Customizing Your Classic Motorcycle

Harley Davidson Custom
Image courtesy of TGS Motorcycles.

Motorcyclists tend to be individualists, avoiding conformity wherever possible. Being part of a crowd all using the same bikes, with all the same colors, are not things that make classic owners tick.  But improving a stock bike can be a challenge to the new mechanic (often misled by cable TV shows implying it is easy). So, for argument's sake, let’s imagine a classic owner who has decided to customize his or her bike; where does he start, what are the dos and don’ts of customizing a classic motorcycle?

Basic Customization

First, if you are new to motorcycle mechanics, try to keep your vision and ideas of the perfect custom classic simple and realistic; cutting and chopping can – and often does – lead to a dangerous motorcycle! Probably the easiest and most noticeable custom job is to repaint the entire bike (see the ​photo of the CX500 resplendent in its new grey livery).

Repainting a complete machine like this will require a lot of basic mechanical work removing and refitting panels etc., but is typically within the capabilities of most home mechanics. 

Again, looking at the Honda in the photograph, it is easy to see where the owner has not only repainted the bike but also added a few personal touches such as the painted engine parts (starter motor case, valve covers, and water pipes). In addition, he has fitted a custom seat and shortened the fenders. Topping off the customization of the Honda is a two into one exhaust system and a set of K & N free flow filters, a headlight fairing, and a digital instrument cluster.

The good part about the Honda customization is that the owner could easily have carried on using the machine as a daily ride while slowly making the changes he required.

One-Off Custom Specials

At the other extreme of custom classics are the one-off specials. These are bikes that are only loosely based on their donor bike—perhaps only retaining the engine or frame. For the most part, these types of customization are generally the domain of the specialist shops, but it is possible to do this type of work at home if the owner has all the necessary tools or access to a specialist locally to do certain work such as welding.

When considering a one-off customization of a bike, the owner must decide how much money he wants to put into the project—gold plating the entire bike may be beyond most owners, for example!

For the most part, one-off customization will require every component part of the bike being considered for change. For example, the owner can list all the component parts then decide – within the confines of his budget – which changes will give the best results. Often an owner will change some major component (such as the front forks) to improve a shortcoming in the original design. For example, a Japanese classic from the 70s may have used a drum brake on the stock machine but by changing the forks to a more modern upside-down configuration, he was able to fit double rotors and six pot calipers. However, it must be remembered, the original frame in general, and the headstock bracing, in particular, were designed to cope with the stopping power of the original drum brake. The new configuration may impart too much stress into the headstock resulting in its subsequent failure.

The last point brings us to the very important issue of safety of custom bikes. Fitting up-to-date items such as brakes can make the bike less safe! Therefore, the owner contemplating a one-off bike with many major changes must consider the safety aspects of not just individual changes, but the collective effects on the bike’s performance.