My shop is in an over-sized two-car garage attached to my home. My work is a calling, in the theological sense of the word. Ethical and moral questions arise every day – they are hard, sharp, unambiguous and unavoidable.

The Wretched Truth About Restorations

Posted: December 13th, 2012 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Engine, Forks & Steering, Frame & Body, Fuel & Air, Ignition, Timing, & Electrical, Motorcycle Repair, Wheels, Tires, & Brakes | Tags: , | 7 Comments »

Greetings Chris,

I have researched available motorcycle restoration shops on the East Coast and have found your shop one of the best suited for my project. I would like to determine if your willing and able to restore a vintage Yamaha 80 enduro shown in the pictures attached? If so, to what level of restoration are you capable of achieving? And how long would this take? Further, what ballpark pricing can you provide?




Thanks for your note of inquiry – and the very flattering words about my shop and work.

First, I need to know that you know the First Law of Restorations; you will end up spending waaaaay more than the finished product will fetch on the open market – two to three times more is the rule of thumb – and the multiple is higher with smaller displacement bikes.

So let’s see if I can scare you off right now. Mechanical restoration/rebuilding will run $3k – half parts and half my time. Cosmetic restoration will be another $3k – about half for first-rate factory correct paint and decals and half for re-chroming which, when properly done, means stripping the old chrome from the part, filling the deeper rust pits and other defects with a conductive metal filler, a heavy layer of copper plate to fill the smaller pits, a layer of nickle to keep the copper from showing through the final layer of chrome. This process is sometimes called “triple chrome.” Better add another $1k to cover things like tires, seat re-upholstery, and this, that, and the other thing. That’s $7k – and no matter how realistically I think I am estimating time and money, everything takes longer and costs more than I had expected – even when I know this and take it into account. That may be the Second Law of Restorations; everything will take longer and cost more than even your worst-case estimate. A final bill of $8k could happen. And all this for a bike that will be worth no more than $3k when done – probably closer to $2k.

I have been doing this stuff long enough to have learned a few things; nobody ever complains about getting a bill less than they expected. Dealing with a panicky customer as the running estimate is regularly revised upward is no fun. I’d rather scare you to death right now.

I’ve just come in from the shop – 11pm – after an afternoon favor checking out a problem on my sweetie’s son’s bike turned into eight hours of pro-bono work – time for a bit of supper.

Existential Motorcycles TEL: 828-6839289 Web:
Alexander, NC 28701


Greetings Chris,

Thanks for your carefully thought out email below. Your thoughts and details provided are worth close observation and consideration. With the economy in its current state and no prospects for any improvement in the foreseable years ahead, I must fully think through what makes sense for me moving forward. I will let you know if I decide to proceed in the coming months.

Happy Holidays and warm regards,



Thanks for taking my bucket of cold water over your head so well.

Now I can ethically add that there are many excellent non-monetary reasons/rewards for/from restoring a bike – all better reasons, in my way of reckoning, than money.

And it could be done in two stages; mechanics/functional restoration one year and the pretty bits the next.

But it will be expensive and time-consuming.

Under no circumstances should you compromise your financial health to take on a proper restoration. It sucks all the fun out of it – and the damned bike becomes the cause of it all. And I become the dealer man for whom you are stealing the children’s lunch money to feed your habit. Pure poison. If/when you do this, have the cash on hand and set aside.

I do take extensive notes as I work and lots of digi-pix. On long-term projects I send these as updates every day or so – kinda helps the customer come along for the ride – and adds considerable value to the results – builder’s notes and documentary pix impress the hell out of buyers. But most of all, it’s fun for everybody. I enjoy telling stories of the day’s work and it helps me to review my work and confess my sins. Yes, I break the code of the Mechanics’ Guild and freely admit that I make mistakes and, sometimes, really fuck things up. I’ve made just about every damned-fool mistake you can think of and broken every tool and part. But a funny thing happened – as the years rolled by I made fewer and smaller mistakes. I still make mistakes – sometimes even dumb ones – but for quite a while now (knock polished alloy) they have been non-catatrophic and recoverable errors. And every one still a lesson of some sort.


