Showpony & Workhorse:
The Why & How of my Motorcycle
After traveling over 5000 km through 4 different countries with my Suzuki Intruder and getting a lot of questions along the road, I’d like to share the full story of the whys and hows of my first custom bike project.
Let’s go back one year. It’s summer in Costa Rica, it’s hot and humid and I’m in a bus that has no airco. I crawl to one of the few open seats and sit down to conclude there is very little leg room. Even the locals struggle to find a comfortable position and at 6’3 I’m almost a good foot taller than the average population here. I place my legs to the side in the pathway and spend the next 8 hours in a spinal twist, reminiscing about the time I had my own vehicle and more specifically, my own motorcycle.
I missed the freedom of getting from door to door without schedules, transfers, carrying backpacks and waiting at bus terminals. I also remembered how having a motorcycle had become a part of me, how it not only brought me the joy of riding, but also made me part of a community of like-minded people and how good that felt. Upon arrival at my next destination, while pushing myself and my backpack through a crowd of people to get to my next bus, I had made my decision: once I return to Europe I want to keep traveling, but I want to do this with a motorcycle again.
Once I got back to the Netherlands, it was the beginning of fall, giving me plenty of time to buy a bike and even to turn it into something special before the weather would allow me to hit the road in comfort.
All the tools I could possibly need were at my disposal at my dads barn. Over the years I had gained interest and mild knowledge of mechanics due to mopeds, previous motorcycles and a high maintenance camper van, so I had enough confidence to turn this motorcycle into my first actual custom bike project, including a front to back paint job. This bike was going to serve both as a mode of transportation for my next travels as well as a mobile showcase of my artwork.
First, I needed to find the bike. The internet is full of affordable, yet relatively reliable motorcycles, but I had to take a few factors into account: the bike needed to be big enough, frame wise and engine wise, not only to accommodate for me and my limbs, but also to haul a few months worth of luggage while still being able to reach highway speeds. I had a few other requirements, like shaft-drive, highway bars and a sissy bar, along with some limits regarding the age and mileage of the bike.
The Suzuki Intruder caught my eye, because there were a few reasonable option available in my area and also because of that elegant little panel in front of the tank, which served to me as an extra piece of canvas. I picked up the best option I could find, an Intruder 700 from 1986, and rode it home in the pouring rain. Regardless, I felt like a queen on her throne, this was the beginning of new adventures.
The next 8 months I spend on and off working on the motorcycle, to turn it into an eye catching, yet practical mode of transportation. This is a list of the parts I’ve modified along with an explanation of how I did it, why I did it and what I learned in the process.
Undo previous modifications
The first step was probably the easiest; removing some unnecessary, and in my opinion, tasteless accessoires the previous owners had installed. This included tribal flame heat shields and stickers, additional headlights and a jaguar ornament which was decorating the front fender like a forged crown jewel.
One of the main reasons why I chose to have a custom bike in the first place was to showcase my artwork. Getting noticed is a vital part of my job and what better way to do this than on a painted motorcycle. Before I even started on the project, I took into account that the paint job would likely be temporary, since I’m still developing as a painter, I would probably need to start over within a year so the bike would remain an accurate display of my skills. The Intruder turned out to be a perfect bike for custom painting, since it offers plenty of canvas space and all the panels and fenders are of the same material.
Since the original paint was still in relatively good condition, I only removed the stickers and did some sanding, followed by a Motip filler where needed and a Motip primer. After creating some mockups in Photoshop I had decided on a design with a face, a skull, orange flowers and goldfish, with a mint-turquoise base. For this base, I used Montana Black’s color ‘Hope’, of course this paint is not automotive quality, but rather meant for quick application on concrete and the sides of trains. Since I decided to keep the paint job low budget considering the temporary aspect of it, at less than 4 euro per can, Montana Black got the job done. The actual paint job itself was, unlike most figurative custom bike art, done with regular acrylic paint from Royal Talens and brushes, this was the most important and most time consuming aspect of the project. After this, I had the ambitious plan to coat at least the tank in two component varnish (2K clear coat by Motip) to serve as a protector from scratches and mostly, gasoline, since a previous paint job I had done on a moped had proven to fade out around the tank lid quickly. To prevent possible interaction between the base coat with the acrylic paint and the harsh 2K varnish I started out coating with regular clear coat. From what the internet told me, layering 1K and 2K paints is not recommended unless you use the same brand which I did. The 1K layer looked fine, but unfortunately, the 2K varnish I applied after turned out quite disastrous. Since it wasn’t fully transparent, the underlying white of the paint job started to appear yellow. Weirdly, but luckily enough only the white elements were affected and the orange and ‘Hope’ color still looked similar to the unvarnished parts. On top of this, the 2K varnish took forever to harden at room temperature, therefor I don’t recommend using this unless you have some type of suitable oven at your disposal or if you can easily wait 3 weeks for the varnish to harden sufficiently, which I had to do. After the 2K varnished dried, I fixed the white elements of the painting (mostly the skull and the eyes) with the simplest method I could think of: I painted white acrylic paint over the 2K varnish and coated the whole tank in one more layer of 1K along with all the panels and fenders.
