The Beginning Of The Kawasaki Chopper Build: I was only 22 and lived three blocks from the beach in Cape Canaveral, Florida. I had previously had a wonderful job at Port Canaveral, Florida managing a Government contract shipping supplies to the Bahamas military stations, but the contract had been won by a competitor and they offered a large pay cut which I didn’t wish to accept.
I had purchased a rather nice mobile home and fixed it up in a tropical theme. It was homey – and it was home; all I had. However, I had few options of places to place the trailer and still live on my beloved beach. The park I had chosen was affordable and had been owned by a very cool old man; but he had sold it recently to someone who liked to make rules and lots of them. One of these rules was ABSOLUTELY NO MOTORCYCLES!
I’d met Ron when he was the crane operator on-call for days that we loaded or unloaded ships coming or going to the military stations “down range”. These stations supported the space launches which happened at Kennedy Space Center, just 10 miles or so to the north. Now, here he was in my home, just returning to town.
Of course, that night he went back to his father’s house in nearby Cocoa to sleep, and did so for the next several nights. Slowly by surely, his jeans and other personal items began to show up around my house. Eventually all his things were there and I gave him a key.
Then the surprise came. He said he’d bought a bike while in Texas. No surprise; I knew he loved motorcycles and so did I. Then he said, “It needs a little work”. Again, no surprise; there’s nothing wrong with a fixer-upper. But the bigger surprise was yet to come. “It’s a basket case, but I just KNOW all the parts are there”, he said.
Uh oh, I thought, this Kawasaki chopper build sounds like trouble and a money pit. That was the beginning...
Parts, Parts, Parts...
As soon as Ron settled in with me, he starts discussing the motorcycle and what to do about building it in light of the rule where I lived. Never being one to make a big deal about authority, I suggested we built it at home rather than renting a warehouse space and using money we needed for other things – like parts.
Ron, at first, resisted but soon realized that perhaps we could pull it off. After all, the worst that could happen is that I’d be told I’d have to move my mobile home and I had little intention of doing that!
There was only a small yard and I did not have a metal storage building as some of the neighbors had, so we determined the best place to build the bike was the kitchen. Well, maybe it wasn’t the BEST place; it was, however, the only place we could fit the scoot frame that wouldn’t take over a crucial asset – like the bathroom, for instance. After all, rooms in mobile homes are rather small for building a Kawasaki chopper.
The boxes and crates of parts began to arrive. Having removed the dining room table, a simple four-seat model and placed it in storage, I used that space to pile the crates as they arrived. And then there was the frame – an American Savior rigid frame – which stretched across the room. It was already painted blue.
Very carefully we arranged the parts so that the refrigerator was still accessible. The stove was completely blocked, but the kitchen sink and pantry could be reached if you leaned just right! Overall, it fit, but just barely. The stretch frame took up the most room. Forks, engine parts and buckets of bolts stacked nicely in the corner.
I looked at this mess and thought this will never be a motorcycle, much less a nice one.
The first step with building a Kawasaki chop is to get organized. Everything had to be sorted into what part of the scoot it would it. Engine parts, frame parts, front end parts, and so on, each had to be stacked together.
Next, everything had to be cleaned. The four huge carburetors were disassembled and placed into a pan to soak before the rebuild. Sprockets, valves, just about every piece you can name were in a bucket somewhere with other similar parts being cleaned. The house smelled of gas and oil.
My friends began to tell me I was nuts. I wasn’t so certain they weren’t right about this matter. Fast food was the diet of the day. That got old really quickly.
Surprisingly, underneath all that grease and grunge there appeared some shiny chrome parts. The battery case came out chrome and scratch free. The handle bars cleaned up perfectly. The front forks were gorgeous – and long!
I began to try to imagine what the Kawasaki chopper would look like when completed. Somehow I simply couldn’t grasp it completely in my mind. But then another thought hit me: what if we can’t get it out of the kitchen when it’s put together? I could just imagine that bike being fully assembled only to learn we would not be able to get it out of the front door. It was going to be tricky, that much was for certain. For one thing, I had a very small porch deck leading down to three stair steps on the side for ingress and egress.
