This blog was written by architect Alex Fraser about rebuilding his motorcycle after a crash.
“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”
-Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
I’ve always had a lust for motorcycles. Growing up in Idaho, friends of mine had little dirt bikes they let me ride, and when I was seven I was gifted a late 60’s Honda 100. I remember trying really hard, really often, to get it to start; when it did I was free. In junior high my uncle gave me a slightly newer 1976 Kawasaki 250 that took me deep into the mountains and back. Later, in college, my cousin let me take his Honda CBR 600 for a spin, and at that point I knew I needed a motorcycle.
It wasn’t until I settled down in Seattle that I started looking for a bike. I scoured Craigslist nightly looking for the right fit. I wasn’t attracted to the typical crotch rocket or road bike, I needed something different. At the time I’d become fond of café racer motorcycles which descended from London in the 60’s. In that time, rockabilly bikers would hang out at cafes and challenge each other in races across town. Often the race was from one café to another, thus the name ‘café racer’. If a biker wanted to compete they’d need to modify their bike, which was done in true DIY fashion. Parts were replaced, engines were swapped, and anything unnecessary was removed to make their machines lighter and faster. True mechanical minimalism.
As much as I appreciated the classic Café look, it wasn’t what I was after. Truthfully, I didn’t know what I was looking for until I found it. The ad described the 1995 Triumph Daytona as “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic”. A carbureted 3 cylinder, the 885 cubic centimeter factory superbike had been chopped up and looked like it had fallen right out of Mad Max. It was a British sport bike gone feral, impressive and beautifully intimidating. Two days later I rode it home.
For a year and a half it got me around town, its styling drawing attention – until the accident. A young woman tried to make a left turned in front of me. With no time to react, I braked and steered just left of the woman’s car, but my rear wheel locked up. The bike and I went down hard. I lost some skin, but my bike was totaled. After a visit to immediate care, I limped it home and into the garage. A claims adjuster made a visit and valued it at twice what I initially paid, which got me thinking. It rode straight and it was still a solid bike mechanically, it could make for a cool modern café conversion, so I bought it back at salvage cost.
I’d grown fond of the frame. It had great lines, and the engine was detailed nicely for something normally hidden beneath plastic fairings. I drew up ideas inspired by more aggressive and modern café bikes and centered it all on the core concept of café motorcycles: minimalism. I wanted only what it needed to operate. Two wheels, an engine, a seat, and a tank.
The seat, or tail section, should float over the rear wheel and expose the suspension. The stock rear subframe hosted critical components such as the battery, fuse box, rectifier/igniter, turn signal/starter relays, and the coolant overflow reservoir. These things needed somewhere else to go, and it looked like the fuel tank had room to spare. I could partition it to create a void for the electrical components. That was the go ahead to cut off the existing rear sub frame. I needed to find new rear sets and come up with some way for them to mount to the bike. Searching and sketching led me to a rough design for custom rear set mounts. These would work if I could figure out how to make them. I moved forward.
I found and installed the little things that came along easily: a new headlight, bars, bar end blinkers and mirrors, grips, and other miscellaneous parts and pieces. I tore the bike down as much as I could without removing the motor and did a thorough investigation and cleaning. It was an exercise in understanding how it all worked. There’s a story I’ve been told of one of my earliest Christmases when I’d gotten a wind up duck in my stocking. The funny little toy enthralled me. “Take it apart!” I told my mother excitedly. The bike was my toy duck and I finally got to take it apart.
My modest set of tools and “shop” setup didn’t meet the demands of my design intention. I invested in tools that made sense to have, but some of the fabrication had to be outsourced. After stripping its factory paint, the new tank bought on EBay needed to be cut open and partitioned. I took it to Steve Huff, who builds and races motorcycles out of his shop. We talked back and forth about what he saw and what I wanted until it was dialed in. Despite the fact that the material wasn’t pure steel and proved difficult to weld, he did a great job. There was plenty of space for the electrical components, and the shell that was removed could be reattached to complete the tank. It was finished with some light sanding and a clear coat at SikWerks.
The seat took some time. The right design would complete the bike and unify the composition. Designing it was a struggle between what I wanted it to be and what the bike wanted to be. I extracted the geometry of the existing frame to build a digital framework that would afford me freedom to design multiple interchangeable versions. My sketches made the transition into the digital space using Rhinoceros, the profiles of which were then exported to CAD, and then printed full scale to produce foam core mock ups. After some models and tweaking I sent it off to a friend of mine who designs and produces custom off road products for trucks and 4×4’s (Stack’d Racks). He cut the profiles from ¼” aluminum sheet and welded them up for me.
Electrical systems were something I had no experience in. Opening up the harness was a spaghetti mess of multi colored wires with streaks of this color and dashes of that. It had been fiddled with before, which made it more confusing. To figure out what was going on I meticulously analyzed and decoded the wiring diagram against the mess in my hands. Labeling everything helped tremendously, and in the end I produced a stripped down version of the wiring diagram that had only the circuits I meant to keep and the current flowing through them, from positive to ground. This graphic analysis was crucial to understanding exactly how the electrical systems functioned and helped me troubleshoot when something wasn’t working.
Once I had the new subframe in my hands, I fabricated the standoffs it would bolt onto and welded them to the frame. With it bolted on, I set the tank onto the bike and saw how the lines were finishing. I was finally able to sit on it again which helped locate where to place the foot pegs that would be comfortable for me. The rear sets and foot controls were next, and I attacked that design like I had the seat. Rhinoceros to CAD, multiple mock ups, and off to another friend with the capability to CNC from billet aluminum. A couple weeks later I had them in my hands. They fit like a glove, and the rear sets and linkages I found online worked great.
The three big elements taken care of, I focused on the shaped seat that would reside on top of the subframe and contour to the bike’s geometry. Fiberglass can be fun to work with if you enjoy fine particles of glass floating everywhere and invading the air. My process of sculpting the seat used two part expanding foam, which I roughly shaped and then laid with fiberglass mesh. The mesh was then brushed with a polyester resin and left to cure. Layers were added and sanded repeatedly until it took the form I imagined with sufficient rigidity. Final sanding and prep with Bondo was needed, then primer and satin black acrylic enamel automotive grade paint.
Almost two years after being totaled, the time had come to throw in some petrol, turn the key, and press the starter button. I felt less excited than I would’ve thought. There was so much trial and error in the process of learning how everything interfaced to create an ergonomic and functional machine that it felt like just another test. A test it would pass or fail. Failing means something, anything, is wrong. Righting that wrong is the satisfaction. The starter chirped as it turned over the engine a few revolutions, and it fired up. Low notes bellowed in a bumpy rhythm from the exhaust pipes and when I rolled on the throttle the roar was raw and totally aggressive. What started with a smile turned into a “HELL YEA!” as I jumped on, put it in gear and took it for a spin. It passed.