The overall experience of painting a motorcycle with amateur tools, without a spray booth to protect from dust and no use of temperature control was... very informative. I’ve used rather unorthodox methods, but I’m quite happy with the final result taken into account that durability was not required. Unless you would get on eye level with the artwork and know the story behind each layer, you would hardly be able to tell how messy the job was done. Though if you would get close enough, you will notice some scratches, irregularities in the color and texture, dust specs, finger prints and some damage acquired during the reassembling of the bike. And if you would get even closer you can still hear my cries of frustration echoing in the varnish.
The custom mirrors that came with the bike were part of the tribal flame aesthetics, but besides not matching my personal style, they were highly impractical, due to the odd shape and small size. I replaced them for slightly larger round mirrors which proved to be more practical.
My two previous bikes have both been choppers from the 80'ties too and this time I wanted to go for a more modern look by switching the original bendy handle bars for a straight one, this also increased the distance between the rider and the controls, so I could ride with my arms in a more natural straightened position.
I don't have the illusion that my bike looks better with a windshield and this addition was merely a practical one. A windshield makes riding in wind, rain, insects and at high speeds a lot more comfortable, especially when you’re a lanky person like I am. The windshield I picked is a rather small one, but I’ve been amazed with how much of a difference it makes when positioned in the right angle. I’d recommend anyone to at least consider a detachable variant if you occasionally make long days on your bike.
As comfortable as the original seat might have been, it was one of the first things I wanted to customize. I wasn’t fond of the bulkiness, it basically looked like a couch, it would have needed refurbishing anyway due to loose stitching and I needed to get rid of the back rest of the passenger seat to free up sissy bar for luggage. I wanted to have a separate rear seat and and a bobber style front seat. I did some measurements and a digital mock up and the seat that matched the required shape and size best, turned out to be the budget option, costing less than 70 euro. In hindsight, I should have known that anything under 100 euro probably wasn’t going to be very useful on long trips and the seat became increasingly uncomfortable throughout my journey. Half way into Spain I managed to solve most of this discomfort with some Velcro and a 4 euro IKEA kitchen chair pillow. What I gained that day in comfort, I lost in cool points, because it really looked dumb, but it quite literally saved my ass when I had to ride almost 1000 km in one day to reach the other side of the country the week afer.
The seat installation required a lot of extra steps. I had to make a panel to go under the front seat to cover up wiring. I made a mold out of a pizza box and cut the panel out of sheet metal. It was a bit challenging since the area under the seat wasn’t fully symmetrical and I needed to leave room for the springs of the seat, but after an afternoon of bending, cutting and filing I was satisfied with the result. This also created, you guessed it, more canvas. Though I didn’t do any custom painting on this panel, I did coat it in ‘Hope’, to visually connect the tank, side panels and rear fender. For the rear seat I used a wooden base with a cut out for the igniter. I recycled foam from a different seat and upholstered it with artificial leather.
I’ve not been able to test this seat on long rides with a passenger yet, but considering it holds my luggage just fine and just by the feel of it, I can tell it’s probably a lot more comfortable than the front seat.
