RISE OF THE PHOENIX
Inspired by memories of his old Goldie, John Swanston created a modern day café racer; a bike built from leftover bits and discarded components…
Sitting around at Christmas, digesting the turkey and spouts, I drifted into an enjoyable daydream remembering a Christmas many years ago, BWC (Before Wife and Children). I was out riding with some mates on my old DBD Gold Star. Ah! The bikes we sold that we wish we’d kept. Anyhow, it got me thinking about building a café racer. Could it be done on the proverbial shoestring budget? How many usable bits were there lurking beneath the bench?
I’ve always been an admirer of Rob North’s Rocket 3 frames and realised that the Kawasaki ER-5 frame was very similar. Would a Triumph unit twin engine fit into one, I wondered? I happened to have a pair of crankcases and a crank somewhere. Surely there were enough bits left over from previous projects to be able to make a start. The whole idea was all the more appealing as I seemed to be spending most of my retirement building karts and rebuilding their engines for grandchildren.
Lady Luck blessed me straight away when an ER-5 frame complete with logbook turned up on eBay for £32. Then much enjoyable searching through auto-jumbles at Newark and Rufforth resulted in the purchase of a good pair of forks from a Yamaha Virago, complete with wheel, new Pirelli tyre, brakes, caliper, headlamp, guard, speedo, bars and switchgear for £45. A Bonneville front wheel was bought for £75 – isn’t it funny how names like ‘Bonneville’ and ‘Daytona’ make ££ signs light up in the eyes of the sellers? The Bonnie wheel was converted to be used at the rear with a madeup sprocket. The project was up and running.
I cut off the subframe top rails and replaced them with straight tubing like a Rob North frame, then deluged the rest of the frame, removing everything which wasn’t needed. I decided to make my own fibreglass petrol tank, and left some expanding foam in a rectangular box overnight before starting to carve it. Alas this model tank curled up like a banana, so it was trimmed again but by the next morning it had twisted even worse.
After much head-scratching I realised I had used two cans of different makes of foam, so decided to fabricate the tank in steel and leave the foam to twist its way around the bottom of the bin…
Fortunately the Rob North tank has ‘hard edges’ so the task was easier than if I’d had to roll the steel at the edges. The seat proved to be easier to make in fibreglass and a trip to Huddersfield saw Tony Archer produce a foam base and a wonderful cover while I waited.
My attention now turned to making a suitable fairing. I’d previously repaired a sports fairing from a BMW R100RS and still had the mould. So I used that as a starter and then made it into a Commando lookalike fairing. A real bargain at an autojumble provided the screen. I was stood looking at a series of scratches right down the middle of it, wondering if it could be trimmed to fit, when the stallholder said; ‘You can have that, mate.’ Now a Yorkshireman never looks a gift horse in the mouth, so I thanked him and went home where, armed with some Solvol Autosol, I polished out the scratches.
Back to the mechanicals. The gear lever and brake pedal were straightforward to make. The rear disc was made up from a kart component and the caliper and master cylinder came from someone’s abortive attempt to make an hydraulic clutch conversion for a Triumph Speed Twin. It didn’t work and had been put back to standard.
My 3TA crankcases cleaned up well and I changed the rods for a pair of Speed Twin alloy ones, and laid out hard cash for 500cc barrels – expensive, but necessary.
Another autojumble revealed a roughlooking cylinder head with missing lugs which, when cleaned, seemed to have big valves already fitted. The Vernier gauge showed them to be Daytona sizes and indeed it turned out to be a genuine Daytona head. A local engineering works welded on some new lugs.
But then I came back to earth with a bump when I fitted the Speed Twin pistons and checked the compression – it was very low. Daytona pistons have a bigger crown, so I needed a pair of expensive pistons. As I mulled over this, a friend for whom I’d previously done some work wandered into the garage and uttered the magic words. ‘I’ve got a pair of +40 Daytona pistons on the shelf.’ When I went to collect them he also had Daytona cams – AND twin carb inlets for a pair of Concentrics! We were back in business. Another trip to Newark produced a matched pair of carbs. The correct gear cluster was sourced from another friend. I already had a clutch with a decent set of friction plates, and bought new steel ones.
A charging system emerged from beneath the all-giving workbench, but the electrics caused a headache as I tried to adapt the Suzuki Bandit switches and controls to the wiring on this British bike. Eventually, when it transpired that a separate earth wire was needed for each component, things started to work. I made up a pair of clip-ons to take the Bandit levers and fitted a Bandit headlamp into the fairing.
The bike was starting to look right and ready for paint. I’d decided on a blue and silver finish, but after spraying the tank it somehow didn’t suit the machine. Then my other half, Paulette, suggested maroon and silver, and this transformed the bike.
In the same way that the phoenix rises from the ashes, so this bike has risen, rejuvenated, from the ashes of many other machines. In my eyes it looks so much better than the simple sum of all those parts – gathered from below the workbench, autojumbles, eBay and friends’ garages. I now have my Rob North lookalike Triumph café racer, and will make the most of the summer weather to get some rides on it.
Lining up the empty cases with the base frame revealed that the two major components could indeed work together
Look! A Rob North racing frame! Well … actually it’s a Kawasaki, with some North-esque rear subframe tubing, but the spirit is willing. And the crankcases certainly fit
The Triumph engine is a rare assortment of parts, but in power terms it’s near-enough Daytona trim
Left:L The complete front end was a jumble find, and came from a Yamaha Virago Above: Cutting, shaping and welding steel makes for a better fuel tank than carving foam
Above: The first attempt at tank making involved making a former from expanding foam. It did not go well
Left: One angular fuel tank, made to measure
Even Triumph twin engines prefer to have a supply of oil while they’re running. Here’s the tank. Observe also the neat holding down strap The fairing is intended to resemble that fitted to production racer Commandos Front mudguard is in. It’s a good idea to protect the fork stanchions when working with resins above them Primer time! Tanks and fairing get ready for paint. The rear wheel is actually a Triumph part: a front wheel from a Bonneville…
Rear disc brake came from kart components, and looks the part Right: We have paint! The job’s done Far right: Ready to roll… Stripped right back, lithe and spare. The café racer’s credo