Building a Motorcycle Hillclimb Racer & Barbon 2006 . . .

. . . The following story was published in two parts in the January and February 2007 issues of Classic Motorcycle Mechanics magazine. Enjoy . . .

Part One

The sweaty and naked blonde floozy appeared to wink at me from the June page of the Miss Rubber Tyres Calendar, hanging from my workshop wall. I chanced another peep. No it wasn’t April the 1st and the letter I tightly gripped was no joke. My entry had been accepted for the 2006 Barbon Hill Climb, at Kirby Lonsdale, Cumbria, on the 29th July. My first motorsport event!

Now, almost at the end of June, a 1989 Kawasaki KL650 Tengai had undergone a dramatic (read, traumatic) transformation, solely for this event. From idle rust bucket, to shining Cafe Racer in just 1 year. No more Paris Dakar styled bodywork, replete with mammoth fuel tank and stepladder seat height. No more high slip, low grip knobbly tyres. In came shiny and rebuilt 17” stainless spoked wheels, with super sticky Bridgestone tyres. Out went most of the wiring loom. Oh and any surplus brackets, half the subframe, the exhaust, header tank, clocks, lights, switchgear, brake lines etc. Most of the leftovers were sold through Ebay and went in some small way, towards the ever-expanding costs.

This machine would be the epitome of lightweight, mass centralisation, flickability and time displacing acceleration. Cooool.

Kawasaki Tengai converted to a Cafe racer
No it’s not a 1950’s Cafe Racer but that was the inspiration for it.

The one-gallon tank, taken from an air-cooled DT175 would require the dents filling and spraying in alloy coloured cellulose. The leather upholstered 1950’s single race seat, lifted from a BSA C15 would be the ideal perch from which to launch my world domination of Cumbria, it’s thick aircraft alloy base just the job for mounting the rectifier and exhaust brackets.

Umm, yes. That underseat exhaust. Responsible for more sleepless nights than the proverbial evening meals. How would I route a pipe up and out, with two 90-degree bends, without paying a firm to make one up. By the time I started believing it would be easier to refit the standard exhaust, I had `Ebayed` it.

That life changing/losing auction site came to the rescue again, in the form of a stainless flexible exhaust joint and an Arrow CBR600 end can, with link pipe. After much dissecting and chopping, I had a 6-inch long silencer to dampen (?) the big lung thumps of the 650cc single and more importantly, an underseat exhaust system. Nice.

Various ancillary items such as clip-ons, alloy header tank, stainless brake lines, digital rev-counter, brake pads and an RGV250 Master Cylinder, together with the associated  `wedge` were generously thrown in the bikes direction on a near daily basis. As a result, she slowly morphed into a delicious collection of old & new.

By now, there was less than a week before my moment of fame, fortune and media glory. The list of to-do’s on the pin board were becoming more incomprehensible as each completed job was scribbled out.

Kawasaki Tengai Cafe Racer. A familiar view for others
The view most road users saw of the bike.

Five days to go and the engine was started for the first time since the project began. Oh my god, what a noise! Even at tickover I could feel the wax in my inner ears rattling. Twisting the quick action throttle to 4000, I had never experienced pain like it. A quick check with an uncalibrated sound meter showed the noise level to be more than the permitted 96db for the race meeting. How about over 120db? Drastic measures were needed and quickly, as the bike had already been booked onto a dyno for the next day. The solution was stainless scouring pads stuffed down the tail pipe and a piece of round, flattened baffle plate to prevent the whole lot being fired, canon like, from the tail pipe.

The machine was run up on the dyno. It now sounded like an MEP’s wet dream, but so what if it got me through scrutineering?

After 1 hour, the fuelling was sorted. However, the engine lost power with each additional run as the exhaust temperature crept up. Seems the heat had no where to go due to the kitchen scourer packing and was distorting the expensive flexible joint. Further, the dyno operator had informed me the clutch was slipping. Joy. I decided to call it a day, as an obvious thinking session was required.

As a clutch plate set was ordered, doubts started to creep in. Would the bike be ready in time?

Thankfully, they arrived the next day. I hastily removed the crankcase cover and dismantled the clutch. Strange?! The plates had as much `meat` on them as the new ones. Measuring the clutch springs I realised they were compressed beyond use. Back on the phone and a set of springs ordered.

Next day, a Thursday, the springs were delivered. Barbon was on the Saturday and I still had to make a sprocket guard, race numberplates, a catch tank, lockwire several bolts and of course, fix the silencer.

