Date:8 December 2010
Building your own motorcycle from scratch is an impressive enough feat in itself. But when it involves no plans, a stationary industrial diesel engine, scrapped car parts and stainless steel utensils raided from your spouse’s pot cupboard, the project escalates from the simply challenging to the realm of minor miracle.
Conjuring up images of your average small-town parish priest, one generally visualises genteel tea parties, pulpits and starched dog collars – not a man of the cloth decked out in black leather, straddling a two-wheeled mean machine at raucous biker rallies. Then again, Father Adrian Knight is not your average clergyman. Currently serving as Anglican parish priest for the Robertson district, he’s also chaplain for the Ulysses Motorcycle Association’s Western Cape chapter. Their motto, “Grow old disgracefully”, makes perfect sense when you consider the organisation’s membership: it’s exclusively for bikers in the over-40s category (although to be honest, they’re not especially disgraceful).
Before Knight bought a crash-damaged Honda Golf Wing and converted it into a chopper at the age of 39 he was a pretty conventional biker. However, at that point, the lurking nonconformist began to emerge. He extended the forks, fitted a monoshock rear arm, bolted on a single-seater saddle from a Vespa scooter, added “ape hangers” (custom handlebars) and forward-set footpegs. He recalls: “It was terrible to ride, but man, did it look good!”
On arriving at his first biker rally, the motorcycle’s throttle stuck, causing the engine to rev out of control. Needless to say, it was an impressive debut: the irrepressible cleric not only walked off with the “most despicable arrival” prize, but also won an award for the best “Rat Class” entry. It was about this time that Knight had a flash of inspiration: he would build a diesel bike.
Recalling that Yanmar produced a V-twin diesel, Knight began trawling the Net in search of a cheaper imitation, saying “I eventually found a Chinese firm that made a 15 kW V-twin that was going for about R4 300, so I ordered one. I couldn’t lose on the deal. When I told a guy at our local co-op about it, he offered me R12 000 on the spot.”
Working to a design loosely based on the classic 1935 Indian Sports Scout. Knight realised that the driveshaft was on the wrong side, so he removed the flywheel and switched it over. He then installed a ring gear to be driven by the starter motor, and a belt drive linking the engine to the clutch.
For the gearbox, he modified a unit from an old Mercedes-Benz, explaining: “Some car gearboxes are actually quite small once you’ve removed the bell housing.” It required a fair bit of work, though. First, he had to mount a bearing on the input shaft so it would accommodate the clutch from an old Honda 750. He then had to modify both the bearing and clutch to join them together. Finally, he fitted a sprocket on the opposite side of the gearbox to drive the rear wheel. “It took me six months to get it sorted out. But it’s good engineering; I’m confident it will work.”
Intending to stay as faithful as possible to the original Indian design, he was faced with the challenge of keeping the rigid-profile tail (those old bikes scorned wimpy suspension systems) without sacrificing every vestige of comfort. His solution: fabricate a swing arm and fit a rubber ball taken from a Mini’s suspension system. Inspiration for the front suspension was derived from modern BMW bikes, but instead of using a shock absorber and spring, Knight decided to use a leaf spring linked to a swingarm. He comments: “As far as I know, this has never been tried before, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t work.”
For the hydraulic rear brake, he fitted a drum taken from an old VW Passat and a master cylinder from an old Mercedes. The brake fluid reservoir was fashioned from an inverted stainless steel salt cellar, with a brass knob to make it look more “aesthetically pleasing”.
Deciding that he didn’t want to deal with rusted chrome, he opted for stainless steel components on other parts of the bike, sourcing much of it from “surplus” kitchen utensils. He used butter dishes for the side mirrors, a dip tray as a flywheel cover, and a meat dish for the instrument console – and those are only the utensils he can remember. Says Knight: “Do you know a really good source for stainless steel? Try looking in your wife’s pot cupboard. Pat (his long-suffering wife) is still convinced that there’s a tokoloshe or something in our house, stealing her stuff.”
It remains a work in progress. His next job is to fabricate a fuel tank from glass fibre and design an exhaust system, using mild steel with a stainless steel sleeve. That accomplished, he’ll put everything together and try to start the engine. He plans to wrap up his bike project once he’s completed his straw bale house in about a year’s time. “I’ve really enjoyed this project. If the motor runs, it’s a bonus. As far as I’m concerned, this bike is a work of art.”
* If you would like to contact Father Adrian Knight, you can e-mail him at
Read the full story in the January 2011 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine – on sale 20 December.