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Starting the real work

The forks will need to be shorter. I see a good few bikes with the forks shortened by slackening off the pinch bolts and sliding the fork legs up in the yolks. Whilst that instinctively feels (and to me, looks) like a bit of a bodge, it has a lot to recommend it.
Firstly, it’s quick and easy. More to the point, it’s also quickly and easily reversible.
I decided therefore, to do just that as a first pass. That would give me time to assess the handling change, save me having to rebuild the front end in a hurry and I could always come back and shorten them properly afterwards. So it’s time to start on the rest.

This is the bit that I usually dislike intensely. Years of grime, rounded off nuts, bits that are seized up… and that’s just me! To be fair Little Suzi wasn’t too bad at all. There was very little in a particularly poor state.
Now, of all the new and clever tools that have been invented over the years there is one which stands out head and shoulders as the most useful aid to rebuilding and restoration.
The digital camera.
Gone are the days of a million tie on labels, bits of masking tape that either fall off the wiring or become illegible under grubby finger marks, copious notes on lost scraps of paper. Just take lots and lots of pictures of everything. Wiring is an obvious one, but the positions of washers and spacers, even introduce a measuring device for scale. I love the thing. So…


With the engine out and the front footpegs removed, the dog gets to see the proverbial rabbit.


I took the centre stand off early in the proceedings and gave it a clean and some new paint. Since the bike was going to be sat on it for most of the rest of the job it saved hassle.
This picture gives a good view of the original brake linkage… and reveals a fair amount of Suzuki standard ferrous oxide finish.


But after being sent off for bead blasting and powder coating she was looking much better. NOT A CHANCE!!!! This is just not that sort of restoration. What she got was a good rub down with wet and dry and coat of warm Hammerite smooth, cost roughly £10.

Footpegs and linkages
On the procurement front, that famous auction site yielded a pair of ex-Bantam clipons for £6 and a set of Aprilia 125 rear sets for £16. The rearsets were a bit bent and much repaired, having also lived on a Moto-team racer for some time, but they’d do the job.
Well, actually they wouldn’t.
The mounting points for the standard footpegs are set back a little from the level of the frame, see piccy. Fine if you’re going forwards with them, but it doesn’t work if you’re trying to go backwards. Needless to say, the mounting holes don’t line up anyway and whatever goes in there has to leave clearance for the end of the swinging arm spindle.

footpeg mounts

I did come up with a shape for a mounting plate that would do it, but to be really right it would have to be machined and whichever way it’s made there’s still too much cantilever (to clear the frame) for me to feel happy about it.
The answer to that problem, and another, came from the “Normous Newark Autojumble”. It was a fine event. We spent pretty much the whole day there and even my girlfriend enjoyed it, which is just as well, since she has entirely adapted her natural shoe and handbag spotting ability to be able to locate motorcycle parts at great distances. I cannot overstate what an invaluable and fulfilling feature in a lady this is.
Anyway, two bargains came out of it. One was a rather sad looking bum stop seat for £20 and the other was a battered old Clarke welding set for £25. I learned stick and gas welding as part of my apprenticeship (in electronics!) and then added MIG many years later when I was racing cars, so this looked like a good solution.
The right place for the footpegs was going to be somewhere within the triangle of frame that supports the rear pegs, so it should be a simple matter to weld a hefty fillet into the gap on which to mount the new ones.
Apart from one tube of one the triangles being slightly cranked, grinding off the rear footpeg mounts and sticking in a couple of bits of plate was as straightforward as it sounds.

