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Are Stock Restorations Better Looking Than Most Retro-Customs?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say, but this beholder sees no beauty in most custom retros these days. Most of them just look plain weird … as if the customizer is trying too hard to be different in a sea of sameness. Nine times out of ten, my personal opinion is that older bikes that have been customized are either ugly or non-functional (uncomfortable ergos, for instance), or both.

Pictured here is a restored Honda CB 550F, largely left stock by Polish firm Red Hot Chili Customs. The stock model was sold by Honda here in the United States as the CB 550F Super Sport in the mid-1970s. It made a claimed 50 horsepower at 8,500 rpm with a claimed dry weight of 420 pounds.

There are subtle changes to the original design (a new pipe is an obvious one, as well as the instrument background color and tank paint design), but the bike remains largely faithful to its original design. Β A beauty, in my opinion.

Weigh in with your thoughts below. Do most customizers ruin stock retro bikes with weird designs?

See more of MD’s great photography:



  1. Auspuff says:

    It’s not just Customizers (such as Roland Sands – Yucky Bikes!), it is the Manufacturers themselves which have taken, not just their “Retro” bikes, but also their front-line designs, into the realm of ugly, stupid, non-functional, and uncomfortable.

    Who told Producers we wanted stupid Gobot/Transformer-looking bikes in place of sexy, functional, intelligent designs? Example: Gone into a Ducati dealership lately? If it is not angled sharply, it is rounded-off, or simply given a chopped-off look. Duc also used to celebrate the sexiness, and industrial functionality of the exhaust system, but, no, not anymore. Now pipes are snaked everywhere to conceal them, and when they do manage to reach daylight, they are extremely abbreviated, and flat-out dumb looking. The Trellis Frame was also a hallmark of a Duc, however, take a look at the abomination known as the Panigale, and the ugliness, and foolishness, of modern design will be immediately visible. In summation, Ducati has lost its way in the rush to be “Cool.” The Japanese were never “Cool,” anyway, however, they were always cutting edge. Unless you are Honda who sees performance as some sort of Social Sin.

    It seems Manufacturers have now reached out to a new target audience of Operators, and, now, completely ignore Motorcyclists (this explains why Ducati is apparently selling more bikes than they ever have). The Operator is the same kind of person as your basic Car Driver, being they know nothing about the motorcycle, and don’t care at all about how it works. They just want it to start when the key gets turned, and they feel hip while riding it. They will not be life-long Motorcyclists, so the Manufacturers are celebrating short-term success by sacrificing Long-Term gains.

    I mourn the loss of REAL, functional, motorcycles.

  2. dman says:

    I’m not sure it’s worth comparing a bone-stock restoration with a custom bike. Apples and oranges. But resto-mod, appropriate for an era, vs most- of today’s cafe or scrambler or bobber retro-customs? I’ll take the resto-mod anyday. That 550 is what we would have done back in the late ’70’s anyway, as stock parts wore out or rusted away, and hard-earned dollars were saved … 4-1 pipe, lower bars, good tires, maybe some S&W or Koni shocks. Like the Cycle Magazine “Gentlemen’s Express” project bike. By comparison, most of today’s customs, even when the workmanship is good, exhibit function and esthetics that remind me of the worst of the ’60’s through ’80’s custom bike scene. Though we shouldn’t get too nostalgic for those older bikes: I put a 4-1 on my Honda CB350F partly because the stock pipes started rusting through. After 2 years! In California!

  3. J Wilson says:

    Since I’m old enough to have seen these (restored) bikes when they were new, I gotta admit my heart still skips a beat when I see a perfectly restored Z1R, R100RS, or original Interceptor, or any of the 4 cyl Hondas from back then.

    Then . . . . I remember the rubber-band frames, choke knobs, and the joy of syncing four carburetors, and all of a sudden, a new CB1100 or Bonneville looks my-t-fine IF I need to scratch that ‘looks old, works new’ itch !

