Maidstone Motoliner serve the public as chassis straightening experts – but above the shop they have their own private museum
First-class frame straightening and enviable private museum – welcome to Motoliner
The three-man team at Maidstone Motoliner can’t get enough of motorcycles. Their day job involves sorting out chassis alignment issues, making sure customers’ wheels are round, forks are true and frames are straight. That would dampen some people’s enthusiasm for working on their own projects after hours – but not these chaps. They can often be found doing ‘overtime’ – with some of it going into the bikes in the wonderfully diverse private museum above the workshop.
Ray Palmer started the business in 1975 – he’s 76 now and still works two days a week, but he also fettles his own projects, currently a sprinter powered by a pre-war JAP single. Son Tommy is a former British Grasstrack Champion and speedway rider who’s been working with his dad since 1991; his work hours are spent trueing frames for road riders and racers in a Motoliner jig, but in his own time he carries out meticulous restorations, focusing on Italian lightweights.
George Thomas is the grandson of Ray’s original partner. His work speciality is taking dents out of alloy wheels. Evenings are spent prepping his Yamaha TZ350, and weekends are for racing on the Yamaha, and a Dunnell Norton Manx in classic racing.
Now the introductions are over, let’s have look around both levels...
Maidstone Motoliner occupy a typical unit, on a typical industrial estate in the south-east of England. They’re bike specialists, but you won’t find complete motorcycles in the workshop, though you will find a massive variety of chassis types – from the latest cast superbike frames to pre-war lugged chassis, from steel tube to extruded alloy. Amongst the chassis in for remedial attention during our visit were a couple of Honda CB750S, a TZ Yamaha and a modified rigid frame as well as more run-of-the-mill modern stuff.
“The bikes come to us as a rolling chassis with the engine fitted,” explains Tommy Palmer, who does most of the frame straightening work. Typically a chassis takes a day to correct, he says, “although if we’ve got to cut out and replace frame tubes it might take longer”.
There’s always plenty of work for the firm to do, especially following a raucous race weekend. “After the last British Superbike meeting we had 12 frames and 24 wheels to sort out. It keeps you busy,” says Tommy. Racers make up a significant part of the clientele, and some go as far as having their brand new frames checked before they even turn a wheel in anger.
The heart of the business is what gives it its name – two Swedish-made Motoliner jigs dominate the workshop floor. The rake and trail need to be checked with the bike’s wheels and forks fitted, so that happens before they are put into the jig. The front end can then be removed and the chassis put into the Motoliner using the swingarm pivot as the datum point around which everything else is measured. That makes accurate positioning of rigid frames a difficult procedure, although it can be done.
Screw fittings, with an assortment of dollies to suit every conceivable frame fitting, lock the bike into place and a measuring gauge is bolted into the headstock to check that the headstock isn’t twisted. Then the back wheel is removed to check that the swingarm is true and both end plates are parallel. The straightening process starts at the swingarm and works forward.
Actually straightening the frame involves using hydraulic rams capable of delivering four tons of pressure. “They don’t seem to run out of power,” laughs Tommy. “Well, except on Harleys – they don’t seem to be worried about weight, so their frame tubes are really heavy duty.” Headstock bearings are protected by fitting a large steel bar with bearing protectors through the headstock before applying the pressure.
“Obviously a long, unsupported tube will bend more easily than a shorter tube and you have to be really careful around engine mounts to make sure nothing gets damaged.”
So how does he gauge how much pressure to apply? “It’s down to experience. You don’t just push it. You give it some pressure, take it past the point you want it to settle at, and then allow it to settle.” Mostly the rectification work is done cold, but in some cases a little heat helps the process. “There isn’t a hard and fast rule, it’s just about experience and what seems right for that case.”
‘THE HYDRAULIC RAMS ARE CAPABLE OF DELIVERING FOUR TONS OF PRESSURE’
“There is a limit. We have to be happy that they’re safe. Ally frames are a bit more fragile, and when it’s gone too far you’ll feel it move too easily. They become over-pliable. We had a racer bring us the same frame a few times and eventually we had to tell him it was time for a new chassis.”
Obviously the Motoliner team will straighten forks, too. The force required to bend forks or the frame is considerable, and it’s likely damage to one will mean the other has also been affected. Therefore, if your forks are bent, you should really get the frame checked and vice versa. Classics now make up a considerable part of Motoliner’s business. In the past, people would search out a secondhand frame to replace a bent original, but increasing scarcity and the desire for matching numbers makes it worth having remedial work done on a damaged frame these days. “You don’t know whether an old bike has been crashed once or ten times, so it’s worth getting them checked,” observes Tommy. “Although often with older bikes its about putting right repairs that were done badly years ago. We’ve got a Norton Atlas here now that’s come from the States – it’s a right mess.”
And obviously you want to check them before restoration, rather than discovering that the wheels are out of line and the swingarm’s twisted after you’ve had the frame painted. A basic health check on the Motoliner usually costs around £100.
Worst cases? Tommy’s dad Ray Palmer interjects: “People used to cut the top frame tubes on Honda 750s to get the engine out more easily. That’s OK if you weld them back together properly, but we had one come in where the tube had just been glued back in place using silicone. That was scary.”
Motoliner are on 01622 790705 or go to motoliner.com
The upstairs museum houses a beautifully eclectic collection that currently stands at 24 bikes. It’s one of the most interesting accumulations of classics you’re ever likely to find – although it’s not open to the general public, Classic Bike was lucky enough to receive a special invitation to climb the stairs for a good old nose around.
