Writer's Ramblings

Bike Build on a Budget

Written by  January 31, 2007

A little mechanical ability, a little determination, and a lot of desire led to the transformation of my 1988 XL (bored to 1200 a few years back) to the bike I have always wanted. I bought the Sportster new back in 1988 and have no idea how many miles I have logged. The speedometer/odometer cable was broken through most of the 90s.

I got my first ride on a Harley at about age 5, bought my first Harley at age 13, and have been riding ever since. The only thing was I was never satisfied with the way my bike looked. My poor Sportster has been through so many changes over the years, I doubt it even knows what it is. I’ve always loved and wanted a chopper. I wanted the old school look like those I had seen growing up, so I decided I would use what I had and build one as close to that look as I could.

I have read article after article about some builders being extremely pleased that they have kept a build like this one under several thousand dollars. When I decided to make the transformation, money was my main concern. Where were all of the hidden costs going to be once I began? Needless to say, I was a little nervous about getting started even though I had done (I believed) a very thorough job of planning and researching.

The number one key I found to keeping the build on a budget was to order parts from several different companies. Most catalogs sell the same parts; most even sell the same brand. But if you pay attention, the prices fluctuate (sometimes substantially) between companies. For example, one company may be cheaper on gas tanks but high on triple trees. The other may be high on gas tanks but lower on triple trees. Take the frame, for instance. I used a Paughco frame, no stretch, with a 35-degree rake. The low-end price I found was $623. The high end was around $1200 for the same exact frame with every price in between.

Approximately 50 hours of work in about 30 days was all that was needed to complete the build. The only modifications to the frame that were needed were for the oil tank and battery tray brackets to be fabricated and welded on. The kickstand and spring mounts (supplied) had to be welded on, and the ignition coil bracket had to be fabricated and welded on as well as a brake caliper mount. I also wanted to use the older two-up seat on the bike, so the single seat bracket that was on the frame had to be removed and a new bracket added. I also chose to add a fork stop instead of going with the internal for budget reasons.

The rear brake caliper mount was my biggest obstacle. Trying to find one that would hold an OEM brake caliper (for me) was impossible (budget again). They make mounts, but that also meant buying a new caliper. I didn’t want to spend $300-400 or more for parts when I already had a perfectly good rear caliper. So I bought a stock used caliper mount for $20, pulled out my angle grinder, shaped and polished, fit it and welded a brace mount on the frame. It functioned properly, looked good, and saved a few hundred dollars.

When it came to mounting the front-end, I used my son Nick. He’s 12 years old, already mechanically inclined, and loves anything that has a motor. He wanted to help, so I gave him the task of helping me put the front-end on. In no time, with Nick’s help, the front-end was in place. The triple trees are CCI wide glide, which I had previously mounted on my Sportster so I could use a 16” wheel. Normally, when you are adding rake, you have to get longer fork tubes. With this set-up, the CCI trees actually raised the front end up because the tubes mount to the bottom of the top tree instead of running through it like the stock trees, so there was no added expense for new fork tubes.

I had my buddy Tim help me remove the 1200 motor from the old frame and place it in the rigid frame. The motor went in to the Paughco frame without a problem. The only things I needed to get were new rear motor mount bolts. The bolts turned out to be way too long when used with this frame.

The rear wheel was then brought in. I purchased a rear axle, used 3/4” axle spacers I had previously purchased when I changed the front-end from narrow to wide glide. The spaces had to be cut, notched, and polished, and the rear wheel was ready to go on.

Once the rear wheel was in place, the 6” flat fender was positioned for fitting. A bottom fender mount had to be fabricated. The mount holes were then drilled into the fender and the chain path was measured and cut out of the fender for clearance. The bolt holes for the seat were drilled and the seat was added along with the sissy bar.

Now, with the bike all but built, minus the fuel tank, it was time to run the brake wiring. I used most of my original wiring harness. The stock headlight was replaced with a tree-mounted chrome 6” headlight, so all of the wiring mess that was stuffed into the stock headlight had to be re-done. This task, for me, was the most tedious. I clipped all of the plastic connectors and reconnected the ends, which took out most of the bulk. I relocated the flasher underneath where the gas tank would sit and ran the wiring from the handlebar controls through my 18” rise ape hangers. I decided to keep turn signals on my bike for safety reasons (personal preference). I’m willing to give up a little cool to hopefully keep from getting run over from behind, which seems worth it to me.

With all of the wiring in place, it was time for the gas tank. I decided on a King Sportster tank for mileage reasons. I positioned the tank to sit up high on the back bone, drilled the mount holes and bolted it on. I also decided on the bigger tank because it is longer and covers up more of the exposed backbone of the bike, which makes the lines flow more smoothly.

After all of the parts were in place and the bike was complete, everything was checked and rechecked for fit. The bike was then torn apart and the prep work for paint began.

Now it was time to get to the part I was comfortable with—the paint job. Basic black with skull and Maltese cross graphics for the tank. Having my own paint shop saved me a chunk off the final price of approximately $1750.

Since the build has been completed, I have had two problems with the bike. Neither was associated with any aspect of the build. The trouble was associated with the age of the motor and parts. 1) The stator had to be replaced due to a broken wire inside the case and 2) The cam follower in the tranny broke and had to be replaced.

So, six months and approximately1600 miles later, my first (and probably only) build seems to be a success and I have the bike I have always wanted.

Some advice to anyone wishing to take on the task of building their own bike: Remember, I am your average, everyday Joe. I wanted it, I researched it, and with no special tools, I built it! You can too…On a budget!

By Jim Wilcoxson