A Humble DR350 Gets A New Lease On Life
Tearing down a bike is easy: going from bolt to bolt, dropping brackets and washers into Ziploc bags, hoping the shabby Sharpie notes won’t rub off or become indecipherable in a few months. There's that feeling of potential — that this pile of parts is my clay. Then a couple months pass, life takes back the bars, and the realization that I've committed to putting this in the magazine, telling the story, and that it all has to go back together somehow hits me between the eyes the way Sue pops his Pa in a Gatlinburg bar.
From the beginning of this project, I viewed Johnny Cash's song "A Boy Named Sue" not only as a tongue-in-cheek reference (A Boy Named Suzuki) but as a metaphor for the transformation of a perceived weakness into a strength. Though it may not seem like it, the Suzuki DR350 is the perfect platform for an “adventure scrambler.” It has a strong six-speed gearbox and a single-cylinder thumper with enough oomph to get my 200-pound ass to the ton (downhill). The DR350 can pull the front wheel off the ground in first through third, and it benefits from the remnants of a once-vibrant aftermarket. I found my candidate through a Craigslist trade. Light, nimble, capable, reliable, and ugly as hell — it was perfect.
Inspired by the mid-‘70s Suzuki TS series, I wondered what a new-age TS would look like if it were built it on the DR platform. What links would it have to its heritage while also being contemporary and fun? Would it need a rack and a side bag? Yup. A classic Japanese tank shape? Definitely. A classic enduro silhouette? Obviously. Off I went garbage-picking, and after loosely fitting a homeless gas tank from a binned Honda MR250 sourced from our pals over at Vintage Steele in Vermont, I began drawing the bike’s shape and lines to create a visual roadmap of the direction I wanted the build to take.
I wanted a 19-inch front wheel to replace the standard 21-inch wheel, bringing the bike in line with contemporary adventure bikes. I wanted the front shocks to be lowered an inch to give the bike a classic stance. I decided a Sportster headlight tucked under an aluminum cowl would be perfect for the little brawler. (Also, because I’m an asshole, I like the idea of taking the piss out of Hog puritans.) An understated, slab-sided seat would draw inspiration from the classic TS while remaining true to the lines of the frame and bike. No wooden plank, though — the foam had to be thick enough for me to go on long rides without having to keep Preparation H in the saddle bag.
With a finished drawing that established the aesthetic, I started enlisting help from friends like Brandon Long of Badfish Customs, who has a powder coating set-up in his garage big enough to do wheels.
After a few nights of research, I decided to grab a 19-inch wheel and assembly from an old NX250 off eBay for $30. I could have gone with something off the shelf, but I felt compelled to re-purpose something unloved, orphaned, and cheap. After a couple calls to the spoke gurus over at Buchanan's, Brandon and I laced up some stainless wires to the newly coated hoops, mounted fresh Continental TKC 80s from our pals at Dime City Cycles, and I had a roller.
When I wanted to upgrade the suspension, I leaned on the experts at Race Tech Engineering, which develops Gold Valve Cartridge Emulators that allow traditional damping rod forks to perform like more sophisticated cartridge forks. I sent the DR’s forks and rear spring to Race Tech, and the bike’s suspension is now set up specifically for me. It's lowered internally one inch in the front and has new progressive springs. The rear now has gold valves and a new Race Tech spring with a higher spring rate. With everything bolted on, the DR had the perfect stance.
From the outset, I knew I wanted aluminum to be a theme carried throughout the bike, but shaping aluminum is extremely difficult — a totally different beast from steel. Fortunately, I became friends with Steve Shepard, a metal-shaper with unparalleled skills. (The dude is building an Airstream tow-along camper from scratch in his one-car garage.) As he rolled a beautiful set of aluminum fenders, I focused on the powertrain.
The little 350 isn't a bad motor, but it leaves a lot to be desired. So why not buy a 440 big bore kit? I dropped the block off at a local engine repair shop, told them my time frame for the build, and left with my fingers tightly crossed.