Often visually ignored by motorcycle owners: the tires. I didn’t want to waste such a large surface area on just black rubber, so I decided on white walls. Since my tires were still in reasonable conditions, I faked whitewalls with Plasti-Dip spray. After this procedure I have just one tip about spray-on white walls, which is, don’t do spray-on white walls. First of all, you have to clean the tire, really clean it like you mean it, because any dirt or stain that remains will eventually get soaked up by the white coating and blending in with its color. Then, you have to tape off your tire, which is a time consuming and frustrating task, since most tapes don’t tend to stick well to rubber. Once the tire has been prepped, which took me about 1,5 hour, on each side of both tires, the spraying can begin. You‘ll need several coats of spray, if you go too thin, you will create a speckled effect, too thick and you’ll get bubbles. After its all dry, you can take off the tape, but this ain’t no walk in the park either, since ripping off the tape will peel the white wall off along with it, so you have to cut around the tape into the stretchy Plasti-Dip coating, which is likely going to cause more frustration. In addition to this misery, despite my white wall appearing white after the job was done, over time, the white has turned into a pale ocher yellow. The only good thing I experienced about this technique that it turned out to be surprisingly durable, a variety of road and weather conditions and a few cleanups later, the not-so-white walls are still going strong.
Shortly before departure I made a last minute decision to replace the rear tire since it wouldn’t have lasted for the duration of my trip. I replaced it with a real white wall tire, which looked a lot neater than the home made version, but was equally hard to clean. At this point I’m rocking one tire that looks like a dirty sneaker and one that looks like the page of an old book. Turns out that build-not-bought isn’t always the best way to go.
The bike came with a custom exhaust, which was loud, but really just that. Even if the exhaust produced a, what some might call, nice loud sound, I’ve never really seen the purpose of making a bike any louder than it already is. Being a visually oriented person, I rather show off with appearance rather than sound. Also, I don’t want the sound of my bike to overpower the sound of other traffic for my own safety and, as often stated for the reason to have a loud vehicle, I don't have the need to compensate for having small male genitalia since I lack them all together.
To make my job and my traveling easier, I benefit from people liking my bike, other riders, but also the non-riders, so having my bike anywhere on the spectrum of obnoxiously loud doesn’t work in my favor. In addition, the rules on custom exhaust pipes and their sound differ per country and I had no desire to take any legal risks. Enough reasons to splurge on the original exhaust. I’m proud to say that since then, I’ve had compliments about my bike being such a well mannered soft spoken machine.
Rear light/license plate
The rear light/license plate setup had the same issue as the seat: too bulky and occupying my much needed sissy bar. I wanted to go for something more delicate that would serve as a rear light, license plate mount and license plate light all in one, rather than it being separate elements. I’ve always found the side mounts for license plates very charming, but since I couldn’t figure out how legal this was in both the Netherlands and my possible destinations, I decided to go with a small light/license plate setup on the end of my rear fender.
In a country where motorcycles mostly need to be practical before fashionable, finding a luggage set that would match the aesthetics of my bike proved to be a challenge. I had to resort to American brands which tend to serve the ‘easy rider’ a bit better than the Dutch stores. An additional complication was that most luggage sets are designed for, what you would typically expect a motorcyclist to bring, rather than a laptop, sketchbooks, art supplies and a dense pile of summer clothes. Regardless, I found a bag that served my needs at Saddlemen. I choose one of their larger sissy bar luggage sets, consisting of a large rectangular compartment and a detachable roller bag, which was great for local use such as grocery runs or beach trips. I found it hard to put the faith of my precious cargo onto the few straps that came with the set, so I got a set of Mosko straps to secure the bags. Attached to the roller bag, I had another smaller, yet wider roll consisting of my yogamat and collapsible hula hoop (yes I know, very biker) as well as the rain cover that came with the luggage set, so I could gain easy access to it case the weather would change. The cover appeared rather flimsy but turned out to be an absolute lifesaver. Very early in my trip I experienced a heavy storm, leaving me soaked down to my bare skin (partly due to my complete lack of rain gear, but you have to trust me that this storm was really bad regardless) yet my bags remained completely untouched by the weather. However it was challenging riding with the bags in the wind, since the height of the total set resembles a full grown adult.
Since my main luggage hauling took place on the rear seat, the sides of the bike remained free for some extra storage. For my trip, I decided to take along the bags that came with the bike, a set of leather Richa bags with a western vibe, probably as old as the bike itself. These bags, though fashionable, turned out to be rather inconvenient due to the size, shape and stiffness of the aged leather and only held a bike cover, a pair of hiking boots and two locks. The tool bag that also came with the bike cleaned up nicely, but since tool bags on bikes give me such a strong Saint Bernard vibe, I didn’t reassemble it and started using it as a clutch.