  4. snail says:

    Retro is nice until you need to clean and adjust the carbs. What a pain in the arse.

  5. P. Lehman says:

    Upon seeing that picture this morning, all that came to mind was the cover of I believe Cycle, featuring the newly released four, with the caption, “The Magic Lantern Lights Again” and Bo Derek as the model.

    • MGNorge says:

      That was a magical time I thought. First the CB750 and then the CB500, almost seemed like too much to comprehend at the time. I was in college and happened to see and hear a CB500 soon after and you’d have sworn it was the second coming (I guess it was?) πŸ™‚

  6. Doc says:

    I’ve seen so many “customs” so badly executed, I just have to shake my head. I don’t mind different, even quirky, but sometimes it seems custom is just another term for ugly or hideous. If the bike is fairly intact, restore it. Basket case or mostly incomplete, do what you want. This bike may not be 100%, but it does look good.

  7. John says:

    They have more resale value than these chopped up bikes you see on Craigslist, no matter how proud these wankers are. I do like subtle changes like a nicer paint job, improved suspension, nicer turnsignals, seat, etc. That’s the beauty of the Hawk GT. We can modify the heck out of them and they are only better, cooler and sweeter because they are so modern in many ways, yet 80s in others. So we get rid of the 80s bits. But a 70s bike? Hard to update and easy to destroy.

  8. Mindspin says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Most of these “custom cafe” builds and whatnot are just lazy and awful. When I see an all original or tastefully updated 70’s bike it’s a beautiful thing.

  9. Geoffrey Hill says:

    Saw a pic of a Vincent Black Shadow chopper bout 15 years ago. Guy should have been Bitch Slapped. Resale price will do it too him.

  10. Snake says:

    What do I think?

    “Nine times out of ten, my personal opinion is that older bikes that have been customized are either ugly or non-functional (uncomfortable ergos, for instance), or both.”

    Hallelujah! Sing it brother!

    “Do most customizers ruin stock retro bikes with weird designs?”

    Sadly, yes. Yes, most of the currently popular ones do.

  11. Trent says:

    No bike I’ve ever owned has stayed stock. Even my Ninja 250 had to have a taller windscreen and better tires. And if I could have put frame sliders on it, I would have. My Z750S’ stock seat was horrible; I couldn’t ride it more than 5 minutes. The only non-functional change I ever made was to a cruiser: I changed the exhaust so it would have a nice rumble. Stock restorations are for collectors or due to nostalgia. My bikes need to be rideable, and I haven’t ridden a stock bike yet that didn’t need some kind of improvement. Of course, I don’t own anything newer than a 2006, so things may have changed since then.

    • mickey says:

      I change some stuff on my bikes to suit me while I am riding them, but save all the stock parts which get put back on when the bike is sold.

      Now taking a chop saw to a frame and cutting off tabs and changing the subframe etc, that is practically irreversable. Ruined for life.

  12. Gham says:

    Other than the rear shocks I like it,believe me it looks a lot better than some of the 70’s-80’s versions of the same bike!I saw a ton of them covered in vetter fairings and bags or horrible looking sissy bars and Z handlebars.You really had to live through it, watching Honda SL350’s being chopped to understand it fully.It was a sad time.

  13. beasty says:

    I like both, a well done restoration and a nice custom. There’s a lot of butchering going on out there, but there are also some customizerers putting together some great bikes.

    • Sideshow Bud says:

      Well said, beasty. Customers bring bikes into our shop and have a vision or idea in mind and it is our privilege to turn their concept into a safe, running and road worthy work of art – even if it’s not something we’d ever let our friends see us riding.
      We’ve done pristine restoration, exquisite custom and occasionally thought (quietly to ourselves) that what they ended up with would make a better boat anchor but hey, if you want an anchor…
      Like I told my wife when she surprised me in the shower, “It’s MINE. I’ll wash it as fast as I want πŸ˜‰

  14. Lewis says:

    I won’t make a broad generalization, but I coveted a KZ1000 I saw at a show several years ago with swingarm, forks and rolling stock borrowed from modern sport bikes. The rest of the bike was just beautiful original KZ 1000. I suppose the final product is what I evaluate, not a strict view on the school of thought. Some of the less than 100% correct restorations likely are due to lack of or cost of original or good repro parts. I am currently putting an 89 FZR 600 back on the road and I am finding original bodywork to be quite rare and expensive. Luckily the originals are serviceable, but if I wanted to get correct in that area, who knows if I could find all the pieces and at what price.

