What Does it Cost to Build a Motorcycle?

Julian Farnam and his Yamaha RD400 Dirtbag Challenge build

Julian Farnam and his Yamaha RD400 Dirtbag Challenge build
photo: Motorcyclist magazine

After the last couple of articles about Ken Fontenot's Honda CB160 and Suzuki GT500, I was thinking about how much money it takes to build a bike that looks really good. A comment on Ken's Honda build represents one point of view, downplaying the results a bit because he figured there must have been a lot of money thrown at the bike. While I'm sure that bike wasn't cheap, a lot of what went into it was time, labor and attention to detail, something anyone can afford, but few are willing to pay.

On the heels of that comment, I was reading through the latest Motorcyclist magazine and came across an article on the Dirtbag Challenge (Geez guys, you couldn't come up with a better name?), an annual affair in San Francisco where builders must construct a bike for under $1000 in one month, no Harleys allowed. The bike needs to be safe, and last year, a 120 mile ride was a necessary hurdle for all contestants.

As you might expect, beauty is not a primary focus, but scrounging for parts and mechanical innovation are highly prized. The competitors are getting much better and some builders, like Julian Farnam, have been turning out high quality bikes for years.

Farnam's bike for the Dirtbag Challenge was a 1977 Yamaha RD400 which, including everything, came in at the princely sum of $937. Craigslist, a 2 stroke forum and his own leftover parts bin contributed what he needed, his design studio was the BART where he sketched out the details during his commute to work and the welding was done in his driveway which doubled as a fabrication shop.

Yes, money makes it easier, but builds like this one show you don't need as much cash as some might think, what you really need to do is reach deep into your pocket and pull out a lot of the right attitude and just get to work. I call that affordable.

Link: Motorcyclist magazine

Comments

  1. davefla says

    I really have to stop reading these inexpensive build posts. The 1989 Honda VTR250 in my shed has begun to snigger at me whenever I walk past…

  2. JP Kalishek says

    it costs however much you want to spend … either time or money. Some of us have the money, some the time, and some both … others have neither. I am working on an old CB400T for a fun toy/commuter that is smaller and lighter (far lighter) than my usual daily ride (ST1100. They weigh some 700+ when gassed up). I too am aiming for far under the $1000 mark. I went high on the bike (everything is so overpriced these days) and just made a fairly large order for most of the rest of my needs. I should slightly be under the price of the RD above, but mine has far less time spent on it. With 3 other bikes sharing the space in my garage, I could take longer, but I plan, to keep it a work in progress.

    • JasonB says

      I believe you nailed it with your first sentence, JP. That says it all, to the point. That’s what’s so great about bikes- you can always have great fun with them on any level. The time and money spent is totally your call, and has little relation to how much you ultimately get out of the hobby/sport/obsession we all love.

    • varg says

      That’s a good basic theory, because it’s certainly going to cost time to find some neglected old bikes to start with for $100-200 a piece.

  3. Nicolas says

    You really can find good bikes for very cheap, that can become awesome rides with a lilttle bit of attention and work (and mistakes, and re-work, and re-attention).
    Now I read the above mentioned Dirtbag article, I suspect that some of those bikes didn’t really cost less than $1000, or maybe less than $1000 IN ADDITION to what these builders already had in their shop.

    • rohorn says

      If you sell a man a motorcycle, he will have a bike to ride. If you sell a man a lathe, mill, welder, tube bender, assorted grinders, etc…, he will have all the bikes he will ever want.

        • Matt says

          There are hundreds upon hundreds (probably thousands) of how to’s for all manner of very usable machine and fabrication tools for WELL under $1,000. The multi machine would be one of the first ones that comes to mind.

      • Tirapop says

        “If you sell a man a lathe, mill, welder, tube bender, assorted grinders, etc…” he may never leave his garage to ride a bike again.

        It takes the right combination of imagination, competence, and drive to actually make something. Rohorn, I know you have that. In my magazine clipping collection, I’ve got Motorcyclist’s article on your Sportster with the novel front suspension. I have a basement full of tools, guitar parts, books, and no real excuse about why they are collecting dust.

  4. Christopher says

    Now you just need a racing league like LeMons $500 car challenge.

    What’s better than a $1000 bike? Racing a $1000 bike….

    • Mike says

      There used to be a CB360 racing club that started in Portland, OR a few years ago. The bikes were cheap and fast enough to be fun. Grids started getting bigger and bigger, and it attracted the hardcore competitors. Bike prices went from $400 to $2000 and then bikes started showing up with $5000 blue-printed engines, and everyone lost interest. A claiming rule may have stopped that, but who knows. The LeMons guys have done a great job keeping the original spirit, but its not easy to do!