P1020575 P1020576

P1020580 P1020581

Positioning the footpegs so that they were in the same place on each side of the bike took a couple of minutes thought, eventually achieved with two bits of string. One from the petrol tank mount and one from the rear seat mount. That gave me a triangle, the bottom of which was where the footpeg lives, simples!
The Aprilia pegs themselves were a bit knackered, so I chose to fit a £5 pair of new rear pegs instead and welded a 10mm nut to the back of the mounting hole, so that I could screw them in with lots of locktight and then fit a locknut behind them.
The levers were slightly more complicated, as they needed to stand out from the plate (to clear the linkages) and had plain shoulders on the mounting bolts which used to fit into a “bearing” area on the aluminium mounting.
In the end I had to drill out a couple of nuts to provide the “bearing” bit and then weld those and threaded nuts to the mounting plate. It was a little bit of a fart on grinding everything down to just the right height, but once done it all seemed appropriately secure and happy. The pictures tell the story better than I can, I used an old footpeg that I found in a box for fitting up.


Then of course, there are thelinkages…

A bit of a witter about riding position, weight distribution and centre of pressure.

The first place to look was obviously the web. I was truly astonished at firstly, just how many GN250 café racer projects there seemed to be and, perhaps more, by how many of them retained the forward set footpegs.
I’m going to have a little rant now, it’s just my opinion and is in no way intended to offend anybody or denigrate their efforts. There are some great looking machines out there.
I can’t imagine why anybody would build with clip-ons and forward pegs. Forward set pegs are ok on a big cruiser for two reasons. One is that the riders weight is relatively small compared to the bike and the other is that it’s not meant for aggressive cornering.
If you’re building anything with even the mildest sporting pretensions, one must bear in mind how to corner a bike. Namely with your weight firmly on your feet, your bum just brushing the seat and the lightest of grips on the bars.
I was told that one’s grip on the handlebars should be as if one were holding a sparrow. Just enough to stop it flying away, but not enough to crush it. I’ve had little success with that myself, but found strapping gerbils to the grips pretty effective and I think they enjoyed the ride, well, the bit before the emergency stop perhaps.
With forward pegs your weight is firmly on your backside and the only way to lift it would be to pull yourself up by the handlebars… nasty. On the upside, looking at the youtubes of some of the bikes built that way, the rider would never suffer from trapped wind!
In defence of all those who’ve built them that way (especially in areas where frame mods are verboten) there appear to be no rear sets on the market that come anywhere near fitting the GN250. A problem to be solved…and cheaply.
Getting moving
Planning these great ventures is fine, but there comes a point where one must actually lift the backside and start doing stuff. Especially in this case. It was already half past October and the ST1100 was due to go off the road in December. I was going to be working under a plastic garden awning in the back yard, so both light and heat would be in very short supply, which pretty much rules out late night sessions or a lot of evening work.
Work would start on three fronts, design, unbuild/build and procurement. Needless to say the three would interact to a fair extent, so I’ll wander back and forth between them as I see fit.
Design, whilst never actually finishing, needs to start first, not least because that’s the last time one has a complete bike to stand back and look at until it’s finished.
Starting at the front, the forks look too long and the whole thing has a rearward lean. It’s the cruiser style of course and almost exactly the opposite of what I was aiming for.
I will sound a long, loud note of caution here.
To me (though seemingly not to a good few builders out there in web world) building a café racer is not a styling exercise. Yes, I want it to look good and to look the part, but the word “racer” didn’t get there by accident. The style was a result of the function, not visa versa.
I know that a lot of folk will correct me and say that all café racers ever did was hang around outside coffee bars looking cool, but that’s not quite true.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in the North East of England (spiritual home of all café racers, there were more Bonnevilles per square motorcyclist there than anywhere else I the world!) in the latter days of the “original” café racer era.

When I was serving my time (apprenticeship, not jail) I would come out of night school on an evening and race my mate over the North Yorks moors to Whitby, for the last pint.
Neither of us had fast bikes (mine was a BSA C15 Star) so we took to the twisty back roads to keep the challenge up.
I still remember one bend between Egton and Aisleby, where you could set it up right over on the wrong side of the road going in, tip it in early to keep the front end down, hear the revs go up as you launched over the hump in the middle and unloaded the back wheel, then (if you got the speed just right) you would land on the last six inches of tarmac on the right side of the road, the back end would tramp down with the impact and you’d shoot out never having taken the throttle off the stop.
I think I got it right twice, but I still remember it forty years later.
Anyway, I digress. The point is that it has to work well and far too many people seem to think that designing a café racer is about looks.

