally mistreated.

by Andrew | June 18, 2012 at 12:24 am | Outside Work | 3 comments

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1977 Kawasaki KZ400, Part 1

I’ve decided to participate in the Ozark Mountain Scramble, a three-day event/ride in June that has just three simple rules: Your motorcycle must be from 1980 or earlier, 750cc or less, and cost no more than $1000 complete. This appeals to my sense of practical motoring.

I’ve chosen two bikes for the OMS. (Yes, I know I can only ride one at a time.) One is a 1974 Yamaha RD350 that I’ll write about later, and the other is a 1977 Kawasaki KZ400. I spent some time Christmas Eve checking it over, and I’ve already learned that while the bike is a 1977 model, the engine has been swapped in from a KZ440, probably from 1981. (The frame should be the limiting factor for the OMS age requirement, so I think we’re in the clear on that.)

1977 Kawasaki KZ400

1977 Kawasaki KZ400

An initial list of things that will need to be addressed, or perhaps just ignored to stick to the budget:

Oh, and then there’s the right muffler rubbing on the rear brake arm, plus the angle of the luggage rack relative to the fuel tank, handlebars, etc. Based on the evidence so far, I suspect this bike was crashed at some point, and that as soon as I get it to where I can do an actual road test, I’ll find that the frame is “tweaked.” Whether I try to remedy this problem will depend on just how badly it rides. Fingers crossed on that one; I’d really rather not have to convert this into a parts bike. (Or maybe it will give me a chance to learn frame straightening, because that’s a great idea.)

by Andrew | December 27, 2011 at 11:28 am | Outside Work | 5 comments

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New Shop Hours

After nearly four months of testing Tuesday-Saturday hours and after one brief conversation with Roy, a nearby, long-time mechanic, I’ve decided to change the shop hours to a traditional Monday-Friday schedule.

Okay, 11am-6pm isn’t all that traditional, but Monday-Friday certainly is. I’ll still be available most Saturdays by appointment.

Why the change? As Roy told me, he spent 16 years working Saturdays, and he can never get those Saturdays spent away from his friends back. Showing up at the campground late Saturday night just to watch everyone else leave early on Sunday is kind of a downer. Mondays off are fun for a while, but the trade off isn’t worth it. As I look at my own schedule, it was beginning to look much the same. (I definitely would have been to the Barber Vintage Festival had I not been working this past Saturday.)

So! 11am-6pm, Monday-Friday, from here on out. I join the world of somewhat normal hours. Excluding the nights I work until midnight to get fluid changes and engine installations out the door.

by Andrew | October 11, 2011 at 1:53 pm | About the Shop | No comments

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Genuine Buddy

We’re working on a Buddy 125 scooter this week, and it’s quite impressive, especially in comparison with the cheap no-brand ones we’ve seen previously. Buddy is manufactured in Taiwan for Chicago-based Genuine Scooter Company.

Reading the service manual online, it’s clear Genuine let the factory do the English translation: One of the items in the periodic maintenance schedule is “The earlier Abnormal condition” and specifically “Confirm it does Not happen again.” You do this during every normal check-up, apparently. (The owner’s manual is written a little better, but I wonder why they didn’t hire a technical writer in, say, Chicago to edit it.)

The product is quite good, though, and Nashville’s dealer for them, East Side Scooters, is top-notch. Besides offering repair-shop pricing to us, James also provided a few unsolicited tips for avoiding common mistakes they’ve seen made by other people working on these scooters.

And if you’re in the market for a used one, the cream-colored one we’re working on now will be for sale soon. East Side has two used ones available right now, too.

Update: Unfortunately, East Side Scooters closed in October.

by Andrew | September 1, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Brands | No comments

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