With a shop full of tools, welders, and benders, Corey Kruchkowski sets to work building his vision of a true custom chopper. The starting point: an ancient Yamaha XS650 engine around which everything else would need to be constructed from the ground up. This is what happened.
Last summer I was very close to ordering a Harley-style custom kit. Then I got this notion the resulting bike wouldn’t actually be a true custom, at least not by the standards I set for myself. Instead, I decided to build what I consider to be a “real” chopper. I would take a running motorcycle, chop the frame into pieces, build a bunch of one-off pieces for it in my own shop, slam the ride height, and breathe some fire into the engine.
A friend with a crusty but mechanically sound 1973 Yamaha XS650 stepped up and offered me the bike at a price that even my wife didn’t blink at. And the project began in earnest. Why a XS650? There are several reasons.
One, the XS650 is essentially a minor classic in custom circles and as such has a decent following. Meaning, when it came to time to source parts I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel just to hard tail the motorcycle, for example. Two, the XS650 is known for having a powerful, bulletproof engine. I like to ride hard, and while I love building engines, I hate breaking down. Three, the parts that are available are reasonably priced. Example: for less than $600 CDN there’s an available big-bore kit that will punch out the engine to 750cc with a new cylinder block, new pistons and rings, wrist pins and all gaskets.
The main goals were to create a lightweight, original custom bike that goes like stink and looks cool, and one that actually FITS me—at six-foot-five, I’m a bit of a taller lad.
THIS STORY BEGINS WITH MOST OF the custom frame modifications already completed. As far back on the hardtail kit as I could manage, a Chopper Shox builder kit was welded on. The kit consists of a formed seat pan (choose small, medium, and extra beefy when ordering), some weld brackets, and two weight specific shocks providing approximately an inch of travel. Tell Chopper Shox your weight, and they tune the shocks to your size. One inch may not seem like much, unless you have ridden a true hardtail for any length of time, then you would realize that any travel under your butt is better than none!
Once I knew where the back tire would live, I installed the seat as close to it as I could. Knowing where the seat would go allowed me to determine how long I had to stretch the backbone of the frame to build the perfect rider compartment (for me). The answer was 3.5 inches of stretch in the backbone.
I cut the backbone (removing the downtubes in the process), inserted a 3.5-in. plug, and tacked the remaining piece of backbone holding the neck back on. I needed to replace the downtubes, and instead of a double-tube system I used a single piece of 1.5-in. 0.120 drawn-over-mandrel tubing bent by yours truly. The result is generally called a “gooseneck,” and I was quite pleased with the look.
While welding on the downtube I set the rake of the neck to accommodate the two-in. over DNA Springer I had chosen for the new front end, while leaving the bottom of the frame level with the ground. I’m unsure how much rake it gave the bike, but it has a wheelbase six inches longer than my Victory Vegas—so it’s a long bike.
Having the seat installed and frame modified to accept the forks finally allowed me to sit on the bike and get a feel for where I wanted my feet to live. I got my lovely wife to make some marks on my homemade frame jig where I held my feet while sitting on the bike and that determined where the forward controls would go.
I started with a few plasma-cut pieces of 3/16-plate and some one-in. OD 0.120 wall DOM. I inserted some 3/4-in. threaded rod and welded it with a few plug welds. Onto the threaded rods went a set of TC Bros. Choppers pegs and levers. Some small rod ends and a few pieces of small diameter DOM provided materials for the shift rod.
I knew even before I began this project it would need ape hanger bars. It wasn’t even up for debate. I started by installing the springer specific dog bone risers I ordered from Throwback Customs. These babies come pre-loaded with lots of attitude.
I bolted in a short piece of one-in. rolled electric welded tubing to determine where I had to start my bending—to ensure the “bottom” of the completed bars is straight where it passes through the risers.
After creating a very basic layout for the bars, I grabbed a piece of one-in., 1.20 wall tubing and cut it to the approximate length I would need.
I had previously purchased a one-in. die for my tubing bender, and with the tubing in the bender, I made a 90-degree bend. After performing two bends, which bent the proto-bars into the basic “U” shape, I mounted them on the bike. This allowed me to set the angle of recline on the bars (I matched the rake of the forks when viewed from the side), then sit on the bike to determine where exactly I wanted my hands to rest. I then removed the bars and carefully added the two upper bends, effectively producing the hand control mounting locations.