  15. Tom says:

    If today I buy and park a brand new Honda or Yamaha street bike, will in the year 2057 it be admired as a beautiful original? A bike that can’t really be improved? Probably. I suspect the lament will be, “All these electric bikes are ugly and without soul.” Like what you got.

  16. Bryana says:

    Hmm. I agree that many bikes from the early 80’s were horrendously ugly. I have a ’73 RD350 and an ’85 RZ350. I “rejuvenated” both of them at reasonable cost and focusing on getting them in dependable road worthy condition. They are an absolute joy to ride. I have a certain reverence for the original designers and I prefer to honor their hard work and dedication to the sport and the art of motorcycling. My Yammy smokers are good examples and so are most Japanese bikes of the 60’s and 70’s. There are a few sporting gems from the 80’s but they are hard to find among the factory “customs” of the day. The “One Show” is in my home town and exemplifies the skinny jeans, unridable, and probably doesn’t run very well kind of custom. Good to look at as you order a can of PBR from a roller derby girl and chit-chat with motorcycle folks but I’ll never own one. I prefer to ride them.

  17. MGNorge says:

    I think I enjoy most stock restorations that return bikes back to looking like they just rolled out of the factory. The bike above, although a nice reminder of those days, comes off as being put back on the road on a budget. Too many details are either missing or are changed cosmetically to the original. Obviously some parts and pieces are simply not available any longer and with that I look for quality replacements that look to maintain the stock look. Likewise, I would have preferred a 4 into 4 exhaust.

  18. Simmy says:

    Every cafe racer inspired bike reflects the skills of their builder. As a result most look like the homemade abomination they are.
    However, the era between 1979 and 1986 had some horrendous motorcycles the manufacturers labelled “custom”. If someone is going to butcher an old bike who cares if they start with one of them?

  19. Norm G. says:

    bloody hell, TANK SEAMS…!!!

    • dino says:

      Might as well throw a beak on the front!

      I did notice those seams, but the side of the tank is mostly flat, so the seam was not as obvious until it curved around the front edge. Newer tank seams look worse if they try to curve the bottom edge, then the horrible seam to “finish” it off.

  20. PN says:

    Yes, I think keeping it near stock is best. These were all remarkably nice-looking bikes when new with good paint and shiny chrome. I changed minor things like seats and exhaust systems and made mechanical upgrades like electronic ignitions and steel-braided lines, but over all kept the original look. I did 5 restos: an XS650, a GS550, a CB400F, an XZ550 Vision, and a GS750.

    • Mr.Mike says:

      I have a 1982 XZ550 Vision that I bought new which remains in 100% stock state. I still love the looks of that bike and wouldn’t change a thing.

  21. Ricardo says:

    I have a ’78 CB550K, got it all rusty but original, cleaned it up, painted and polished the parts and the engine and the only mods I made is a cafe seat, shorter turn signals and handlebars. It looks great with these minor modifications. Just do a lot of polishing of engine parts and it will look great. Also cut off the original mufflers as these were rusted, it sounds and looks great with the shorter original exhaust.

  22. Auphliam says:

    For me personally, it depends on the bike. If it’s an interesting bike that harkens back to memories of bikes I recall from my youth, then it has more visceral impact than just any old bike made new. For example, North of Missoula mentioned the Kawasaki widowmakers. Those bikes bring a real feeling of nostalgia to me because I remember them as the first “bad bikes”. I had friends that rode them. I buried a friend that rode one straight into the woods. Seeing one of those, perfectly restored to original glory, is a beautiful thing to gaze upon.

