ANN ARBOR, MI – Patrick West inspects the antique machine in front of him. He sees a part missing. The paint is damaged, and, before he dismantles it, he’s trying to figure out how authentic he can make this machine look through restoration.
For about 30 years, West’s labor of love has been restoring old motorcycles in his garage. From race bikes to ones produced prior to World War II, the 70-year-old Ann Arbor resident has restored about 10 bikes, with some projects taking years to complete.
Though he’s been doing this for a long time, he does it as a hobby and rarely sells his work.
“Most of what I’ve done I still own,” West said. “I do it because I like the process and a finished product.”
His first foray into tinkering came when West was about 13 years old and was working with bicycles and gas engines. He worked on first car at age 14, discovering his love of mechanics early on.
“(I enjoy) the function of all the pieces working together and how they work, why they work and how do you make it work if it’s not working?” West said. “I guess I call it a puzzle.”
By high school, West began finding work at a gas station and a lawnmower shop. The latter he had to pester the owner to get a job at, while still working on cars in the backyard of his home.
After serving in the military, he worked for Chrysler for about 30 years before retiring. During that time, he had children to raise, so he had less time for his projects, he said. Once they were grown, he became more ambitious with projects, such as old bikes.
West began restoring antique motorcycles in the late 1980s, with his first project being a 1965 Ducati race bike. He rebuilt the engine so he could go antique racing with it. While he later sold that bike, he still has the second bike he repaired, which was another Ducati.
One of the first decisions he makes in his projects is whether it’s going to be a faithful restoration or a custom, with liberties taken. Restoration is when someone takes an old item and repairs it to look as close to the original factory product as possible, West said. With customs, sometimes called “outlaws,” mechanics can take more liberties with how it looks and what parts are used.
West tries to do true restoration. If the bike is in good enough shape, he might even keep it in original condition.
“You can restore (a bike) many times, but it’s only original once,” he said.
West first disassembles the motorcycle and strips the paint to get a better look at what needs to be repaired or replaced. The most challenging part is figuring out how the bike looked and worked originally, which usually involves looking at old pictures or part books, he said.
Once everything is repaired, West reassembles everything. He said certain bikes have to be manipulated in just the right angle for the parts to fit. He does not paint the bikes himself, usually handing that job to someone else.
West does not ride most of his projects nowadays, usually starting them to confirm they’re functioning. Instead, he just enjoys seeing the finished product.
“Do you really want to put that on the road where somebody is going to do something stupid?” West asked.
West’s most recent project is a 1936 BMW R5, a rare bike considering only 2,600 were ever made. He purchased the bike on eBay with the original engine, transmission and front end, but he had to get a frame copy for it. It took four years to restore.
“I do enjoy sometimes (while) I’m out riding this 1930s vintage machine, (thinking,) ‘How many other ones are run right now?’” West said. “How many others are actually being run this minute? The answer is probably none.”
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