TWO-WHEELED BRITISH REVIVAL
I’ve always been a gearhead, grew up with a wrench in my hands. My father taught me everything I know about anything mechanical. He and I restored, rebuilt, and wrenched on several of his cars, out of necessity vs. hobby. Our bond was wrenching and gasoline. Our mission was to fix the broken, solve a problem, or build something from just an idea. I took what I learned and employed it on several of my own cars: a VW bug and a heavily modified Chevy for starters. Later, I restored a Porsche, a vintage diesel Benz, and a forgotten VW Kombi. Modifying and bringing back the old is just something that runs deep in me.
Eventually my four-wheel passion expanded to motorcycles. A café’d Honda CB550, a resto-mod CB1100F, a completely refurbished R75 BMW, and my current affair with a Ducati 900SS. The simplicity of a motorcycle. An engine in frame, fuel and spark. Clutch to sprocket, chain to tire. This reaches into my DNA and extracts an ancient urge. Direct contact with the physics of motion, the visceral, two wheels, one pilot…it’s completely intoxicating to me. Whistling down the road atop something I put together with my hands—a culmination of parts hurled at the excitement of a proper shakedown—is probably the closest I’ll ever come to being a test pilot. I drank the Kool-aid, and I’m all in.
About a year ago, my friend Scott White, a fellow gearhead and motorcyclist, had asked if I wanted an old Triumph he had sitting around. I was curious. “I’ve never worked on a Triumph,” I said, foreshadowing my intent. Scott said, “I’ve had this thing taking up room for years, and I need it out of my way. It’s going on the curb if you don’t take it.” He was serious. Days later I went to his shop, took a look, then loaded up the unloved Brit lump into my Transporter. One wooden crate, a hacked frame, and a questionable (at best) engine. This 1961 5TA Triumph Speed Twin, a midweight 500cc single carb commuter bike with a sketchy history, was now mine. I had no clue about this bike… zero. As they say, bad decisions make great stories. So I began a new and unknown challenge. Why not give this sad pile of parts another go?
The back story, in brief was this: the Triumph was taken off the road around 1975 and somehow found a home in Scott’s friend’s basement. Scott then took custodial duty of it at some point in the 1980s until I ended up with it. From stories shared by Scott and further history gleaned from the evidence of modification, this bike had been converted into a spindly chopper with a deeply cut subframe sporting a crappy Z-shaped, handmade gold-flecked vinyl saddle (Scott kept this). It was topped off with a rectangular chrome headlight, pentagon chrome oil tank, and four foot forks. Easy Rider eat your British heart out!
My battle plan to rescue and revive the glory of a road capable lightweight commuter was on. I was not going to restore this bike to a stock 5TA—I’m not that guy. I had no intention to create a show queen, a parts perfect restoration with period precise paint and badges, nor a custom show bobber or chopper. I planned to reveal a new café’d version of Triumph’s basic sketch, and create a bike fit for the backroads and for tearing up city streets. Part rat, part art, and 100% fun to ride.
I started reworking the frame by splicing in a replacement section for the cut subframe and modifying to hold a seat pan and rear bump stop. After some research, I decided a sleeker profile was needed for this little motorcycle. eBay provided a shapely Yamaha-like rip-off direct from China. I ordered the tank, quickly received it, then tested for leaks, only to discover a hole by the mount on the inside tunnel. Crap. I am not a professional welder but can weld most anything. I understand what heat does to metal and what to avoid. That said, I unsuccessfully patched the hole with my MIG welder and caused a warp that was irreversible. Warped Chinese fuel tank became a seat bump/pan with some custom metal work. Then I ordered another fuel tank from China. This one had no leaks, so I sealed it right away. Success!
Included in the wooden crate parts heap was an original oil tank. I just loved the look of it, and it functions correctly with a Triumph 500cc engine. I used old photography and a lot of measurements to rebuild the oil tank frame since the original chopper deleted all the tank and under seat supports. On the left side, I mimicked the oil tank with a modified 1960s Bonneville battery cover plate, hid the modern electronics, and located switches and fuses. Simple.
The 5TA front fork chopper sliders were made to move again. In the process, I found each stanchion filled with water. The water had galled the bronze bushings to the aluminum sliders to such an extent that I couldn’t separate the components. Damn. 5TA forks are complicated and hard to find used. Of course, all the components are available for one to build a new complete set of forks, but I didn’t want to spend an unrealistic amount of money. This lead me to a complete fork swap. After obsessive measurements and a lot of research, I found and purchased a complete 1972 CB350K front clip. This was real-world testing of my headset bearing swap theory: to mate a ’61 Triumph and ’72 Honda triple tree, fork, and front wheel. Proper preparation, research, and diligence paid off. It worked out easily.
Next, I disassembled the engine and checked all clearances. I found a Triumph shop manual, original parts book, and other technical articles online that made it pretty easy to get into the rebuild with confidence. Almost every part I needed was available: pistons and rings; all new oil seals and an entire gasket kit; a new primary chain; mechanical oil pressure thingy; electronic CDI ignition; Amal carb rebuild kit and rare choke assembly; and myriad other parts. Everything is available for this odd and honestly unpopular fifty-seven year old Triumph in the USA. I can’t find certain parts for my ‘92 Ducati 900SS anywhere. Not even Italy. Go figure!
Once I had the engine back together and was positive it would run, I moved onto wiring. The Electrex ignition system from the UK will run the bike without a battery, but the lights are dim at low RPM. Old Triumphs are positive ground, however, I planned to make this bike negative ground since I wanted to use LED lights. LEDs cannot reverse polarity like incandescent bulbs, so I planned to utilize a small lithium battery to provide a constantly bright tail and brake light. I also decided to complete the look by sourcing an era-appropriate Lucas headlight. Clearly, the negative/positive ground dilemma needed to be worked out. Once again, old manuals proved indispensable on this build and provided direction for a needlessly complex 3-position Lucas light switch and overall polarity. To complete the cockpit, a new Lucas ammeter, pilot light, and hi-beam indicator were added—a nod to Triumph nostalgia.
My skinny little 5TA resurrection is really fun to ride. It’s much like a bicycle with its narrow tires and nimble geometry. It has some surprising get-up-and-go with its slight 20hp twin engine. In the city, a bike this size is right at home. Pedigree for a motorcycle connoisseur and hipster cred for the rest. Producing a smile on bikers, motorcyclists, and other builders seems to be the result. People love old Brit twins—and this bike get thumbs up from all sorts. Honestly, I never expected this reaction to such an odd creation. Long live the Queen.