Once the front end is dropped a bit, at least from an aesthetic point of view, the seat will have to go (it looks like a bleedin’ settee) as will the giant indicators and rear light. The tank is the wrong shape, but for the moment I’ve seen a few people just jack up the rear end of it and it looks quite a lot better. That’ll have to do for now.

Any changes to spring rates etc. can wait until it’s been ridden. The fork alteration and the change to the handlebars and footpegs will be a big enough handling change to assess in one go.

That may sound a little surprising/wimpish to some, but the effects of even shifting the bars can be quite dramatic and while it’s difficult in a rebuild such as this to stick to the old rule of only ever changing one thing at a time, one should try to get as near as possible.

In terms of forks, for example. Shortening the forks does a few things:
• It shortens the forks (well gosh!)
• it reduces the effective steering head angle
• it usually shifts the centre of gravity (CofG) forwards and downwards
• it reducess the trail
• it shortens the wheelbase.

That’s a quite a lot of stuff for one ten minute tweak. All of those things will serve to reduce longitudinal stability. That’s why cruisers, designed for long distances in a straight line, tend to have longer, more raked forks.
Now in this case, less stability is exactly what we’re after and we can look at it in terms of a more aggressive (well, less lazy) turn in. But. it will also reduce stability in the bend and in a straight line. So the bottom line is that the bike will be a bit more nimble, but take a bit more riding. That’s good, within limits and if you know what you’re doing. Remember, it also reduces stability in situations where you’d like to keep it, like under heavy braking for example.

Handling and Weight Distribution
Now I’ve got onto handling and weight distribution I may as well stay there for a bit. I looked at one web page where the chap lowered the front and then bought longer rear springs to raise the tail. The text suggested that he did it for looks, or maybe he wanted to save fuel by going permanently downhill, but for me raising anything on a bike (unless it’s because you don’t fit on it) is bad news. I want the CofG as low as possible.

Which brings us back to the clipons and rear sets, often a much misunderstood change.
It’s easy, and intuitive to assume that fitting clip-ons is going to bring the CofG forwards. It doesn’t. What it does do (if, and only if, accompanied by rear set foot pegs) is to bring it down and to stabilise it.
Just as importantly, it will also drastically move, and stabilise, the Centre of Pressure (CofP) which brings us into aerodynamics. Back to that in a moment.
In order to understand the effect on CofG we must first completely ignore the shape of the rider. With clip-ons he looks longer and lower but… His weight can still only act on the bike in three places. His bum, his feet or his hands.
As we’ve already discussed, putting weight on the handlebars is just plain wrong. It’s going to happen under heavy braking, or when you’re asleep, but in control terms it saps all the finesse from your riding and hurts your wrists.
So, for the majority of the time, most of your weight will be on your backside with a bit on your feet. When cornering most or all of that weight should transfer to your feet.
Here’s a simple thought experiment (or you can get some bits of stick and try it for real) to illustrate why.
When we corner, we are very rarely in line with the bike. We usually lean either a little bit less (flicking it through the town traffic mode) or a little bit more (playing racers).

motosmall   152259

So, if the bike is the bottom stick (blue), and pivots on the tyre and the rider is the top stick (red), and pivots on his bum, try to control the lean angle of the bottom stick by pushing down (remember you can’t pull) on the top one. Not easy!


Now lets fit a  pair of footpegs to the bottom stick and rearrange the rider as shown, easy! And it is both simple and instinctive to move your weight from one foot to the other.


