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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