From Coffee Table to Cafe

Renovating an SR500 in the Philippines

by Paul Burgess

The author is 39, a diesel mechanic working offshore Asia



After two years of living in the Philippines I met a nice young lady and finally gave up drinking and bar-hopping, and decided to do something more creative. We decided that buying a motorbike would be a good idea, for running around, cruising the countryside, and to satisfy my creative urges.

I had spent all my life on bikes, not taking my car test until the tender age of 29.

After looking at several four-cylinder cruiser type UJMs, all maybe 10 years old and in the prohibitive $5,000-plus range, I spied a black, single-cylinder 500 Yamaha, lurking, evil, outside a bar, with a "for sale" sign hung around its neck. It looked real good, with its gloss black coat and polished engine cases, and I arranged a test ride the following night.

The owner, an Israeli, assured me that everything was great, the brakes were perfect, it had a new chain and sprocket set, the charging system worked well but had a wire loose at present, et cetera.

A word of advice, fellow bikers: Never buy a used motorcycle at night! But then I already KNEW this!!


The very first little "problemette" we found was that the bike refused to tick over. It either revved like crazy or died completely, depending on how I twiddled the air and idle screws. I also noticed the exhaust header, the standard pipe, was a nice shade of cherry red after only a short ride. "Oh, that's normal", I was assured by the now ex-owner. "It just needs a little fine tuning".

Tools were bought.

Three complete carb strips later, to cut a long story short, I found that the spring on the air screw had been replaced with one that was about 3mm too long. Which meant the screw never did "gently bottom out" in preparation for its one and a half turns back out. I also noticed the accelerator pump diaphragm was sealed solid with silicon goo, and the linkage was missing.

While I was removing the fuel tank for the first of several carb strips I realized the fuel could not be turned off; the vacuum tap wasn't doing its job. All the insides had been removed at some stage, diaphragm as well.

Repairs were made.

Joys of Riding

The joyful visions I had of riding in a warm, dry climate, on roads lined with coconut trees, watching the sun set over the paddy fields, and returning home on a balmy. cool evening, soon turned out to be a vision from Hell! Blind pedestrians, ignorant jeepney drivers, homicidal SUV pilots, chickens, dogs, water buffaloes, cows et cetera turned every ride into a 20 mph nightmare. My wife and I would ride out, enthusiastic and expectant. Me with my 15 years and 250,000 miles experience, she full of my romantic descriptions and adventure stories. An hour later we would arrive home again, not speaking to each other, dirty, oily of face and body, shaking. Fifteen miles on the clock!

First Rebuild

I decided to get off the road to strip the bike and build a bare bones cafe racer type projectile. Most of the ancillaries were gone, broken off or cracked already, so I feel no guilt at what I did. Off came the side panel mounts, centre stand brackets, battery box and fitting, aircleaner box, et cetera.

All this was done with a hacksaw and hand file, in our hotel room. A stoutish coffee table was my bench, an electric drill was my machine shop.Unbeknown to me, my wife already knew the project would come to nought. She already knew the huge pile of pieces in the corner of our bedroom would stay there forever. She is a Filipina and has seen it many times before. Only motorcycle shops rebuild motorcycles, period.

Weeks passed and we spent days at a time searching for the parts and facilities necessary to keep the project going, both of us convinced in our beliefs. Me, that I would end up with a stunning cafe racer; she that we would end up selling the pile of bits for a few pesos. She would sit watching TV while I toiled away. Jealousy crept in, for I loved the project more than her. Why else would I choose working on a motorcycle instead of sitting with her, watching Filipino TV shows?

I stripped the forks out of the frame, and noticed a groove just below the thread on the steering stem. Actually it was a slice, actually it was a cut that went halfway through the diameter of the tube! A day of walking the streets found us a welder who we thought had the ability to weld up the cut in the steering stem without ruining the very near, irrepairable adjustment thread.

All the alloy parts were taken to the polishers. Fork legs, top yoke, caliper, brake back plate, and more were mirror-polished for the huge sum of $20. It took us a while, though; two days! It's not all bad news here. A few parts were chromed, as well; similar prices.

It was time to strip the engine for a look, so we took the five-hour bus journey to Manila, to the shop that had all the parts I would ever need. Or so the, er, gentleman who sold me the bike had told me. Now I'm not stupid, so I had phoned them up first to confirm they had the parts. "Just bring your manual, we can supply anything you need here". We arrived and showed him the carburettor that needed replacing, and a list of other parts, gaskets, and whatnot. "Sorry sir, we don't stock parts for that model". Luckily he was wrong, and we came away with a complete set of ... one oil filter!

The frame was sprayed by hand and parts started going back on to it. Things were looking good. I made a plate that fastened to the frame just ahead of the rear wheel, and mounted a stainless steel battery box. All cut out with a hacksaw over our somewhat tired-looking coffee table. The electric drill I had reluctantly bought weeks before was worth its weight in gold as a grinder, polisher, wire brush, even for drilling holes occasionally.

