(Article by Mark Trotta)
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.
There's plenty of choices for a classic motorcycle build, which include many American, British, Japanese, and European models. Different build styles include stock original, cafe racer, old-school bobber, scrambler, or custom build from mild to wild.
Best Project Motorcycles
Is there really a best choice for a motorcycle project? It all depends on what you're after. Do you want to ride it, race it, or show it? Are you limited to a budget?
Using price and parts availability as perimeters, the following is a selection of best project motorcycles.
A vintage Japanese motorcycle will be the most affordable of all classic bike projects. 1970s and 1980s bikes are good choices. Some years and models will be less collectable, but that also makes them more affordable.
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.
For a street-driven bike, look for one 350cc or bigger. Models with disc brakes and spoked wheels are very desirable.
Honda CB series
One of the most popular project bikes today is the Honda CB series. These include the CB500, 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.
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. Because of their abundance, there's a large selection of aftermarket products.
Other Honda bikes worthy of consideration are early Gold Wings, Super Hawks, and CX500/GL500 models.
The XS650 engine was essentially a re-engineered British twin, and has proven itself to be nearly bulletproof. A lot of these bikes were produced, and like the Honda CB's, plenty of aftermarket parts are available.
An 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.
Not as common as Honda CB's or Yamaha XS models, the Kawasaki Z-bikes can be found in many versions, and usually sell for a bit cheaper. There were, and still are fun and fast bikes.
Vintage British Bikes
If you want to rebuild a Vintage British motorcycle, 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.
Good, original parts for British bikes are hard to come by, and many specialty tools are needed. However, there are several British Bike online forums to seek help and advice.
Of the many popular classic British bikes, there is the Triumph Trident. This is the lone British bike that I personally restored. In their day, these three-cylinder machines dominated the 750cc races in Europe and in the U.S. Many consider the Trident to be the first modern superbike.
BMW Boxer Twins
Most people think that opposed-cylinder motorcycles are nostalgic looking. The BMW boxer-twin is popular with motorcycle builders for several reasons, including simple design, reliability, and ease of maintenance.
Read: BMW Oilhead Repair and Maintenance
BMW Oilhead (1994-present)
The R-series BMW's (Oilheads) are an updated version of the early boxer twins. Like all Airhead's, they are shaft-drive, which require less maintenance than most other types of motorcycles. The R-Series bikes are tourqey and have a low center of gravity.
The demand for Harley Shovelheads is still high, and their supply is low, which makes good examples very expensive. I've looked at and turned down more Shovelhead projects than any other type of bike. Owners always want top dollar and rarely negotiate, even with basket case projects!
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
Like British bikes, good, original parts for Harleys are hard to find and expensive to buy, and many specialty tools are needed. Engine and transmission work will 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.