Cheap Tricks

Words and Photos: John Gunnell

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Unlike Roy Orbison, Tim Buttles has never gotten into “working for the man.” He hasn’t had a 9-to-5 job for as long as anyone can remember. He spends his days tinkering, going to flea markets or auctions, chasing bargains he sees in classified ads or riding around to see what garage doors with secrets inside are left open. Tim never spent a dime to get what a nickel could buy.

Tim is a “bike guy” (as well as a “car guy” and “plane guy”) and he has a garage next to his house that serves as a private space for all of his hobbies. It is where he makes the rules. His shop is no “Hot Rod TV” set, but has probably seen more builds than Orange County Choppers. Tim describes it as “the place where I do my projects.” His workbench is an ancient hospital bed with wrought iron legs.  His tools came from garage sales and Goodwill stores.

Tim’s projects have ranged from rebuilding a ’49 Plymouth flathead six (for $91) to the construction of a three-wheel motorcycle that looks like a miniature jet plane. Tim has built airplanes that were featured on the cover of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s magazine Sport Aviation. But Tim doesn’t bask in media attention. He’s more into finding inexpensive ways to do projects.

In the summer, Tim spends a lot of time on motorcycles because bikes are cheaper to operate than cars. He looks around for bikes that need repairs and he goes over the mechanicals and does a little customizing, too. Tim’s nephew Scott Severson has a side-line business buying “rebuilder” Harleys and fixing them up. Tim takes the parts that Scott is tossing out and works his magic on them.

Tim takes dented gas tanks, pounds them out and makes fender covers out of them. On his latest project, he cut a car spring in half and used the half spring to make a “springer” front end for Yamaha XS650. Using similar tricks throughout his build, Tim made the Yamaha resemble a vintage 1930s bike. The XS650’s Triumph-like vertical twin engine adds to the bike’s old-fashioned look.

Tim is an expert at wet sanding and buffing out old paint as well as spraying new paint. He knows how to make vehicles look great without re-spraying them. Tim can fix stuff that professional mechanics give up on and he can get broken machines running again for a fraction of what professional shops  charge. A few years ago, he came across a Kawasaki Nomad 1500 motorcycle lying on its side in the garage of a man who had been quoted a very large repair bill to fix the bike. Tim bought the big “Cow” for $500, took it apart, devised a solution and soon had it running again for “a couple of bucks.”

Tim says he spent all of $350 buying his current Yamaha XS650 and improving its appearance. He swapped in a Harley fork setup, hand crafted the fenders and designed the springer front end himself. He even made his own fake suede seat cover and cut the edges to make his own fringe. To give it the look of a late 1930 Harley, he gave the bike a two-tone paint job in red and cream. The bike has chrome crash bars and a custom bright metal exhaust system.

When Tim builds a vehicle it runs as good as it looks and the XS650 is no exception. He has =been riding it around to recent shows and cruise nights. Chance are, he’ll eventually run into someone with more money than talent. He’ll get a good offer, sell the XS650 and move onto his next project.



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