Tour 13 – Motorcycle Rehab: What Does Free Cost?

A motorcycle tour would have been impossible for me without the existence of a reason for a quarter of a ton of metal to be in my possession in the form of a device with the singular purpose of propelling a human body through space with minimal baggage. The story started with my son being given a “gift,” a motorcycle, 1985, and not ridden since 2004. Wide-eyed, we weren’t considering the rehabilitation process, nor had we undertaken a project like this in the past. Our first attempts at starting the bike quickly unearthed a recovery path that began stretching out before us.

In this 2-part post, I’ll be considering what it takes to make a neglected 28-year-old bike run with the confidence that it will take you on a tour of New England. The tour is Tour 13. I’m promoting my collaboration website by visiting friends I haven’t seen for years. Join the network at collab.us

The picture shown here is an annotated photo of the bike in its final days before shipping from California to New York. The repairs completed, it awaits the shipper. The numbers are a rough skip and jump through the major costs and efforts. Initially, the troubleshooting of an older bike is mere observation of critical failures – definite problems that hinder the basic operation. Working on the critical problems helps to uncover subtler issues.

1985 Suzuki GS700EF

Steps in Bike Rehabilitation

0: What goes around comes around

The friend who owned the bike lived within a few streets in suburban Palo Alto. He was moving back to India and needed to clean up his rental property. I expect he was grappling with the profoundness of the reality: you can’t take it with you. My son was happy to drag the bike home, literally, as the rear wheel master cylinder (see 4) was frozen and the rear wheel was flat. The valve stems (0) of both wheels were weather-checked. The rear valve stem had failed. The front valve stem was about to fail. The remedy was OEM Suzuki Genuine valve stems. $16 for 2 at a local dealership. Remove the wheels from the motorcycle. Use hydraulic bottle jack to break the bead of the tires. Remove/replace valve stem. Inflate with air tank. Re-mount wheels with cotter pins in castle nuts of mounting hardware.

Nuance alert: The valve stems that were previously installed showed critical failure as a crack in the rubber near the exterior of the hole in the rim. The valve stem was bulging. It was a tight fit that deformed the rubber and caused this natural place of failure over time. I discovered that the valve stems used were for automotive rims, for a slightly larger hole. Seeing this, I could only justify replacing them with original equipment that were designed for the Suzuki ‘non-(SAE)standard’ rim specifications.

The tires now inflated, I assessed the damage that time and weather had exacted on the sidewalls. Very reasonable. I took a moment to reflect on the favorable environmental conditions of Northern California. It is a haven for older vehicles. The bike had minimal rust and corrosion, although some preventable rust in the wrong place was a hidden obstacle (see 2).

1: Heart of Lead

The battery is the heart of the motorcycle. It isn’t big or even noisy, but without it, the bike is lifeless. Bikes with kick-starters can be started without a battery. The electrical starter is required for motorcycles with large engines. Regardless of the necessity, the electrical system is what makes the bike civil. The headlamp beacon signals your approach, it illuminates the road. Cryptic electrical schematics in Owner’s Manuals only serve to increase homage to the exalted electrons.

Interstate Cycle-Tron Battery

Cycle-Tron YB14L-A2

The battery shown here was installed in the motorcycle. There was no electrolyte (battery acid) in any of the cells as it had long since evaporated. I filled each cell with distilled water and charged the battery. My experience with lead-acid batteries was telling me that there was no way the battery could be serviceable, but it seemed to be holding a charge. I held out hope – this one could saved, I thought.

It turned out the installed battery was only serviceable enough to coax me along the path of rehabilitation. The charge allowed the starter to work, with the roar of combustion only a faint promise in the future. Through subsequent steps, the battery showed its fatigue and I could no longer justify keeping it when I considered the [cost savings]/[do I really want to be stuck waiting for jumper cables?] comparison.

After comparing online prices and quotes from local motorcycle stores for different brands, I decided to stay with Interstate Batteries. Since a distributor was nearby, I was easily able to match it with the help of a salesperson. Some local sources were selling cheaper brands, but I felt $10 was a small price differential between the Cycle-Tron and a Chinese brand. The new battery was sold dry with a bottle of sulphuric acid. The battery charged quickly. The bike starter spun more vigorously.

