A Cautionary Tale

Burnin’ Rubber  •  by Michael Blanchard  |  At our shop we have seen a lot of work lately that involves tuning or straightening out the work done on motorcycles restored at other shops. We have seen botched wiring harnesses, bikes that would not run correctly lights that don’t work and motorcycles that just won’t run correctly. But recently we had a job that I thought you might be interested in hearing about and I think it will serve as a useful lesson for many customers who plan on having their dream motorcycle built.

A customer brought us a custom ’72 Honda CB500 café racer that had recently come out of the custom shop. He complained that the bike was only running on two cylinders and asked us to get it squared away.  Upon running it and doing a bit of diagnostics we pulled the petcock off and discovered that it was clogged with bead blasting media. This is not a good sign. It means that whoever stripped the tank did not clean it out before they painted and assembled the bike. If there are glass beads in the petcock there are sure to be glass beads in the carbs and possibly the engine. Sure enough the carbs were badly contaminated and so we decided to pull the top end off the engine to see what was going on there.

The engine was not worth rebuilding so we sourced a good core and started over. We stripped the engine and cleaned everything.

When we got the engine apart it became clear that the engine was a worn out high mileage unit. There was a pronounced ridge at the top of the cylinders, the cam chain guides and tensioner were worn through the rubber and into the steel backing, the cam chain damaged and the engine was filthy inside. The cam followers and cam were wiped out and the valves were loose in the guides. This is not uncommon to see but the customer had paid several thousand dollars to have the engine completely gone through. In fact what he got for his money was a few case gaskets and a bad engine paint job.

The customer contacted the shop that did the work but was basically told to pound sand. They would not make good on the injustice and in fact would not even acknowledge that they had done anything wrong. At this point, given the contentious relationship the customer had with the shop during the “custom” process, he decided to write the whole thing off. 

The engine was not worth rebuilding so we sourced a good core and started over. We stripped the engine and cleaned everything. Kibblewhite did the head, Motorcycle Machine Services fit the new pistons and we fit a new cam chain, guide, tensioner and clutch. The tranny was in good shape as was the bottom end. We installed new gaskets and seals and repainted the engine.

After reinstalling the engine we discovered that the wiring harness was completely botched with lovely things like power wires going to ground and various items burned out. So we fixed that. Of course we also had to clean the tank (taking special care not to ruin the paint job) and rebuild the petcock and carburetors.

So after many hours of work and a lot more expense for the unfortunate customer we now have a great running bike with a strong engine. All the lights and switches work, it starts easily and handles good.

The lesson here is to be very careful of who you pay to work on your bike.  Check them out before hand. Talk with other people who have had work done by that shop. The cost of this type of work is not cheap. If the quote is too good to be true that’s a massive warning sign. A good engine rebuild should be in the thousands of dollars not hundreds.  $2500 for a common twin and $3000 for a common four is a good starting place for a stock engine. I emphasize these are starting prices if everything is useable. Mechanical problems and hot engines cost considerably more.

Be involved but don’t be a jerk.

A good shop should be very communicative and happy to keep you in the loop as to where they are in the process. In this age of cell phone cameras you should be getting pictures of the build as it progresses. Double check the status of the bill isyou go along so there are no nasty surprises. If you paid to have the engine done and there are no engine parts or gasket sets on the parts section of the bill, or there is a just a blank price for engine rebuild you should be asking questions. These types of jobs should not take years to complete. Even a busy shop should make steady progress and turn out work in a timely manner.

Be involved but don’t be a jerk. These people are professionals and they deserve to be treated as such. If you can do this kind of work, great, have fun. But if you can’t, you hire an expert.  There is nothing wrong with that. Everyone has his or her area of expertise. So be nice and ask questions.

Part of the fun of this type of thing is watching your dream as it progresses and being involved in the process. Be careful but have fun and lets get those old machines back on the road.

Photos: Saroyan Humphrey