There are many ways to restore and service an old motorcycle, the majority of which depend on what is your desired outcome. Do you just want to make the bike mechanically sound and running, do you want to customise it to suit your riding style or do you want the bike restored to the "nut & bolt" original?
For both amateurs and motorcycle enthusiasts deciding to take the plunge and restore a classic motorcycle, there are several factors to take into consideration - many of which go beyond new tires and a quick paint job.
First things first though...
How to find a motorcycle to restore?
You might be fortunate enough to own an old motorbike, great news! Now is the time to give it some much-needed love! If you don’t, check your dad's garage or grandad's shed, you never know, you might find a forgotten rusty gem there. If even that fails, there is bound to be someone selling old bikes in local papers or online.
There are many places you can look for a classic motorcycle in need of love and care. Online marketplaces such as eBay are a great start to give you an idea of what is on the market and for what price, however when it comes to purchasing, you should be cautious and look for more reputable sources, a local dealer or take an experienced mechanic with you to ensure you buy something worth your money.
In any case, ensure you have all the relevant paperwork and that the VIN numbers on the engine and frame matches your bikes' documentation. Also check that neither has been tampered with. The last thing you would want to do, is spent months restoring a motorbike, that actually doesn't belong to you.
If it's your first motorcycle restoration project, you should certainly stay away from basket cases, no matter how tempting in price they might be. These are usually bikes in different stages of disrepair, but almost certainly dismantled to dozens of pieces that might or might not belong to one model. Basket cases are more for those with good experience in motorcycle restorations or mechanics who are looking for a deal on spare parts for their current project.
What you'll need for a motorcycle restoration project?
Likely a lot of parts, time and dedication! Restoring an old motorcycle is a challenge and a labour of love. And, if you have little experience, a restoration project will certainly prove to be a life changing learning curve. This is when determination, patience and passion come into play.
Thankfully there are numerous motorcycle restoration resources available, starting from workshop manuals, step by step Youtube videos, motorcycle specialist suppliers, and more - all of which promise to help you learn the ins and outs of fixing up a classic motorcycle for free.
With that said, here’s a basic list of what you will need:
Trying to restore an old classic motorbike in a cramped garage isn’t ideal. You’ll need space to take it apart, space to lay out your tools, and space to move around the bike. And then where to you put all the dismantled parts? Keeping all in order and ensuring you don't lose any small pieces is the key.
On top of this, the lighting must be good and your work area must be clean and dry. If you plan to work on a motorcycle in the winter months, consider investing in a portable heater.
You will not get much done in a space like this...
Buy a lift
When it comes to fiddling with jiggly parts and checking underneath the bike, a bike lift is an (amateur and pro) mechanic’s best friend. When you have one of these in place, spannering becomes a joy. Without this handy tool, your back is in for a nightmare! For best results, invest in a lift before starting your motorcycle restoration.
Buy a runner
If this is your first time restoring a motorbike, you’ll want to do everything you can to make the job an easy one. You’ll have little choice in this matter if you are restoring a family classic that’s been gathering dust in the far corner of your shed for decades.
However, if the motorcycle restoration project involves buying a vintage motorcycle, choose a runner that doesn’t require a full rewire or complete engine rebuild. Knowing that the bike runs will make your learning experience less of a trouble-shooting challenge and more enjoyable experience.
Blocked air filters, clogged carbs and faulty kill switches are all easy fixes... anything more and you may find yourself overwhelmed.
Join a motorcycle restoration forum
No question is too small or big when it comes to the world of motorcycle restoration forums. From learning more about where to get the best parts to step-by-step guides on how to fix a certain component, forums are bursting at the seams with a surge of up-to-date, helpful knowledge, as well as people who are as passionate about fixer-uppers as you are!
It’s likely any question you are about to ask the masses has already been answered. There is probably a handful of solutions available, making restoring your classic motorcycle a little less daunting.
Moving to the 21st century, there are also dedicated groups of on Facebook and other social media that gather motorcycle enthusiasts with fantastic knowledge of their particular models. These communities are also brilliant for moral support, because you can share images of your motorcycle restoration project as you progress and get comments, hints and tips or even constructive criticism as you go. There isn't a better morale booster than thumbs up or a like from a fellow bike lover!
If this is your first attempt at rebuilding a bike, and you’re looking to buy a vintage motorcycle restoration project, Yamaha bikes come highly recommended. With a trustworthy service manual, Japanese bikes are often the easiest models to restore.
Yamaha motorcycle parts are also extremely easy to come by, meaning you won’t spend too long scouring the web for much-needed brake shoes, batteries, spark plugs, dampers, carbs or air filters.
But pick carefully. The rarer the machine the harder to find the parts and the more expensive they will be. You also want to ensure that you pick a model that is simple enough to work with and that you want to ride once completed. Starting with a single cylinder engine is a good way to go, learn then move onto bigger, more complex models if you fancy another project!
