Common Tread

Post-project puttering: performance parts

Apr 13, 2016

Each winter, I usually assemble a project motorcycle.

2016’s bike was finished early, though, due in part mostly to the effects of El Niño. (My bike was done a little before Christmas!) Even though that sounds great, there is a downside. As winter eventually turned nasty, I sure couldn’t ride. But I didn’t have enough motorcycle stuff to do.

I own too many bikes — my garage is jammed full! Building yet another bike was not what I needed. Instead, I decided to focus my efforts on modifying some of the bikes I had to make them better. I worked on a fairly eclectic array of bikes — I attacked some old Harleys, a dual-sport, and a modern naked bike. Spice of life, right?

I'll lead with a disclaimer: I obtained some of the following parts at full retail price, others at a discount, and still others for nothin'. Sometimes I get freebies, sometimes I get deals, and sometimes I get bupkes. This is life as a motorcycle guy. Also, we sell some of this stuff. In spite of that, this is not an advertisement, but you already know that. OK, let’s get rolling here.

Bike: 1979 Harley-Davidson FXS-80

Parts added: GMA dual-disc four-piston calipers, Legend Suspension Revo-A shocks.

My old ‘79 was bought from a very dear friend. It’s a phenomenal bike, considering its age. With mild performance massaging, it runs happily with modern Twin Cam Harleys. It’s got three disc brakes from the factory, pretty good ground clearance, and mid-controls. It’s not fast, per se, but for a bike from that era, I’ve always been pretty impressed with it.

Antique brakes! Charming and effective. Ah, ball-milling. The Nineties are still in full swing, baby! Let's do the Macarena. Photo by Lemmy.

It’s hardly perfect, though. The engine has received several healthy upgrades, but the brakes, while effective, have always offered crap feel. I think H-D was still learning how to size master cylinder bores with piston bores in that time. My friend had put a GMA caliper on the rear of this sled, and that brake works very, very nicely. In an effort to improve the feel of the front brakes, I had been keeping my eyes open for a matching set of front calipers for this bike. GMA quit making a setup for this bike a long while back, so I was hunting at the swap meets. I managed to find a set of nearly perfect calipers from one fellow, and mounting brackets from another. GMA was helpful, too — they sent me some fittings and shims they had hanging around to help me get these onto my bike, on their dime. (No, I didn’t mention the RevZilla name. They’re just a nice company who took care of a customer.)

This bike is sort of a rolling late-80s-early-90s performance parts collection, so these fit right in. Installation was a real bear. Shimming the calipers so they didn’t drag was not difficult, but it was time-consuming. Bleeding, too, for whatever reason, took me several hours. Still, it was worth it. The stainless braided lines I already had, coupled with properly sized caliper piston bores, made a huge improvement in the brakes. They’re not sportbike brakes, for sure, but the lever has great feel and feedback now, and even better, the bike hauls down from a stop as well as I can expect it to. I totally would do this again, but it wasn’t cheap: the calipers, nearly new, were $300, and the brackets were $25.

The stance of the bike remained unchanged, and the optional black finish blends in well with the rest of my bike, which is slowly turning black. (Gloss, not matte. I'm not cool enough for matte.) Photo by Lemmy.
A few months later, I scored a set of Legend Suspension Revo-A shocks. It should be noted that Legend does not offer a fitment for my bike, but I knew that an FXR has similar shock angle and weight, so I reasoned that I could adapt some FXR shocks to work on this old four-speed frame. Lo and behold, with some different spacers and longer lower shock bolts, I was able to fit up a set of 12-inch units, the same length my Low Rider left Milwaukee with.

Whoa, my Lord! What an improvement! I’ve always thought the old 35 mm front end was pretty good, but Harley shocks have generally sucked terribly, and my old ones were no exception. A good front and a bad rear just feels bad. But now? Holy smokes, does this bike feel good! I’ve got a bike that no longer bottoms, wallows, or sags. The bike is somehow “tighter” feeling through the corners, but offers more softness over bumps, dips, and potholes. Being able to adjust rebound is not only a nice feature, but fun to play with and a great way to dial in the response to your liking.

Preload adjuster
Rebound adjustment on a 37-year-old Harley. Well, I never! Photo by Lemmy.