A good friend, John Hulme, advised me to add bar-end weights to minimize the vibration in my hands that an old parallel Twin like a Yamaha XS650 would surely produce. Consequently I had solid steel plugs machined for each bar end, and TIG welded them into the ends of the ape hangers.
Another friend with a daily driver XS650 hardtail confirmed the vibration aspect, saying his machine vibrates so badly that his brackets and welds regularly break off. Therefore, I designed every bracket on the bike to be as vibration proof as possible.
Heavily influenced by the look of a customized big-bore Sportster owned by my friend Jeff Broconnier, I decided to use a “repop” Sportster tank—its iconic shape just seemed the right fit.
Drilling a hole through the frame neck gusset, and sliding in a piece of 3/4-in. cold rolled steel, I tacked the bar in place, once I had the tank positioned where I wanted it. I ground the mount flush with the tank tab, and drilled and tapped it for a bolt, repeating this for both sides. A simple tab welded to the tank and some drilling and tapping got me a rear mount.
I wanted a reliable way of checking my fuel level at a glance so I drilled some holes in the right side of the tank, and welded in internally thread bungs after sketching how I wanted the sight gauge to look. Then I installed Swagelok stainless steel 90-degree fittings into the bungs, set the angle I wanted them to sit at, and bridged the gap with petroleum rated semi-clear tubing.
I like to rack up big miles, so a decent rear fender was a must. But before I could even mock up a rear fender for installation, I had to set the “final” rear tire position in the frame. To do this properly, I first had to install a custom chain to accommodate the six inches of rear stretch in the modified frame.
I chose a flashy gold chain as supplied by TC Bros. Choppers, made for both Honda and Yamaha bikes of the mid-1970s. Being cut-to-length it required several links to be cut to make the chain the proper length. There obviously isn’t a factory manual for this one-off bike, so I set the chain up as snug as I assumed it should be and called it good. Concerned that an extremely long chain and extra power to the rear wheel courtesy of the big bore kit and hot cams yet to come might produce excessive movement and chain slapping, I also installed a chain roller kit.
As for the fender itself, it’s a spun steel unit for 18-in. tires from Lowbrow Customs of California. This fender fits the OEM 110/90 R18 Yamaha tire very nicely, and being mild steel allowed for welding and modification. In order to set the proper spacing for the fender from the tire, I duct-taped a piece of one-in. heater hose to the top edge of the tire, and then fitted the fender down over top of the hose. Next I inserted more hose on each side of the tire until the fender sat exactly where I wanted it to stay. From there, I mounted the fender by using some simple brackets.
For a sissy bar I took some 7/8-in. OD DOM tubing and bent a tight hoop in my bender. I then coped the hoop in the coping machine so it would lie nicely on the hardtail frame’s one-in. OD tubes and allow a deep hot weld.
The completed and installed sissy bar did double duty: it held the upper portion of the fender in place with some simple tab mounts, and provided a mounting location for the tail light.
I cut the fender in place with a zip disk, to give it a sportier look and found a nice balance between the visual appeal of an exposed tire and the requisite protection from the elements.
Now, what custom motorcycle is complete without custom pipes?
TC Bros. supplied me with a builder’s kit for making custom pipes for a XS650. In addition to the necessary tubes and pre-bent pieces, the kit also included machined inserts for the cylinder head, and exhaust flanges. I started by installing the inserts, tacking in the pipes, and using magnets and clamps to hold it all together. The kit really allowed me to get creative. I ended up running the right-side pipe in the traditional fashion: out, down and back. The left-side pipe however, I snaked past the right-side pipe on the engine side, and ran it high on the side of the bike over the top of the clutch cover and next to the kicker pedal.
As a vital styling element (wisely suggested by my wife), I added exhaust tips which I made from 1.5-in. 90-degree bends purchased from a muffler shop.
From Arlen Ness came the lighting and hand controls, but I quickly discovered I wasn’t very keen on the DNA Springer’s very high location for the headlight, and so modified the location by building a drop bracket.