The clutch and crankcase cover went back together easily and the muffler was modified by means of 2 baffle `discs` and a homemade baffle tube welded together. Glass fibre was wrapped around this, and the whole lot installed inside the main baffle tube. A muffler within a muffler, so to speak. Time for the first shakedown run.

There’s always that mixture of excitement and fear when a new, unproven race machine is given its freedom for the first time. Excitement that all your efforts and thoughts have finally culminated in this moment. And the fear that in your haste you omitted some critical component or lubricant or simply forgot to tighten a bolt, allowing the whole lot to explode, seize and high side, dumping the rider in two pieces on the deck. Oh, not you? Well, I do have a fertile imagination.

The bike ran extremely well. The overheating exhaust problem was cured. The tyres gripped, the brakes bit and the steering err, steered. Plus she sounded fantastic and went like the clappers.

One of the main reasons for a shakedown test is to ensure that nothing breaks or falls off the bike (or the rider). So the last thing you want to discover at 1pm on the Thursday before your big race, is water in the oil. Now the doubts stopped creeping and commenced screaming. In removing the crankcase cover I had tampered with the water pump seal. Apparently, a serious no no. Just wish someone had told me.

Kawasaki Tengai Cafe Racer. Water in the oil
Oh heck, I didn’t need that . . .

On the phone again, this time to a large dealers in Bristol. I was relieved to hear that the bits were in stock. I was slightly disgruntled however, that THE parts importer for Europe didn’t offer a next day service. No choice but to entrust my fate to First Class post, gulp. At this moment, I resigned to myself that if the parts didn’t turn up, the yearlong sweat and toil would have been for nothing and I would attend the race as a spectator.

Friday morning saw me sat next to the post box, waiting for the tell tale red van. Imagine my jubilation, as the seals had arrived!

With little hesitation, except for a cuppa, I stripped the crankcase again, fitted the seals (very carefully) and threw the whole lot back together. With new oil & water, I took the bike for another test run. Success!

Fortunately, my best mate, Guy had ‘volunteered’ to travel the 400 miles from Reading to Cumbria just for the event, in order to film & photograph my antics. He was quickly pressed into numberplate making duties. However, there was no rigid, white material to make them from. After much head scratching and even considering swiping an estate agents `For Sale` sign, we settled on some white artists canvas board. Lets hope it doesn’t rain. These were cut to regulation shape & size. Number 51’s were stuck to the boards then cable tied to the front and both sides.

What are friends for ?

A half litre lawnmower oil bottle quickly became a catch tank, this also being cable tied in position. The sprocket guard, fabricated from a pristine aluminium baking tray (wasn’t me, honest), was also despatched with surprising speed. Finally, the sump plug and both axle pins were lockwired in place. Pheww!

At 2am, a mug of tea and extra hot Chilli (thanks Yvonne) were just what the doctor ordered.

Part Two

Asleep by 3am, awake by 5, bike trailer loaded and on the road by 6. I’d had the foresight to load the car with ALL the essentials before hitting the sack. Every tool used to build the bike that I could recall, was thrown into the box, with the exception of a lathe and pillar drill. Helmet & leathers, boots & gloves, oil & water, picnic chairs & chainlube were carefully piled (not) into the back.

The plan was to arrive by 8am, with scrutineering due to start at 8.30. The track was around 60 miles from home, via some of the most twisty, up & downy fell roads Cumbria has to offer. Good practice for the hill climb then?

The organisers, The Westmorland Motor Club had thankfully done an excellent job of signposting the event. Needle in a hay stack springs to mind. Team KPS (Yvonne, Guy & myself) arrived just before 8 and so it seemed, before everyone else. The paddock was practically deserted. Oh well, chance to pick a good spot then.

As fortune would have it, a burger van had already set up, producing some incredibly alluring odours and the thought of tea & cheeseburgers suddenly clouded our minds.

Ready for the off . . .

Suitably nourished, my thoughts turned to scrutineering. Would the bike pass the promised noise test? What if the tester took offence at my cable-tied battery mounting?

I needn’t have worried. With signing-on out of the way, scrutineering vanished in a flash. The testers hands appeared to `hover` over various parts of the bike, like a faith healer `curing` a terminal illness. His fingernails played a tune on the wheel spokes. Then, with a cursory glance at my riding kit, the orange pass sticker was slapped to the front numberplate and that was it. I could have yelled, such was the load removed from my shoulders. Even the noise tester, who had become even more feared in my mind than the taxman, failed to materialise. Not one engine was started during the hour-long inspection. Who said democracy was dead?

