Built on the Side: Yamaha TW200 — IronClad

Note: I almost always ask people I’m interviewing for jobs about what projects they are doing on the side. Interesting answers are evidence of a mind at work — and in the best cases help connect important dots for me about an applicant.In the spirit or reciprocity, I figured I’d write up a few of my own side-builds.

In 2015, my wife and I had been back in Brooklyn for two years and I was preparing to begin a new professional chapter that would require daily commute from our place in DUMBO, Brooklyn, up to the company’s headquarters in Williamsburg.

For the BK uninitiated, that trip is probably an hour+ on the subway, or 15-ish minutes up and around the Brooklyn Navy Yard by way of the Hipster-highway, Kent Ave.

Getting up an hour early to go 4 miles was unimaginable, so I decided to dust off my tools and purpose-build a motorcycle for the Navy Yard commute, drawing on inspiration from the demands of the drive and the Yard itself.


Inspiration

The road between our apartment in Brooklyn and my work is both famously picturesque and bleeding awful. DUMBO is frequently used by movie studios as a setting for generic “period New York,” which means it is a filmic tapestry of stone and wrought iron. It also means the ground is covered in tooth-shattering pave, areas of old loose asphalt, and a steady stream of freshly-developing potholes, some big enough to swallow a cab tire.

My stop-and-go route wraps around the brooklyn water front, which meant to be any fun at all, I had to build up a bike that felt snappy and nimble between 0 and 40mph.

The Navy Yard has the sort of mystical appeal of a decrepit grand dame mansion behind an overgrown fence. The facility, which takes up a huge section of Brooklyn’s East River waterfront, is filled with industrial buildings from the early 1900s, when it was the USN shipyard that launched the Great White Fleet — incidentally about the same time my great-grandfather served as an engineer there. It’s captivating.

I set out to build a bike that would look and feel at home in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and environs, and that would easily and safely traverse the difficult route between home and work.

Constraints

  • I was living in an one-bedroom apartment with another person, and a normal-sized elevator.
  • I had no garage or covered parking.
  • I only had battery powered tools.

The Build

The donor I started with (and would leave mechanically nearly-original) was the robust, reliable and charismatic Yamaha TW200, sometimes called the TrailWay.

The TW200 has remained largely unchanged since the 70’s, and comes from the factory with wide wheels and large, knobby tires, way overblown suspension for a bike of this weight, and a famously bulletproof 200cc carb’d Yamaha single-cylinder motor. It’s a popular selection for ranchers to use in herding, and hunters to ride logging and game trails — which is basically analogous to my commute.

First step — stripping it down:

  • Removed and discarded all cosmetic plastic paneling
  • Took bike down to engine on rolling frame
  • Removed fenders (plastic)
  • removed all lighting
  • de-tabbed frame
  • removed factory airbox & filter.
  • removed factory electronics tray (part of airbox). I took the bike down to the frame, engine and suspension to start work. I liked the silver paint on the frame, so I de-tabbed and left it mostly alone. The modern TW200 is covered in seemingly endless layers of Power Ranger-looking plastic body pieces. All of that came off too. Then came removal of everythign else — leaving a rolling frame, engine and carb.

Then building up:

As it turns out, there’s a small community of folks in Japan obsessed with turning TW200s into crazy retro street machines. That that menat for this bike was that, while I had to choose carefully, there were aftermarket parts available.

I added new polished aluminum fenders, a lucas-ish tail light, K&N filters, and aftermarket shallow battery box and a a shallow-dish headlamp.

Next — The Tank:

I wanted this bike to both be nondescript and to stand out on inspection. For that reason, I chose to keep it in tones of grey, metal and black. But for the tank, I wanted to bring in a little flash of gold and something that evoked the heyday of the Navy Yard.

I stripped the factory tank down to the bare steel and began seeking inspiration — I ended up gathering together typography and images from the early 1900s, specifically

The Navy Yard main gate as it looked around the time my great-grandfather served there. If you’ve been to DUMB) recently, the same structure still stands.

After some sketching and a few emails, I ended up sending materials to the folks at Golden West Sign Arts. I wanted a sign-painter as all of the character of the bike would have to come through int he typography. Some sketches and the end result below.

An early rev.
Where we ended up — hand-letters with slightly more embellishment than initial versions. Ended up liking the machine-turned gold leaf.

End Result

What did I learn for next time?

  1. Building a motorcycle without a garage or indoor space to work is hard.
  2. My wife loves me and wants me to be happy — evidenced by 1/3 of a motorcycle sitting in our living room in pieces for several months.
  3. You can do almost anything — including cutting metal with fire — on a NY city street and no one even bats an eye.
  4. If you leave a motorcycle chassis without a tank, seat, oil, handlebars or lights chained up and covered outside your apartment, it still might get stolen.

More seriously, I learned a ton about how the components fit together and in retrospect I feel like this was very much a rough draft for a larger project I would take about a year after I completed IronClad.