At this point I am expecting some fans of  Keith Code’s California Superbike School (and I am one) to pop up and remind me of the piece of film showing that you can’t control a bike by shifting your weight. He is of course, quite right. You can’t really tip a sportsbike into a tight bend with your body weight and counter steering is always the right way to do it. But…  Watch the film carefully.  The demonstration shows that with fixed handlebars, the best the rider can manage is to veer over the track in one direction or the other. That’s quite a lot of veering. To put it into context, only last week I watched a wall of death rider swerve the bike from the bottom of the wall to the top, several times, aiming at different spectators each time. He did it all standing on the footpegs with his arms outstretched. Definitely no counter steering there!  In short, counter steering is the way to lean a bike but a lot of the fine adjustment and stability, is through your feet.

So, back to the weight distribution.  Generally the rear footpegs are more or less under the riders backside. It’s not hugely critical (as long as they’re not too far back) as usually, when the rider lifts his weight onto his feet for a bend, he will scootch his backside back along the seat slightly to keep his balance over the pegs.  Ideally the less the better, so that the end result is that the weight shift is purely downwards (from seat to pegs) rather than fore and aft. This causes minimum disruption to the set up of the bike.

Similarly, because the riders torso is lower and flatter, when the bike accelerates or decelerates it the fore and aft weight shift acts nearer to the bikes overall centre of gravity than it  would if he were more upright. That means it has less pitching effect, so braking and accelerating are flatter. Again, it’s all about stability.

That deals with weight, but what about the aerodynamics? The effect of aeros on a naked bike is way more than most people imagine. Especially on a little one. First, let’s establish whether even considering the aerodynamics is worth it.
It’s well documented that even at as little as sixty mph roughly half the bikes power is used in pushing it through the air. Simply turning that equation backwards says that something equivalent to roughly half the bike and riders combined weight is pushing back against it.  That’s a lot of pressure and just where it pushes on the bike has to make a big difference.

So lets say that the rider is sitting bolt upright, as on a standard GN250. That’s a sizeable, meat flavoured, sail we have there. The wind is going to hit him square in the chest and the only thing he can do to stop himself rotating is to hang on to the bars. The net effect of the pressure against him (way above the CofG)  which is transferred to the high handlebars, is going to rotate the bike backwards. That in turn is going to move the CofG back, which is going to make the bike rotate backwards even more. It’s a positive feedback loop and inherently unstable.  When the rider brakes or slows down, his weight is projected forward, the wind pressure reduces and the CofG moves forwards. Another positive loop, in the opposite direction. The result can be  something like riding a rocking horse and on the little GN, it certainly was.

With clipons two things change.  Firstly, and pretty obviously, some of the air goes straight over the rider, so there is less drag to deal with. Secondly, and more importantly, the rider is leaning forward. With no wind he’s braced against the footpegs and using a combination of his thigh, abdominal and back muscles to maintain his position.  Because his body is now at an angle much of the air pressure is trying to lift him up, rather than push him backwards (think of it like pushing against a wedge)

Which gives him a really easy way to stabilise it. As the wind speed increases he reduces the amount of muscle power being applied and dissipates the wind energy in holding him up.  If it increases even more, all he has to do is lean forward a bit more, so that more of his weight acts downwards.  As he slows down, he uses more muscle power to hold himself up, or sits more upright.  It’s an absolutely natural balancing act that uses gravity to counteract the wind energy, so that it doesn’t have to be reacted through the bike.  In short, the CofG doesn’t have to move. More stability!

It really is hard to believe that a simple change in riding position can make such a huge difference, until you ride a bike and then change it.


That Dropped Valve


The chap from whom I bought little Suzi had been most insistent that she would run at 70mph all day. I have to say that I wasn’t convinced.  Revving the poor little thing to within 500rpm of the red line constantly just didn’t feel right. So instead I would back it off to 60 or 65 and trundle along at that. The exception on that day was the sweeping and diving turn down the slip road from the A14 to the A1 where I overtook a truck and allowed her to run up to 70 on the downhill stretch and for a little while on the flat. Then I backed it off again and carried on at 65.  Just as I pulled onto the slip road to leave the A1 there was a very loud BRRRRRRR and a loss of power. By the time I’d registered it, I had the clutch in and the noise had gone, so it wasn’t the chain. I blipped the throttle a couple of times to no effect, but the noise was a letting go noise, not fuel starvation. Once down to a low speed I gingerly let the clutch out again. Same noise, no noticeable retardation, and the back wheel was still free.