Something else might have to be worked out there. But with the stretched frame and long front end, could the chop actually maneuver out of the kitchen and toward the freedom of the road? I decided I’d best leave that problem for later since things had already begun and there was no where else to perform the build.
Ron and I cleaned and collected all the engine parts that were there. Of course, he knew all the parts had come with the motorcycle (uh huh, I thought), but that had been well before a trip from Texas to Florida, so anything could have happened.
As the engine parts begin to come together into something that looks like an engine, we found we were actually very lucky. Only a few bolts were missing and those were easy to find at the local Kawasaki shop. The problem for me was that I knew a bit about wrenching on Harley Davidsons, but I didn’t think that engine that was growing rapidly looked much like an engine I understood. Sure the basic operation is the same, but everything happens in a different place! With four cylinders, four carbs, and no V, everything including the cam just looked completely wrong. Fortunately, Ron had some experience with a Kaw, and we had a really good Chilton’s for that model.
Soon it was time to have the engine machined. In order to avoid allowing the neighbors to know we were turning our place into a motorcycle cycle “den of iniquity” (as they would think), we took the engine out at night on a big wooden table top. Ron and a friend got it in the truck and covered it over in case of the frequent Florida rain. The next day, it was off to the machine shop on the mainland.
There had been a tangle of spaghetti lying in the corner all this time and now it was time to do the actually electrical wiring along and through the Kawasaki chopper frame. After taking a good look at the wire harness, we both immediately decided that replacement was the only solution. Wires had been spliced, cut, pieced, knotted and this simply wasn’t going to work.
Because the chopper was going to be a “stripped” job, no fluff, no electric start, nothing fancy, wiring wasn’t going to be too big a deal. At the time, motorcycle turn signals in Florida were not required. Headlight, tail light, and tag light were the main requirements. We decided to go ahead and put on rear turn signals for the sake of safety.
Pulling the wiring through the frame tubes was not nearly as difficult as I had imagined. You can do amazing things with simple tools like coat hangers and string! It was fortunate that Ron’s buddy was an electrician and willing to help. I knew a bit about basic wiring and so did Ron, but we weren’t ready to tackle the job we were doing without some how-to advice. Now we had a frame with wiring, head and tail lights, turn signals, handle bars and nothing else.
I can share this with you about our Kawasaki chopper. Lifting an engine and holding it into place in a mobile home kitchen is not an easy thing! This is another place where friends came in handy and thank God they were willing to help! Once the engine machining was completed and Ron finished assembly and made sure she would turn over, the engine and transmission had to be installed.
With little space to move and no winches or pulleys, the task was a lot harder than if we had been doing this part in a garage or well-equipped shop! But we managed to get everyone holding onto the engine to balance it just right and get the bolts in place. Then Ron and the guys put in the tranny while I went for pizza.
Once I come back, after the hungry wolves cleared, I noticed the chopper was beginning to look like a real bike! There was hope. However, that nagging fear of building something that would not go out the door remained.
While everything had been in assembly mode, the coffin shaped gas tank had been out for paint. It was a blue that matched the frame perfectly and we had now reached the time to bolt it on and run fuel lines. We were getting close to completion now!
After installing the tank and running lines, we put the chain on and chain cover. Following the instructions carefully, we did take time to count the chain links to be certain we had it on exactly right. No one wants to be flying down the road and have a chain break or come loose!
From there, we added the saddle. It was a king and queen roll and tuck in black leather with blue piping. It was also high backed, which isn’t my preference in saddles, but for long rides it is more comfortable. Two sets of foot pegs went onto the back. This turned out to be a good move because the saddle was high enough I had to stand on the lower peg to mount the behind Ron.
Front controls, mirrors, handle bar grips, a little extra chrome here and there completed the look. It was almost time to hear her run, except for one more thing: the carbs.
