In 2006, I went to the vintage races at the Mosport Ontario track; I spotted a nice looking Atlas built café racer style. It had clubman bars, rear sets; the tank was painted like the old Manxes in grey with black pin striping. It had its faults, but nonetheless looked good.
I had a Featherbed frame (the one from the '68 Atlas) stashed deep in my brother’s basement in which I had plans to install an Ariel 500cc single, that project was put away when I raised my family. Even though it was almost complete, the thought of building a nice Atlas and better still an Atlas café racer was in my mind from that day on.
I went to see my friend who has been building and repairing British bikes all his life and shared my ideas with him, something I should have avoided because he is the one who said “why not put a belt final drive on it?” I guess I could have walked away right then, but he did promise to help me with the parts I would need to complete the build, little things like an engine…
In his attic, he had my old Manxman frame, it was now painted black, but scratching the black top coat revealed the original factory blue paint lying underneath.
My friend agreed to a trade, I had an Atlas frame which had matching serial numbers to an engine he had for the Manxman's frame. I don't know when, but he had bought the bike I built years ago, he had sent my fiberglass parts to be painted, but they were lost by the paint shop so he never rebuilt it.
My first purchases were the front and rear pulleys and the belt I would use; there was just enough room to run the thinnest belt made by Gates which is 20mm in width. I modified the rear pulley from 38mm to fit my belt, the front pulley was modified by a machinist because it was just too hard for my little lathe, and the machinist welded it to a cut down Norton gearbox sprocket.
From then on, it became clear the stock swing arm would not work, for one thing, the left hand side would not clear my big rear pulley and since the belt I bought was a bit longer than ideal, the swing arm had to be extended. My engine plates canted the engine forwards Commando style and they positioned the gearbox closer to the engine like a Commando, not a good situation since the gearbox output shaft was now 10 cm further from the swing arm pivot.
Looking at pictures of other Featherbed / Commando hybrids, I noticed some people hiding the battery behind the gearbox, if there was enough room to hide a battery, why not put my oil tank there? Quick calculations gave me a 2 liter capacity which is the minimum to keep the engine lubricated. Playing around with pictures on my computer, I thought about moving the swing arm pivot forwards and incorporating the oil tank in the swing arm.
There was a lot of time spent just looking at the bike in the garage or on pictures just so I could find a build line. By putting the oil tank behind the gearbox, I had the basic idea, keep the back of the bike free of anything, no visible oil tank, no apparent battery box, no back fender, hidden wires. Some of my modifications were due to earlier choices, such as the alternator, I used a 30mm wide racing belt with the ignition pickup at the end of the crank, so no stock rotor and stator could be used. My first plan was to drive the alternator from the timing chest just like the old magneto or points on the earlier Nortons, but again by playing with parts I saw I could make a thin pulley and make a very simple good looking belt drive.
As much as possible I try to make all the parts myself. I have a small 9” South Bend lathe which has proved invaluable in making many things that are impossible to buy on the open market just because no one makes them, case in point, my oil manifold, I wanted the feed to come from the bottom and the return to go out towards the top, nothing like that exists. I made tools to be able to use my lathe to do basic milling operations, something I had never done before. I use a small band saw as well as my radial arm saw to cut many of the aluminum plates I used on my build.
As time went on and the build progressed, I found myself redoing many of the parts I had made earlier, either because I found a better way to make them or to fix earlier “mistakes” or just to make the parts look better. At this time (February 2009) I am ready to send the frame and a few other parts out for powder coating and in a short while, I should have the tank, headlamp shell and front mudguard ready for paint. While these will be out, I will rebuild the transmission and the engine. I hope to have the bike out on the road by spring. See HYPERLINK for an up to date picture progression of my café racer.
I am writing this because some may be interested in how tortuous it is to build a motorcycle, especially something of a phoenix for me, a bike I originally bought over 30 years ago, which has been a part of my youth. Fortunately, I have pictures of my previous efforts in bike building and more to the point, pictures of the motorcycle my present build is based on. While a picture is worth a thousand words, it is easier to understand the “why” with a bit of text. For any comments, send me an e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Next time I will write about my Commando which is a real phoenix because it bought a burned to the ground JPS Norton and resurrected it as a Fastback at a time when the internet was still a dream and at a time parts to rebuild a JPS just did not exist. I rebuilt it as a Fastback only because that was the bike I lusted over when I was running around on my little Yamaha.