Nuance alert: The installed battery was a YB14L-A2. Part No. M2214Y. Made in U.S.A. The replacement battery was an IB14L-A2. Made in Taiwan. I had a twinge of lost patriotic pride in noticing the originating country had changed, but then there are many bigger, more powerful batteries that are proudly stamped: Made in U.S.A. Considering the origin of the premium Yuasa battery brand, I think that Interstate is sourcing for quality.

The biggest insurance policy for the trip, the battery, was $64.

2: A Fuelish Assumption

Gasoline has an expiration date. A small quantity of gas in a ventilated gas tank for 8 years is not an ideal condition. The VOCs (volatile organic compounds) of the gasoline dissipate, the gasoline loses its ability to explode, making it harder and harder for explosion in the cylinder, thus becoming harder to start. In my first attempts to start the bike, I used the original gas. In hindsight, it couldn’t have started even if the carburators weren’t in need of some tuning. I eventually drained and refilled the gas tank. I could have done this sooner, but I started by fixing mechanical problems with a carburator, considering that unless the fuel can flow into the float bowl, nothing else mattered.

Examination of a stuck needle valve revealed it was stuck due to corrosion. Some TLC and cleaning fixed the problem and saved the expense of another part. Fortunately, the three (3!) other carburators’ float mechanisms were not jammed. The difficult part of rehabilitating a carburator while the engine is on the bike is the lack of room to use tools around the float bowls. It was a painstaking process to loosen and tighten the phillips-head machine screws. Seeing the underside of the inner carbs was difficult.

Working with gas is my least favorite part of working with engines. The most advanced technologies of manipulating the fuel still do not change the fundamental nature of the hydrocarbon: it smells bad for you. On many occasions I’ve breathed its fumes and had it on my skin.

With the proper operation of the float, the float bowl fills with gas. Removing this bowl means gasoline can spill. Vinyl or rubber gloves are welcomed. By the time the float has been installed, tested and removed for the fourth time, the smell of gas is familiar. Add to that the occasional mishap and you’ve probably had it on your hands or legs. A float valve stuck open will quickly allow a combustion cylinder to fill with fuel, requiring it to be ejected from the cylinder via the spark plug hole. Doing this, I was surprised at the velocity of the fuel when it erupted as the starter was engaged. Even with a paper towel over the hole, the gusher managed to spray me.

An upstream problem like rust in the gas tank can be mistaken for a float or other carburator problem. Determining that rust is in the tank is easier with experience, but clues are available to everyone. Eventually, even without knowing it, the brute-force action of emptying the old gas to replace it yields the evidence of rust scale that can’t be ignored. Even considering that the screen in the tank will keep most offending particles out of the fuel, reducing the loose rust scale in the tank is a good thing to do.

Nuance alert: One of the spare parts provided with the bike was a used petcock (the mechanical valve you turn to select the Reserve, On or Prime fuel flow). I ended up using the part to fix a problem that the previous owner diagnosed – the reason the part existed. I finished a process that was started with the acquisition of the part. The part was a physical avatar of an item on the bike’s to-do list.

With new fuel and a cleaner fuel system, the engine finally started with the help of starting fluid and continued to run. The bike was breathing on its own. At this point, I felt we’d accomplished a milestone. It was motivation to continue. My son’s interest in the bike was waning due to a busy schedule and an unclear path to its utilization. He officially gave it to me on Father’s Day in 2012. Since then, I’ve stuck with it on the principal of reuse – I was still thinking of riding it in California, or selling it if I didn’t.

3: Seal of Integrity

The luxury of buying OEM parts for a motorcycle is a blessing and a curse. The efforts of workers spanning the globe creating parts within the brand and tolerances of the original machine makes swapping parts a most rewarding process. There is the feeling that a refurbished cycle is ‘as good as new’ when the necessary parts are changed.

The curses of buying motorcycle parts are distribution, selection and price. The curses of distribution and selection have been reduced with the rise of e-commerce. The curse of price is variable. There are common bikes as there are common cars. The main master cylinder for my ’68 VW Bug was $10 at a Kragen auto parts store a few years ago. Just the rear master cylinder piston for my motorcycle (see 4) was $29 and I consider my Suzuki year/model a common bike. Prices go higher from there.

Buying online means finding as much wrong as you can before you order parts to save shipping costs on things you need, that you just don’t know yet. Ordering a valve cover gasket was the result of the diagnosis of an oil leak. Other worn or broken parts reveal themselves under examination. Another reason to order a part is preventive maintenance (see 6) for things such as air and oil filters.

