Jamie Leonard remembers the various “monsters in the barn” project bikes that he’s had the (dis)pleasure to tackle.
Monster in the Barn: The Joys and Terrors of Project Motorcycle
Vintage bike ownership usually begins with some of the great lies of motorcycle salesmanship. “Some carb cleaning and she’ll start right up (before exploding into flames),” is one, or “she ran when I parked ‘er, (albeit badly)” or how about the not so rare, “a rare classic – highly collectible (after all people will collect just about anything).”
Sometimes ownership begins with a dust-shrouded find – an accident of mechanical convergence through the haphazard mention of a bike in a barn, parked and waiting for a new owner for the last 20 years.
A find like this can be the beginning of years of nostalgic riding – or it can be the beginning of years of frustration. You just never know what you’ll get when you disturb that sleeping monster in the barn.
PROJECT VESPA PX125
My barn monster started with an eBay listing. “Project Vespa,” it read, “all there and just needing a few odds and ends.”
Odd indeed were the ends. The kick starter was broken and it lacked an electric start but I eventually got her smoking to life with fresh gas and a whole lot of pushing – roaring through half a muffler and lurching forward through a half-stuck clutch.
I fixed up the non-working lights – several times – as the brittle wiring harness would tend to snap if you gave it too hard a stare. I put on new tires, new rubber trim, new cables, new bulbs and new handgrips and then lovingly (and ineptly) painted her John Deere green.
I felt like a mechanic god (albeit a minor one, worshipped only when things break or fail to do what they were supposed to).
Knowing my own godly limitations, I dropped it off at my local shop to have the engine rebuilt with new seals and piston rings, and various other mysterious Italian bits that seem to be necessary only in a Vespa.
In the interim I rode a new 50 cc Honda scooter, a machine with the personality of a toaster; you pressed a button, it did its thing, and before you knew it you were at your destination. No fuss, no muss, no drama.
Then I picked up my “rejuvenated” Vespa, and all of a sudden I was experiencing more drama than a Greek tragedy. The brakes were abrupt when wet – either full on or full off. The lights had to be checked every ride to make sure another wire hadn’t rebelled against the rest of the harness. The clutch was stiff enough that after a day’s ride my hand froze into a claw-like thing that frightened children. And fearing the clutch cable would snap often, I carried several spares.
The difference between the Honda and the Vespa was cavernous.
In the long run, I almost certainly spent far more on that scooter than I would have to buy a new one. Still, it never really prevented me from getting somewhere – it just took periodic breaks along the way. It was loud and smoky, its relatively recent age made it just shy of being a true classic, but it still had all the vintage quirks.
Sadly it really wasn’t the practical daily commuter I needed. So I sold it in favour of a new “toaster” scooter.
I began missing the old Vespa almost immediately. The new bike made no odd noises, nothing flew off, and it didn’t threaten to explode on every outing. Its lights were bright, it started every time, and it was probably more reliable than gravity.
So I started perusing ads again. “Just a cottage bike,” I said to myself, no doubt quietly rocking back and forth in a semi-lucid state, “something to putter around up north with.”
PROJECT HONDA CB125S
My new cottage bike turned out to be a 1975 Honda CB125S. It had been sadly converted into a dirt bike by the time-proven method of Hillbilly weight trimming – unbolting lights and such, and taking a hacksaw to everything else.
But this was the least of my problems. I soon found out that the bike had never been registered, having been run as a dirt bike on a farm.
Registering a non-registered bike means that you have to get an affidavit outlining the history of the bike, which you then submit to your local MTO office, they check the VIN and then give you your registration slip.
In theory …
My first attempt saw me turned away because they wanted a letter from Honda saying that this particular bike had been sold in Canada. That seemed like a lot of work, so I went to another office who flatly refused to register it at all, no matter what.
Office number three saw me mention that the bike had been used on a farm to which the clerk exclaimed “we can’t register vehicles abandoned on a farm!” Twenty minutes arguing the difference between “used on” and “abandoned on” got me nowhere, despite having an ownership history.
It was only after I suggested I talk to a manager that they finally took my affidavit and issued me my required paperwork.
Okay, paperwork done, now it was time to try and resurrect my farmyard beast. Its engine ran flawlessly – it was just about everything else that needed work.
The bike had been dropped a few times; the footpegs had been replaced by a contraption seemingly welded on by someone with impaired vision. The fork gaiters were no longer gaiting, having decayed into rubber rings stacked onto the fork tubes. One of the steering stops had broken off, so you could turn right, or really hard left.
Looking to remedy some of the Honda’s numerous issues I discovered that finding the correct part involves a fair bit of detective work. My bike was a CB125S, but was it an S1 or S2? Before a certain year they were singles, after, they were twins. Some models came with a front disc brake and others with a drum. And if the parts clerk couldn’t get the parts you had resort to eBay vendors, many of which didn’t specify the year of bike.
After sourcing everything I needed I ended up with a nice little runner that looked very ugly but ran like a charm. It was used on dirt roads and back roads up north, and happily bashed into rocks and trees by various people who borrowed it “just to go up the road a bit.”
Now I had a plastic container full of parts for bikes I didn’t actually own and a bike that I had done all I could do to. Time to fire up eBay …
PROJECT HONDA CD175
I spotted my next project in an online ad. The Honda CD175 was shiny with good paint and it had chrome that actually reflected. The seat was reupholstered and – miracle of miracles – was done nicely with vinyl that hadn’t come from a discarded sofa.
Only $500, and according to the ad it only needed the carb cleaned.
Of course, it was only once I got the bike home that the hidden intricacies began to emerge. The “carb cleaning” ended up being a full carburetor overhaul to replace all the incorrect parts the last owner put in with his rebuild. Clutch and throttle cables needed to be freed up, and there were numerous other little bits that needed attention.
Finding the right parts for the CD175 was even harder than it was for the CB125. Not only did the 175 experience major model changes every few years, but it also had significant changes during the same year, and what changes were made depended on which market your bike was originally designed for.
My Canadian model – indeed a rarity given our small population – had a different gas tank, front fender and other parts compared to all other models of CD175.
All in all, the shiny, “just needs carb cleaning” CD175 swallowed more than one and a half times its original purchase price for parts and shop labour. Not quite the bargain I had in mind, though it was cheap enough that I was still in the same price league as if I had bought a well-sorted bike of the same vintage, so not exactly a disaster either. And it did provide hours of entertainment searching for parts and fixing things.
OPEN THE BARN DOOR?
So what have I learned from the various vintage and project bikes I’ve tinkered with? Well, for starters they aren’t a great investment no matter how good the purchase price seems. But if you buy these things regularly, which many of you reading this probably do, that’s no revelation.
If you plan on using a vintage bike as your daily rider you had best be somewhat mechanically adept, have an understanding employer (for the times you’ll arrive late after your vintage ride decides to take an electrical or mechanical break), and don’t forget to ride in stain resistant pants, because at speed those leaks that drip oil onto the ground will coat them with a fine mist as if sprayed from a can of Tremclad.
However, despite the skinned knuckles, skinned knees, oil stains, and occasional thoughts of rolling the whole bike into a canal somewhere, there is something gratifying about resurrecting a vintage machine and proudly riding it around that makes it all worthwhile.
Now if only someone would resurrect me the next time my wife finds out I’ve bought one.