Becoming a "Ton-Up Boy" For Less Than $1000

A Frugal Cafe Racer Build

I have always been a fan of smaller displacement motorcycles and inline twins have a look that makes my pants a little tight.

One November evening, I was browsing through the classifieds in search of a little motorcycle project. Having recently graduated from Illinois State University, I was still low on cash, but now had the free time to build another project. I wanted a nice two cylinder bike that could be had for a few hundred dollars. That limited me to a vast array of universal Japanese motorcycles. After a few moments of searching the online marketplace, I found it.



It was covered in what looked like glued on orange peels.

This heap. The advertisement had pictures of it laying on its side in the back of a pickup truck. It was a mostly complete 1976 Yamaha XS360C and the seller only wanted $125, best of all, it still had all of its paperwork. The vast majority of motorcycles being sold for so little have lost all of the paperwork and are good enough for parts at best. I promptly called the seller and arranged to pick it up after breakfast the next day.

The bike was in a sad state. It was covered in what looked like glued on orange peels. There was no way it could have been paint, as the surface was waved with pits and pores and a texture resembling a topographic globe. Surface rust blanketed the chrome plated bits and the engine was seized tight. It was absolutely perfect for what I had in mind. I trucked the little motorcycle back to the garage and set it in the corner. There, it patiently waited for denudation while I conducted my research.

Slick 70's graphics.

Slick 70's graphics.

The Yamaha XS360 was introduced to the U.S. in 1976. It was among Yamaha's first big attempts at small displacement 4 stroke engines. Before, Yamaha was successful in that market with the RD series 2 stroke models. But, with ever tightening emissions regulations and competition from other manufacturers, Yamaha needed to step up. Mosquito foggers could no longer cut it. The XS360 gave quite a bit for a two wheeled contrivance on the more economical end of the spectrum. It was available with electric and kick starting, twin 34mm carburetors, disk brake, self canceling turn signals, locking filler cap, and locking [small]storage. With 356cc's, 6 speeds, and nearly 30hp, the XS360 was good for over 90mph. When released, the XS360 was well received. It garnered more attention than its competitor, the Honda CB360. Yamaha knew now, that it was on the right track and more was to come. Today, this bike is a bit scarce. The XS360 was Yamaha dipping it's toe before making a splash. 1977 saw the introduction of the XS400, which went on to become Yamaha's big selling motorcycle under 500cc's. For close to the same price, one could have more of a bike. The XS360 lamented in 1977 under its bigger twin brother and became redundant before 1978.

I had purchased a whole motorcycle with a title for under $100.

Good news for me. As now I had a bit of a rare bike, only being offered for two years. It also shared nearly every part with the much more popular XS400. This could keep rebuild prices low. My first order of business was to get rid of the awful Windjammer fairing that had been included. At one point, it was attached to the bike and received the same orange peel cladding. I was able to sell off the fairing for $35. That brought my purchase price down to $90. I had purchased a whole motorcycle with a title for under $100. So I set to work turning this machine into a cafe racer of my design.

I now took the time to step back take stock in what I had. All of the parts were there, so that was a plus. Now, I had to decide which parts would need to go. Added lightness is essential for a cafe racer. Out went the seat, it was too crusty to repair and I planned on designing my own anyhow. The turn signals and tail light went as they were smashed and some berk had slashed the wires. Gone were the fenders, side covers, and factory handlebars. I was now to a point where I could clean what was left and work to loosen the engine.

My right buttock quivered.

However, the engine would not budge. After weeks of soaking in many brews for breaking a seized engine, I had nothing. It was tight as a drum. I then decided, rather than tear it down and rebuild it, I could simply pop in a used engine. Fortunately, I found one with under 400 miles for around $200. My first cache of cash chucked at the cycle. I was now at $290 on the build. My right buttock quivered at the cost. Still, much less than it would need for a full rebuild.

With a new engine sorted and most of the mechanicals sound, I began to focus on appearance. I had no rear lights and no place to sit. I dug into my stock of spares and scrounged up a tail light from my early 60's Beetle. I though it would look the part and the side profile matched the tank. So I set out to mold a fiberglass seat that would suit the lens.

Now that I was getting most of the body work handled, I began to move on to my color choices. I always like to be seen on my motorcycle but I cannot stand to wear His-Vis yellow clothing. Instead, I like my bikes and my helmets to be flashy in color. I chose to paint the bike bright yellow with a sweeping 60's racing stripe.

