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Pannier Racks on a Vintage Motorcycle

Racks mounted and loaded with gear

Adventure travel is my favorite thing, and close second to that is vintage motorcycles. So, I figure, “What the heck! Why not combine the two.” One of my jobs is as editor for Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Magazine, the official publication of the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club of North America. This club is composed of over 3,500 members spread across North America (and a few other countries as well). The “VJMC” started back in the seventies but soon grew too big for one small group to organize, so it split into three geographical groups all from the same root—VJMC NA, VJMC Australia/New Zealand, and VJMC in the UK. If you love old Japanese motorcycles, you owe to yourself to look into joining one or two or all. These clubs put on events all over the world with VJMC NA hosting or participating in many events across the continent including rallies with or without bike shows, group rides, both major and minor events all over North America.

One of my duties as editor is to head out to as many as possible to make sure we have sufficient and enough high-quality photographs and to write up stories about them and collect and publish stories coming in from other members a field representatives who’ve attended those I could not reach. I ride to all the events I cover personally and whenever possible I do so on a vintage motorcycle. Currently I am riding my 1978 Suzuki GS550e to these. Because so many events are far from central Florida where I live, the rides to them often involve overnight stays and being both naturally and out of necessity a frugal man, I try to camp as much as possible along the way. The camping bit meant being able to carry a bit of kit: tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, clothes, camera gear, etc. And, on top of that, I was sponsoring a new event for the VJMC where we would all ride in and meet for a weekend of riding and tomfoolery and I would need to carry all that stuff and more.

That bought a bit of a problem to the surface. While for most modern adventure bikes all sort of accessories and especially racks are readily available. For the vintage bikes, not so much. Meaning they are, apart from occasionally finding a rear rack on eBay, virtually non-existent, at least the kind I need to accommodate my soft luggage, which I use on my modern and vintage bikes. Having completed non-cosmetic restoration of my GS550 and it having proved itself on a ride from Florida to North Bay, Ontario, Canada, and back, I started thinking about how I could make racks for this bike that would hold my Ortlieb QRL (quick-release) waterproof bags (and any others I may graduate to, including hard panniers). My Suzuki did not have a rear rack, and while I could find one on eBay easily enough it would cost a bit of coin and, besides, what’s the fun in that? If I was going to make pannier racks I could just as well make a rear rack.

So, the wheels started spinning and sketches were drawn on scraps of paper only to be thrown away and replaced by others. Most of the time it is easy enough to design a front mount to the shocks (as I had done when I built racks for my modern Bonneville) but the Suzuki did not have a convenient place for the rear mount. Where the grab handle for putting the bikes on its center stand would work well, it is only on the left side and I didn’t want to weld something to the frame on this original bike. But luckily the rear turn signals mount on the end of the subframe ends and I could attach under the rear mount under the signal struts. The rear rack would extend quite a bit past this spot so I would have to come up with something to make it strong.

When I did my racks from my modern bike, I had the services of a top-notch welder just a couple blocks away, making it easy to build a part, ride over to his place, tack weld it on, ride home, build the next bit, and so on until done, when he permanently welded everything together off the bike. Unfortunately, my friend has died since the work on the Bonnie. I have a very small stick welder, but I know from having tried that it was not up to welding the steel I needed to weld for the racks. I waited for a minor windfall and bought a flux-core/mig welder. Luckily, I had another bike in the shop at the time and the owner wanted a very simply rack built, while I had the bike (a Honda VTX1800 cruiser) and was doing rewiring anyway, just to hold off the traditional leather saddlebags from the shocks. That little welding job paid for half the cost of the welder and made what I wanted to do much less expensive, although I had to teach myself the idiosyncrasies of the new welder. I had experience with the little welder so the transition was not too bad and although I took pains on my friend’s bike to make everything look pretty, on my GS all I cared about was strength.

