Customizing a Vintage Motorcycle: How to Begin

1984 Suzuki GR650I’ve had this long standing dream of customizing a vintage motorcycle. Buy an old bike, take it apart, and put it back together in another form. Would I be up to the task though? I’ve done some stuff; I’ve rebuilt carbs and starter motors, modded exhausts/intakes, tweaked fueling and general tuning, but I am no mechanic. I want that clearly understood. I am inexperienced in much of the work involved in customizing a vintage ride. Maybe you are in a similar place? But hey, I figure, why not? What we don’t know we can learn as we go, right?

The first step is the biggest so if you haven’t already done it, go buy that vintage bike you’ve been wanting. Just do it! The rest will follow.

Choosing a Vintage Motorcycle to Customize

Choose a bike that turns your crank. Listen to your heart, not your head. If we all chose the most sensible motorcycle to do a build on, we’d all end up with similar bikes. If you follow your gut, you’ll be more enthusiastic and you’ll build a very personal bike.

I chose a 1984 Suzuki GR650 Tempter. Yeah, I know it’s an oddball choice. The GR650 was sold for only two years in North America; a strange breed that seemed out of place despite it’s cutting-edge dual mass flywheel and swirl jet induction. I chose it partly because it is a black sheep of sorts, and partly because I liked its technology and nimble handling qualities. I’m a bit of a black sheep also, so I enjoy creating something out of what most people would ignore. There are no aftermarket customization kits for this bike like there are for the common builds like the Honda CB series for example. The chance of creating a custom clone with the GR650 is therefore zero, and I like that!

So choose a bike that speaks strongly to you. Creativity is all about enthusiasm. Be jazzed about your choice of bike and you’ll be equally creative in the customization and build process. Choose with joy and set yourself up for success.

Visualizing Your Custom Build

Whatever vintage motorcycle you choose to begin with, the details of how the build will take shape is all in your mind. The next step then is to mate what you see in your mind’s eye with what you see when looking at the stock bike.

One way is to take photos of the bike as it is, then take those photos into Photoshop or GIMP and tweak them to experiment with design changes. Here is my first attempt at using GIMP to manipulate the stock photo toward my vision for the bike.Modified GR650Doing this, whether it is digital or on paper, helps to confirm your design ideas. The rendering doesn’t lock you in; it spurs you on to further the design. Think about what you want to experience as you ride this motorcycle. Do you want a comfortable long distance bike, an urban hooligan ride, or something of a mix to suit your personal preference and style?

Forget about all the standard Cafe and Bobber styles everyone is building. Just do your own thing. You don’t have to copy anyone. Remember, function follows form, so make sure the form (the design) enables the function you envision. Then it will be your personal ride.

After you get a feel for how you want your bike to look and function, you can begin to think about specific performance mods, the parts and accessories you’ll need to make the design and performance happen, and the stuff you’ll need to strip off the bike.

Developing an Action and Parts Plan

Every Motorcycle will need some immediate attention to obvious problems. These are the first things you’ll want to check and correct. Basically, make sure the bike is sound before you do all the work to modify it. Make sure it has good compression, and that it has no serious engine issues. Make sure the frame is solid and straight. Once you are certain the bike has promise, create your action and parts plan.

Here is my early action plan for the GR650:

  • Strip all unessential parts, i.e. passenger pegs, etc., etc.
  • Remove exhaust system and cut welded mufflers off from headers
  • Remove carburetors, clean, rejet, and modify for proposed exhaust and air box mods
  • Open the stock air box to allow for more intake
  • Redesign stock seat to eliminate passenger portion and incorporate a rear cowling
  • Chop fenders
  • Improve front suspension performance
  • Improve front brake performance
  • Replace headlight, tail light, gauges, and signals, with better design choices
  • Clean and coat the rusted gas tank
  • Install high-flow mufflers

And here is my parts list so far. These are parts that I have either already installed, or that I have on hand, or that are in shipment. There are many others that will be added to this list, but this will give you some idea of the process:

  • 6 Sigma Jet kit tailored to the exhaust and air box mods
  • 17″ shorty slip-on mufflers (with slight baffle)
  • Progressive wound springs for forks from Progressive Suspension
  • New headlight and brackets
  • Pro Taper EVO Fat Bars (Adventure bend) and Pro Taper Rubber mount conversion to 1 1/8″ bars
  • EBC Semi-Sintered V Brake Pads
  • New speedometer and tachometer
  • POR15 Fuel Tank sealer System

There are many parts I am ordering in addition to the above, but that gives you some idea of what you need to do to get things rolling in the right direction. It’s all about taking steps and acting on your ideas.

Next in the series: Cleaning and Sealing Rusted Gas Tanks