Then I got a leather-stamped invite for The One Motorcycle Show in Portland, Oregon. With only two months to finish the bike, roll it into a van, and drive it across the country, I had to pin it. My anxiety as to whether or not I could actually finish the bike in time grew. But so did my will to make it happen.
I had to do a few things out of order, like finish the frame so I could get it powder coated. No seat, no rack, no bag — just guesses. It’s not how I wanted to do things, but I had no choice. I felt incredibly fortunate to be able to work out of artist Chris Myott's barn, not only because it’s a beautiful space, but because it has every tool you could ask for. On a sub-zero New England day about seven weeks before the show, we welded up the bike’s tabs, bungs, mounts, and subframe, then sent the frame off for coating.
Then it was time to paint the tank, which looked like it had spent its life bouncing down a Plinko board — nothing a couple pounds of Bondo couldn't fix. I'd designed a beautiful (but complicated) paint scheme, and had no idea how to execute it. My pal Ryan McCabe connected me with Chris Yankun, a paint and bodywork specialist and artist with an awesome shop space, who wanted to help. The tank turned out better than I could have imagined.
With about two weeks until the show, I still had to build a rack and pannier mount for a side bag being made by our pals at Pack Animal. Using an acetylene torch, we hastily bent a steel mounting rack in an afternoon. The beautiful charcoal waxed canvas bag showed up in the mail soon after, and it fit on the rack perfectly; its bronze hardware and supple light-brown leather perfectly play off the bright blue tank. Coincidentally, Larson Upholstery works out of the same space as Pack Animal and offered to upholster the seat with the same leather that accented the bag. Working with such exceptionally talented companies elevated the overall aesthetic of the bike.
About a week and a half from the finish line, everything for the bike had, by some stroke of luck, landed in my possession and the final assembly began. After confronting my bag-labeling method head on (I'd give myself a C+), using some elbow grease, drilling, hammering, bleeding, and swearing a metric shit ton, the DR came together — at least visually.
As with any creative endeavor that requires many different skills, I knew I’d have to lean on people; I just had no idea how much. I worked with friends and companies with deep wells of expertise and generosity to bring this motorcycle together. At some point, I realized I wasn't building a bike so much as creating friendships, and that coming together around a common creative goal is as important — if not more important — than the product itself.
With heartache, toil, and a ton of help, my lowly DR350 has emerged a stronger, more well-rounded machine. And much like The Boy Named Sue, the DR now punches well above its weight.
Owner: Gregory George Moore Year/Make/Model: 1997 Suzuki DR350 SE Fabrication: Gregory/Christopher Myott Assembly: Gregory George Moore Build time: 7 months Engine: 350cc bored to 440cc Exhaust: DG V2 Slip On Air Cleaner: UNI Two Stage Pod Filter (not seen) Transmission: OEM Frame: modified OEM Forks: Stock Race Tech Gold Valves, Cartridge Emulators, and new progressive springs Shocks: Race Tech Gold Valves And Race Tech Spring Front/Rear Tire: 19" / 18" Tires: Continental TKC 80s Spokes: Buchanan's Fuel Tank: 1976 Honda MR250 Handlebars: Renthal MX Bars Hand Controls: Stock / Malcolm Smith Racing Handgrips: Oury Grips Headlight: 2004 H-D Sportster Taillight: Dime City Cycles Bates Taillight Seat Pan: Steve Shepard Upholstery: Larson Upholstery Electrical: Modified OEM by Brandon Long (Badfish Customs) Paint: Chris Yankun of Cinder Block Hustle Side Bag: Pack Animal Electricity: Shorai Batteries Chain: Malcolm Smith Racing gold O-ring chain
SPECIAL THANKS: Christopher Myott, Daniela Maria, Brandon Long, Steve Shepard, Chris Yankun, and anyone else that I troubled, annoyed, or leaned on.
This article was originally featured in Issue 027 of Iron & Air Magazine