Having the stance, the style, and the mechanicals sorted, I attempted to start it for the first time. On the third kick it roared into life. At a cost of now $430 dollars, I was giddy like a school girl. Hardly being able to contain my excitement, I quickly adjusted everything to maintain a smooth idle. I then hopped onto my awakened mount and buzzed up and down the street with an ear to ear grin. I put it back in the drive and called up a few chums to go for a test ride. With my riding partners assembled, I straddled my ride with a smug look on my face and gave it a swift kick... Nothing. Now feeling awkward I played with the choke, tickled the tap, and gave another kick... Nothing. I fiddled with it for a few more minutes and made no ground. The crew began to jump in and tinker and kick. Still nothing. We even tried push starting to no avail. What had happened? It ran so well. Over the next few weeks I continued to trifle. Having made no progress I relinquished and banished my steed to the back of the garage. There it sat for another four years.

After purchasing a house and getting everything settled in, I sought to return to my neglected cycle. In four years time, my seat had split and my paint cracked and peeled. The tires were stiff and dry. The chain was coated in rust. Poor storage had left it in a sad state. In those four years I began to think it may somehow be ignition related, despite being all over the points and coils like stink on a monkey. However, I made no progress with that. But progress had been made in the aftermarket world. An electronic ignition system had been made for the XS400. As fortune would have it, it would fit the XS360 as well. I bit the bullet and took a chance. Another $100 left my coffers. I was now into the Yamaha $530. Once the system was in hand, it was swiftly installed. Then, this happened.

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Success! The floodgates had opened and I quickly began to make up lost ground. On went new tires, tubes, a chain, new mufflers, shocks, and some clip on handlebars to the tune of $420. I now rested at $950 and things were looking good. I rode the bike around for a few months with its failing paint and disintegrating seat. I wanted to be sure it was reliable before it looked pretty.

After covering more than 2000 miles I felt it was running splendidly. I was comfortable enough to turn my attention toward aesthetics. I scrounged around my local junk yard to find a decent, dent and rust free tank to place between my knees. A good example was found and a little back and forth with the odd, elderly owner (the only kind of people who run junk yards) he let me leave with it for $40. I then turned to my sewing room and looked for scraps of vinyl to use for the seat. A roll of black upholstery and some batting were left from some door cards I made for a Triumph Herald. Enough to stitch up a quilted seat cover. All that was left was to settle on a color. Now that I was sitting at $990 for the build, I did not want to buy anything else. I dug through my large inventory of paints leftover from previous builds and I stumbled across a nice gold champagne metallic, an 80's blend left over from some repairs I had done on my 81' Cutlass Supreme a few years prior. I had enough primer, basecoat, and clear to cover my tank and seat. After all of the prep work, I laid down the bubbly.

I was pleased as punch. The bike now looked the best it has ever looked while under my care. I could now begin to think of frivolous add on items. I always like to carry a small batch of select tools needed to limp home should any issues arise. By going the sleek stripped down route, I had very few places to keep anything. While expanding my knowledge in sewing a messenger bag, I had an idea.

I stitched up a waxed canvas bag with the remnants left from my aforementioned sewing protect. It seemed to match my waxed cotton riding jacket well and nestled neatly in a space that seemed wasted. I had just enough room to carry tools on one side and my lunch on the other. I was now ready for some scenic portraits of my near finished steed.

I say near finished, because when is a project ever done really? My total cost to date has been $990, if my labor were counted as free. I would not be able to get a tailor made motorbike for anywhere near that. Yet, by learning new skills, scavenging, re-purposing, and much ingenuity, I built a bike that I thoroughly enjoy. Could I have spent more and made it all easier? Most certainly. However, the whole point was to see what could be done for under $1000. To prove a point that working with one's hand and working within a budget could be something attainable and something to be proud of.

~Stay Ambitious

#yamaha #caferacer #motorcycle #adventure

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Comments (2)

  • Great build and a great story, which accurately illustrates - to me - why bikes are so much more fun to work on than cars.

      2 years ago
    • Glad you enjoyed it! Stay tuned for my next build. I have a 1971 BSA Lightning that someone butchered. Luckily, it runs quite well. So only cosmetic and electrical work need doing.

        2 years ago