The World’s Worst Restorer

Originally published in Motorcyclist Magazine. For a someone restoring an old motorcycle, it was the most egregious sin: there, affixed to the down tubes of my lovingly reconditioned 1969 Triumph Tiger, were four, black plastic zip ties. To the cognoscenti, it was as if I had spit in Edward Turner’s eye.

To the ghosts of the long-defunct Meriden factory—forgive me. I have sinned, choosing the convenient alternative of the local Ace hardware store to the gossamer and elusive aluminum cable ties of 1969.

The word “correct,” in the parlance of restorers, taunts me like a misplaced decal. I have been correct about a lot of things in my life, but not this. In the realm of vintage motorcycles, I am decidedly incorrect.

Things of Approximate Beauty

This is the way with all my restorations. People tell me my bikes look pretty good. But great, hoary sins lie within. Flip up the seat, and strange, multicolored wiring snakes along the frame in unorthodox patterns. There is chrome in places that Edward Turner never imagined. And more: electronic ignition; stout, stainless spokes; modern, sticky tires; a solid-state rectifier; a wiring harness made in (gasp!) Taiwan; a plastic seat cover; and lookalike rear shocks with actual damping.

Terrible, all of it. An affront to the gods.

And then there is my ’74 Honda CB750, on which I installed a solid-state regulator/rectifier, a tapered roller bearing headset, and a modern, o-ring chain. The orange metalflake paint, despite costing me hundreds of dollars, is as incorrect as a textile suit at a vintage rally. It’s all enough to make Soichiro Honda tremble in his grave.

I am cheapening the world by degrees, with my pot-metal parts and powder-coating. When I am summoned before my maker, I will be confronted with the myriad sins of my restorations: crimped connections, solid-state electronics, and yes—zip ties.

The truth is, I am jealous of my brethren in the restoration biz, those well-moneyed souls who never shop for parts in Taiwan, who have banished the phrase “re-pop” (reproduction), and who only accept replacement parts furnished in decaying packages bearing the original logo, from the factory of origin. Oh the purety! The sanctity!

But alas: that is not me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Worst in Show

Despite my manifold mechanical sins, I decided to actually enter the Triumph in a show. After all, everyone who saw it said it was a good-looking bike.

Oh foolish man! I watched the judge from a distance, fleetingly hopeful. But when he looked down, I could swear he was staring at those damn zip ties. He hated them worse than the town of Hinckley. They were emblematic of all that was wrong with the world, and all that had transpired since Turner first wielded a fountain pen. Those plastic ties represented nothing less than the decline of Western Civilization.

All that, and more, could be laid at my feet.

The collecting cognescenti would find my workshop as repugnant as my restorations. While their shops look like Erik Buell’s garage, with lathes, drill presses, TIG-welders, parts washers and paint booths, I make do with a Costco workbench, cordless drill, and a bucket of Simple Green. I am an expert in the art of the rattle can. I have been known to soak a reluctant nut and bolt in Coca-Cola. When it comes to making tough parts fit together, I have no 20-ton press; there is only my wife’s hairdryer, and a bag of ice cubes. I fill tires using a bicycle pump, and have been known to wield a crescent wrench. It’s a little shop of horrors in there.

Welcome to the house of the approximate. For me, it’s a way of life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Blissfully Ignorant

But even here, among the hamfisted, there is joy. My restorations actually run pretty well most of the time, and earn plaudits from the great unwashed. Grown men I have never met get weepy at the sight of my Triumph, wistfully longing for motorcycles and memories gone by. They emerge from storefronts, or stop their cars in mid-traffic, and approach making puppy-dog noises. I know the power of these bikes. And the last thing I want to do is impugn their memory.

No one needs to know the monumental bodging that lies within—or how I live on the thin edge of mechanical disaster.

I am not seeking absolution. I admire mechanics who can execute a perfectly correct restoration, right down to the key fob, spoke nipple, and maddening Lucas horn button. I am in awe, I really am. But that is not me. I am, to my eternal shame, in the fraternity of the zip-tie guys.

We take special pride in our Franken-bikes. We bow to the gods of improvisation. The vernier caliper is not our friend, and never has been. We go happily piston-slapping our way down the highway, announcing our arrival with a beautiful clatter that speaks of imminent mechanical failure.

We are happy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *