Tips And Tricks For Customizing Your Street Bike: Parts And Accessories

No other machine embodies the American spirit like a custom motorcycle or street bike. In this article I discuss the history of customs, discuss tips, and more.

One of the major draws of owning a custom motorcycle is its uniqueness. Professional builders like Jesse James are creating works of rolling art. Unfortunately, these one-of-a-kind machines also cost as much as some Picassos, which make them an unrealistic option for many buyers.

Popularized through television shows like American Chopper and Motorcycle Mania, the custom motorcycle is perhaps the most impractical, idiosyncratic vehicle ever constructed. Yet no other machine embodies the American spirit of freedom and creativity in quite the same way as the super-trick chopper. In this article I will discuss the history of the custom motorcycle genre, discuss basic customizing tips, and elaborate on the difference between accessorizing a bike and customizing it.

The custom is a stylistic derivative of the American chopper that became popularized in the 1960s and 1970s. Seventies builders like Arlen Ness hand fabricated parts that would appeal to the lifestyle bikers in the San Francesco Bay area and beyond. Ness made it possible to buy custom parts to apply directly to customers' own machines, but the style he used had already taken roots in garages throughout the West Coast by small-time machinists and shade-tree mechanics.

The chopper style that emerged from the 1960s employed long "raked" forks, "sissy" bars, banana style seats, and exotic military regalia. Outlaw motorcycle groups such as the Hell's Angels were popularized in films, magazines and books throughout the sixties and 1970s, and many motorcyclists outside the counterculture were intrigued by the rugged style of the early choppers, café racers and bobjobs. Manufacturers responded by creating bikes that mimicked the style of these machines.

The term factory custom seems to be an oxymoron but the stylistic flourishes that were originally found only on heavily machined motorcycles began to appear in showrooms around the early 1970s. Harley Davidson released the Super-Glide Night Train in 1971. The brainchild of Willie G Davidson, the Night Train was the first factory custom, using a single-piece fiberglass seat and fender, a recessed taillight and other trick parts more commonly found on choppers. Japanese manufactures would attempt to capitalize on similar stylistic motorcycles throughout the 1970s, "˜80s and "˜90s, but for many the idea of the cruiser is best idealized in a custom Harley.

A custom motorcycle is a personal expression of values and taste. The original choppers favored style over pure performance gains, and today's cruisers continue this tradition. While it is true that some customizing can benefit a bike's handing, breaking or engine output, many of today's most-prized machines are not specifically designed as performance bikes.

Customizing ranges from paint and trim work to radical changes in frame geometry. Before you begin customizing your bike, try to sketch out what you want the end product to look like. Consider the work as a whole combining many discrete parts rather than a collection of parts assembled to a bike. Ask yourself how much form or function you require, and be honest: A raked out fork will look great, but might not be practical if you use your bike to commute on a regular basis.

Be prepared to become emotionally invested in the project, particularly if you are doing most of the work yourself, and honestly appraise your skills so that you do not get in over your head with a project. Also keep your state laws in mind when you consider what modifications you may wish to make to your machine, and when in doubt consult your local Department of Motor Vehicles.

Virtually any part of your motorcycle can be customized. For some, a custom paint job - performed by a trusted local shop or someone with a national reputation - forward feet controls, and "ape hanger" handlebars might be enough, but others will require a full teardown, leaving no part untouched. Your level of commitment should depend on a combination of your skills, the outcome you're aiming for, and the amount of money you wish to invest in the project.

Your motorcycle bodywork can be fabricated in many shapes and sizes, but don't attempt the work yourself unless you have the right equipment and training. If you do try to work aluminum or other metals into fenders, gas tanks or body panels, you can expect to spend many hours on each piece.

Altering the frame or installing larger rims or longer forks also requires substantial skill. Be aware that every change you make to your suspension alters how your bike handles. There are few "bolt-on" modifications that don't require machining skills, and even the smallest error can result in an injury or fatality on the road.

Engines can be built to various levels of tune, depending on what you want and how much money you wish to spend. Swapping over to hotter cams, bigger carburetors and less-restrictive exhaust systems can really wake a sleeping power plant, but some people decide to go even deeper and opt for big-bore kits, turbo chargers and nitrous-injection systems.

Do not build an engine that will overwhelm your bike's suspension. Try to evenly match the bike's frame and braking system with the power plant you plan to run and the style of riding you prefer.

On a smaller scale, many manufactures carry custom parts for their bikes. Harley Davidson's parts catalog is legendary, and Triumph carries a ride variety of parts for its Bonneville series. There are real benefits to using authentic custom parts: Your dealership mechanic can install them before you pick up your machine; manufacturers' parts sometimes don't violate warranties with items like exhaust and brake upgrades; and parts ordered at your local shop may be easier to return if they prove defective.

Many companies like J.C. Whitney provide custom parts for bikes, but quality may be an issue. Billet accessories, though sometimes attractive, are quite costly and offer no performance gains. Billet foot pegs, panels, mirrors, grips and other parts often have exactly the opposite effect than desired, letting the biker community know that you are not, in fact, genuine, but rather buy your custom parts off the shelf rather than making them yourself.

Accessorizing a bike and customizing it are two very different things. Nearly every motorcyclist buys some parts or accessories off the shelf, but remember: one of the greatest thrills you get from owning a custom is knowing it expresses some part of yourself. What does that billet mirror you bought at the dealership say about you? That you want to stand out like everyone else, but are too lackadaisical to fabricate parts yourself or find a quality aftermarket supplier who can build or find the part you really want.

Be patient when selecting parts for your bike. Customizing is a big business these days and with a little persistence, a lot of money and a strong vision, you can find the part you want for your machine. Personal touches, such as hand-painted or engraved parts, can make your machine stand.

Remember: Your custom is a reflection of your individuality, creativity and particular value system. It is yourself rendered in steel, aluminum and fiberglass for the entire world to see.

© High Speed Ventures 2011