THIS PROJECT WOULD HAVE BEEN an exercise in nothing but style had we left the engine alone—and that (in my books) would constitute building a machine with no class. Thankfully the TX/XS650 has a long history of both flat-track and dirt-track racing and as such performance parts are still both cheap and plentiful. Our engine combination nestled in the frame of a sub-400-lb. bike has been proven on the dyno to yield a respectable 76 hp. The best part is that nobody expects an old 1970s small displacement bike to get up and go quite like this one does.
I enlisted the help of Peace River Country metric-bike legend Doug Deller of Autoplay Customs to help breath new life into it. Not quite a basket case, the stock engine was delivered to Deller who wasted no time tearing it down. Since the engine was running strongly when pulled, the bottom end wasn’t touched for the hop-ups, merely resealed.
Then came the mods, which included the aforementioned 750cc big-bore kit, and a high-performance clutch pack to handle the extra power. Since the new cylinders fit, Deller didn’t use a gasket on the cylinders or head, but instead chose Yamalube sealant that further increased compression.
To handle all the extra air, a more aggressive camshaft was inserted, along with a new cam chain and guide, and springs. Deller lapped the existing valves for good measure.
New filters were installed all-round, as well as an electric starter block-off kit. This bike was intended to be barebones, and a starter would only add weight and subtract class in my view.
To fuel this beast we sourced Dell’Orto racing carbs from Italy and, to light the plugs, a Morris magneto. To run the charging system, we brought in a permanent magnet alternator conversion from Hugh’s Handbuilt. Of course it exhausts through custom headers we built, and then had jet-coated in Calgary (thanks John Hulme and Red Dragon Hydraulics). We even blocked off the tach signal port—this bike gets no gauges.
There were some wait times during the course of this project, as components were sent off to various shops. Some of that time I put to use by beautifying parts such as covers with a home electroplating kit—a process I documented for the May issue (“Old Bits: Light ‘em Up”).
But some of the more difficult aspects I put off until the very end. I had suspected early on that making the Harley-Davidson style throttle tube work with the metric dual-carb Dell’Orto throttle cable would be tough. When I got around to the dirty work of making a square peg fit a round hole, tough it certainly was. I had also known that adapting a Harley style clutch lever to a Yamaha clutch cable would be tricky as heck. There are no online instructions for hand-forming the clutch lever end out of aluminum and soldering a Yamaha throttle cable into it. It took a few nights of bashed knuckles, a bit of blood, and no small measure of cursing, but it got done (thanks Shayne for your help, and thanks for nothing Google).
Somebody (me) didn’t want any exposed wiring near the tank, the bars, or the seat. This somebody wanted the upper portion of the bike to be clean as a bicycle. However, in an oversight this same person neglected to plan the wiring before the frame was painted, and that caused more than a few nights of head scratching and eventually creative switch placement. The discovery of the absence of places to run wiring was a serious “oops” moment, let me tell you!
For paint, I enlisted the help of Kim Webber, owner of Whiplash Custom Paint here in Grande Prairie, Alberta. An airbrush artist and previous owner of a body shop, Ms. Webber paints many of the custom rides seen in northern Alberta and is a true artist in the real sense of the word.
I explained my ideas to her, showed her examples, and mentioned colours. Like a true artist, she listened patiently, interpreted my “vision” and eventually returned a root beer brown frame. She delivered tins so exquisitely painted and detailed that I actually choked up and cried a little bit (yes I can admit that!) as I viewed them for the first time. The tins were cream, black, gold, rainbow metal flake, and many other colours hidden deeply in the diverse layers of the “ocean-deep” paint job.
WITH THE BIKE NOW DONE, I CAN reflect back on a build that didn’t always come together like clockwork. Certainly there are quirks. The Morris Magneto, for example, is going to force me to ride with one knee further outboard than the other. I don’t care. I like that it does. Overall, I’m content with the extra time required on fitment and finish. Taking a few risks paid off in spades, and got me a bike that I believe is a true one-of-a-kind.
Story and photos by Corey Kruchkowski, Canadian Biker Issue #285, September 2012