It's tough being a grease monkey in New York City. I dream of a garage, a good space where I can keep my tools and spread out my oily motorcycle parts. My friend Andrew Anderson, a Scottish New Yorker, does not let space constraints dictate his passion for British motorcycles. He spent a good 6 months building a 1955 Triton in his three floor walk-up in Brooklyn.
In simple terms, a Triton is a combination of a Norton frame and a Triumph engine – the best of both worlds from two classic British bikes. Andrew used an engine from a 1955 Triumph Thunderbird, also known as a 6T. The frame is the famous Rex McCandles Wideline also from 1955, made for Norton. Andrew wanted to build the ultimate Cafe Racer; an expression originated in London during the sixties when bikers would race their customized motorcycles between cafes. A typical Cafe Racer should have rear sets (special kind of foot pegs) and clip-on bars or Ace bars (really low handle bars) to create a low, racy riding position. The bike should also be cleared of any unnecessary elements. Much like today's race bikes, speed before comfort is the golden rule.
The project started with a rolling chassis; frame, engine, wheels and some other parts. Many elements were missing and the bike didn't run, but he had a basic skeleton to build on. Since Andrew does not own a garage, he decided to do the whole thing in his 750 sq ft apartment in Prospect Heights. The first thing he did was to disassemble everything. Sort out what he had and figured out what else he needed in order to build a working motorcycle. He made sure to photograph every step of the process, to have a reference point when he put it back together. He soon ended up with old and new parts taking up his whole living space (man, it helps being a bachelor).
Andrew didn't fancy the original frame finish;
"I removed the stove enamel and repainted it", Andrew says.
"I think there is only a very small palette of colors that look right on an old cafe racer, black being my favorite."
The engine needed new piston rings, he cleaned and reassembled the head, renovated and re jetted the carburetors. Andrew has got a bit of a polishing fetish, but sometimes you got to know when to stop;
"The first thing I renovated was the Amal carbs. Spent about a week cleaning and polishing them, they came up really nice, great surface shine. Put them in a box safe until the rebuild. When I opened the box 3 months later they looked like they did before I started work on them. The alloy used by Amal is quite cheap it would appear and it oxidizes very quickly, last time I ever spend a week polishing a carb."
He had better luck with the gas tank which was sanded then polished on his buffing wheel, he'd since let oxidize naturally to a dull alloy shine. It looks fantastic.
The original seat was vinyl and a big mess. After months of suffering the agony of desire, Andrew caved and paid $300 for a beautiful suede seat from Unity Equipe. He niftily cut out a part of its alloy hump and inserted a tail light, all in the name of clean lines and simplicity. The electric wiring was pretty straight forward since the bike does not have a battery system.
Any advice for an aspiring apartment-bike-builder?
"Grinding, buffing, painting, polishing and wrenching is a messy business. You want to be able to contain the airborne dust as much as possible so a separate room is a big help.
Be very methodical about taking things apart and keeping all the related bits in the same box or bag. Become friends with someone who knows much more about bikes than you do."
And what else?
"Never wash your hands with citrus based cleaner if you are sitting in the bath."
Apparently hand cleaner can have a pretty strong reaction on the rest of your body, especially your most sensitive areas. What about the neighbors? Andrew didn't get any complaints, even when he started up the bike in his kitchen. But, you should probably take that into account if you want to start your own project.
Six months and $7000 later the bike was ready for a road test. With the help of 3 strong bodies, Andrew got the bike down the stairs to the street. It started up and is still running great.
Petter Ringbom is a partner in Flat, part laplander and full time British bike enthusiast.
If you live in New York and are curious about classic British bikes, I suggest stopping by Sixth Street Specials at: 703 East 6th St. Phone: (212) 979-6535