Perusing an online buy-and-sell website leads to a bike build long forgotten
Story and Photos by Costa Mouzouris
Editor Glenn Roberts and I have in the past discussed our impulse to reconnect with our youth. In biker terms, this means reacquiring a motorcycle (or more) that has some significance to us emotionally. Last summer, Glenn bought a near-mint 1981 Yamaha XS650, which he told me is almost exactly the same model as the first street bike he owned, give or take a model year. A year ago, I too acquired what had been my first street motorcycle, an extra-clean, low-mileage Honda FT500 Ascot.
We both came across our respective retro-bikes quite accidentally: Glenn through an acquaintance; I while leisurely perusing classified ads with no intention to buy. I do this to kill time on occasion, and to read the sometimes comical, sometimes ridiculous claims some sellers make when trying to pawn their rides.
Finding a Piece of History
While again glancing through online classifieds recently, I came across a picture that froze me in my browsing. Within the tiny thumbnail preview picture I saw a machine that took but a millisecond to recognize, and it brought back a wave of memories. Clicking on the image, the description was very brief, mentioning some of its easily recognizable parts, stating (erroneously) that it had an aluminum frame, and that only 200 were built. I’m not sure where that last part came from, but there is in fact only one such bike in existence. And as the larger images confirmed, it was indeed a bike I had built more than 20 years ago.
Before I became a motorcycle journalist, I had been a motorcycle mechanic. I’d worked in a few dealerships prior to starting my own business in 1994 with partner and friend Denis Lavoie. We didn’t sell motorcycles; we were instead equipped with a modest machine shop that we used to build engines and bikes for our customers.
New Shop, New Build
One of the first projects we took on after opening was for the service manager of the Montreal Harley dealer where I used to work before taking off on my own. He wanted to build a Sportster-based dirt tracker for the street, a style now known as a street tracker. The dealer where he worked just wasn’t equipped for the type of fabricating work required to take on such a project, which is why we were handed the contract.
Working at a Harley dealer has other perks, however, one of them being access to crash-damaged bikes. He bought a crashed 1986 Sportster 883, which would become the donor bike. Of course, to make a proper street tracker – lightweight, svelte and with the appropriate dirt-track look – a proper dirt-track frame had to be procured.
The connection to the frame at the foundation of the street tracker came via Lavoie’s brother, Martin. Martin was an AMA-licensed Canadian flat-track racer living in Florida. He was a regular on the American flat-track circuit, making the finals more often than not, with a race victory at the Daytona short track in 1983, and an AMA national win at Sturgis in 1985. His bike of choice, of course, was the legendary Harley-Davidson XR750, a bike that is currently on display at L’Épopée de la Moto, a motorcycle museum in St-Jean-Port-Joli, just east of Quebec City on Hwy 132. But I digress.
An XR Coming Together
Martin provided the bent 1972 Harley XR750 frame, which became the basis of the street tracker. That the frame was bent was of no concern, because the top tube had to be modified anyway to provide clearance for the taller 883 engine. The entire top frame tube was removed, as were the two front downtubes, each of which was cut off between the two forward engine-mounting holes. New chrome-moly tubes were repositioned and welded in place. Unfortunately, because the top tube had to sit taller to clear the cylinder heads, the reworked frame lost its unique cross-tube steering-head layout, a characteristic of true XR750 frames where the backbone meets the steering neck at the bottom and the front tubes cross the backbone to join the steering neck at the top.
To remain faithful to the XR750, an aluminum oil tank was fabricated, though it is larger than the original tank, because incorporated within its centre is a battery box. It was hand-fabricated by Montreal-based custom-bike builder Dave Cody, who had a genius eye for bike design and a surgical hand with a TIG welder. The tailpiece is an aftermarket XR750 item made of fibreglass; the swingarm is not the original tubular item, but a square-tube item that came off an Ironhead Sportster. Because the 35 mm fork on the 1986 donor bike was bent, a 39 mm fork assembly from a later model was used. The entire wiring harness was handmade by yours truly, and designed to be almost invisible. The wire wheels were laced up using stock hubs and 18-inch aluminum rims: an Akront in the front and a Sun in the rear. The peanut gas tank came off the donor bike, and Cody painted the bike, finishing it with hand pinstriping and gold-leaf lettering.
The engine was bored to 1200 cc, high-performance Screamin’ Eagle cams were installed, an S&S carburetor replaced the original Keihin, and the heads were converted to a twin-sparkplug setup. The engine probably makes about 90 hp.
If memory serves, it took the better part of our first season in business to build the bike, and it would often draw the attention of our other customers. It was informally considered the signature bike of Cosden Specialities, the name of our fledgling shop, comprising the first three letters of our first names.
Lost and Found
After six years, I went on to other things, while Denis can still be found machining and welding away at the shop. We had lost track of our beloved XR Sporty, which the service manager sold to someone in Quebec’s Eastern Townships a couple of years after it was built. I even delivered the bike to the…