The engine clearly hadn’t converted itself into a bag of bits, but it didn’t sound at all happy either.  Once stopped I switched onto reserve and cranked it over, we always hope for the best don’t we.  There were no particularly nasty noises and it cranked over freely, but it obviously wasn’t going to start.

After pushing it off the exit ramp I tried giving it a bump on a downhill stretch. The same noise. The same lack of starting. My old Rotax powered Harley had always made a noise a bit like that when bump started. I think it was the sprag clutch clonking over, but it really didn’t feel right coming out of this bike.  Then it was time for the mile and a half push home.

Once home, it was time to go through the standard routine. Personally, I always do. So out comes the plug, it’s wet, so we have fuel. Next, hook it up to the plug lead and turn it over. OK, we know it’s not an electrical failure, they don’t make nasty noises, but a hall effect sensor bouncing about in the generator casing might. All clues help. As an incidental aside, some people are of the opinion that you should never turn over an injured motor, for fear of doing more damage. I see it this way. That exciting barn find may well have dry seized rings which will break when you turn it over and go everywhere, so don’t. Similarly, if the engine makes horrid noises but keeps going. Stop it quickly, that may be the difference between a collapsed bearing and a rod through the side of the crankcase. But… this engine failed at about 6500rpm. Let’s say I have lightening reactions and got to the clutch in a tenth of a second (honest mister) the engine would still take a second or so to wind down, so by the time it stops anything making contact in the combustion chamber has done so a hundred or more times and anything in the cam box fifty or so. Either way, the chances of me doing much more harm with the starter motor should be pretty slim.

Anyway, back to the story. Sparks were there aplenty and I’m now convinced that it’s either a dropped valve or a broken piston. Why? Because it cranks over at the same speed with the plug in as it does with it out, so there’s clearly no compression. Placing a careful finger over the plughole (not in it!) and winding it over confirms as much.

Next move is to whip off the rocker covers and turn it over again. Four valves, all going up and down as prescribed. Rats, it looks like a piston problem.  So, clinging to the clearly vain hope that it’s really only a head gasket (they don’t make those noises) I adjourn for dinner and return at the weekend to take the head off. I am then rewarded with the sight of a valve head, seemingly growing out of the cylinder head like some sort of metallic mushroom.


The piston seemed to come off quite well as the valve clearly hit it square on…


…but that valve stem went an eighth of an inch into the head and raised a nice little mound around the crater. That’s one dead head. Looking at the bits was intriguing. The valve had not been bent, so it hadn’t been sheared off. The position of the break and a bit of a look at the crystal structure on the end of it looked like a brittle fracture at the weld. A lot of engines are made with welded valves nowadays, it saves material in the manufacture. Basically, the valve head had just dropped off,  presumably when it hit the seat whilst closing.

The question was why?

I would have expected the valves to bounce, if ever, on the fast bit, not slowing down afterwards. There was oil everywhere there was supposed to be, so it didn’t look like anything had seized. It didn’t even go on the overrun. There wasn’t massive clearance on the tappets, but they were clearing. There was no step, either of wear, erosion or carbon build up on the stem that could catch on the valve guide.       The only thing I could imagine was that the valve stem was fatigued anyway, had started to crack on the fast stretch and then hung on until we hit the slip road. Not exactly definitive, but all I could see.  Since then I have realised that I missed the painfully bleedin’ obvious,  but we’ll catch up with that later. So for now I had a headless bike that was the wrong shape.

And that’s where the story really begins.




Little Suzi and the Back Yard Builder – The beginning.

GN250 to lightweight Café Racer … in a tent.

Image   Image

The trials, tribulations, tips, successes, failures, cock ups and maybe even the odd stroke of genius (correctly pronounced “luck”), all tempered with genuine impecuniosity and case hardened with a large dollop of Yorkshire parsimony.