Existential Motorcycles TEL: 828-6839289 Web:
Alexander, NC 28701

The Wretched Truth about Vintage Motorcycles

Posted: February 9th, 2012 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Motorcycle Repair | 3 Comments »

So You Think You Want a Vintage Motorcycle?

The following is a text I have written to be read and signed by everyone who buys a vintage bike from me. Common sense is, apparently, no longer common. Too often recently I have sold a bike to a customer only to have them call me that night/next day because it is weeping oil or won’t start – or this that or the other thing. These folks have bought a 30-plus year-old machine bike expecting it to be as thoughtlessly reliable as a new bike.

So here is;

The Wretched Truth About Buying and Living with a Vintage Motorcycles

You are buying a geriatric machine designed and built 30-plus years ago during the Golden Age of American consumptionism. Much like computer technology today, motorcycle technology in the ’60s/’70s was evolving at a furious rate. A conservative design-life back then was 10 years. None of the designers, engineers or buyers dreamed that these bikes would be in use for more than a few years.

But they are – and we have to think of them and live with them much as we would with a geriatric human. Think of your cranky old grandmother.

We treat our old folks very differently and expect different things of them than we do people in their prime. Our old folks need a lot more of our time, patience, and help than do our friends. They have their “little ways.” So do our vintage motorcycles. Some will not start unless a specific series of steps is taken – and taken just so.

About the bikes I sell:

I am in this crazy vintage bike biz for the long-run. By now I am essentially unemployable so this is the only gig I’ve got. It does not serve my interest to rip anyone off. Au contraire mes amis – I go to some lengths to ensure that a buyer gets a good deal – or “good count” as some of us used to say way back when. I’ll waive a delivery charge or give a copy of the service manual or a special tool that I have two of or a box of spare parts.

I sell bikes in all sorts of conditions – from boxes of parts to ready to ride. I describe each accurately/honestly/fairly. That is its current condition. I can’t predict the future. Vintage bikes can fail at any time – anything from a minor nuisance like a turn signal switch to a catastrophic engine failure. Japanese production quality control was already pretty good back then but I have seen parts break in perfectly maintained engines due to an unseen/undetected flaw in the basic casting of a machined part.

page 1 of 2.

Buyer’s signature and date: ___________________________________________________
Have I made myself clear?

Here’s a precis:

I describe my stuff honestly. I give my customers a good/fair deal. There is no warranty of any kind. If it breaks tomorrow, I will fix it – at my usual shop rate.

Now, if you want to complete this purchase, please fill in the following info and sign your name in blood.

Motorcycle being sold: ________________________________________________________

Buyer: _____________________________________________________________________

Address: ___________________________________________________________________

State: _____________________________________________________________________

Telephone: ________________________________________________________________

Email: _____________________________________________________________________

I have read and understood the foregoing and agree in all respects.

Signature: __________________________________________________________________

Date: ________________________

The Politics of Language – a moto-free bit of rather gloomy new year froth

Posted: December 30th, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Motorcycle Repair | No Comments »

Contention: Reality – daily/lived/meaning-full reality (what “everybody knows”)- is produced/reproduced/challenged/defended/changed through language – and particularly through every-day thought-less language.

Here’s an off-the-top-of-my-head example:

“He’s unconstrained by the facts.”

“He’s a compulsive liar.”

Same facts, different realities.

Here’s a reverse example:

“Muslim fundamentalist”

It used to mean a very strict and pious old man.

Now it means “terrorist” which means “legitimate target” which is a thing and not a fully-paid-up member of the human tribe.

