Do you pass the enthusiasts test ?
Deep in rural Berkshire, in my garage, now reside 11 Can-Am’s. All are sat patiently waiting to be restored, using my library of old brochures, magazine articles, posters, handbooks, spare parts and my network of contacts, all amassed using thse 10 rules
My passion is Can-Am’s. No not the drab green military bikes that you often see, but the original off road race bikes made by Bombardier of Canada. Yes, Canada’s did have an OEM bike maker (see things you learn?). I grew up in northern Canada and as a teenage in the early 70’s when these bike were around, they won a series of championships and ISDT events.
The images remained with me, and a few years ago, after telling endless people about them, I set out on a search to find and restore one – a tough challenge in England. I knew they were rare (production runs were only ever in their hundreds), I just didn’t realise what an adventure I would have pursuing a simple idea. Having restored a number of vintage Japanese dirt bikes, I quickly discovered what a different challenge it is when there is no modern dealer network or organisation to support you, like the VJMC does.
Finding restoring and running rare bikes requires not only passion, but ingenuity. Set out is my top ten rules learnt by dealing with rare bikes and I hope of some assistance to your own projects:
Ask the question: the next time you’re at a bike show, don’t just walk around looking at the vendors wares, ask them questions about what they’ve got back at the shop. I was once in the outback of Australia and went to a very small local bike meet. An old guy was selling brochures and I asked him about Can-Ams. He smiles, and announced he use to be a dealer. Sat underneath his bed was a complete stack of all the brochures Bombardier had had ever published on the bikes (he didn’t bring them ‘cause no-one ever wanted them!). I also bought a swing arm off E-Bay once and as it wasn’t too far away I offered to collect it. During the subsequent conversation with Rory, the seller, I asked about any other bits he might have. A look around his garage produced two fuel tanks, another swing arm, two sets of levers and basket full of engine parts (go on admit it your garage is probably the same!).
Tell your mates: run the risk of becoming the village eccentric (idiot?), and make sure everyone knows your passion and interest. In management speak it would be called a contact network, but the more people out there helping you look, the more likely you’ll turn up that gem. I have a friend in Australia who has no interest in bikes, but in crystal clocks. Every time she goes on E-Bay Australia looking for clocks, she types in Can-Am and sends me a link if she see’s anything “that looks old”
Know your numbers: serial numbers are not just random, they tell a story. Learn to know what the numbers mean both for the bikes and for the components. A lot of parts are not made by the OEM, but outsourced. Knowing who made what will help you and what parts are available from other sources (Can-Am and Honda bought identical lights from the same Japanese component manufacturer). I once saw a Can-Am for sale on E-Bay that was poorly described. I waited until the auction had only an hour to go and asked the seller for the serial number off the headstock. It ended 000010. The 10th Can-Am ever to come off the assembly line. No-one else bothered to ask the question and I gave no time for the seller to start to explore what the numbers meant. It’s now sat in my garage and is probably the oldest Can-Am still running and the first bike ever sold to the public, all for the pricely sum of £300.
Find you passion: a lot of people have said to me they would like to get into old bikes, but don’t know what to buy. Think well and truly what turns you on about bikes. Old school boy memories, type of bike or just the lingering dreams that you could have been a race contender. I owned a series of bikes, mainly VJ bikes, none of them really “did it”. I went to an old bike museum in Alberta, Canada about 6 years ago and one of the displays was a Can-Am. Youth all came flooding back. I also get a kick out of collecting a bike that no-one else has ever heard of. It sets me apart from the pack. I can turn up to any show on a Can-Am and guarantee an audience.
Learn to hunt on E-Bay: E-Bay can be exciting, frustrating, joyous and corrupt all in the same transaction. Remember not everyone understands what they are selling, can describe things accurately or spell it correctly. Look for misspelled words, in different categories and components under individual headings. Again Can-Ams use Bosch and Motoplat ignitions. You’ll never find them under Can-Am but under their original manufacturers names, often described for Ossa’s or KTM’s. I once saw a Bommbadeer (Bombardier) for sale under automobiles, by a newly divorced woman who got it as part of the settlement. She just wanted shot of the bike and had no idea what it was or how to spell it correctly. The auction attracted a single bid (mine!).
Buy the accessories: old brochures, magazine articles and posters are a wealth of information, as are out-of-date books. These can often be found in charity shops, boot sales and old book shops. All will add to your knowledge of the bikes and will be invaluable for helping you to identify that missing component. I carry a small scrap book around of pictures to show people what Can-Ams are and what I’m looking for. It’s how I found out about the Honda lights being the same as Can-Ams. I showed a Honda expert once and he declared them as being early Stanley lenses and lights. And yes he had the rights ones, originally intended for a CB 100.
Ask the locals: wherever I am in the world and luckily I work in the oil industry so as part of my job I get to travel the world, I ask the locals about my passion. I was in rural America once and was told by the locals of a small bike salvage yard out in the middle of nowhere. On arriving at the yard, complete with wooden porch, dog and screen door, I asked the owner if he had any Can-Ams, expecting the slow shake of the head. “Yeah got a couple in the back corner”, came the reply. On walking out to said corner, I was greeted by 12 partly stripped bikes, 3 complete bikes and a container of engines, forks and plastics. This was after I walked pass the Pentons, Hodakas and early Yamahas. Sorry it’s location remains a secret as I plan on a major salvage mission sometime soon.
Advertise: I often wondered about the wanted ads you see in bike magazine. Last summer I tried one in CMM, asking for any information on Can-Ams. A received an endless stream of calls, mainly from people try to sell me military machines. And a number who insisted on telling there was no such bike. The final call came from a farmer in Worcester who asked me if it was “one of those orange bikes I was after”. He told me he had bought his son one about 30 years ago who rode it a couple of times, crashed it, then stuck it in the barn. A few days later I was stood in the barn and there sat, covered in dust, a mint condition MX6 125cc, with less than 200 miles on it.
Know what you’re looking at: from all of the information that you collect and the contacts you make, remember to concentrate on that particular model, make or series. Learning everything you can and learn to recognise the components. Become an expert. Remember that rare bikes often look odd to others, therefore are rarely ever at the front of the shop or on the table of the market stall. Remember to always walk around the back of the bike shop, search the small ads, poke through all the boxes at the jumble sales and ask the questions. The rare ones are often hard to spot, but the more you know the more you can see through the brush applied paint, the bodged specials and rusted heads, learning to spot the hidden gem
Have fun: I’ve met some great people and had some real adventures simply on the back of sharing a passion for old bikes. I have recently been contact by the Head Chef at the Ritz, searching for parts for his rare SWM. Finding, repairing and riding old bikes are a release from the stresses of work and family. Have fun with it