The sprockets were in real good shape but the supposedly new chain was obviously designed for a chain wheel of far greater pitch. Or had the owner been lying to me about its newness?

The beautifully polished master cylinder and caliper were assembled. Bleeding was attempted. I knew the brake worked very well before it was stripped, so why no fluid pumping? A day was spent traveling the local hardware shops to find a suitable pair of circlip pliers. The guts of the master cylinder were removed, inspected, and re-assembled. Still no joy. I blocked the output hole again and filled it all with oil. Pressure! Investigation revealed that the cup washer that pumped the oil did not clear the oil hole to let fresh oil into the system. But it all worked before, I kept thinking.

A trip to a local mechanic, who had maintained the bike previously, disclosed he could bleed it if I took it to his workshop. Finally, after more questions and digging it was admitted that if I wanted it to work properly I would have to buy the correct parts and fit them! Ahaaa. So obvious, how foolish of me to have not guessed! So that was why the former owner was assuring me of how good the brakes were!

I went home and simply trimmed the cup washer back 2mm so it cleared the oil hole, and it all worked fine.

By now we always carried a list of everything we needed whenever we went out, so we could take full advantage of any opportunity that arose. For instance, after removing the wood screws that held the fuel cap lock together, I brazenly spent 12 cents on the correct items. It's a good job I am rich and can afford to buy factory correct items such as these.

The freshly unrebuilt engine was now in the frame, complete with chromed mounting plates, and an exhaust was needed to replace the somewhat heat-stricken original. I had planned for weeks to have a local shop make me a pipe that curved gorgeously down the side, above the engine cases, and followed the shape of the bike back around the rear shock. Years ago I saw some Brit bikes built by a guy I believe was named Alistair Laurie; his pipes, and bikes, were a treasure to behold. Beautiful in their simplicity; I bravely tried to emulate them.

My local header and muffler guy, who'd done some welding for me on occasions, had promised repeatedly that he could make any shape in a double layer of stainless steel one and a quarter inch pipe. One hot morning we pushed the bike the mile or so to his shop to begin creating what I hoped to be the crowning glory of the bike. "Oh no, you mean two layers, of stainless, that shape, no we can't do that, not here, no way!" Four days, three shops, police intervention and a near-divorce later, we had a single-skin, two-bend pipe that simply followed the original shape. But it was stainless!

The original seat was rusted out, so I cut a new custom base from 6mm checkerplate aluminium at work. It was rather heavy, though, so I looked around the local shops and found one that said they had a sheet of 3mm aluminium. I left them with a deposit and they promised to cut out the shape for me. I returned three hours later to find two young guys struggling with a dry hacksaw blade, nearly finishing the roughing-out process. I suggested they put a little oil on the blade, and they all laughed heartily at the stupid foreigner. Until they tried it. All was going well, I thought, apart from the fact they had cut it from 6mm sheet, not 3.

So now I had two 6mm seatbases, as the unseen 3mm sheet had mysteriously thickened after I had paid my deposit.

I spent a day hunting through the leatherwork shops, trying to find someone who could cover the seat in leather. "No, we don't do that, we only make shoes". Eventually my wife and I cut and punched and thonged our way to a pretty unique looking seat, in brown leather.

The paint job on the tank was started by me, but after spending $30 on filler and primer, I found a guy who stripped it to bare metal, filled the numerous dinks, and sprayed it in brown and black with a silver pinstripe, all for $40!

The Big Day - the bike was finally ready. It was filled with oil and fuel, polished and tuned to perfection. We'd made some dinky little tool bags to cover the ugly frame tubes back of the shockers. It started after about five kicks, promptly pouring fuel out of the carburettor. A sharp rap with a screwdriver cured that; temporarily, of course.

The bike ran perfectly, always started and never broke down. I didn't put the bike on the road until it was all finished, and I never leave home without enough tools to strip the bike to the ground. If it broke down irrepairably I could probably get it into a passing jeepney and get it home for a few dollars; but to leave it at the side of the road, alone, would be saying goodbye.

Two Years Later

I worked on the frame again some two years later, intending to just tidy up the back frame part, but I ended up building a complete workshop to do it in and it turned into a major rebuild that took well over a year to finish. I put right everything I had scrimped on or couldn't get done the first time. A shop in England supplied all new wheel bearings, brake shoes, and oil filters off the shelf. I sprayed the bike in a fetching shade of yellow from aerosol cans, with an overlay of purple spider-webby stuff.

I still have the bike and am in the process of ordering a top end oil pipe kit and alloy cam chain adjuster cover from Thumper Stuff, in the States. In my cupboard is a pair of gold anodised Honda 250 inverted forks, bought in Thailand a few years ago.

I would like to do a thorough engine rebuild one day, rebore, and replace all wearables like the cam chain tensioner. Performance is not my bag, not here, not in this country.

I'll never sell this bike; it's not worth that much money-wise but nobody can imagine the time, money, work, sheer effort and thought that has gone into building it - and it's still not finished!