I’ve owned several motorcycles since I started riding in 2002 or so. A Yamaha XS400 to start, a Kawasaki ZG1000 Concours that took me all over the continent, a Buell XB12XT Ulysses, that left me sad and disappointed, and now my current ride, a Honda ST1300 that I really like. In 2004 though, concurrently with the Concours, I restored another bike, a 1980 Suzuki GS1100L. Here’s the story of that motorcycle, written in 2006 or so.
Part one: Introduction
Early in 2004, I had two bikes. My original bike, the 1981 Yamaha XS400, and my regular and long distance ride, my 1997 Kawasaki Concours. I’d decided to give the Yamaha to our friend Kelly, because it was really too small for me to ride comfortably. I didn’t NEED a second bike, but then again NEED is a subjective term, isn’t it?
One thing I’d found on the Concours, is that regular maintenance is very expensive if you put on a lot of miles. Valve adjustments, brakes, etc. all add up to hundreds of dollars you could be spending a year. While my mechanical skills were improving, I was still nervous about doing a lot of things. Having a project bike could be a good way to learn about bike maintenance without risking serious screwups to the Connie.
Part two: Hey Dave!
My friend Dave Nahan, who was the guitarist in our band shoot lucy used to ride, and I knew he had an old bike in his garage collecting dust. He’d offered to let me use it to learn on, but an 1100 was way too big for a starter bike. At the time he lived a few blocks from me, but in May of 2004, he was moving about 50 miles away. I wondered if he’d consider selling me his old bike. I talked to him for a bit, and he said if I could get it going, we could talk about a price (it later ended up being $250).
The bike was in less than stellar shape. It hadn’t been licensed in four years, and it hadn’t been started in three, I’m sure the carbs were full of varnish, it didn’t idle, the brakes barely worked, the fork seals leaked, some of the wiring was duct taped and the mufflers sounded like a coffee can full of rocks. This was not a good sign.
Dave got it started with about three cans of starter fluid, and we managed to hobble it to my house. I don’t think Lisa was thrilled, as the first she saw of it was me wheeling it down the street as I’d run out of gas. I proceeded to dig into it with the idea that first I should get it running, and then I could deal with the other stuff. My goal was that if it weren’t a lost cause, I wanted to get it running by Labor Day to run it in the GLMC Buffalo Run in South Dakota.
Part Three: Chris the Mechanic
I started looking for parts, because I learned with the Yamaha, that a lot of parts can be discontinued for older bikes. I found the cables and hoses easily (and learned it’s best to buy OEM parts for cables and gaskets, so you know they actually fit). I had to replace the brake pads, brake lines (with stainless), and replace the rear brake master cylinder. I did a valve adjustment, (which taught me how to do them on the Connie, saving about $600 a year already) I sanded off some of the rusty spots, and painted some small parts, but the one thing I couldn’t find was the stock exhaust. It seems that Suzuki stopped making them, and there’s only one aftermarket exhaust still made for the bike. Vance and Hines makes it, but the problem is, that it’s a 4 into 1
exhaust, and on this bike, it blocks access to the oil filter and drain plug. I didn’t want to have to pull the exhaust every time I changed the oil.
Some guys on The GS Resources message board had clamped stock Harley-Davidson pipes to their exhaust in place of rusted out mufflers. Since most people replace their Harley pipes with straight pipes for the sound, they’re cheap and readily available. I got some pipes off ebay, and managed to make them fit. They looked terrible at first, until I was able to get some chrome heat shields to cover up the automotive clamps and reducers I used to attach the mufflers to the stock headers.
Part Four: It works!
I had mechanics do two things, rather than doing them myself. First was rebuilding the
carbs, because I’m terrible with small parts. It was a good thing too, because
the place I took them said that they were among the worst they’d ever seen to
the point they almost couldn’t get the pilot screws and jets out. I also didn’t do the fork seals myself. I had to have the front tire replaced anyway, so it seemed easier to have them done at the same time. All the other mechanical and electrical work
was done by me.
I did have some setbacks, like filling the crankcase with fuel
three times thus ruining 12 quarts of oil, and dumping about three gallons of gas
on the driveway after not properly attaching the fuel line to the carbs. I broke a turn signal switch, went through three choke and two clutch cables, two fuel petcocks, a lot of fuel line, and broke the airbox.
I also had to refurbish the seat pan. It was almost rusted through, and had I not done it when I did, it would have been a lost cause, which is a real problem, because it’s also discontinued. I replaced the rotten foam and cover with a new Travelcade seat and cover on the old pan, and added a small windscreen to just keep the wind off my chest.
Still, I met my goal of getting it running for the Buffalo Run. You can read about that here. It ran perfectly, though I didn’t do so well in the rally. There was only one thing left to do. I needed to get it painted as the clearcoat was peeling off. Our friend Paul recommended a guy to do the job, and I wanted it painted a metallic blue (the same blue that Fender paints their Lake Placid Blue guitars). Sure enough, one of the first colors he showed me was perfect, and I got the tank and side covers back a month later.
The bike looks perfect now, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I completed my goals of learning how to work on a bike (without ruining my other one), and I’m most proud of taking something that was a total lost cause and left to rot, and turning into something that (I think at least) is pretty cool.
I actually rode this bike in a Minnesota 1000 that didn’t go so well. I later sold the bike. I wasn’t riding it much, so I had brought it to the cabin to ride around up there, but I still wasn’t using it a lot. Plus I still had the Concours, and we had at the time two vintage cars, the 1966 Ford F100 and the 1978 VW Super Beetle convertible. That’s a pretty big cylinder index, and a lot of space. In hindsight, I really wish I hadn’t sold it. I didn’t get a ton of money for it, the guy who bought it looked like he was going to wreck it on the way home, and I was pretty proud of the job I’d done. It’s one of my big regrets in life, but it taught me a lot about working on bikes, and that’s a skill that’s served me well.