Story and Photos by Courtney Olive

Fixing up a classic

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had on a motorcycle? Burning the back tire bald on a Honda 50 from hundreds of hot-laps around your backyard when you were eight years old? Screaming around the freshly bulldozed roads of the new subdivision on a YZ80 when you were 12 – or 22 for that matter? Or it could be that you began riding at a later age, with disposable income in hand and responsibility somewhat stockpiled. You may have jumped right into a larger machine – but, odds are, you soon sold it in favor of something smaller, more “manageable” and unmistakably more fun.

Perhaps it’s the nimbleness. Perhaps it’s the kind of speed where every mph has to be earned. Perhaps it’s the affordability, the reprieve from worrying whether it’s the bike or the mortgage payment. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia for the sweaty summers of growing up and sneaking around on a buddy’s "don’t tell your mom" shed bike. Whatever it is, small bikes are a blast.

The Ninja 300 has some shortcomings in stock trim, but a few upgrades are enough to cure any of its ailments.

Riders live in grand times for small bikes. The OEMs now offer more small-displacement models than America has seen in 40 years. Notice I did not call them “beginner” bikes. Kawasaki’s Ninja 300, Yamaha’s R3, Honda’s CBR300 and KTM’s RC390 are all small bikes with bite. Although highly suitable for beginners (for more on that angle, see Motorcycle-USA’s 2015 Entry Level Sportbike Shootout) these bikes have horsepower, torque and top-speed figures that are getting the attention of many seasoned riders. And that’s where my “Project Ninja 300” comes in.

The premise: Tap back into my small-bike nostalgia and spend a full riding season aboard a Ninja 300, running the gamut from tours to track days to ordinary commuting. I’d tastefully modify it along the way. Then see how many times I find myself smiling inside my helmet – downhill, pinned. Here is the first in a series of articles chronicling a summer of small bike joy.

The Bike

The Ninja 300 was the clear choice for my project for a number of reasons. First, it’s the founder of the modern small-bore renaissance. After its 20-year dominance of the beginner bike class with the humble Ninja 250, Kawasaki revolutionized the segment in 2013 with the Ninja 300. Don’t take my word for it, read MotoUSA’s 2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300 First Ride or any other similarly glowing story covering the Ninja 300’s debut.

Second, now that it’s been in production three years (the oldest among its Yamaha, KTM and Honda rivals) it’s easier to find a bargain on a used Ninja 300. Part of the concept of this build is bang-for-buck value, so starting off with an affordable bike helps immensely.

Finally, the Ninja’s longer production run has given time for a healthy offering of aftermarket items to appear. Sensible aftermarket upgrades work wonders to remedy the shortcomings of a factory budget-built bike. The aftermarket is particularly helpful if the bike will be ridden beyond the usual beginner performance envelope.

Once I set my sights on a Ninja 300, finding a cheap but healthy example didn’t take long. As a beginner bike, the 300s frequently show up with salvage titles at insurance auctions. A low-speed get off, or even just a driveway drop, can render a bike totaled for what many folks would consider minimal damage. I found my Ninja from a seller who’d bought it on a whim at an insurance auction (he was there to buy a different bike) and was now flipping it. The bike was “totaled” because of a mildly bent clip-on, broken footpeg, and some shallow scratches on its fairing and muffler. Otherwise it’s as new and shiny as any 2014 with 1,700 miles could be, except it only cost $2,600. It tracked straight, shifted fine, stopped fine, turned fine and showed zero signs of motor maladies. And, it was lime green. Sold!

Some initial riding impressions of the 300 were striking. It is about the most user-friendly bike a person could ask for. First gear is incredibly low, making it easy to start from a stop and maneuver around low-speed situations like parking lots. Indeed the bike is geared quite low overall; at 60 mph it cruises at 6,800 rpm. This translates into acceleration that, while not “motorcycle fast,” is plenty “car fast” to keep up with traffic at any legal speed.

Another user-friendly feature is Kawasaki’s “positive neutral finder.” This age-old Kawasaki innovation (my ’81 GPz 550 has it too) allows the bike to go only from first to neutral when at a stop. It makes finding neutral at a stoplight a snap. As for handling, the bike is highly confidence-inspiring. It is nimble around town and in tight twisties, yet planted and poised in faster sweepers and freeway conditions. Lastly, it has the two other key elements of an easy-to-operate bike: low seat height and light weight.

But some shortcomings are quickly apparent. The tires are hard to read. The brakes feel mushy and lack bite. The motor signs off at 10,500 rpm, an unfortunate waste of the remaining RPMs to the 13,000 redline. And, like any sportbike, it’s overly sensitive to crashes – the slightest tip-over could result in another “total-worthy” list of damage to bodywork, turn signals and controls. Luckily, each of these ailments is easily cured.

The Build – Phase I

Phase I of the build consisted of tires, brakes and gearing. For a budget-conscious Ninja owner or a new rider wanting to make some simple improvements, these items provide great value. And they are easy to install.

For tires, MotoUSA partnered with Pirelli to supply a set of its widely acclaimed Rosso IIs. Tire selection in a 110 front and 140 rear is somewhat limited, and the Rosso IIs are definitely at the top of the heap. Over the course of a torturous 1,850-mile tour (stay tuned for an article on that), it became clear the tires offer ample grip for any street-sustainable speed.

Like the tires, the Ninja’s brakes can be easily improved. A set of Vesrah’s “RJL” pads were transformative; they vastly improved initial bite, and overall power increased noticeably. Although marketed as a race pad, the RJLs also work well on the street because they don’t require large amounts of heat to perform.

The last step of Phase I was to change the bike’s gearing. This was a tough call. I knew I wanted to lower the gearing just a little to keep the motor a smidge closer to the high RPMs where it makes its peak power. But the bike is geared low from the factory, so I didn’t want to overdo it. I turned to Renthal expert Brad Cameron, who advised either a two- or three-tooth increase in the rear sprocket. For those who have always wondered how adding teeth in the rear sprocket compares to dropping teeth in the front sprocket, Brad gave a useful rule of thumb: Going up three in the rear has about the same effect as dropping one in the front. Ultimately we opted to increase the rear by two teeth, bringing it to 44. To go with the amazingly light sprocket (it felt about a quarter the weight of the stocker), Renthal also supplied a R4 Road Chain with its “SRS” seal technology, said to provide more life than O- or X-ring seals.

I paid a visit to Bridge City Cycles in Portland, Oregon, to install the tires, chain and sprocket. Bridge City opened in 2010 and is owned by Anthony Mautemps and his wife, Megan. It’s a nondenominational shop that’s happy to work on “any bike with two wheels,” as Mautemps puts it. The Bridge City crew is one of the friendliest in town. They are highly customer-focused and jumped right on the project, completing the work while I waited.

A short initial test-ride after the install confirmed that the tires were an improvement, but the gearing may not have gone far enough. At highway cruising speeds, the rpms only increased by 150-200 or so. But, it was enough to give the bike a whiff of extra grunt when rolling on to pass. Certainly an improvement, but it left me wondering if maybe I’d been too cautious and could have gotten away with going up three teeth. Ah well, perhaps the full exhaust and engine-tuning in the next phase of the project will compensate.

Next installment: Phase II of the build with a full Arrow exhaust, Dynojet tuning, air flow improvements, and crash protection. Then we hit the road!