One more example (addendum 12/31/11)

The here-and-now meaning of “Marxist” is subjugation of the individual to the will and whim of the State apparatus – generally an oppressive/totalitarian State.   Karl Marx would be horrified at much of what has been done in his name.  Marx was a humanist – a historically-informed romantic/utopian.  The dignity and fulfillment of the individual within a complex society was his main concern.  He accurately saw and foretold the subjigation of the individual, social life, and, eventually, the apparatus of State itself/the government to the heartless self-legitimating logic of capital.  Greed is good. (G.Geko)

Who chooses the language we use? Language is power, yes – the power to create reality. It happens every day – every time you write or speak or hear or read language. Who chooses the language we use? Do you like the reality they have chosen for you?

Let’s all pay a bit more attention this new year,

This is the best pay a man can have; A letter from a first-time rider’s parent.

Posted: November 23rd, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Random Things of Interest | 2 Comments »

Hi Chris,

I cannot thank you enough for befriending and guiding Loren. He sure is one happy kid. He had many twists and turns on his road to getting a motorcycle and proved his growing maturity through taking them all in stride. But just last weekend we had an argument for the first time in ages over his thinking he should get a 600, this led us to you, somehow (I happened on you when googling madly for motorcycle information, desperate to find something to dissuade him), and now, he has a great bike and a knowledgeable new friend to help him on his way. It is rather amazing how things turned around. Pretty cool. I am glad that you enjoyed the process as much as he did.

Perhaps we will meet someday when visiting Asheville . If you are ever in the Boston area, I would be grateful for the opportunity to cook you a nice meal. Thank you again.

Happy Thanksgiving!


A note to a young man in search of his first motorcycle.

Posted: November 20th, 2011 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Random Things of Interest | No Comments »


You could have hit the jackpot on the first toss. And it’s a tasteful black and not some of the hey-look-at-me colors they have come in. I did a quick check and NADA avg. retail for an ‘06 Ninjette is – coincidence? – $2,100 – exactly what the seller is asking. The low 4k mi. and it’s alleged excellent mechanical and cosmetic condition make it an above-average bike. But note well that the seller solicits cash offers – always a good sign. And the NADA guides do not take into account the seasonal price cycle – highest on the first warm day of spring and lowest from now through Jan. or so. This seasonal effect is around 20-30%. This is very good for you.

I’d guess from my many years of reading ads that you could load this bike up and take it home for $1.8k – $1.9 for sure. Yes, he could get his $2.1k come spring – but not now. And any motorcycle’s sell-it-this-week-because-I-need-the-money value drops with every passing day for the next 2-3 months. Which means a first offer of $1.5k assuming my inspection confirms its alleged excellent condition. And it also means that if you are not in immediate need of wheels, you may well be able to do better after Thanksgiving when folks are scraping around for Christmas money.

A lot of this can change in the process of on-the-spot negotiations. I buy and sell bikes quite often and am both a student and fan of the process – it’s fun. It’s psycho-theater made up on the spot. Which is to say that a lot of my prior estimates of value and the outcome go out the window. The first thing to find out is whether the seller’s

relationship with the bike was positive or negative – or, rather, if it currently represents a positive or negative in his/her life. Negative and you go for the lowball. On the other hand, I’ve gone to see bikes that were so obviously right – so good in every way – and the seller knew that because he/she made/kept them that way – that to offer less would have been a boorish insult.

But back to the Ninjette. Get one of these jewels, learn to ride the wheels off it, and you will absolutely kill most every big-swinging-dick with a GSXR1000 or suchlike mega-bike when the road gets twisty. You’ve heard of Deal’s Gap aka the Dragon’s Tail? The unofficial record is held by an old guy on a hot-rod Ninja 250. Give the megas a straight bit and they’re by and gone, of course – 180 hp. vs. 30hp. – but it doesn’t take much skill to point it straight and screw it on. My opinion. They’ll stop calling it your “Barbie bike” after you one or two crash their bikes trying to keep you in sight in the mountains.