Nuance alert: I am impressed by the utility of replacement parts websites. I’ve ordered parts for appliances as well. In both instances, the ease of navigation to reach a parts diagram with annotated pieces and ease of ordering have provided me a dashboard that feels like a power user. In one instance, I was at the parts counter of a local Suzuki dealer and inquired about obtaining an oil temperature sensor. I’d checked and it was unavailable (out-of-stock and end-of-life) from online sources. The service person checked his sources and couldn’t find the part. One of his search tools was a website that looked familiar – the same interface I’d seen for online vendors.

Bonus nuance: This image is a snapshot of the parts diagram at www.suzukipart.com (ostensibly ‘Xtreme Powersports’ of Kinderhook, NY). The valve cover gasket is highlighted. I arrived at this page by drilling down make, year, model and category of part. The appropriate category choice was labeled ‘ES, (GS700E)’. The part categories Frame Cover, Front Brake Hose, Front Master Cylinder, Handlebar, Headlamp and Steering Stem were subclassified as GS700EF or GS700ESF. A part category Cowling (GS700ESF) existed. I deduced that the ‘F’ was redundant, but considered how the acronym artifact was propagated. The make of my bike is GS700ES. It had a cowling (the ‘S’ as ‘Sport’ or ‘Special’ option became clearer when considering the part categories that varied, listed above). Whatever reason a name or model isn’t listed exactly, an appropriate alternative may exist. The tolerance or gray area of some alternate selections is acceptable, other times it isn’t. On the uShip.com website, the closest selection for make of 1985 Suzuki motorcycles was ‘GSX 750 EF’. I selected it considering that the difference in weight of the motorcycles was most likely negligible where a shipping carrier fee is concerned. Interface extra: Note the social media icons at the top of the page. . .evidence that every opinion does not count. Are Facebook, Twitter and Google+ widgets appropriate for your web pages? If no one ‘Like’ you, that doesn’t mean you aren’t liked. We are better for pieces of advice from friends, but when the institutionalization of recommendations feels like a corporate come-on, I prefer them to be one-to-one, quiet, offline. I mention brands in this blog as signposts I saw on my journey. There are many choices to explore and cull. Your results will vary.

The need to replace the valve cover gasket also justified checking and adjusting the valve clearance. These branches and possibilities of the job were only recognized with understanding. Without guidance or the previous experience adjusting valves, I could have considered the oil leak the primary and only goal of removing the valve cover and missed the opportunity to check the valves when it was most convenient.

4: Braking Loose

Considering that coming to a stop is at least as important as going forward when riding or driving any vehicle, brakes are fundamental. Brakes for bicycles, lawn mowers and other small, light vehicles are likely to be mechanical – the pressure of pressing a pedal or pushing a lever directly applies friction to the wheel(s) via a redirection of the force through a cable or linkage. The force is stepped up by applying lever and fulcrum mechanical advantage.

Brakes on more powerful, heavy vehicles are largely hydraulic. Master cylinders work with calipers and wheel cylinders using fluid equations to increase the advantage of pulling the brake lever or pressing the brake pedal. My motorcycle has two, independent fluid-driven brake systems. The front brakes (two disks and calipers) are applied by a brake lever attached to a master cylinder on the handlebars. The rear brake (one disk and caliper) is engaged via foot pedal. The front brakes were intact and working correctly. The rear brake cylinder was frozen.

Considering brake problems, they will usually not go unnoticed. With any routine inspection, a leaky hydraulic (i.e. brake-fluid driven) system will reveal itself upon checking the fluid level over time. Normal fluid usage will result in a slightly lower level as brake pads or shoes wear and more fluid stays in the calipers or wheel cylinders. Abnormal fluid drain is indicated by a very low level that continues to get lower, even after refilling. Silent brake problems can cause anxiety without an understanding of the tolerance of braking systems in general. Regularly adding brake fluid is a stop-gap solution to a slow leak, however leaking fluid may find its way onto the brake lining, reducing its braking efficiency. The leaking fluid is wasteful, but not necessarily dangerous. Adding fluid to a system without a leak indicates the brake linings are becoming thinner and, without replacement, the metal of the pad/shoe could contact the metal disk/drum. This results in a disturbing noise and more expensive repair.

