Resurrection Pt. 1

November 1 2007

I’m of two minds on the subject of motorcycle restoration. On one hand, I enjoy these “time machines” that take one back to simpler times (for both bike and rider). Not that I was around during the heyday of flat-head side-valve twins; an old bike relative to my early days of street riding would be, say, an early 1980’s Seca 750. Bikes like these, from my own era, are more closely associated with times or events in my own life. The sense of smell is said to be the strongest sense tied to memory, and I think most motor-cyclists would agree, being outside riding exposes one to more odours. For example, the smell of certain aromatic evergreens while riding on a humid summer evening reminds me of a certain girlfriend, or at least the late night rides home from her parent’s house on an old SOHC CB750. Old motorcycles affect me in this way, always tied closely to other aspects of my life. With one 10-month exception, I’ve had at least one motorcycle in my possession at all times for the past 33 years. A lot of memories tied to two wheels, to be sure. But I digress.

On the other hand, I separate this romantic world view with the fact that motorcycles are just machines, ride them until they wear out, sell them, whatever. This view wins out whenever I consider the idea of taking on a restoration project. The money and time could just be better spent making more memories (actually riding) rather than resurrecting old ones. That is until about a year ago.

I’ve made mention in previous issues of my dirt riding roots, and though I’ve often considered revisiting the tracks, trails, jumps, bumps and berms, the cost of bikes for the entire family plus trailer and gear has always been prohibitive. So instead, in a fit of fanciful and impractical nostalgia – I bought a 27-year-old Yamaha YZ80 with the intention of restoring it to all of its high-revving, roost-kicking glory. I’ll admit that I have no experience with the process at all, other than maintaining all of the previous bikes I’ve owned. Now, why this particular make, size and vintage you ask? Well, back during those early adolescent years, you see, my riding mates and I would regularly bust the clutch and brake levers on our various bikes (mine at the time was a 1971 Honda SL70 in Aquarius Blue). After any decent get-off, one friend would clamp the front wheel between his knees while the other would grab and wrench the bars back straight (ish) and untwist the forks. We would then ride to the local bike shop where the owner kept a greasy cardboard box full of assorted levers taken from the remains of more serious get-offs. They didn’t always fit perfectly, but a useable lever would only cost two dollars, as we had an unofficial fixed rate based on being loyal and frequent purchasers.

This shop was also a Yamaha dealership, and any visit would include a few minutes of desirous gazing at the row of XTs, DTs, ITs, and of course YZs; all clean, without a scratch, straight forks and proper levers, and all with that new bike smell. Not that I didn’t appreciate my little Honda, but these were full-on competition bikes, the same ones seen in the pages of Motocross Action Magazine. Some of the pro athletes that I admired at the time included factory Yamaha riders, Bob Hannah and Broc Glover, both with numerous national motocross titles. They rode YZs. As a result, I’ve always had a special place for these bikes. I would later own an old YZ100, but as a kid of about 12 my dream of owning a new YZ80 was never realized.

My project began last year with a nearly complete (and running) example for which I paid the paltry sum of $50. Missing parts included the front brake cable, casting (and of course lever), as well as the air filter element. The seat cover was a tragic tale, as was likely the story behind the missing rear portion of the front fender. Apart from what appeared to be 27 years of accumulated grime, the only other problematic issue was the paint. Over the original factory yellow plastic was a not-so-smooth sheen of glossy rattle can dark blue. Not knowing where to start, a high-pressure wash seemed like a good idea. I was pleasantly surprised when most of the blue paint flaked off the tank and onto the driveway, though this jubilance was to be short-lived. After blasting off enough dirt to grow a Rubik’s Cube garden (yes, lame 1980 pop culture reference, I know), I stripped the bike down to the frame, leaving only the monoshock and triple trees in situ. The only other real problem that had gone unnoticed was a pair of slightly bent forks, not that this was entirely unexpected.

After this near total dismantling, I began my discovery of what restoration really meant; hours and hours of degreasing, steel wool and emery cloth. I’ve nearly run out of rags, and my clothing inventory has dwindled as a result. More degreasing, WD-40, paint stripper (for the remainder of the blue paint), varsol, more rags, repeat…

I eventually came to the realization that bringing this little memory back to showroom condition was beyond my reasonable means. The plastics, though stripped of the abominable blue, are well scratched and scuffed, and sourcing replacements for the odd little bent parts would just be too impractical. Nonetheless, I have continued toiling, albeit with slightly lower expectations. I’ve re-painted the frame, exhaust, and various other hard parts, a machinist friend (thanks Rob) has straightened the fork tubes, and I’m in the process of masking and painting in the black oval number plates, onto which I will be applying large white number 1’s, as they came from the factory.

The other discovery that I’ve made during this first little adventure into the restoration process is that, like life, the point is the process itself, and not the end result. There is an analogy that compares life to music; the point is not to get to the end of the song, but rather the enjoyment of the song itself. Although I do look forward to the tinny music of a small displacement two-stroke, and memories triggered by the smell of 20:1 premix.

To those who have written in response to my recent columns, I thank you for your comments; it’s great to know that the four of you are out there.


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