      • tim says

        There’s a thriving race class here called “Buckets”. (as in bucket of bolts) designed to foster this very ethos. Repurposed commuter bikes (no race bikes or motors) and ingenuity. There are two different classes: “stock” which basically means stripped FXR150 Suzukis, the odd CBR125, and older stuff, and “not stock” where people hot up the same motors, use things like RS135 wheels and stuff. Some serious racing and hilarity. Plus if you fall off you arent doing 200kph + so makes it more likely you will make it to work Monday.

        There is talk of a forced induction 100cc two stroke based on a Suzuki AX100 motor: try that in MotGP…..

        link to rules for those interested.

        http://www.bucketracing.co.nz/rules.php?pg=rules

  5. todd says

    Yes, often bikes can be built for the price of a can of spray paint. If you happen to have a bunch of old bikes laying around that doesn’t disqualify the “under $1k” cost. Many times those bikew wer bought because you needed parts for something else or even parted out for cash.

    There are bikes (what’s left of them) in my garage that have earned me more money than I paid for them. – which means I could build a bike that cost less than $0 and then I can sell it for $1000. This is such a regular and expected thing I’m surprised some people are so amazed.

    Glad to see Julian is still building his bikes. He has some great designs.

    -todd

  6. HigherRPM says

    Looks like a great “drag bike”. A friend built a near replica back in the day and had his 100 lb. wife ride it. Went mid 10’s. Not bad for a 350cc machine.

  7. Rick says

    1976 TT500 Yamaha rescued from the dirt in someones backyard = $200
    Used/salvaged forks, shocks, gas tank, recovered seat and other bits = $400
    Racing the vintage class at 56 years old (last mx race I was 15!) = $priceless!!

  8. Alex says

    There are a lot of costs not included in the $1000 total for that bike up above.
    Julian Farnam (the builder above) already had the space, tools, knowledge, and some assorted parts. All of those cost money. So you can build a nice bike for cheap, provided you have already bought the expensive bits.

    Since this comment seems a bit reasonable, that bike also shows that you can’t buy taste. That thing is bloody ugly.

    • Paul Crowe says

      Yours is an example of the “yes, but” comment. Yes, he built a bike for under $1000, but he had the knowledge and skills and tools and parts so it’s not really that special and not everyone has those things.

      How do you think he got them in the first place? Did he get the skills because someone plugged a computer into his head like in the movie “Matrix?” No, he put in the effort to learn. His previous attempts to build things resulted in an accumulation of knowledge, an assortment of tools he needed in earlier projects and left over parts slowly gathered over time, some removed from other bikes and some acquired and not needed. It’s what happens when you do things.

      Anyone who sits around and waits for the perfect moment when all of the stars are aligned, all of the tools are in place, all of the parts are magically ready and available, will be waiting a very long time, and every project someone else attempts will put that person further ahead of you when he begins his next one.

      Stop waiting, start doing. Then someday, someone will look at you and say, “yes, but” look at all of your skills and parts and tools, and you’ll have to patiently explain to him it doesn’t happen overnight or without effort, but judging by the words at the end of your comment, I’m guessing you have a bit of work to do in the attitude department before you’ll be able to get started.

      • Alex says

        My quibble is with bits like:
        “Yes, money makes it easier, but builds like this one show you don’t need as much cash as some might think, what you really need to do is reach deep into your pocket and pull out a lot of the right attitude and just get to work. I call that affordable.”

        And: “While I’m sure that bike wasn’t cheap, a lot of what went into it was time, labor and attention to detail, something anyone can afford, but few are willing to pay.”

        You’re implying that the difference between [person with custom bike] and [person without] is just the willingness to build one. But that isn’t the case, you need the resources as well as the willingness and not everyone has those resources. I think that is something that should be acknowledged, rather than just assuming that everyone is on an equal footing.

        • rohorn says

          For the most part, EVERYONE has the same resources – it is a matter of their priorities and ambitions. People who say they wish they had the resources to (fill in the blank worthwhile pursuit), yet have the time and money to spend on recreational drugs, alcohol, tobacco, eating out, prefab coffee, internet connection, smartphone connection, new car payment, cable TV, vacation travel, etc…, get no sympathy from me.

          One of my fonder memories was heading to the old Steamboat Springs historic bike races, with a replica Honda GP bike I just built on the utility trailer, pulled by an aging Chevy Cavalier. I’m at a gas station when some guy walks up and tells me how nice it must be to have the money for that sort of bike. Then he hops in his brand new conversion van. Nevermind the fact that his van had more money tied up in it than I had in the bike, trailer, car, and all the tools and equipment I used to make the bike.