Practice began at 9.30 and, like the rest of the event, ran in class order. I was in Class 4, 500-750cc.

With classes 1,2 & 3 completing their first practice runs, it was my turn. All efforts over the previous year, with the expense, late nights, cut fingers and grazed knuckles, now channelled into a half-mile strip of twisty tarmac. Two fast lefthanders, a deceptive, tightening uphill & right-hand hairpin, then a flat-out left too the finish. I’d managed to glean from the Internet, that a time in the high 30’s was good going and, as one by one we were signalled forward to the start, my previous walk of the track was forgotten. Was the first corner left or right? At least it was a clear sunny day and the track was dry.

Giving it the beans . . .

As I crawled to the start line, a geezer in overalls grabbed the front wheel and inched it forwards. Another similarly clad chap placed a wooden wedge on a stick behind the rear tyre, to stop me rolling back. I now had 10 seconds from the green light to launch the bike. This was it. Green light. No sense hanging around. A few revs, clutch out and we’re breaking the timing beam that starts the clock. Up 2 gears and into the first lefthander. I back off slightly, then realise I could have gone much quicker. Same with the next left, then a flat out blast to the hairpin. I brake way to early as I’d heard from the paddock that it appeared fast going in, but soon tightened to dead slow. They weren’t wrong. Once again I backed off too much and undercut the corner. Out of the hairpin and nail it to the finish 100 yards later. The run seemed to take 15 seconds, though as I entered the finishers waiting area the timing clock showed 38.06. Blimey! I had hit the zone.

However, whilst waiting at the top for the rest of the group to complete their first practice run, the digits on the clock took a dramatic nosedive. 29s, 28s then 27s. Darn. Thoughts of the rostrum burst like party balloons.

Back in the paddock, a quick check of the bike revealed nothing out of place. Time for another cuppa, as the remaining groups took their first runs.

My second practice run was much better at 37.37, though I knew there were seconds to be gained at every corner. At the end of practice, the bike needed just a refuel and the chain adjusting. There was a 1-hour break for lunch, with the event proper starting at 1.30. By now, spectators had started arriving in their hundreds. A bouncy castle, trade stalls and an ice cream van were conveniently located around the track, as well as a vintage bike display.

Sat on a camping chair in the paddock, I became quietly delighted that every passer-by appeared to be taking an interest in the bike. Plenty of finger pointing, photo taking and chin scratching, as if trying to figure out what it was. Many spectators and fellow competitors asked about it and most of the day was spent answering questions. No autographs though.

After lunch, the competition started, complete with Barbon’s own Murray Walker on the tannoy. Class 4’s first competitive timed run came around quickly. The atmosphere at the start compared with practice was far more serious. Every competitor seemed to stare ahead, non-blinking and revving their motors in orchestral unison. The spectators were equally in the spirit of the event; clapping, smiling and cheering at each rider as they lined up for take off.

This time round I felt as though I was beginning to `hook it up`, flashing past the finish line at 37.01. Next run “ I’ll break the 36’s”.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Whilst waiting for run number two, the skies opened, and within a minute, the track was flooded. Undeterred, I continued but I knew my chances of improving were dashed. Run number two showed 39.38 and number three, 43.41.

The best money to fun ratio . . .

By now, it was hammering down, though the event continued. However, it was quickly agreed that it would be silly to stay for the presentations, soaked to the skin as we were and with my quota of timed runs fulfilled. I had managed to come 17th out of the 17 in my class, though I prefer to tell people I came 17th out of 95 competitors. Well, only half a lie. The bike and kit were quickly packed away, and then we left.

So there it was. My first ever foray into the adrenaline pumped world of motorsport. A life’s ambition fulfilled and it would be safe to say, the biggest `buzz` I have ever experienced. Indeed, after my first run I had shouted to a fellow competitor, “Why didn’t I do this years ago? It’s better than sex?” (Just don’t tell the missus).

The event represented excellent value for money and was a great day out. Entry was £42 including insurance. You must be a member of a Motorcycle Racing Club. I joined the National Hill Climb Association, costing £15. An ACU One-Day License costs £15.

Would I do it Again? You bet! I’ve been truly bitten and thoughts are already on the next event. There’s a hill climb in October for Pre 75 bikes at Catterick. Now, if I could only convince the organisers my bike ‘is’ a 50`s cafe racer . . .


There’s also a short Youtube video I made of the build and racing the bike at Barbon.

Author: Kevin Shelley

Street Photography. Narrow Boat Documentaries. eBooks. Blog. Reviews cameras. Develops film.

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