As long as I’ve owned motorcycles, I’ve been modifying them in some way. I never had any formal technical training, just a set of tools and the desire to make my bike either function better or be different from everyone else's in some way.
It started with the first few Harleys I owned, and I quickly progressed from making aesthetic changes to doing engine modifications and suspension swaps. I read manuals, talked to other grease monkeys and learned from my mistakes along the way. I quickly progressed from building a couple of Harley hot rods, to building nitrous and turbo sport bikes. I had zero experience with almost everything I attempted but I pressed on, building street bikes to race bikes and I have yet to stop.
For the last twenty plus years I have been building and modifying motorcycles to suit my liking. Until two years ago, I had never bought a brand new motorcycle. I quite frankly always thought it was a bit of a waste. I was going to pull a large amount of the factory equipment off and replace it anyway, so I didn’t see the point in buying the more expensive, new unit. Granted, this way of thinking applies most to Harley-Davidsons, but it remains true with other brands I have owned.
Some people just have to have a new motorcycle, but for most of us, I’ve always thought it makes more sense to buy used and modify the bike to my liking. But is that really the best approach? When the latest batch of new “ST” Harley-Davidsons came out, they got me mulling this over more deeply.
Buying new versus modifying
The new Road Glide ST, for instance, costs $30,000 and from what I can surmise the only things you are getting that you wouldn’t get from a box-stock used Road Glide powered by a Milwaukee-Eight engine is some bold new graphics in the form of blacked-out engine finishes and magnesium-colored wheels along with Harley’s 117 engine. And while the Milwaukee mothership loves to throw around cubic inch numbers in sales brochures, the reality is that those engines are less than impressive. A few years back we put a 117 ci Milwaukee-Eight CVO Street Glide on a dyno and it produced a paltry 93.8 horsepower and 108 foot-pounds of torque. To put that into perspective, the base model Milwaukee-Eight 107 ci engine with the smallest S&S Cycle camshaft and a set of slip-on mufflers installed will produce similar if not better results.
So with a used bagger and about $1,000 in parts and a weekend spinning wrenches in your garage, you could have a bike that performs like the brand spanking new Road Glide ST. And with the thousands of dollars you save by buying a used bagger, you can throw on some suspension, a seat and maybe a new handlebar and are well on your way to having a much better built bike than the stocker with the bold new graphics.
The same goes for the new Low Rider ST. It's literally a Low Rider S with a fairing and bags. Dyna bros across America have been putting bags and a fairing on Dynas for about 10 years now. But the Motor Company recently had an epiphany and now the package of bags and fairing on a Lowrider is $22,000. You can buy used Twin Cam Dyna for five grand, spend some time perusing www.jpcyles.com and end up with a way cooler machine than the Low Rider ST and have a pile of road tripping cash leftover.
While more involved and technical modifications like changing camshafts are more common in the cruiser segment, the same theory can be applied to other riding styles. I own a handful of dirt bikes and often have the itch to roll a brand new KTM out of the showroom. But I know I'm money ahead with a used bike that I can modify to benefit me instead of sinking the cash into the cost of the new machine. I think the same can be said for sport bikes and adventure bikes, too. There are tons of really capable used bikes on the market that may not have the latest tech but are still light years ahead of most folks' riding ability. Or, you can upgrade the suspension or brakes and maybe have a motorcycle that can outperform a brand new one.
Why not Just Buy the Perfect Bike For Me?
So why not just buy the “perfect bike” brand new instead of putting the time into modifying a used bike? Like I mentioned before, I recently purchased a new bike and the experience is definitely different from buying a used motorcycle with the intention of making wholesale changes. I rode my KTM 690 SMC R a full year without making any changes, but now that I have some time on it there are several changes I want to make. There are a lot of great motorcycles out there but it’s highly unlikely that everything about a bike will suit your needs perfectly. Modification allows you to tailor your bike to your size, riding style and what makes you the most comfortable on your bike.
Modifications also give you the opportunity to focus the bike's ability on what you are most likely to do with it. If you love riding adventure bikes but rarely take them in the dirt, then setting the bike up in a more relaxed position, adding a taller windscreen and spooning on road-worthy rubber is going to suit the way you ride most of the time. Conversely, if you are hitting every dirt road and single-track trail that presents itself, a more specific suspension setup, aggressive pegs, a higher handlebar and knobby tires will benefit your style.
In making modifications, you personalize your bike to your experience, needs and tastes. Our motorcycles are an extension of our personalities in many ways. There is a personal satisfaction in walking out to your machine, knowing when you throw a leg over it that it's the only one like it in the world.
When to modify
If you’re thinking of buying a used machine that you already know well, it might make sense to start thinking of modifications even before you buy. Some makes and models have a much larger selection of parts available than others, especially if they’ve been in production longer. A little time spent cruising the interwebs for aftermarket options before you buy will give you and idea of how easy it will be to make the changes you want.
In previous years, I spent so much time riding and working on Harleys that when I bought a bike I not only had the purpose of the motorcycle pre-determined, but I also usually had already laid out an extensive list of modifications. So I would immediately start changing the bike, sometimes before I even started to put miles on it.
My recent experience of buying not only a new bike, but also a bike I had no previous experience with, changed my approach to modifying it. Unless you have previous experience on a motorcycle, then I think it's prudent to spend time on the bike, see how you gel with it and then make decisions on how to change the bike to suit your style. Spending some time on the bike will probably change some preconceived notions you may have had. Take your time and have a plan that you can implement over time. All the parts literally add up to the sum total of what your experience will be. So make sure you have a clear direction for your build.
How to Modify
I’m not a trained mechanic in the sense that I never attended a trade or tech school. I wasn’t a grease monkey as a kid. In fact, I never wrenched on anything until well after high school. Over the years, I bought manuals, tools, and wasn’t afraid to ask other more experienced mechanics questions and took my time to learn things. Eventually, small jobs I did turned into bigger jobs until I was building engines, then complete motorcycles. So my advice is to buy a service manual, start small and take your time. Swap your seat or windshield, change out foot pegs or maybe an air filter. Get familiar with working on your machine and get some small wins and the modifications will seem less intimidating as you move on to more complex things.
While it is important to have a good basic hand tool set with ratchets and wrenches, you don't need an eight-foot-long Snap On toolbox, welders and air tools to get a lot of work done on your bike. The more complex your modifications become, the more complex your tool set will become as you add things along the way, but you can get a lot done with a small set of tools. The same goes for a full-size bike lift. It definitely makes things easier but I laid on my garage floor for a long time just using a flat jack before I was able to purchase a big lift.
Take advantage of the informational content that's out there. J&P and RevZilla put out thousands of hours of content covering everything from basic maintenance to engine builds. All those technical videos combined with a service manual are huge pillars of information to use as the foundation of your mechanical journey.
Every mechanic started at square one at some point, so don’t be afraid to get started and build confidence as you go. You can always reach out to us and ask a question. One of the things I personally am the most passionate about is sharing motorcycle knowledge and encouraging people to turn their own wrenches.