Both Tommy and his father have something of a penchant for Italian lightweights, which explains why there are four exquisite 50cc racers in the collection. The father and son’s experience has led to some grasstrack and speedway bikes making their way in there, too – including two specials which were built by Ray in the ’60s and ’70s.
Snuggled alongside are a Bultaco TSS125 racer from the ’60s that was bought locally, an Aprilia RS250 road bike, an aircooled Husqvarna enduro machine and a Francis-barnett scrambler. And a bunch of other fascinating stuff, too...
▼BIG HISTORY 1962 POPE SPECIAL
Ray Palmer has a long history with the Pope Special, dating back to before he bought it in the late ’60s. “The Pope brothers were engineers from Dartford,” explains Ray. “They helped me with my grasstrack bikes and I used to test this bike for them at Brands Hatch during Wednesday afternoon test sessions. I was working as a carpenter and I’d skive off work to go to Brands. If it went faster with me on it, then it was definitely going to go faster with Alan Dawson who raced it for them.” Originally based on a Demm Dik Dik sports moped from the late ’50s, the Pope Special evolved and was later fitted with an Itom engine. Tuning mods included a homemade carburettor. The bike’s race career ended in the mid-’60s and Ray saved it.
▼LATEST RESTORATION 1958 MV AGUSTA AB 175
The most recently completed restoration is a sweet overhead-valve 175 that came from an Imola autojumble. The process of turning it from rusty wreck to better-than-showroom shine took three years. The paintwork was done by a friend: “He’s a car sprayer – he always talks himself down and says the job’s not very good, but it’s always perfect.” How does it go? “I don’t really know,” says the former British Grasstrack Champion. “I haven’t got a bike licence.”
▼RAY’S SPECIAL 1960s ARIEL GRASS-TRACKER
Ray started racing grasstrack in the early ’60s on a Matchless, and later an MV Agusta 175. He built this Ariel Arrow-powered special using an engine tuned by Chris Pope.
“It’s made from aircraft-quality drawn tube,” says Ray. “In the ’60s there was a place that’d sell you all you could carry for a quid.” The fuel tank is in the top tube and the expansion chambers are part of the frame too, with header pipes running up from the engine. The forks are Metal Profile with rubber band springs.
“I used the Ariel engine because I couldn’t afford a four-stroke,” admits Ray. “And back then you had those rubbish cast-iron piston rings, so it was always a struggle. If I was doing it now, I’d make a 360° crankshaft so that both pistons fired at the same time. That way you’d get more traction and shutting the throttle would give some engine braking, too.”
It’s not Ray’s only grasstrack special. He later built a four-stroke 250 using a Honda top end fitted to Weslake crankcases. It was Tommy’s first race bike (second from right, bottom row on p51). “He’s the rider, I’m more of a spanner man.”
V NOT JUST ITALIANS 1988 HONDA RS125
There aren’t many Japanese bikes upstairs, but two tightly packaged Honda RS125 production racers are logical company for the older 50cc racers. There is one 1990 bike with cast wheels, and this 1988 bike with spokes. “They were imports from Japan that we bought from a friend,” explains Tommy. “We might clean them up a bit and re-do the paintwork, but they don’t really need restoration. We only buy bikes that we like, but my dad reckons these will be a good investment, too. If the values go up a bit, we might sell one and use the money to buy something else. Quite a few of the bikes that we buy come from customers, or through the grapevine locally. Someone will say: ‘Oh, I’ve got a such and such...’ and you think: ‘Oh, that’d be nice,’ and you end up buying it.”
UPSTAIRS: 50cc racers and speedway bikes reflect Ray and Tommy’s racing passions
DOWNSTAIRS: Customer Honda CB750, prepared to have some pressure applied
TOP LEFT: Ray Palmer Started the business in 1975
ABOVE: Tommy Palmer Straightening bike frames since 1991
LEFT: George Thomas Grandson of Ray’s original partner
Motoliner jig can be adjusted to fit any bike
The workshop has a massive choice of mandrels, dollies and fittings to suit all applications
Car is taken to protect the bearing faces before force is applied
One of the hydraulic rams being used to exert pressure on a fork leg
The trueing guide points to a twisted headstock on this frame
Typical frame repair. A mashed footrest mount is cut away and refitted
A diverse range of frames in the queue, waiting their turn for attention
BELOW: Ray used to test the Pope Special and was its saviour after its race career ended
BELOW: Behind the MV, there’s a Parilla, a Capriolo and (on the shelf) a Ducati 50
BELOW: Largediameter spine tube holds fuel, and the exhausts are part of the frame
Ex-frank Sheene Ducson belongs to Ray’s pal Paul Smart
1958 Maserati 50cc racer was originally sold in London
Cimatti kid’s bike is an unrestored Italian autojumble find
Itom Mk8 was the most popular 50cc racer in the ’60s
Water-cooled Bultaco TSS125 has TT racing history
ABOVE: Exhaust pipe exits down the frame tube
ABOVE: George with one of the two Honda RS125 production racers in the collection
BELOW: 1958 Francis -Barnett 250 scrambler features AMC’S own twostroke engine
Another Maserati – they love their Italian tiddlers
Italian autojumbles don’t just sell bikes and spares
Parilla two-stroke is next in line for restoration...