Buy a workshop manual
Both Clymer and Haynes are the go-to when it comes to must-buy classic motorcycle restoration service manuals, especially for those looking for an easy-to-use guide.
They are based on actual motorcycle strip down and rebuild, and are simple to understand. They offer an array of step-by-step instructions accompanied by pictures that are easy to follow, even without the experience of a mechanic or a team of staff.
If you know your machines' exact make and model, get your hands on a copy of your bikes' parts list, especially if you are new to the motorcycle terminology. Having a corresponding part number with a diagram of where exactly it belongs will make the re-assembly of your motorcycle a much easier job.
Get a Diary
Restoring a classic motorcycle is a long term commitment. Depending on your time, skills and resources, it might take weeks, months or even years to complete your first bike.
It might seem easy to dismantle a motorcycle, but 6 months down the line, will you still remember how all the bits go back together? With so many parts needing replacement, keeping a track on what has been ordered and what you are still to source out is a key. Many online purchases might take weeks to arrive.
Despite all efforts, some jobs themselves will have to be outsourced no matter how good your cleaning and polishing skills are. Powder coated frame will look nicer for longer than simply spray painted one, lots of classic bikes had chrome elements that will require re-plating, the electrical wiring harness might need an expert check over, seat might need new padding or leather upholstery and that is just a start.
A good diary is certainly worth an investment!
So how do you start with a motorcycle restoration?
Firstly you’ll need to take the motorcycle apart. If you don't know where to start, there are numerous videos online that can help you out or refer to your motorcycle model manual. Either way, take lots of pictures along the way.
Next you need to establish which components need a good clean, and which need more attention. Some might be salvageable and repairable, others will have to be replaced in their entirety. Once you know what’s what, you can make a start on ordering pieces beyond repair. This can prove tricky if you don’t know where to look, especially if the bike is of a particular age.
Be prepared to invest both time and love into your motorcycle restoration project, especially if the bike has been sitting in your garage for the last 20 years. Once back on the road, the hard work will be worth it!
Tips for motorcycle restoration projects
If you’ve decided to take the bull by the horns and restore your old motorbike to its full potential, we salute you! Providing you take a few tips on board, this labour of love will incite years of fun once complete!
As the saying goes, time is money. Unless fixing up classic bikes is your business, every hour spent working on your motorcycle restoration is likely to be unpaid. Of course, if this is a hobby you’re passionate about, the amount of time you spend with your prized restoration project, won’t prove too much of an issue.
Replacement parts on the other hand do cost money - the more technical the component, the higher the price. Changing brake fluid might be relatively cheap, but if you need to replace the whole master cylinder, drum brakes or full braking systems, the cost will add up. Availability of parts will also be a key financial element. If you find a part that you have been long looking for, you can be almost certain that there is at least one more motorcycle restorer after the very same item.
So make sure you factor in a budget for the entire project and stick to it. It's easy to get carried away, especially when adding last minute upgrades in the shape of custom shaped handlebars, different turn signals, improvements to the engine or bespoke ignition system.
Finally, don't expect to make a fortune on restoring vintage motorcycles. The final bike is probably going to be worth only as much as the parts that you have put into it and if lucky enough the time you invested. Only those that are excellent at motorcycle restoration and modification can make a living out of rebuilding old machines.
Use good quality tools
When it comes to classic motorcycles, you can’t cut corners. The majority of fixings have probably rusted beyond salvation. Cheap spanner or screwdriver will not get you far. You will need a decent quality hand as well as power tools. Make sure you invest in a set of good quality adjustable wrenches, socket sets, screwdrivers, pliers and a hammer. Drills and grinders will come handy too. Don't forget gloves, motorcycle safety glasses and a respirator to protect you from the age-old dust layers of old paint.
Ask for advice
If you’re unsure of what parts to invest in, where to get them or how to fit them, ask for advice! You’ll save a great deal of time and money if you’re prepared to ask questions.
From blogs, like the one featured on our site, to beginners guides detailing the various types of classic motorcycles available, to forums, and specialist suppliers, there’s plenty of places to seek advice and a number of people willing to help for that matter!
Don't give up!
It can be easy to give up, especially if this is your first attempt at restoring a classic motorcycle. If you’re struggling with a fix, can’t find a part or haven’t got the first clue about using a particular tool, don’t panic! Rebuilding a motorcycle isn’t supposed to be easy - that would be no fun!
Taking a break, watching a hands-on online tutorial on Youtube, or asking the bike forum masses for help is certain to get you back on track.
How much does it cost to restore a motorcycle?
This depends on the type of bike (or bikes) you plan to restore, how much work needs completing and what parts are required. A motorcycle that needs only a good clean and a paint job will cost a lot less to fix than motorcycles requiring an total engine rebuild.
The age and make of your motorcycle will also affect the final cost. The older and unique the machine the more expensive it will be, because there are less available components for it on the market, which pushes the prices up.
Is it hard to restore a motorcycle?
