Small, fast, and (mostly) Japanese.
So, true story—I have a lot of bikes. Not, like, a lot a lot, but enough of them to make a pretty respectable stable. My kink, if you want to call it that, is old Japanese iron—the smaller and weirder the better. Over the 20-odd years I've been into bikes I've had my share of weird ones, everything from one-year-only Yamaha two-strokes to long-forgotten Bridgestones. While my current stable is more conventional—I have some bikes you actually may have heard of now—it's still heavily Japanese. With a few exceptions, of course. So, without further ado, let's take a walk through my collection of misfit bikes.
196X BSA A65 "Project FireBolt"
You all remember ProjectFirebolt, right? If not, here's the lowdown. This here frankenbeezer is a mashup of late-60s A65s that I'm slowly building into something rideable. The frame is from a '69 Lightning, the front end and engine big end is from a '68 (I believe) Hornet, the wheels are custom laced dealies put together by our man Todd, and the rest is various late-60s BSA bits and bobs. Hilariously enough, the bike started out life as a pristine A50 Gold Star before it got caught in a garage fire and ended up stuffed in the back of Todd's shop for a decade. It's essentially the Beezer of Theseus at this point, and it rules.
Well, it's gonna rule. Eventually. Currently, the plan for this bike is to get it mechanically sound and on the road. It's not going to be a full-on concours restoration—I don't have the time, money, or patience for that nonsense—but instead a cross between resto-mod and rat rod. I'm leaving the mottled, fire-damaged chrome A50 tank as-is and slapping repro badges on it. I'm mixing old parts with new and painting over old, pitted, peeling chrome. I'm even skipping the repro Smith's clocks for a GPS speedo. It won't be a cafe racer, but it won't look like anything that came off the line over at Small Heath, either. Whatever it ends up as it'll still be a BSA and still fulfill my dream of owning one of Birmingham's finest.
I currently have about 85 percent of the parts required to get it back on the road, including a killer electronic ignition and wiring loom courtesy of our pals over at Classic British Spares. I'm just missing things like controls, lights, cylinders. You know, little stuff. Hopefully, I can get it on the road by the end of this year—it's currently TYooL 2020 for our readers from the future—but I keep getting sidetracked by other bikes. Soon, though. Soon.
1971 Honda CB500K1
This lovely little survivor, along with a mangled parts bike, came to me completely by accident. A buddy of mine bought the pair from a friend of his who was cleaning out his late granddad's garage. Granddad was an OG gearhead and hot rodder, and this here Honda and its wrecked sibling were the last part of granddad's vast collection of bikes. Turned out my buddy's reach exceeded his grasp (he already had a classic muscle car, a 70s ATV, and another bike he was restoring) so he flipped the 500s to me for a song. My whole plan was to fix it up and flip it, but well, just look at it.
This thing is crazy clean and all original. Shockingly original. Like, plug wires still in their little clips on the engine original. After some hemming and hawing, I decided to sell my resto-mod CB450 to keep this. I figured that since I had the Beezer, a second parallel twin was redundant and I didn't have an inline-four, so... Y voila!
I took this picture right after I rolled the bike off the trailer, and since then I've done very little to it. I gave it a tune-up with new plugs, oil, and filters, adjusted the valves, replaced the entire front brake system, and rebuilt the carbs. I replaced the old, busted electrical system with a DynaTek electric ignition, high-output coils, a modern regulator/rectifier, a glass mat battery, and a full LED light conversion. Then I slapped on some retro-style Heidenau tires I got from Common Motor Collective to replace the 30-some-year-old Continentals and rode the hell out of it until lockdown.
My harebrained scheme for this bike is to transplant a CB550 engine into it and keep it forever. See, the CB550 has a vastly superior transmission and shifter setup and is all-around cooler than the 500 mill. I just happen to have a CB550 engine laying around that I got for the princely sum of $30 Yankee Dollars right before the lockdown. I'm gonna do a full top-end rebuild on it, put in a new clutch, bolt all the CB500 accessories to it, slap it in the 500 frame, and call it a day. It'll be awesome, just you wait.
1974 Honda CB200
I bought this bike from a friend of mine back in 2018, and you can read its long, strange story here. I picked it up for a couple hundred bucks and set myself a goal of putting it back on the road for around what I paid for it. Turns out that was a really ambitious plan, but I learned a hell of a lot along the way. I also got some really entertaining stories out of it. This bike is currently only staying in my garage since I recently sold it to a friend of mine. Delivery has been delayed due to the lockdown (and the late discovery of a bum starter solenoid). So, fare thee well, little bike. You were rad and weird.
1979 Yamaha XS650SF
The XS650 has been on my list of dream bikes since about ten minutes after I learned to ride. To say I'm a fan of the XS650, and of Yamahas in general, is an understatement. It's also something I've gone on about in great detail here on more than one occasion, so I won't belabor the point. So, when this bad boy popped up on Facebook Marketplace at the end of last year for $300 American Dollars, I couldn't pass it up.
Before I picked it up, this fine example of Yamaha engineering had been rotting away in a Downriver pole barn for about ten years. Abandoned and left without keys or a title, the owner of said pole barn was selling it, along with a bunch of other junk, to recoup losses caused by a renter who skipped town. It had flat tires, mouse turds under the seat, an extremely suspect splice in the wiring harness, a missing side cover, and rust everywhere. I took one look at it and fell immediately in love.