On a tactical note, you have both my permission and encouragement to forward this missive to your folks. Take my word for it, they will find it reassuring. Well, maybe not the part about going fast – but I did preface that stuff with something about really learning to ride your bike – which means reading/learning/practicing advanced riding skills every time you ride – I still do. When I’m out for a ride – not just running errands – every corner I have a plan – entry speed/turn-in point/line through the corner/exit-and-or transition to the next corner. As I execute that corner I am comparing how reality compares with my intentions. And on exit I am thinking about what I can do better next time. And these are corners I ride almost every day during the season. I still am learning them. Same corners, same bike – for five years and I’m still learning them both.

Please note that to be able to both ride my bike and think about riding my bike means I am not going as fast as I possibly can – not really close – because then I would not be able to think about what I was doing. I’d be re-acting – not acting. Hence my maxim; To go faster, you must slow down.” And it really works. Once I got that simple truth, I was soon sailing serenely through corners at speeds faster than I’d gone with white knuckles and very big eyes. With plenty of mind/control in hand to deal with whatever reasonably might occur.

So, riding a motorcycle well is a mindful practice – and this is true at any level of experience. But wait! What am I telling you this shit for? You are a mtn. bike racer and I’ve been trying to teach my granny to suck eggs – an expression that I never understood but I know what it means. On the other hand, perhaps your parents will be reassured by my advocacy of mindful practice and serene/sustainable speed.



Existential Motorcycles
Alexander, NC 28701

TEL: 828-683-9289

Cheap bikes are not … cheap.

Posted: July 20th, 2010 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Engine, Motorcycle Repair | No Comments »

The following is a typical email inquiry from a potential customer:

Hey Chris,

Thanks for the reply.  I’m looking for something a bit cheaper.  Your prices sound fine, but I’m after a basket case, not because I really want to do the restore, but because I know it will  cost less, and I can do the labor.  If you run into something in the $200-300 range let me know.  I understand that I’m looking for a very low price, but I’m patient.

Thanks again



It is my hard-learned experience that rebuilding a basket case – cheap or free – always ends up costing more than buying a running bike.  For example, a $200-300 Honda CB/CL350 will almost certainly need a top-end rebuild – $200 for pistons/rings/wristpins/circlips – $50 engine gasket set – $120 to bore the cyls. for over-sized pistons = $370.  Are the cam lobes in good shape?  If not, add another $50 for a good used cam. The cam chain and cam tensioner rollers should be renewed while the engine is apart – $75.  Might as well have the valves ground while you’re at it – $80.  That’s $500-600 in parts and machine-shop work.

Mind you, there are excellent non-monetary reasons to restore a basket-case – the satisfaction of bringing a funky/cool old bike back from the dead and riding a bike you have built yourself is priceless.  But it will not save you money compared with buying a fundamentally sound bike.

Existential Motorcycles
Alexander, NC

Advice on a first bike

Posted: July 19th, 2010 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Editorial, Motorcycle Repair | No Comments »

Hello neighbor Carl,

I do believe I can be of assistance.

The ideal bike to learn on is a small-displacement, light-weight street-legal dual sport – or “enduros” as we used to call them back when.  They are 100lbs. lighter than even a small street bike and they take a beating and keep on ticking – no fancy bodywork, chrome pipes, etc. to get scuffed in a fall.  And riding off-road is the very best training for riding a street bike – one becomes used to the bike moving around underneath, traversing small obstacles, and the feeling and proper response to either wheel losing traction.  And since most off-road riding is done in first and second gears, one can make/learn from mistakes at sub-lethal speeds.  With decent riding gear – and the gear these days is light-years ahead of what I rode in 40 years ago – you can spend all day experimenting with riding techniques and situations, fall off when you get it wrong, pick up the bike, and try it again ’til you get it right.  Very valuable skills when one encounters the unexpected at higher velocities on the street.

And a good-running ok-looking 125/175 cc single will run you about $1k.

Now the question is – do you want something relatively modern – ’90s say – or vintage?

And is the woman in question long/medium/short-legged?  The modern bikes have better suspension but they are taller than the vintage bikes.