By now I’m proud to share that the bike has met more than 5000 km of road over the course of 2 months through 4 countries and a variety of weather conditions without significant issues. The speedometer cable and one of the mirror mounts broke, I lost one of the highway bar foot pegs, the front seat flattened out a bit more than it already was, the rear light almost detached due to some lost bolts, two forks are now leaking and there was a weird sound in the engine that very suddenly disappeared when I finally rolled up to the parking lot of a motorcycle garage.
I expect to return to the Netherlands and the comfort of my dads barn in a few weeks, where I plan to do some modifications before hitting the road again before fall starts. This time I’ll likely be abroad for longer, mainly because I don’t intend to make the journey back to the Netherlands between the months of November and March due to the weather, but I take into account that I tend to stick with civilized areas of the continent, since my bike is not fit for the great outdoors and my work requires me to be around people and wifi a lot, so fixing and modifying the bike abroad is a perfectly good option.
One of the first things I’m dying to do is to refurbish the front seat. Since there is nothing wrong with the shape and size of the base plate, I’ll apply a more sufficient layer of foam and cover it with the same material I’ve used for the back seat. I might even treat myself to some gel padding.
The handle bars have been comfortable, but after seeing and trying some other bikes, I want them to be higher. I want to go a bit more ‘chopper’ rather than ‘bobber’, and Considering the seat will become a bit higher as well, I figured that taller handle bars would be a nice modification, visually and for riders comfort.
New shocks, not a very interesting modification, but definitely one I’m excited about. One of the rear shock was not in optimal shape when I left for my trip and I’ve started to notice the shock is now ready to retire, because of the excessive bouncing of the bike, especially when hauling luggage. The front forks will also need some attention by replacing the seals. I’m excited for more steady riding.
Paint job 2.0
Of course, I will eventually work on a new paint job, either during my time in the Netherlands or when I return to Spain. I’m still reasonably satisfied with the artistic aspects of the paint job and the durability of the varnish, but the placement of some of the artwork is not really well thought of, since some elements are barely visible when the bike is parked, which is how the motorcycle is usually showcased. Initially I wanted to give the bike a clean look, by applying a light base coat and not covering the bike entirely with the paint job to create a delicate effect, but by now, I’ve figured out that this is probably not the best aesthetic to stick with for me, considering it doesn’t match my personal look and the bike is more often dirty than clean so I might as well go a bit more over the top and make the bike a bit more ‘nasty’ rather than ‘classy’. The idea is to not have so much of a base coat and use a larger variety of colors, certain elements will likely return, you can definitely expect the octopus to make a comeback, since this has been the public's favorite. I also have an ambitious idea with LED light which is still developing in my brain.
Sissy bar extension
The only reason I don’t have a sissy bar extension yet is because they’re so incredibly expensive. New handle bars come as cheap as 20 euro, yet a sissy bar extension easily costs ten times more, which was, considering my budget, too much for something that was mostly a visual addition. However, I plan to learn how to weld and build a sissy bar extension in the next few months. Also, adding more ‘flesh’ to the top of the sissy bar will allow me to attach my luggage set easier, since the roll bag won’t be able to.. roll back.
A must for my next trip will be a big set of aluminum cases. Though I despise the looks of them, I can’t go without any longer. My current luggage setup is completely maxed out with summer clothes alone, and even in Spain, I’ll need some cardigans for the winter while also keeping my snorkel set and I could definitely use some extra room for more art supplies.
‘But Ilona, why don't you just sell this bike and start a new project?’ Some have asked me already. Few reasons: first of all, I know this bike, it made it to Spain and back, so I tend to believe that, with proper maintenance, it can do that again. A new bike could have issues I have yet to find out about. Another reason why I don’t want to sell the bike as it is now, is because the paint is not durable, I don’t want to be responsible for what the paint job is going to look like in a year. And last, I don’t have time to start from scratch before the season in the Netherlands ends. I like traveling just a little bit more than I like wrenching and I want to make sure I make it into sunnier weather before fall hits my home country. I do have intentions to sell the tank, since this is the centerpiece of the paint job and would actually make a decent wall ornament for someone fancies skulls and the color ‘Hope’. This would only be possible when I manage to find proper replacement.
Another, yet shorter, blog will likely follow after my next series of modifications. Follow me on my Instagram to get real time updates on things I make and break on the Intruder @lankyartist