Alec Birkbeck loved and admired his older brother, Kevin, who had a natural mechanical sense, built lovely Harley-Davidson choppers, and was born to be on two wheels. “Kevin’s degree of balance, control, and confidence riding a trail bike up a near-vertical slope, or holding a wheelie for a half-mile … Man, he was good on a bike,” Alec reflects.
Kevin passed away in 2017 after years spent on dialysis. After his brother’s funeral, Alec felt the need to do something more memorable than just put a photo of Kevin on his wall. Alec says, “In a way, I think I needed to have one last chat in the workshop with a cuppa, next to a cool bike.” I sat down with Alec to better understand how he honored his brother’s memory with this ’83 Yamaha TR1 build.
IRON & AIR: Why did you choose a TR1, and where’d you find the donor?
ALEC BIRKBECK: I’ve never been into Harleys, but the idea of an old V-twin sounded pretty good to me. A mate of mine suggested looking at the Virago — the TR1 model with chain drive that would make it easier to customize — and I eventually bought one from a classic car auction site. Everything was completely stock, and after connecting a new battery and an oil change, it fired up … sort of.
The rear carb bowl was filled with old fuel that had formed into a thick yellow sludge. After cleaning it out, I ran a compression test and all looked good.
I&A: How did you come up with the overall design?
AB: Well, early on, I wasn’t really sure. I knew that whatever I did, it had to be simple and honest; Kevin hated over-styled bikes. That meant most of the original parts had to go, so I stripped off everything — down to the engine and frame — and over the course of the next year sold all the excess parts on eBay. I recouped the original cost of the bike and then some. I’d learned about the original café racer lifestyle from my dad, who used to hang out at the Ace with his Norton Dominator, so I formed my ideas and shapes around simplicity, performance, and weight reduction.
I&A: Tell us about the frame and suspension.
AB: The frame is mostly stock except for the space I needed to carve out for the lithium-ion battery and its box beneath the swingarm. One cool aspect of these frames is that if you junk the airbox frame feature as I did, you’re left with a space to route all the wires; one thing that always stuck with me as I watched Kevin work on his bikes was the rigor he put into hiding the electronics. The front forks are from a Honda Fireblade and I’m very pleased with them. I made a big mistake the first time around with GSX-R forks and beautiful R1 radial-mounted calipers because I hadn’t thought about how little space there was between the calipers and the wheel spokes. I had to change a lot of the front-end parts and it was a painful setback, seeing how I’d just spent three months working on a custom top clamp; the CNC machinist said that after the trouble he had making it, he didn’t want to do anything else for me again. It all came together in the end. This is the first bike I’ve ever built, but it wouldn’t have been possible without help from a bunch of different people, not least Peter Goodwin and Phil Meggett of Carrot Cycles. Their collective knowledge of motorbikes is off the chart, and my weekly questions and photo updates must have become annoying for them!
I&A: It’s a very unique fuel tank. Can you tell us how it came to be?
AB: I’m all about having a go at making stuff, so I thought I would make my own. How hard could it be? Well, it turns out it’s quite hard. I started with an XS1100 tank, and I used a small English wheel to form complex curves and shapes, but the real trouble came when I needed to braze the pieces together with a sealed joint — wasn’t going to work. Another lesson learned, and more time was lost. Then I found beautiful handmade aluminum tanks from TAB II Classics in Wales, but when I called, they flatly refused to make me a tank without having the bike to work around. Since I couldn’t afford to not have the bike for another three months, I dedicated a weekend to making a mock TR1 frame with a working headstock out of scrap wood and sent it to them, and to my surprise and relief, they agreed to do it.
I love the Rickman-style tank, with its rear hump and long, sweeping front, and these guys make the best ones I’ve seen. It was quite difficult to design the underside and provide nice fixing points around the unusual frame shape, but with the tank mounted I began to see some really interesting lines. You know something is right when you stand back with a cup of tea in hand and your heart starts to race.
I&A: Tell us about the exhaust and the seat.
AB: The exhaust had to be visually striking and purposeful. I mocked up some ideas with 40mm plastic pipe and settled on an equal-length, two-into-one design with a high-end can, built by Shane at STG Exhausts. The can is shielded by a double-skin, curved stainless piece that I made myself. The seat isn’t built for comfort, but it’s good for a 30-minute ride. I’ve ridden further on it, but it requires a piece of foam strategically placed down my leathers. I made the hand-molded seat pan out of ABS plastic, and the foam and leather work was by Ed of Core Motorcycles.
I&A: What was the first ride like?
AB: It was coming up to the anniversary of Kev’s passing, and I had set myself the goal of giving the TR1 its first shakedown run on that same day. Everything looked good, it started fine and revved nicely enough, but the clutch plates weren’t separating at all. After I had it fixed, that very short ride up and down my street was the best ride I’ve ever had. The large front wheel means you have to commit to an apex, which I love, and a low center of gravity with balanced weight distribution makes the bike very compliant and predictable.
I&A: What would Kevin think of the build?
AB: I’m confident that this is not the sort of bike that Kev would’ve built or probably even wanted to ride. That said, I know he would really appreciate how the shapes and lines pull together in a distinctive style; how the technical and visual challenges had been solved; and how his younger brother — who in the past had made some pretty poor bike decisions — built something really cool.