Once you’ve ridden and enjoyed motorcycles there really is no way of forgetting just how exhilarating and visceral the experience is, apart from maybe a bump on the head. This Yamaha XT500 has been the labour of love for pommy expat living down under, Andy Rolfe.
“Originally a Suffolk boy I joined the Army in 1978 at 16 and didn’t really stop moving until I ended up in Brisbane 12 years ago. In my youth I had the obligatory 250 (Yamaha XS) and then took the massive leap to a 1974 Bonneville at 18. After a brief stint with the White Helmets Motorcycle Display Team playing with Triumph Tigers and BSA B40s I went through my 2 stroke phase with one wheel constantly off the ground with a Yamaha RD400, which I actually took to Germany in bits in the boot and on the roof of my Ford Cortina! Over the years I had a couple of Suzuki GS850s that did many UK-Germany-UK trips and also did a bit of enduro and off-roading on various bikes, including a fantastic yellow Suzuki PE175 that never seemed to stop smoking. After a ‘moment’ on one of my GS850s when my son was a baby I decided I needed to put the bikes away for a while – and then 25 years went by. I never even rode a bike in that time because I knew that if I did I would have to get another, but in mid-2015 I knew it was time.”
After modding a modern Bonnie and enjoying rides with the Brisbane Café Racers Andy decided a more challenging project was in order. He found a 1981 XT500H that fitted the bill, a previously attempted restoration consisting of parts in biscuit tins, boxes and a milk crate. The engine was complete but had been rattle-canned black, in its entirety including the hoses, carb and even clumps of mud. The meticulous and disciplined virtues instilled by an adulthood in the army are a perfect foundation for any restoration, but Andy wanted to go further, saying “right from the start, regardless of the style, I intended building an immaculate bike. My aim was concourse quality, but not a standard restoration. I wanted to create something that would be personal and unique to me. With that in mind I started to note details I liked on other bikes and began sketching my thoughts in a notebook I carried everywhere.”
Seeing as most of the XT was already in boxes Andy catalogued what was present and salvageable and listed what needed replacing – he was about to be one of Vapourblast Brisbane’s best new customers. The engine clearly needed the same level of attention on the inside as would undoubtedly receive on the outside but Andy’s experience was a bit light so Fred from BCR stepped in to look over a shoulder and lend the right specialist tools when required. Every bearing, seal and gasket has been replaced and the barrel rebored and honed to accept a forged Wiseco high compression piston. Andy liked the finish of the blasted cases and decided to reassemble the motor without powder coating, opting for a more classic look. “To be more accurate I rebuilt the engine (at least the casings) three times. The first time I didn’t get the gear selectors in correctly, the second time I tightened up all the bolts and then noticed an oil seal had dropped out! A dab of grease to hold it in place and it was third time lucky.” The carb was of course completely refurbished, and re-jetted to suit the K&N pod filter and less restrictive exhaust.
The old 6v wiring harness was binned and replaced with a 12v CDI based system running remote keyless ignition, the guts of which live under the seat in a custom tray, powered by a mini AGM battery. Andy’s mate Steve is a dab hand with the welder so he stepped in to ensure the standard of craftsmanship was on par with the rest of the bike. The indicators are billet jobbies from Motone and the speedo is from Posh. The original plan was to hide wiring in the bars and fit micro switches but that didn’t quite suit the retro vibe so a set of alloy switchgear from an earlier 70s Yam was installed.
The tank is an original that was in a sorry state, bought online with a grotty paint job and a few dents – which multiplied once stripped so it was sent to Dent Removal Brisbane and after a thorough polish it ‘s better than new. There were plans to paint the top red but Andy refrained once he’d fallen for the allure of the aluminium’s naturally beauty. The decals are his own design, inspired slightly by the BSA wing logo, which was nearly shelved after seeing another builder displaying a similar brain wave. Thankfully he stuck to his guns.
Part of the fun with projects like this is taking a gamble, hitting the web and hoping parts will fit. Kedo Australia have a stockpile of OEM and pattern parts that remove any uncertainty but Andy was still keen to try his luck and plumped for a complete seat from eBay. Plenty of measuring prior to an anxious first cut with the grinder meant the saddle looks like it is bespoke for the build. The rear loop was shortened to suit and extraneous tabs buzzed off before smoothing and sanding the rest of the frame. Gloss black powder coat throughout is the obvious and fitting choice. The original rear mudguard was modified so as to protrude less, leaving just enough room for the taillight which was donated by fellow BCR member Koen. Neither of them know what it’s from but it fits the rest of the bike.
The exhaust was pitted and beyond economical repair so a stainless header and Supertrapp muffler now proudly embellish the right hand side of the bike, and with the adjustable baffle stack should offer various soundtrack options. These old thumpers sound really good when well setup. New YSS adjustable shocks make for a more enjoyable ride and would no doubt be more competent off road, should Andy dare venture away from the blacktop and make the most of Queensland’s trails – a brave man if he does, the bike will never be this clean again. The forks are stock but rebuilt internally and rubber is by Bridgestone, Trail Wings for balanced dual sport capabilities.
Initially Andy designed a front number plate with integrated twin halogen lamps but decided that they didn’t blend in with the retro aesthetic. Cardboard maquettes led to the single 4″ light combo so another BCR mate Josh could offer his services along with a CNC mill to produce number board brackets to Andy’s design, these clamp to the fork stanchion and in turn to 40mm alloy angle from Bunnings (B&Q if you’re in Blighty, Home Depot across the pond). The number board itself is the pressed alloy type readily available from eBay. The whole lot was highly polished to match the tank. The simple, shortened front mudguard is also alloy.
Andy took seven months of evenings and weekends to complete the project and thoroughly enjoyed it, telling us “the build in itself was really educational and a (mostly) enjoyable process, but there is no way I could have done it without the expertise and generosity (and humour and sarcasm) of the BCR crew (Fred, Steve, Josh, Tim, Dave, Alex, Koen in particular) and XT500/TT500 Facebook groups. To say I am happy with the bike is an understatement. To me, the most rewarding part of the whole process is seeing my sketches and designs become reality along with building something that is unique, good to look at, but also a blast to ride!
“Obviously it was great to get back on to a bike. I hadn’t forgotten what it felt like, but memories and experience being reunited put a massive smile on my face – after I got over the white knuckles and learned to relax again. One thing that I had forgotten was how much I liked working on bikes, spending hours in the shed, garage or the driveway either just fiddling, modifying or even just hoping it would all go back together again! I guess that love of fiddling, coupled with a lot more experience, some great advice and a few key ideas were what brought the XT from bits and pieces to something that still fill me with pride every time I see it. There have been a few roadblocks along the way; a stuck bearing, a 40 year old oil pipe giving way (but adding an authentic oil leak), and a loose oil pump cover that kept wetsumping the engine. There were days I just wanted to throw it away, but as Fred at BCR told me more than once, just walk away for a while – sage advice.”
We’re certainly glad he didn’t. A story that reminds us why we’re all here [at the Bike Shed] in the first place – camaraderie, tinkering and sating the hunger for riding bikes that are individual to each of us. Hat’s off to you Andy, the perfect build.
Imagers courtesy of Café Racer Magazine Australia