          Or at least that’s what this man, with a combination lathe/mill in the kitchen, thinks.

          Julian,

          Been admiring your work since the AND Rotax single article ages ago – glad to finally see a face attached to your work!

        • Paul Crowe says

          Alex,
          If you tried to compete against Julian and they gave you all of the same tools and parts he had, you would still lose. So would I. Look at what he’s done before. It’s not the stuff he has, it’s the experience and skill he has and no one can give it to you. You have to learn it and earn it. No shortcuts, no freebies, just lots of hard work and a willingness to learn. I’ve made other choices over the years and I freely acknowledge the higher skill of builders who can turn out gorgeous bikes because I haven’t invested the time doing the kind of work they have. Trust me, whatever resources you think he has, that’s not the difference between those guys and you. If you want to become a builder, you gotta start building, where you are with what you have. If you don’t make that choice, that’s fine, but don’t complain about it, become good at something else. I’ve written about this several times before.

          • zipidachimp says

            2 mistakes I made much younger: never learned to weld, bought a TV. So, instead of metal bashing, my first choice, I’m doing woodwork in retirement, which takes much less resources.
            My bike sits under a tent waiting for warmer weather. Damn!

      • Mike says

        Some of the comments here seem to be directed at a post I made in the comments on the last feature bike. I`d like to explain my position.
        I`m 58 years old & have had bikes for the last 41 years. I have built, modified, & restored several bikes over the years, & fabricated parts for friends bikes too. I don`t claim that any off them were equal to the quality of those featured here. They were done on a factory workers salary. Many parts were made with scrap metal “borrowed” from work, using company welders, shears, brakes, etc., before my shift started.
        I too gave up the few luxuries I enjoyed to be able to afford what I had to buy. This might partly explain two divorces!.
        Yes I used parts leftover from other projects. But these were more like handlebars, lights, shocks, etc.. Not the USD front ends, complete monoshock rear suspensions, & engines, that some people seem to have “just laying around”
        I`ve put in my time also. My cafe Norton that I worked on for 22 years was still not really finished when I sold it.
        I`ve also spent much time eye balling things that might be improvised to use “on the cheap”. The 99 cent kids “crazy carpet” tabbogan that I cut up to fill in behind the custom tailight on my CB 1100F for instance. It also has been used for dirtbike “fender extenders”, monoshock protectors, & various shielding for a friends vintage flat track machine.
        There seems to be a mind set here that anyone who makes a comment deemed negative, is an internet lurker who has never done anything.You may not agree with me, but I think I have enough experience to stand by my comment. Without a reasonable infusion of $$$ you will not get a free bike, or craigs list bargain & build a bike that will be featured here or, even rideable!. Then again maybe to an aerospace engineer, or dot com “entra manure”, it`s just “chump change”.
        For all the huffing & puffing about how it can be done, I still don`t see one disclosure of how much it really cost.

    • says

      Most of us do have the space, the tools, the knowledge, the extra bits etc. to build something interesting for less than $1000. We just don’t have quite as much of it as Julian Farnam, that’s all. So don’t hold that against him.

      (As for the style of his bike, you’re spot-on, though.)

  9. Domenique Hawkins says

    This bike is awesome, like a cafe race meets stretched 2 stroke drag bike.

  10. TinMan 2 says

    I picked up a beat to heck RD 400 this winter for $250, and it now runs!! I,m thinking some Air Tech Fiberglass pieces and build a Road Race replica Yellow and Black tribute bike. I do my own paint so I think I can also come in under a Grand. I always wanted to build a Lucifers Hammer Harley but any running HD is more than a Grand before I even start the Mods. These old RDs are going up every year so the time is right.

  11. Greg says

    I love the old RD 350’s and 400’s. But this one? The suspension looks like it was made out of fence post pipe. Maybe he should’ve upped the grand build to fifteen hundred with better suspension. How does it handle is what I’d like to know? Nice Julian!

    • B50 Jim says

      Hey, Greg — Don’t knock fence post pipe. It’s cheap, easy to work and very strong for its weight. As long as the builder works within its limits (just like any material), it’s great stuff for any number of projects. I like Julian’s front-end design; sort of modified Earles forks — maybe not great for out-and-out cornering, but ideal for a sidecar at a later date. Being an old hack pilot, I appreciate that.

  12. says

    I like his bike, would be proud to have it.

