Classic Motorcycle Build

Classic Motorcycle Projects

Article by Mark Trotta

If you're looking for a classic motorcycle project, you've got plenty of great choices. There's cruisers, sport bikes, touring bikes and customs. And the build can be factory stock, cafe racer, old-school bobber, scrambler, or a custom build from mild to wild.

Ironhead Sportster Project

To help you decide what is the best choice of classic bike, be honest with yourself. Think about what you're really after.

Do you want to ride it, race it, or show it?

Are you limited to a budget ? Most of us are.


Using price and parts availability as perimeters, the following is a selection of classic American, British, Japanese, and European motorcycles best suited for a DIY project.

Japanese Motorcycles

Vintage Japanese motorcycles are the most plentiful and affordable classic bikes. Out of the hundreds and thousands that were made, most years and models are still very affordable.

Japanese bikes came into prominence in the late sixties, and you probably won't find many of those. Machines from the 1970s and 1980s bikes are the most common.

Japanese motorcycle project

Parts for vintage Japanese bikes are more affordable and more plentiful than American, British, and European motorcycles. The majority of engines (and there are many types and sizes) are reliable and easy to work on.

Japanese motorcycle project

For a street-driven bike, look for one 350cc or bigger. Models with disc brakes and spoked wheels are always more desirable.

Honda CB series

One of the most popular project motorcycles today is the Honda CB series, which include the CB400F, CB500T, CB500-4, CB550, CB750, and others. A ton of these bikes were built, and project bikes in various stages of completion always seem to be on the market.

restore a Japanese motorcycle

The bigger CB models (CB550 and CB750) are the most sought after, making them more expensive than others, but the parts are still cheap and the engines are easy to work on. And because of their popularity, there's a large selection of aftermarket products.

Honda cb750 project motorcycle

Other Honda street bikes worthy of consideration are early Gold Wings, Super Hawks, and CX500/GL500 models.

Yamaha XS Models

The XS650 engine was essentially a re-engineered British twin, and has proven itself to be ultra reliable. A lot of these bikes were produced, and just like the Honda CB's, plenty of aftermarket parts are available.

Is a Yamaha XS650 a good project motorcycle

One area of concern on these bikes is the electrics. Yamaha XS models between 1968 and 1985 had quite a few different electrical systems. Unless you're willing to replace the whole system, diagnosing and finding replacement parts for these could prove challenging.


Yamaha also produced XS750 and XS850 Triples.

Yamaha XS triples

Read: Yamaha XS750 and XS850 Triples


Kawasaki Z-series

Not as common as Honda CB models or Yamaha XS models, Kawasaki Z-bikes usually sell for a bit cheaper. There were, and still are, fun and fast bikes.


Classic British Motorcycles

I don't want to talk anyone out of restoring a British motorcycle. I've built a few myself, so I know first-hand the difficulties involved.

restore a British motorcycle

Read: 1974 Triumph Trident Build

Good, original parts for British bikes are hard to come by, and many specialty tools are needed. And then there's the Whitworth thing.

Whitworth Tools

Japanese and European bikes use metric tools, American made bikes use standard (fractional) tools, and vintage British motorcycle use both standard and Whitworth tools. These are often confused for, but not the same as, fractional or metric sizes.

Whitworth tools for vintage British motorcycles

Many British motorcycles continued using Whitworth sizing into the seventies, and to make things interesting, some mid and late seventies British bikes had a combination of sizings. And to make things even more interesting, quite a few American mechanics "converted" random nuts and bolts from Whitworth to Standard.

So how do you know what you have? Checking only the TPI (threads per inch) and shank (thread) diameter is not always a reliable way to identify thread type. To insure accuracy, both thread angle and profile should be measured with a thread gauge.

If you want to rebuild/restore a vintage British bike, it'll be more time-consuming and more costly than other classic bikes. The only way to stay ahead money-wise is to do as much work as you can yourself.

motorcycle project choices

Read: Norton Commando Build


BMW Boxer Twins

The BMW boxer-twin is popular with motorcycle builders for several reasons, including simple design, reliability, and ease of maintenance. And since opposed-cylinder motorcycles have now been around for over a century, they are nostalgic looking.

best motorcycle projects

BMW Oilhead (1994-present)

The R-series BMW's (Oilheads) are an updated version of the original boxer twins. Like all Airhead's, they are shaft-driven, which require less maintenance than most other types of motorcycles. The R-Series bikes are tourqey and have a low center of gravity.

Read: BMW Oilhead Repair and Maintenance


Harley Shovelhead

The demand for Harley Shovelheads was always high, and it still is. This makes good examples with original matching parts expensive.

Harley Shovelhead projct

I've looked at and turned down a dozen or so Shovelhead project bikes. Owners always want top dollar and rarely negotiate, even with basket case projects!

Harley Shovelhead project


Ironhead Sportster

Produced by Harley-Davidson from 1957 to 1985, Ironhead Sportsters have been the basis for choppers, bobbers, cafe racers, drag bikes, flat trackers, scramblers, hill-climbers, fully-faired track bikes, and even trikes. They're still the cheapest Harley V-twin to be had, and parts are relatively easy to find.

Read: Ironhead Sportster Project

best motorcycle project bike

Like British bikes, good, original parts for old Sportsters are hard to find and expensive to buy, and many specialty tools are needed. Any needed engine or transmission work may not be cheap or easy.


Should I Buy A Project Motorcycle That Doesn't Run?

Here's the long answer. You may not know all that a project bike needs until you've got the entire motor disassembled. And at that point, you're already in deep, and depending on what you find, it can get expensive.

A seller will often say, "it just needs a tune-up" or "the carbs need to be rebuilt". Always assume they're lying, or that they truly just don't know. At least check to see if the motor at least turns over.

Since you don't know what it will need to get it running, the only justification for buying a non-running bike, is that the price is right. Another way to look at it is, you're buying the bike for spare parts.


The easiest project bikes are ones that run and have current registration.

It's a good feeling to take an old abandoned motorcycle and bring it back to life. The feeling you get is like no other.


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