The normal operation of a braking system is analogous to breathing. Pressing the fluid in the master cylinder is breathing out into the wheel (caliper/cylinder). When the lever or pedal is released, fluid flows from the wheel back into the master cylinder (breathing in). Corrosion is an enemy of brake components as it is for any precise system. A symptom of corrosion in a brake system is that breathing becomes harder. Eventually, a breath out is not returned. This results in a condition where the brake lining is applied to the rotating disk/drum continuously. When I pressed the rear brake pedal, it stayed down, with master cylinder compressed (stuck breathing out). The back wheel would not move.

At right is a diagram of the rear master cylinder of the bike. The plunger (highlighted) fits with tight clearance in the aluminum cylinder. The corrosion of either plunger or wall inhibits the smooth reciprocation (breathing out / breathing in). The counterpart of the master cylinder is the hydraulic mechanisms at the wheels, also vulnerable to corrosion. The plunger on the bike was stuck. I determined that sacrificing the plunger was the only way to remove it and save the cylinder. A No. 7 wire gauge tap drill was used as the pilot for the 1/4 x 20 bolt to become the handle for removing the plunger. Removed in this manner, the plunger became useless. A replacement plunger was $29. I buffed the cylinder with steel wool and the new plunger and cap fit snugly and slid easily.

I reviewed and cleaned the rear caliper. Both ends of the rear brake system were working in concert. My examination of the system revealed that the rear brake pads were thinning. Since I like to use the rear brake when I ride, a new pair will be well-used. I found new pads on eBay. There was no reason not to consider the $11.14 upgrade. Tz-Bing Lin was the eBay seller ‘sokbrake’. There were other listings of comparable price. I was convinced of the purchase by the split-pad design.

5: Chain of Commands

The bike was now rolling smoothly with minimal effort. The open and not-so-open roads of Northern California were calling. If I eventually wanted to ride them, I needed to take care of DMV paperwork.

The Damage: I approached the clerk with Pink Slip in hand, nervously. The license plate tag was 2004, so I knew it wasn’t currently registered. What I didn’t know was if the previous owner had written the bike off years ago and neglected to pay the lower PNO (planned non-operation) fee in lieu of registering each year. The fee is paid to avoid penalties if the vehicle is registered after a period of inactivity. This image is the DMV printout that summarized the registration penalties and fees. The good news is that they fit on one page. Barely.

The $610 CA registration fee dazed me. The value of the bike that I declared in the transfer document was $0. At this point the utility of the bike came into focus. Considering the value of the bike in Palo Alto, it was severely limited by its age. It would be more valuable where there is a larger market for bikes in its condition. I grew up in rural New York. I began to consider shipping the bike to the east coast. My brother would register and insure it and I would borrow it during my visit. The title is transferred to NY, making it easier to sell locally (with current local registration, etc.).

I began exploring shippers to move the 500-pound motorcycle from one side of the country to the other. I found multiple sources online. I chose to compare two: motorcycleshippers.com (J.C. Motors) and uShip.com. They were different businesses with the same target. J.C. Motors has an established, regular shipping process. uShip.com is a shipping buyer bazaar where you solicit shippers based on origin and destination. You provide a fixed offer or solicit bids via auction. I decided to offer the shipping job via auction. There is no obligation to accept any offers. uShip.com charges a service fee if the shipping offer is accepted (via a customer web portal).

Before the uShip auction was finished, I talked to a sales representative for J.C. Motors who quoted a fixed price. Their website was easy to use and filling out the online form provided the same quoted price as the salesperson. I would save $50 on the shipping if I could drop-off the bike at a transfer station. I could save an additional $50 for picking up at a shipper-specified location near my rural destination. I considered that I could drop-off the bike, but not pick it up. For station to residence delivery, the quote was $698.

The drive chain is a series of rugged steel links that are essential to transfer power from the engine to the rear wheel. This exterior chain is exposed to the elements. I cleaned the bike’s chain with kerosene and a wire brush. The black deposits on the chain melted away to the brighter metal. I applied a coat of motor oil after the chain dried. Much of refurbishment is cleaning. Cleaning parts gives them a second lease on utilization.

6: In the Details

I road-tested the motorcycle around my neighborhood. Without proper registration or insurance, shifting and acceleration were tested by bursts of speed between residential blocks. I soon wanted to adjust the clutch linkage in an attempt to make shifting smoother.

An access plate covered the clutch adjustment screw. The plate was loose with only one mounting screw installed. I was curious why two screws were missing until I attempted to remove the remaining screw. It was stuck. The steel machine screw was fused to the aluminum chain housing.