    Somewhat the same for me with the Honda Fours of the 70s. I love a perfectly restored 750Four, BUT I also really like a perfectly restored period chopper of the same foundation.

    Conversely, I’ve really got no interest in seeing a WWII era Harley or Indian…which is weird because the only bikes I own today are American marques. Go figure πŸ™‚

    Edited to add: The bike above looks great to me. I realize it’s not a “correct” restoration, but does that really matter outside the show/auction circuit?

    If it feels good, do it. If it looks good, ride it.

    • clasqm says:

      “I realize it’s not a β€œcorrect” restoration, but does that really matter outside the show/auction circuit?”

      It doesn’t matter to the guy lucky enough to ride it. Sweet! But it does matter to use terms correctly. “Stock restoration” is a term that actually means something. “Retro-mod” is a term that means something else. If you are going to argue for one (fair enough), don’t use an example from the other.

  23. RET says:

    Where can I buy one in Canada? When I was 17 I bought a new Honda CB400F so this appeals to me.


  24. clasqm says:

    “Most”? Yes, I would agree with “most”. But then you see an eye-wateringly beautiful custom like this one: If Honda brought that out, it would be a case of Shut Up and Take My Money.

    Unfortunately, you cannot have it both ways. There won’t be a market for the truly good customizers like Denny Berg or Richard Pollock or Fred Krugger unless there is also the mass of garage butchers. The large culture of customizing makes it possible for them to earn their living.

    But I do take issue with the custom bike sites that display customs without all the paraphernalia that makes a bike road-legal. Little things like a number plate, indicators, mirrors, side stand …. How does the bike look when you’ve brought it up to the local constabulary’s satisfaction?

    Nice Honda 550, BTW, but as highspeedhamish points out, it’s a resto-mod, not a true restoration. A real stock restoration means using nothing, and I mean nothing, but Genuine Honda Parts.

  25. Curly says:

    I can appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into the real artful customs. What I don’t like at all are the customs that pretend to be rideable but really shouldn’t be. You’ve seen them, no fenders, plank seats and tires three sizes too wide for the rims. The latest craze seems to be enormous dirt tires on bikes that will probably never even see a gravel road. I imagine that most of them get trucked to the photo shoot, ridden around the block once then torn apart for the next “build”. Dirck, what I’d love to see is a road test of one of those abominations just to put some truth to the lie that those bikes are. Please find a bobber with some Firestone sidecar tires on it to test and tell us what a thrill it is to try to ride the thing.

  26. highspeedhamish says:

    If that bike is restored… then Im the king of Spain.

    Let’s see…

    No fork gators came originally.
    Wrong signals.
    Wrong intake boots and automotive hose clamps everywhere (puke).
    Brake calipers were never silver.. always black.
    Replica headlight (Xanadu brand). Not chrome headlight bucket on the original bike.
    Wrong muffler. (Also dented near the end)
    Wrong handle bars.
    No mirrors?
    Handlebar clamp bolts are not allen heads but flanged bolts.
    Wrong steering neck pinch bolt and nylock nut also.
    Missing chrome trim around the seat pan.
    Missing reflectors also.

    Im sick of the skateboard seatpan , upside down bars , skinny jeans , “customs” as well. But this bike isnt restored. Lots of people think if they repaint the thing and make it all legal, (Signals, chain guard, muffler etc) then its “restored”. They are just as bad as the hipsters hacksaw artists im my opinion.

    • mcmotohistory says:

      I don’t think the author meant it was restored to perfect stock. But more of a resto mod with stock style paint.

  27. CrazyJoe says:

    I don’t see many older bikes from the 70’s and 80’s for sale. I have no Idea how much they charge for a restored one 10 or 20 times what they paid for them? Good money in it as long as they don’t do it to a matchless. Not every has an eye for design.