Again this depends on the job at hand and whether or not you have expertise in the area. Unless you’re a natural, restoring an old classic motorcycle will take time and effort. You’ll need to upskill yourself in tools, parts and mechanics. The more knowledge you have, the easier you will find the task at hand.
How do you restore a motorcycle that has been sitting?
First things first, give it a good clean! This will require you taking the thing apart and cleaning each component separately, especially if it has been sitting for many years.
The next step involves establishing which parts are still in working order and which need to be replaced. All core metal elements such as engine, cylinder and carburetors might need only a good clean, with possibly few seals replaced, others such as intake joints, lever and footrests covers, fuel tank seals, dampers or control cables might need full replacement.
You will also need space to work on the bike and the right service tools.
What do you do with old motorcycles?
If you’re lucky enough to own an old classic motorcycle, whether it’s been sitting in the back of your garage for years or has been gifted to you by a family member or friend, restoring it to its former glory is exactly what you should do. Once restored and in working order, you can get it registered, taxed and ready to use on the road! Commuting to work or uni on a motorcycle is not only a pleasure, but also a fairly economical way to travel.
Why is it important to buy quality parts?
With classic motorcycles, any part won’t do! You want to make sure that the part you install is going to do a good job and more importantly last you for several years.
If you ever looked for a motorcycle part in the past, you know that there are different types on the market. If you are lucky enough, you motorcycle model might still have parts manufactured by the original factory, the so-called OEM parts, if not, you'll have to look elsewhere.
NOS parts are great to start with specially for rare bikes. They are new spares, that have been sitting in a warehouse or a store for as long as your bike has been sitting in your shed. They are good replacement, however their performance might have been affected by the age, so take that into consideration.
Reproductions are another option. Several specialists, including ourselves, have seen the gap in the market for classic motorcycle parts and decided to stock aftermarket replicas. These spare parts are designed to the exact specifications of the OEM originals and are created using high-quality materials.
What to do if you get really stuck on a restoration?
It happens to the best of us! You’ve been working on a restoration project for some time now and you’ve hit a wall. Whether struggling to fit a certain part or the restoration is complete, but the machine won’t turn over, rest assured - help is at hand!
If this happens, speak to a reputable mechanic with experience in motorcycle restoration projects. Alternatively, reach out to fellow bikers on forums or Facebook. You are certainly going to find one or two who faced the same problem and who can guide you through the trouble-shooting process.
How much experience is required for restorations?
Providing you are willing to learn new skills and get your hands dirty, even those with little experience can undertake a motorcycle restoration. If you’re unsure of how much work the restoration involves, take it to a garage for a service first.
If you don’t have an old motorcycle to hand and want to purchase a classic to restore, do lots and lots of research or speak to a specialist. They will be able to recommend alternatives if they don’t think the model you have in mind is right for your first attempt at a restorations project.
If you have decided to restore or repair your first motorbike, remember, enjoy the process and make it fun.
We wish you good luck!
I was captured when you discussed that we should choose the motorcycle part that would last you for several years. My friend told me that his motorcycle is needing repair. I should advise him to call an expert in motorcycle repair to prevent further damage.
Wow! This is a really detailed guide - just what I was looking for before starting this restoration project. I actually found helpful tips here https://happywrench.com/life-lessons-restoring-old-motorcycles/ too. In addition to your guide, I think I'm good to go. Thank you so much.
It got me when you said that powder coating the frame will be able to make the surface look nicer and last longer aside from spray painting it. I should include that in the custom motorcycle paint service I need for the bike that I plan to give to my husband. It is a secondhand vintage item that I have saved up as a surprise for his birthday this year. https://peamotorcycleart.com/custom-motorcyle-paint
I liked it when you shared that it is best to find the right place where you can look for classic motorcycle parts for your bike. My uncle just mentioned the other day that he is planning to get new parts for his bike as he wants to make it look as good as new. I will suggest to him get the ones that he wants from a reliable supplier.
Hallo Jackie, hallo Jason.
Dies ist ein sehr interessanter und lehrreicher Artikel über die Restaurierung alter Motorräder. Ich restauriere zur Zeit eine Yamaha DT175MX von 1979.
Alles was Ihr schreibt ist richtig und sollte beachtet werden.
Für am Wichtigsten halte ich allerdings die gute Dokumentation beim Zerlegen des Motorrades. Daher fotografiere ich nicht nur alle Teile und ihre original Einbauposition, sondern packe Schrauben und Kleinteile in Polybeutel und beschrifte sie sorgfältig, um zu wissen wo sie später wieder eingebaut werden müssen. Auf den ersten Blick ist das trivial, aber wenn man erst einmal 20 - 30 Schrauben, Muttern und Kleinteile unsortiert in einer Kiste liegen hat, verliert man schnell den Überblick.
Leider gibt es viele Teile für mein Motorrad schin nichtmehr und die Suche nach diesen Teilen ist eine wahre Detektivarbeit.
Zum Glück gibt es einige Teile schon von Euch - das hilft sehr bei der Restaurierung.
Danke und weiter so!!