    I have the time, imagination and with a little help- the fabrication skills. I have one bike I want to build that is a 125cc because anything 150+ has to be registered. It benefits from dual transmissions for speed and fuel economy. I know talking about it on here isnt going to get me closer to buildig it, but people like me and the guy the article is about is why we have things to begin with. Im sure there was a guy tired of how his microwave worked, so he installed a turntable from an old record player or something.

    Im happy he got to build his bike, it may not be his dream bike but he made it to his own specifications to do what he wanted to do. I just cant wait till I can get the chance to do something. Im 25 and cant afford to build anything that has been going thru my head. I dont care about getting rich, I just want to say; “yeah, I made this.” I got many motorcycle, hotrod, moped, muscle/pony car, truck/suv sketches, time, willpower. Everything but connections, money, or excellent fab skills.

  13. Cameron says

    I think $1000US (or equivalent) as a competition is a great way to get people building. There needs to be a claimer clause, say $3000, so anyone entering a qualifying ride can purchase anyone else’s bike for $3000. That would limit the willingness to install free but valuable parts. I don’t quite accept the $1000 price tag when there could be valuable parts sourced from the builders stockpile. Would they give those same parts away if someone asked?
    Nice job though. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you think it’s ugly, try looking through a different eye.

    • Paul Crowe says

      This “competition” isn’t for some big prize, so you don’t need any claiming rule like a horse race, this is more of a fun activity to inspire people to get creative. If someone is lying about the cost, he’s the loser, besides, what difference would it make? Ohlins shocks would be pretty obvious and wouldn’t show any extra creativity or innovation while a hand fabricated frame and suspension welded up from tubing would be an excellent display of skill and making something from next to nothing. How would you price that? If a guy can weld like a pro, that’s pretty valuable, but as I mentioned above in another comment, that’s a result of previous work learning and doing so he has that advantage and if others want to have it, too, they need to learn how.

  14. Big D says

    Love it! My $600 XS has never let Me down and I am not afraid to leave it sit outside. I have better and newer bikes in the stable but this cheapo bike is my favorite.

  15. Cowpieapex says

    When I started on the path to acquiring these types of skills, I began a the local Community College. My Machine Tools instructor limited us to hacksaw, file and sandpaper for our first assignment. To this day I am able to replicate machine tool results in the field by understanding measurement and manual techniques. 5000 years ago Egyptians routinely cast complex forms in ancient foundries. Our revolutionary forefathers excelled as marksmen through the innovation of hand forged and hand rifled long arms.
    It really is only the willingness to extend effort that distinguishes the doers from others.
    No one proclaimed this particular motorcycle as a paragon of performance or aesthetics . It is to be appreciated as a lighthearted sketch of ideas made real. More in depth examination leads us to the creators own comments where he remarks on the designs deficiencies,”Dirtbag builds are a vacation…It’s okay if the bike doesn’t ride perfectly.”
    It’s easy to cultivate a critical eye but, one also has to cultivate a critical hand before their whims and jests take on a form worthy of consideration and recognition.
    “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration ” Thomas Alva Edison.

  16. says

    My UralDneprDAFBMWsuzuki costed under 600 euro until the gearbox crashed. Another gearbox did cost 50 euro. An according to the paperwork that goes with it, it officially is an BMW R80 now . Hence the fropnt forks are BMW and the DAF engine is a boxer. The police does not understand, but appreciates… This title of ownership did cost a bottle off whiskey. And the framenumber suits the machine very well. Thank you

  17. Dano says

    O.K. I guess I have to build upon Dolf’s statement. This may be another “yes but…” moment Paul.
    A majority of the bikes we “build” are based upon a sanctioned base, frame and engine, that was once registered or at least is able to be registered. In other words, considered to be legal for operation on public roads. We are ‘assemblers’ by definition..
    Building a bike from the ground up follows two paths, in general, One off’s for an individual (scratch built frame, no VIN) or production. Each State has a different definition for production but if we look at Motus we can get an idea of the effort, time and expense that it takes to truly “build a bike”. In either case they must meet State specific guidelines and an inspection prior to their being able to be registered and operated on the public roads.
    What I see is us paying homage to some very creative assemblers, designers, creators of beautiful concepts, gorgeous pieces of billet, sweet designs in sheet metal , plastic and fiberglass, minds that solve the biggest roadblocks to operation with creativity and beauty, even if it’s a fence post.
    Doing these things within the confines of a budget brings out the best in these people. You can go out and buy all the tools and machines to fill a shop but can’t buy the knowledge and creativity to apply it to a product. That product can be anything from a birdhouse to a sweet motorcycle.
    The creative and ingenious person doesn’t need to own all of the tools, a smart person wouldn’t. They need to know how to manage the build and keep costs within the budget. Case in point, most of us will never own our own plating facility, but having a welder, lathe or drill press is another story.
    Please… keep the creativity and imaginations rolling, these assemblies of ones mind are great, no matter what the builder / assemblers budget limitations or lack thereof.