Downsides? The preload is not very easy to adjust. Not a deal-breaker for me. I usually set it once. I split the difference between solo and with Mrs. Lemmy on the back, and call it a day. The other downside is the cost. These retail for about nine hundred bones. These are not your ordinary $200 shocks. After mulling it over, I think that’s a good thing. This bike will definitely see more mileage this year due to these improvements.

Bike: 2013 Honda XR650L

Parts added: Pro Taper SE CR High Bend handlebar, Pro Taper Trials grips.

Riding my Big Red Pig, I noticed fairly early on that I either have arms that are too short, bars that are too low, or pegs that sit too high. When I’m out of the saddle, I feel like I either have to bend uncomfortably or use my fingertips to control the bars. So I installed a set of Pro Taper SE (Seven-Eighths, get it?) bars on there.

XR Bars
OK, now I have comfy bars and grips. I guess I need to come up with a new excuse for why I am not riding it enough. Photo by Lemmy.

The CR High Bends are just a touch taller than stock and have a little less sweep. They come with a nifty-looking crossbar brace, too, so I look like I actually ride off-road like a boss. (I don’t.) When I installed these, everything was “normal,” including filing the locating pegs out of the control clamshells. I capped them off with a set of very grippy, very thin Trials grips. Verdict? Better. A teeny little bit more rise was what I needed, and also what I got. Would I like them to be higher? Yeah, I would take another inch, but I also don’t feel like replacing lines and cables and wiring, oh my. The grips are killer. If I don’t wear through them too fast, those might be a new go-to grip: the feel coming through them is really good.

Bike: 2013 Kawasaki Z1000

Parts added: Yuasa AGM battery, CRG Arrow mirrors, Vance & Hines Urban Brawler exhaust.

Full shot
Please ignore the mess. And if anyone asks, I am bolting parts to my personal bike in the ZLA Video Compound for, um, work. Photo by Lemmy.

This beautiful Z1000 became a winter project because of the generosity of my little brother, who got tired of it and gave it to me instead of selling it (like I advised him to do). It’s in mint shape, and had a thick layer of dust on it when I picked it up. The battery was deader than disco. I don’t believe in trying to “save” batteries — what you save by not buying a battery you’ll spend later on beer and gas for your buddy who had to come get you with the truck. In went a new Yuasa AGM. Yuasa is my battery “rock.” I know they work well and are fairly priced. In essence, I can fill the battery, charge it, install it, and forget about it for years, as long as I do my part and keep it on a tender. Someone will have to make a pretty big battery improvement before I stop using Yuasas.

Here you can see my shiny new Yuasa, with backup hardware still attached, just in case. Also, note the exhaust valve servo that's been unhooked. (Foreshadowing!) Photo by Lemmy.

My little bro hung a pair of CRG bar-end mirrors on a set of Rhinomoto combination slider/mirror-mounts. Both are killer products.The machining is top-notch on the CRG mirrors and visibility is very good. They didn't work the way I wanted, however. I could not get the mirrors to flip up or down enough to safely split with them. So I disassembled them, removed the detents and put them back together with some synthetic grease. Now they function as I want them to. 

Brawler Closeup
Stainless, sexy, and loud enough to melt Lance's visor and face off when he was riding behind me. Photo by Lemmy.
I have mixed feelings about the Urban Brawlers. I love the look. They have that sexy Brutale appearance. The stainless finish is killer. The install was easy, and the fit was phenomenal. They even included a different bolt for the exhaust shield hardware. However, they are loud. Really, really loud. That’s because they’re open pipes. These are basically drag pipes for sport bikes.

The Zed is an expensive bike to buy exhaust for because of the dual mufflers, and part of what lured me to the V&H was the price. However, these are really nothing more than very nice exhaust turndowns with a bracket attached. There is an optional baffle kit, but it’s another $150, which brings this system into the price realm of the competition. I’m actually making my own baffle system to quiet these babies down. I would be incensed if these pipes weren’t so mean-looking.

That rounded out my winter. Well, I started putting a front end together for a short chop, too. It turned out awesome. I just have to buy a frame, engine, trans, primary, wheel, and all the little stuff...

What did you work on this winter?