Another challenge I faced is that the handheld tubing bender I had used on the Bonneville racks had failed miserably at the very end of the job and I had to find a new and better bender. I had my chance at a huge fleamarket held at our local “Flywheelers” event. The Flywheelers are old iron aficionados of tractors and steam engines and the like and the fleamarket there is full of mechanical devices and tools. I walked away with a nice strong hand held bender that would do the half-inch tubing I intended to use, and for a mere $15!

Back at the shop I laid out and bent all the tubing for the VTX and mounted a pair of nice looking black painted racks to it. Then I turned to my GS. The new bender, while much more substantially built than my previous Chinese-built pot-metal bender, worked pretty much in the same way so I easily was able to bend the tubing into the side frames rectangles. Where the ends met each other at the bottom of the rectangle I inserted some scrap solid steel rod into the tubing spanning the two ends. I squeezed the rectangle closed with clamps and then welded the seam all around, trapping the solid bit inside.

Pannier (side) "rectangles" on right with brackets in middle and rear rack "rectangle" with crossmembers, ready for welding.

After making the side rectangles, I made another one for the rear rack, inserting cross pieces to form a base for whatever I was going to set on there. I made the rectangle then cut tubing to length and using a grinder and files made a concavity on the ends of the cross pieces that would match the round profile of the tubing they would attach to. I welded all that up and moved on to the next step.

I made brackets that would fit the mounting points on the bike and then welded tubing sections to those that were bent to meet up with the pannier’s rectangles without interfering with the mounting system of the bags (a set of bottom hooks and two latches that clipped over the top rail). Once the brackets were made and welded, they went on the bike and were tacked to the frame one by one until all were done. Then much grinding was done to clean up all the joints after making sure all of them were strong. Once the top brackets were completed, I made a strut and bracket for the bottom that would reach from the foot pegs and attach to roughly the middle of the bottom rail. This strut would be mounted to the pivot pin of the pillion pegs, with a little spacer added made out of very short pieces of tubing to allow the pegs to fold up and down without impacting the strut.

First step was to tack weld the front bracket in place, followed by the rear.

Next was to weld the lower strut to the pannier rack.

With all that done, I had a working set of pannier racks and a rear rack sitting waiting for some form of attachment. I did not want to rely on just one strut and bracket to hold the rack, as the baggage weight would be cantilevered over the tail light. I decided to create another strut that would attach to the underside of the side rails of the rack to offer some support for the downward weight of anything stored on the rack. With everything worked out I started the work of welding, grinding, testing, welding, and grinding again, until all was strong and at least presentable.

With rear rack attached. The diagonal strut from it to the pannier rack will help take some of the load of the rear rack and transfer it to the pannier rectangle, so not all the strain will be on the front vertical rear rack support.

The completed rack off the bike, waiting grinding and refining followed by priming and painting.

While, ideally, I would have had the rack powder coated, it was not within my means, so I rattle can primed and painted the completed rack and mounted it to the bike. There was enough flexibility in the tubing to stretch it over the shock bolts and I carefully worked the rack into place, tightening bolts as I went, being careful to not mar the new and still somewhat soft paint.

The painted rack mounted to the Suzuki

Finally, after waiting a few days for the paint to really set up, I wrapped the top rail of the pannier rectangles with stretchable rubber tape to eliminate rattling at the mounts and to help preserve the paint there.

With a little patience, ingenuity, some hard work, and careful thought, I had a system that could carry all the stuff I might need on a long-distance ride without it being in the way or being hopelessly tangled up in a web of bungee cords. This rack can be removed by unbolting it in six places, revealing a stock vintage bike underneath it all. By the time I wrapped the project up, I was doing some decent welding—a handy tool to have in your arsenal. And maybe even a little cottage industry can evolve from it, paying back the cost of the welder and materials eventually, and allowing others who have the adventure travel bug and who also ride vintage bikes an option for carrying their kit without having to resort to a modern ADV bike.

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