    What I see alot in Houston are bikes with very bad paint jobs. I hope it’s not a new fashion statment.

  28. red says:

    Depends on the bike. This CB550 is hard to beat, a real classic. On the other hand take something like an early 80’s Ascot and basically any mod is an improvement.

  29. Jeremy in TX says:

    The best looking samples of old bikes I’ve seen are all customs. My favorites tend to be iterations of old Guzzis, Yamaha XS650s and Yamaha SR400/500s, but I’ve seen samples of just about every vintage bike that surpasses the OEM bike.

    The ones I like best tend to stay pretty true to the original bike, but I’ve seen some deviate a good bit and still look great. Apply a street tracker it cafe treatment to just about any bike, and it tends to look better to me.

    • mickey says:

      Lol the Yin to my Yang

      I prefer the concours restorations. Anything you do to a classic motorcycle, any alteration, even a mirror or grip change ruins it for me. To take perfectly good classics and butcher them should be punishable in some way lol

      Go to a place like the AMA museum or Barbers and just absorb the beauty of a stock motorcycle, made the way the manufacturer meant it to be. The way the engineers designed it. We are so lucky to have perfect examples of motorcycles up to 120 years old to look at and enjoy. Thank God they weren’t ALL butchered by ” customizers”.

      • Norm G. says:

        re: “Go to a place like the AMA museum or Barbers and just absorb the beauty of a stock motorcycle”

        FIST PUMP…!!!

      • Jeremy in TX says:

        But you don’t see what the engineers wanted to design and build. You see the result of compromise between mass production feasibility and government regulations. The customs are purer in that regard. πŸ™‚

        I do appreciate a purely stock machine, though. Can’t deny that. I wouldn’t change much on a bike personally, but I’ve never seen a stock machine that couldn’t be improved in some way.

  30. north of missoula says:

    I recall when the Honda Four series and Kawasaki H1/H2 widowmakers ruled the streets. Those were the days.

  31. Gary says:

    Old bikes are nice to look at. Nostalgic. They bring back fond memories.

    OWNING an old bike? Not so much.

    Gi’me a modern bike.

  32. Randy in Ridgecrest says:

    I think a well done Yami XS650 Street Tracker is an order of magnitude better than stock. And there are some really nice KZ650 customs out there. But Honda did style their fours really well and it’s hard to improve on that, and easy to make them worse.

  33. Denny says:

    A gorgeous piece; joy to look at!

  34. Starmag says:

    +1000 Dirck. Resale reflects the same.

    I’d rather have a bone stock Super Four than 99% of customs. Shame they didn’t make it to the USA. CB400SF, CB1300SF, and they should have made a CB800SF. Modern enough to pass emissions etc., but retro styling more or less.

    I have a bone stock silver and blue 82 CB900F. It took $2K of fetting to make reliable. Old bikes have downsides also.

  35. KenHoward says:

    I think it might have to do with age – the commenter’s, not the bike’s. I’ve read so many comments about what I consider simply a standard motorcycle, referring to it being “retro.” God, how I’ve grown to hate that word, used in a negative way that implies the builder (or manufacturer) has run out of ideas. My opinion is that a bike like that beautiful CB550F should be considered a standard (or functional) motorcycle, not a retro styling statement.

  36. Grover says:

    The current crop of retros always lack something in their design. The original is always better. Also, someone should tell the Triumph designers that fake carb covers on their “retro” are not fooling anyone.

    • Charlie Allnut says:

      If you are reading this then you are worse than me for obsessing over stale postings. But anyhow, how the heck can a plastic maggot, aka Honda CX be in any way shape or form better than the custom scrambler or cafe or tracker version, it is just not possible. The original in this case is never better.

  37. bad Chad says:

    “Do most customizers ruin stock retro bikes with weird designs?”

    Yes, absolutely! Once in a long while they pull off something, but the vast majority are less than the original.