We were now finished with the basic assembly and everything else had to be done with the capability of running the engine. Enclosed spaces without sufficient ventilation are not places to allow gas powered engines to run. So it was time to see if the chop would fit out the door. Ron told me it would – but did I believe him? No!
He very carefully backed the motorcycle to the door, turned it ever so slightly and it slipped out the door perfectly!! We didn’t even have to move the front deck. Using a 2 X 6 ramp, we pushed her into the back of the truck to go over to Cocoa to complete the work at his father’s house.
Four carbs make for a fast bike, but they do not make for easy tuning. After bolting on the carbs, we cranked the bike. She ran! Unbelievable! Somehow, I’d imagined that all this work would result in tearing it all down again. But it cranked perfectly; then it began to spit and sputter because the carbs were not adjusted.
Getting four carbs to run together perfectly takes a lot of time and tweaking. I’m sure shops have computers or equipment for balancing multiple carbs, but we did it the old fashioned way: trial and error. It took longer to get the carbs to perfection than to do most of the engine assembly! But at last, the engine was running smoothly and idling perfectly.
Of course we had no tag or title as yet, but waiting for those details to take the bike for a first test run just wasn’t possible. We only ran a couple of miles the first run because we didn’t want to run into legal problems with tickets for no tag, no title, no registration, no insurance, but we knew the chopper would run and run well.
When you build a bucket of bolts into a running motorcycle, you have to obtain a builder’s title for the bike. This means you have to have proof of where every single piece of equipment came from and proof that none of it is stolen. Although it was my first time to even hear of a builder’s title, Ron had stressed that, as the business person in the house, I should keep every piece of paper on even nuts and bolts. Fortunately, I had done this.
Ron had proof of purchase in a bill of sale from the person he bought the basket case from in Texas. That was a big help. I organized all the parts receipts, machine shop bills, and everything about building the motorcycle and posted it into a dated ledger and filed them by date. That way I could put my hands on anything the authorities wanted to see.
Next, Ron had to take the motorcycle over to the Sheriff’s office for a safety certification. The chopper passed with no problem since we had all lighting working, brakes adjusted, and the exhaust was within legal limits (just barely).
Taking everything to the courthouse, we fill out all the necessary paperwork to obtain a builder’s title. Because we had been very careful to follow exact specifications of what needed to be sent in to obtain the title, we were fortunate that within three or four weeks get got a clear title in the mail!!
The next day, tag and registration and insurance were obtained and we had a legal street chopper!
Finally, we got to the FUN part – the ride. Having all the necessary documentation that the chopper was legal, we took off the very next weekend for a nice day-long run. The bike performed well and the ride was great. I would soon come to realize that hard tails are called that for a reason – long rides became hard on my “tail” after a while. But the fun of watching people in cars go by staring was great fun. Harley riders even joined us since this wasn’t a “rice burner” looking bike.
After every run, the bike got cleaned and polished so it was ready for the next run. We had a great time with that motorcycle.
Ron isn’t part of my life anymore and neither is the motorcycle. I heard he wrecked it and was hurt pretty badly. I’ve wrenched on other bikes since – Triumphs, Harleys – and ridden quite a few. But somehow that very first experience with wrenching a bike is always the one you remember fondly. That Kawasaki saw two Daytona Bike Weeks, and many, many day-long runs with friends. It was fun even if we were just running down the road.
We moved from the beach as soon as the bike was built into a more biker friendly neighborhood near Orlando. Orlando traffic didn’t make riding in town a great deal of fun; not because of the stops and starts but because of the crazy drivers in cars! They just don’t see motorcycles, even bright blue ones that gleam in the sun!
If you want to enjoy the road, don’t think that you have to go purchase a brand new motorcycle. Sure, it’s nice when you can do that. But you can buy a basket case and learn more about your ride than just how to crank it!
Some of the things I learned while helping build that Kawasaki chopper paid off over and over in working on other motorcycles and even cars. After all, an engine is an engine!
Whatever you do, whether you buy a new, used or custom motorcycle, you must remember to ride safely at all times. The skin you save will be your own!
By Nora Catarino.