Corrosion is the bane of every restoration project. The still-installed screw indicated that the previous owner stopped short of doing what I knew I must do to reach the clutch adjustment mechanism. I twisted the head of the screw and it snapped where it met the aluminum threads. With the screw broken, I removed the cover and discovered one other screw had been broken and one threaded hole was empty. I added a replacement screw to my growing list of parts to order.

With only one screw, the access plate would be vulnerable to loosening with engine vibration. I was determined to add a screw where one had broken. The embedded screw was small enough that a screw extractor couldn’t be used. In the past, I’ve had mixed luck extracting broken bolts anyway, even with the best conditions. Bolts that break due to corrosion are virtually welded to the tapped threads. Penetrating oil and heat, etc. will sometimes help, but you give up on these when, considering experience, your chance of success is slim. Sometimes the required fix is more drastic.

I decided to drill the lower screw and tap the hole to accommodate a larger 1/4″ bolt. The threaded hole wasn’t quite centered on the broken screw, but it was close enough. The repair was the difference between just getting by and a solid solution.

To understand something is to get a feeling of what is essential about it. Being confident in the mechanical integrity of the bike, the form is gravy. The utility of the motorcycle transcends its style. I was less concerned with polishing the metal as I began to appreciate its inner beauty. At what point do our fetishistic relationships with objects end? Visit any junkyard and look at the scrap. Imagine how the owners of scrapped cars or other objects revered them when they were new. They were only a scratch, dent or mechanical failure away from being considered junk.

Changing engine oil is preventive maintenance that I perform regularly on my car. Oil damaged by heat and use offers less protection against the friction of metal-to-metal twisting, turning and sliding. It was good to replace the motorcycle engine oil and oil filter installed 8+ years previously.

At the end of a 10-day uShip.com auction, I had one bid. The door-to-door price quoted by Rocky Top Transport (Moto Express) to ship the bike from Palo Alto, CA to Ledyard, NY was $600. uShip would add a $48 listing fee. A uShip promotion for first-time shippers promised a $25 discount. The real total would be $623. This beat J.C. Motors’ station to residence delivery fee by $75. I accepted the bid.

The bike is in transit as I write this. Within a day of accepting the bid, I received a phone call from Chris Terry to discuss when he expected to pick-up the bike. It was loaded for shipment in the front of my home on July 22. Chris was driving the large pickup pulling a covered trailer. He was courteous. His operation looked efficient, maximizing the number of motorcycles he could carry safely. He was a professional driver and had crossed the country numerous times.

The steps described above are only half my journey. There were some unexpected mechanical failures and design solutions that remained. I will conclude this blog next week with steps 7 – 13. Thanks for reading. And collaborating.

About Peter

As a consulting professional in the Internet industry, I have helped small- and medium-sized businesses and community organizations effectively design and deploy web services and information. Years of hands-on design and project management experience for this market have inspired me to post my ideas and insights on a public forum -- blog.collab.us.
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5 Responses to Tour 13 – Motorcycle Rehab: What Does Free Cost?

  1. Ralph Brandt says:

    Reminds me of ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, Pirsig’s philosophical exploration of quality. If you haven’t read, it should be your companion on your ride. Keep off the main roads and have fun.

  2. Bruce Jaffe says:

    FREE comes with a good education. An valuable education takes some innate curiosity, time and, sometimes, $$$$.

  3. Philippe Leroy says:

    Pete, seems like you don’t own this bike anymore … she owns you! 🙂
    Loved that story my friend. Good luck on you journey!
    Sincerely, Philippe.

  4. Sterling says:

    Peter,

    I can appreciate the effort involved in your restoration project. I applaud your resolve to get it in running condition and actually RIDE it! I’m going to follow your blog so I can live vicariously through your travels in New England on your resurrected motorcycle.

    I read your blog in it’s entirety. Being of the Brandt clan, I must fulfill my genetic responsibility to scrutinize your writing and point out trivial errors. Not to worry, as the the word “tolerance” is oft misused in lieu of “clearance”. A tolerance is a range of values that a measurement is allowed to deviate, as in +or – 1mm. A clearance is the distance between two parts as designed. The clearance between the plunger in your rear brake master cylinder may have diminished due to corrosion. The allowable tolerance never changes.

    Keep the blog updates coming. I’ll be happy to scrutinize the rest of your writings and continue to nit-pick an otherwise informative dissertation.

    Keep the rubber side down…

    • Peter says:

      Sterling,
      Thanks for your insight. I corrected the entry to change the word. It improves the clarity and correctness of the description.

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