They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But it can also be worth two years; that’s how long Sean McFarland spent building a 1981 Yamaha XS400. The picture Sean initially assessed, however, was that of a XS650 bobber. Confused? Let me explain.
In 2016, Sean came across a photo of a custom XS650 and wanted to customize his own. “I just saw it was a Yamaha and knew I could build one,” Sean remembers. Since he’d never worked on a bike before, he knew he had quite the hill to climb. Sean does, however, have tons of experience customizing cars and trucks. He also has an arsenal of tools at his disposal. “My father has been a mechanic his entire life and has been buying tools forever,” explains Sean. “So now I have access to boxes of tools, and I’m forever thankful for them.”
Even armed with such confidence in his wrenching abilities, Sean knew his limits. As a result, he stuck to doing “the basic, easy $#!+” after finding a similar, but smaller, model compared to the XS650—a 400. This basic, easy $#!+ included “taking everything off,” cutting it up “a little,” and then, most importantly, riding.
Sean also knew something else: he wanted to make his XS400 look “super old and rustic, as though it had been pulled out of a barn sitting for 15 years but still ran.” Obviously, this aesthetic could have been achieved by actually finding and restoring such a bike. But, again, Sean was aware that his car- and truck-building skills wouldn’t help him with restoring a vintage bike.
“I would have loved to customize a vintage bike,” Sean admits, “but since I was just getting into bikes, I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew.” The XS400 proved more than palatable. He created the old, beat-up beauty look that he desired with a simple procedure. Using a rag and a wicker broom, he applied additional black paint to the already black bike.
However, before Sean used any paint or brooms, he first needed to build the bike, which he did in his two-door, four-car garage. That might sound spacious enough, but he sets aside one of the sections in his garage for cars and the other for bikes. On the bike side, he stores three other motorcycles. And don’t forget the “wall of tools” there, too, which takes up more very useful space.
Sean adopted an easy-does-it strategy for each phase of the build. During the maintenance stage, he started simply by soaking the worn-out carbs and replacing the engine gaskets and brake pads. For tensioning, he ventured under the body panel to adjust the clutch and bars. Next, he bore into the dowel-like piece where the brake rod arm connects to the rod, shaving the internal threads. “I also ran a bolt into it as tight as I could so that the rear brake had enough tension to actually work,” he adds.
He also had to move the voltage regulator wires, since the chain had been chewing away at them. He first took the regulator off, cut and crimped the wires, then turned the regulator around 180 degrees so the wiring would run up the back side of the battery box to the connector behind the vintage license plate. “A few zip-ties keep them in place,” Sean adds with a laugh.
Like during the maintenance phase, Sean took it easy—at least initially—until things got a little more involved. For his first mod, he cut off the portion of his seat right behind the rider back brace. “I wanted something easy to break myself in when I actually began customizing the bike,” Sean explains. While ostensibly simple, this chop started a chain reaction of other correlated mods. For example, he had to buy new foam and fabric for the bobbed seat before molding everything together. Next, Sean needed to remove the seat’s leftover brackets and bars since it now took up less space on the frame.
Sean made more work for himself again after installing a new license plate and taillight since they got in the way of the license plate holder. He had two choices: get a new taillight or start fabbing. He chose the latter. “I didn’t feel like waiting for a new part to come in the mail,” Sean laughs. “I just worked with what I had.”
With the tools he did have, Sean cut off the faceplate of the holder and welded on a new bracket with a plate at the top so it could also support the taillight. While he left the stock bracket on the bike, he straightened the part of it that had been bent inward.
Sean also had to install Mongoose bicycle pegs after breaking off the original ones when coming in too hot on a deep curve. “I just put on what I had lying around, and they work perfectly,” he says.
Other parts, including the handlebars and exhaust, may have come with the bike, but they still required some work. Sean drilled new holes in the exhaust pipes to improve sealing and to more effectively secure the exhaust with additional bolts. As for the handlebars, he didn’t like their angle or length, so he adjusted the plate and reinstalled them on top of another set of adjustable bars. “It’s not the safest, but the entire bike isn’t that safe anyway,” he says. Despite all this, he plans on installing his own exhaust and bars.
Now that the project is essentially completed, Sean has dubbed his bike Alaska after Looking for Alaska by John Green. As we learned, the Alaska being looked for in the novel is a character named Alaska Young, and the one doing the looking is the protagonist Miles “Pudge” Halter. During this search, Pudge is taken on a spiritual journey through his own “labyrinth of suffering.”
Knowing this, the Yamaha XS650 picture that inspired all this may have been worth two years of building, but it was also worth a spiritual journey that, while filled with its own trials and tribulations, led Sean to the creation of a sweet Yamaha bobber. RC