Now, despite all its faults, this bike has a really solid foundation. Everything is there, save for the missing side cover, and the engine is free and has decent compression. The rust, while copious, is largely surface rust that's easily dealt with. The worst of it is on the underside of the pipes, which are sadly a total loss. Thankfully pipes, and damn near every other part on this bike, are plentiful and readily had on the internets.
My plan for this bike is to clean it up, modernize the electrical system like I did for the CB500 (electronic ignition, modern reg/rec, LED lights, etc.), and get it back on the road. Once it's safe to do so, I'll ride it until I can find a decent enough XS1 or XS2, whereupon I'll sell this to buy that. Watch this space for that adventure if it ever happens.
1980 Yamaha XS850SG Special
Way, way back in 2000, I was a fledgling photographer working at a camera shop outside of Ann Arbor, MI. One day, a colleague of mine rolled up to work on an early-80s Yamaha SECA 750 and I was like, "I'm way cooler than him! Why don't I have a motorcycle?" The rest, as they say in the business, is history.
I've had this bike for 20 years now, and I love it every bit as much today as I did when I rolled it off the back of my buddy's Ranger all those years ago. It's only a few years younger than me—it was born in Iwata in March of 1980 and I was born in the Ohio Valley in April of 1976—and it feels more like a sibling than a simple machine. It's never let me down, not seriously anyway, and it's always done anything I've asked of it.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for me. In 2007 or thereabouts, I got the great idea to "customize" my poor triple. I de-badged it, lowered the front end and put gaiters on, removed the grab bar, and replaced the tail light with a "duolamp" unit from a Ford Model A. I painted over all the chrome and factory maroon paint with satin black and olive drab. Finally, I hacked up the seat and ended up riding on the bare plastic seat pan for more than a decade. I made everything worse and I can never truly apologize to the bike for that. Three years ago, in 2017, I took it off the road because I wanted to put an early-aughts R6 front end on it, and never got around to it. The bike sat in the back of the garage until about two weeks ago when I got tired of not riding it and threw it up on the lift in a fit of quarantine-induced madness.
Now, like an idiot, I'm buying back all the parts I either sold off or destroyed in my ill-advised customizer phase. The plan is to put it back to as close to stock as possible, with a few minor tweaks. I already swapped out the dopey "Special" buckhorn handlebars for the straighter set from the red XS650, and I plan on doing braided steel brake lines and a full LED conversion. Other than that it's mostly just returning it to its former glory so we can be together again. I may even spray it a deep, metal-flake maroon like it was from the factory. We shall see.
1983 Suzuki GS550E
You ever hear the saying, "Never buy another person's project"? It's solid advice, and like all solid advice, I completely ignored it when I snatched this little basket case up at the end of last season. Another $300 special, and the second Suzuki I bought in 2019, I figured it'd be a neat little thing to play with over the winter. I'd get it going, put a few miles on it, and sell it come springtime. Hoooooo boy, was that ever optimistic.
Long story short, it's junk! While prepping it for work in early March I discovered that the engine was stuck. No big deal, I thought, could be anything. I tried barring it over real gentle like... still stuck. I took off the starter to see if it was binding... still stuck. I poured a 50/50 mix of ATF and acetone down the bores to maybe break loose whatever was in the cylinders... still stuck. Finally, with a heavy heart, I pulled the top end off to have a look inside, and, well...
Well, there's your problem right there! The piston in cylinder 4 was rusted in place and the bore was deeply scored and pitted. It was bad, even worse than that GS1100 I bought last summer. Yes, yes, I know I should have checked the motor before I brought it home. I'm well aware that I have no one to blame but myself here. That doesn't change the fact that this failure bummed me out. I really did have high hopes for this bike. Well, medium hopes, at least.
Unfortunately, the rusty cylinder spelled the end for the GS550. Sure, I could fix it, but I don't want to. I have better ways to spend my time and money, none of which involve spending 80 hours and a thousand bucks to end up with an orphaned early-80s sportbike with a weird sized front wheel worth $800. So, I'm parting it out. I pulled off a bunch of good stuff and rolled the remaining bits out behind the garage where it'll sit until I can scrap it. What a shame.
2020 Indian FTR1200
In November of 2019, a huge tractor-trailer pulled on to my quiet street and rumbled to a stop in front of my house. Inside the trailer, among a dozen other bikes of various make, was this base model, black on black FTR1200. Our friends at Indian Motorcycle had shipped it all the way from Southern California to my front door in Detroit for testing and review purposes. After spending a summer with the world's most boring motorcycle, I was understandably leery of this bike. After a tank of fresh gas and a quick rip around the neighborhood, though, my doubts were dispelled.
I really can't say that much about the FTR yet, I've been able to ride it a few dozen miles thanks to winter, a move, and lockdown. Those few miles were enough for me to decide that the FTR is a phenomenal machine and what the Scout line should have been all along, though. Once I can actually get out and ride I'll definitely have more to say about it. Until then, you'll have to be content with this—the FTR1200 was, aside from the bikes I own, the best bike I rode all of 2019.
So, there you have it. I, uh, I clearly have a bike problem. It's fun though, and it keeps me (mostly) off the street and out of trouble. I know I can't ride all of them at once, but maintaining them is half the fun as far as I'm concerned. So is hunting for them if I'm completely honest. Am I going to stop buying junk bikes and trying to get them back on the road? Absolutely not. Am I going to share stories like these every time I bring another one of these lost causes home so you can point and laugh? Yes, yes I am. So stay tuned.
PS: Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed a bike in the cover photo that I didn't talk about in the story. Don't pay that bike any mind, it doesn't really exist because it's currently evolving into yet another one of my dream bikes, an XS1100. More on that to come.