My apologies in advance to all those grandmothers who already know how to suck eggs and to the builders who’s methods I don’t like. I lay no claim to knowledge or expertise, these are just my experiences and opinions and I am merely shooting the proverbial breeze here. You’ll also find a good few places where you want to stop and pronounce me an idiot. Fair enough, there’s been a lot of learning curve here and I thought it would be more useful to “fess up” and look stupid than to gloss over the mistakes.

Also, please either have patience, or browse through. I actually find every step of the process of building a bike fascinating, so I’m going to cover design, strip and cleaning, finding parts, re-design, paintwork, frame mods and eventually engine tuning and exhaust design. Just find the bits you’re interested in and skip over the rest.

The story comes in two parts. The first build, in a tent  (strictly, a garden awning) and against the clock, as I needed it for work. That covers pretty much everything on the bike. Then there’s the much more leisurely rolling restoration (still in a tent) where I get to go back and do it again, but better, plus design and build a new exhaust, possibly a few engine mods and, hopefully, some aerodynamics too. This may take a little time.

A bit of background

After putting another 40,000 miles on my 22year old Pan European (Honda ST1100 ) in six months, I did two things. I moved nearer to work and I decided that, since it deserved a bit of tlc,  I would buy a cheap little commuter to use while I rebuilt it. The rebuild couldn’t be instant (since I’m still waiting for a garage to be built) and the MOT was looming fast, so a 1995 GN250 was acquired for 350 quid. Three things were immediately apparent. I loved the engine, I love the fact that the bike is about the size of a dachshund and I hated the riding position.  I was forced to sit so upright that I was clinging on for grim death at anything over fifty, the long skinny forks and high bars made it feel like I was steering it via elastic bands and forward set footpegs  just don’t seem to work for me. When, on week two, it dropped a valve and wrote off the cylinder head (more on that very soon) it was clearly time for drastic action.

I still had two and a half months before the test ran out on the Pan (I wasn’t going to invest in new tyres before the rebuild) so I could do something about it.  I reckoned that you don’t need a lot of money, a fantastic amount of flash gear or a pile of money or a garage to make a fun little bike.

This is what happened next…

What shape to make it?

My first thought was that the ideal  commuter would be something along the lines of trail bike or flat tracker shaped. Admittedly, my new commute combined motorway and a large (and usually clogged) dual carriageway, but the chuck about style seemed like the way to go. I like the flat tracker look, so that was clearly the answer, until…

There is a great little web site called It allows one to select a motorcycle, dial in one’s body shape and then see the riding position and tweak it about. Playing about with it revealed that any handlebar pattern higher than clip-ons would leave me sitting bolt upright.

OK, so it’s a café racer then. No problem, a bit small, but could be fun.  So…

Success Criteria

Every project should have a target, otherwise you forget what you’re doing it for and get side tracked, which in all honesty I probably will anyway.

  1. Practicality – Even my new commute is roughly an hour each way, so I’ll be spending two hours a day on the bike. That means at least an hour duration without a numb bum, stiff legs or pins and needles in the hands.
  2. Performance – I’m going for 80 square. By that I mean 80mpg and 80 mph. Not necessarily simultaneously of course, but without altering anything other than the riding style.
  3. Looks – I’d like it to look good, but I really don’t want to be spending a fortune.  So I’m using stand off rules. When I was many years younger I used to fly model aeroplanes and there were lots of competitions for scale builders. Unfortunately bunging in fantastic levels of scale detail made the aircraft both very expensive and overweight, so unless they were huge they flew too fast. As a countermeasure to this a new scale class was invented.  The static judging was done with a “stand off”, i.e. from twenty feet away. That way they had to give the right impression, but the expensive detailing didn’t need to be there. I’m using the same approach on the bike. That means that I can buy cheap bits and don’t need to spend gazillions of pounds on chrome plating and such.  At the end of the day, it’s a cheap commuter.