And since we are nearly neighbors, please do come over for a visit some day/evening.  I’m on Cabin Ridge Lane which is off the Fletcher Martin Rd. just before it ends at the empty old white store and Old NC 20.  If you are coming from the Leicester direction, Cabin Ridge is the first right after you turn onto Fletcher Martin.  My phone is 683-9289.

I am leaving on Thurs. AM for a week but let’s have a visit shortly after I return.  I am angling to pick up one or two bikes in the city – and one I have my eye on is a 1972 Honda CL125 with just over 600 original miles but in need of some cosmetic spiffing.

Existential Motorcycles
Alexander, NC

Esitmating work on vintage bikes

Posted: July 18th, 2010 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Around The Shop, Editorial, Motorcycle Repair | No Comments »


Thanks for your note of inquiry.  And thanks for preserving cool old crocks like your water buffalo – the Brits nicknamed them the Kettle.

My shop rate is $40/hr. – about half of what the major shops charge – and vintage Japanese bikes are all I do.  That said, I cannot responsibly estimate what the job will cost.  I can’t imagine it taking less than six hours, so figure a minimum of $240.  When dealing with 35 year-old machines, the possibility of unforeseen problems is very high.  It is not uncommon for a customer to bring me a bike saying that it just needs the carbs cleaned, tuned, and synced.  Well, unless you know for sure that the valve clearances are within spec – and they very seldom are – , you can’t get accurate vacuum readings to tune/sync the carbs, you are trying to compensate for mis-matches in valve opening/closing times with carb throttle opening changes – and one coil is very week and the points cam bearing has play, the chain and sprockets are toast, the cables are stiff and frayed, and so on and on.  And then there are all the opportunities for seized/stripped/other-wise buggered fasteners.  And so on.

In your case, we needn’t trouble about the valve clearances :-)

What I can tell you is that I keep a bench-log and record my work in considerable detail – useful for the customer too later down the road – and you will know exactly where my time and your money went.

Existential Motorcycles
Alexander, NC                                   TEL: 828-683-9289

What I think of vintage British motorcycles

Posted: July 18th, 2010 | Author: Administrator | Filed under: Around The Shop, Editorial, Engine, Motorcycle Repair | Tags: | No Comments »


Repeat after me:

Vintage British bikes are like psychotic women; irresistibly attractive and impossible to live with – gorgeous nightmares.  Lovely to look at but don’t take one home.

I restored a ‘69 Royal Enfield Continental GT for my oldest and best friend.  The cam profiles were nearly square – looked like something out of a drag-strip engine.  But the valve train – pushrods, of course, was a bit of a Rube Goldberg weirdness so Harry and I mapped the actual movement of the valves – a dial indicator on the valve stem and a degree wheel on the crankshaft.  The weird rockers/followers translated the square cams into what would have been in it’s day – the engine design dates from the ’50s – normal moderately high-performance profiles for opening/lift/duration/closing.

I had a reprint copy of the original shop manual and compared the numbers we derived with factory specs.  Not even close.  The manual covered both the hot-rod boy-racer and the cooking-sherry model from which it was derived.  I happened to look at the specs for the plane-Jane engine and they were close to ours.

Suddenly, it was clear.  The numbers had been transposed between models in the original manual – and nobody at Hitchcock Motors in London – who are the chief stockist for vintage R.E. spares and who reprinted the factory manual – had bothered to correct this error.

By this time, I was getting matey – via emails – with Allen at Hitchcock and told him about my discovery – and that while my numbers were close to what I now assumed were the correct numbers, they were still different – beyond variation due to measurement error.  His response tells you all you need to know about vintage British motorcycles.

Allen thought it was amusing – said they had been sending out that reprint for 17 years and no one had ever mentioned the error before.  And don’t worry about the cam numbers, he said.  When they ran out of original spare cams and tooled up for another run, they measured ten different cams – and not one of them was the same.

Print this out and tape it in a prominent place in your shop.

Existential Motorcycles
Alexander, NC