  18. B50 Jim says

    Regulations regarding building vehicles vary by state, but in general an individual can build a very limited number of motorcycles from scratch during a lifetime — hence the wisdom of starting with a frame that already has a title. This might cramp creativity, but very few prospective builders have the knowledge and skills necessary to build a solid, safe motorcycle. The regulations are to prevent a lot of metal butchers from building unsafe rolling junkpiles. If they start with a factory frame they at least have a chance of building something that won’t crash.

    • Cowpieapex says

      Some of my most golden memories were wrought on ” unsafe rolling junkpiles” that would routinely shed vital parts at 20 mile intervals . I was blessed to not die in the process but I know also that I was blessed to truly live, even as I knelt beside the road setting the timing on an old triumph distributor for the third time.

      • B50 Jim says

        I have some golden memories as well, and I also have fixed English machinery at the side of the road. But there’s a difference between rolling junkpiles and old English bikes — although it’s a fine difference in some cases, like those frames that routinely broke under the hellish vibration, gearbox casings that fractured and locked the rear wheel, engine parts that tried constantly to get out at the worst possible time, and of course lights that failed on the darkest roads. However, the factories had the resources and engineering to fix those problems — often by trial and error but they did fix them. A frame welded up in a garage by a kid who just finished his first welding class doesn’t stand a chance, and could wreak tremendous harm. For every fabulous build we see on The Kneeslider, there could be a hundred disasters waiting to happen. I’ve seen some seriously bad amateur workmanship on home-job bikes. I wouldn’t ride them around the block.

  19. jmg says

    the first bike i ever built was out of want to ride . at the time i had very little money and no income whatsoever . i managed to build and ride a funky little 125 with what was at the time a engine only a few years old from salvage . building that bike i had to learn everything as i went it took me 7 months at an average of 10 hours a day . in the process i learned to weld ,paint ,fabricate , i learned basic electrical knowledge ,how to cast my own parts methodology in metal and how that engine worked down to its precise mathematical sum , how and what a bike needs to live good so many things ect ect . using bits i found in skips and bins , junk people left on the end of there drive ways i even had to source nuts from a street sign once. it cost me 320 pounds to make and looked like nothing else . imagine the bat mobile crossed with a cafe racer haha it was a real little head turner . i still have that bike although it has mutated and i have never really stopped changing it over the years . the process i went through is something i feel kids these days are deprived of . it seems to be all theory and no practical any more . but to summerize i believe today you can still build your own bike for as little as 400 pounds .i rode that bike for 3 years straight and only ever had teething problems after 45 thousand miles i decided i had done a good job . with obvious parts replacements along the way new plates ,rings ect .as long as you are willing to tackle the problems u will face head on and not resort to paying someone else to do the work you keep the cost down . the easy way is to buy a complete bike that needs attention rather than what i did and made my own unique bike from the frame up. is the bennifit greater building your own ? well in terms of knowledge and experience yes it is . but if you do not you will be riding sooner . you never stop learning and obviously your first bike is not going to be as good as your 2cnd 3rd 4th or so on . but do not let some jumped up turd tell you cannot do it . because you can and you can do it well .

    this info is intended for kids with no money who want to ride . just like i was.
    you can do it . but i promise you this its not as easy as you think its going to be

    tips to keep you safe .
    when it comes to fitting a part you have made or made fit never think to yourself
    “that is good enough” do NOT take shortcuts ALWAYS do it properly first time make sure 100% that piece of fix is absolutely solid and is not going to budge under any circumstance like vibration or strain . make it to excel the standard required .

    pay carefull attention to the sounds of your engine the feel of your brakes the slide of your gears . your bike lives and breathes . for example if you have a cut on the sole of your foot its a bit like having a warped disc brake . or if you have serious bronchitis your not going to be able to run the 100 in a very good time are you . thats what i would call a fueling issue . could be a bunged up air filter if you cannot get enough air in your lungs or if you have a cough on your chest it could be an over rich mix thats making you fart / backfire or spit/sneeze

    . ………. hang on whats all this crazy talk with camparosoms to the human body
    . well a good bike is like a human body if you make it its like your child infact and this does affect you because you are in direct contact with it . if somthing goes wrong at 120mph it directly effects you . just like if your body gave up and one of your parts broke . treat your bike well . you can fix a bike but we may not be able to fix you