  38. TunaPete says:

    Tired of cafes, clip-ons, et cetera? Not me. I’m still relieved that the most recent chopper phase came to a merciful end. πŸ˜‰

  39. jabe says:

    I for one appreciate the stock restoration more than the custom bike most of the time. There are some exceptions, once in awhile a builder addresses the function of the machine as well as the style and comes up with a decent ride. But in my eyes, most of these custom rigs are rolling junk, built for the sole purpose for the rider to be looked at. Maybe he didn’t get enough attention as a kid, maybe all the tattoo’s he got didn’t get him the attention he starves for, whatever the case it was a lot of money spent just to look like a clown.

    Its like an epidemic. It has made the price of some previously unwanted machines now go through the roof. I would love to restore an old machine but when I cruise thru craigslist and see a long list of unfinished “customs” that have been cut, chopped, jerry rigged in some manner by an idiot who watched to many biker programs and over estimated his abilities, I almost want to barf. A lot of good fixer-uppers are now relegated to the junkyard because of this.

  40. Bandit says:

    I Like it when it stays close to the original except for minor performance upgrades i.e. pipes etc. and upgrading the turn signals and tail lights.

  41. Kent says:

    The older a bike gets, the harder and more expensive it gets to be purely original and also a lot more rare. In the long run, purely original will win, then period correct customizations and finally the one off customs.

  42. Ed says:

    If I see one more of these things with clipons, a brat seat, billet custom gauges, I’ll puke. I do think the above is a sign of the future. Maybe the trend will become more like the current crop of restomods with automobiles. Older looks, with some subtle modern hardware for comfort – better brakes, suspension, tires, leave the looks and the motors (mostly)alone.

  43. WSHart says:

    Personally I would much rather spend an evening talking with Sophia Loren rather than someone pretending to be her. So…Yes. The original of anything or anyone speaks for itself rather than impersonating something or someone they are not.

    And the majority of “customizers” are anything but. They’re selling butt-jewelry.

  44. My2cents says:

    Folks have the freedom to express themselves in many ways, custom builds can be like art. Some forms may not please the eye of all who view, like art. I do find restored motorcycles extremely interesting and have always had a weakness for a CB 400 with that stock exhaust header like no other. Once the owner of a 750K6 seeing one today reminds me of just how advanced that motorcycle was. I am looking forward to the review of the Triumph Bobber which will bring Brando cool to a new generation and perhaps some old generation riders to enjoy. All the fun without all the wrench time.

  45. azi says:

    I think it depends upon the condition of the bike, intended use, and the potential historical/cultural value.

    Basket case that would otherwise be scrapped: stripped bobber / cafe racer is fine.
    Regular rider: close to original, but improved electrical, suspension, & brake components OK.
    Show pony: concours original.

    It’s a tragedy when a valued bike in reasonable condition gets butchered. I die a little every time I see one of those horrid CB750 cafe chops with the subframe sawed off and ace bars, but everything else on the chassis left unchanged.

  46. Butch says:

    Nothing wrong with paying north of 10 grand for a modern “retro” with fuel injection and reliability.
    I’ve owned several modern motorcycles.
    But there will always be room in my garage for a vintage bike and in my case several.
    Not many things more rewarding than bringing an old neglected classic back from the grave.
    Carbs, drum brakes, lack of plastic, spoke wheels.
    Slow and heavy ? Yes.
    But for me, the grin factor makes it all worth it.

  47. John D'Orazio says:

    Yes. Much better.

  48. j_cott says:

    Depends on the custom. I’ve seen some excellent customs that surpass the original because either they’ve been refined to a level that mass production does not make possible at a mass-consumable price point, or because technology of the time did not allow it. Some of my favorite customs have been upgraded with modern running gear to make the handling much more enjoyable, or change the intent of the bike – there are some amazing Virago customs out there.

    Other customs are pretty “meh” – either bland, mundane, or a disservice to the original.

    The downside is that retro customs are the rage right now, and in order to feed the appetite for media content, they all get coverage – not just the exceptional ones. Kind of like the chopper crazes of previous decades.

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