Gary Nixon Tribute Triumph
Claimed power: 50hp @ 7,000rpm (est.)
Top Speed: 110mph (est.)
Engine: 649cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 71mm x 82mm bore and stroke
Weight (wet): 390lb (177kg)
Fuel capacity: 5.25gal (20ltr)
When Todd Van Dorn dragged a 1972 Triumph T120RV engine and several boxes of parts—including the stock Triumph oil-bearing spine tube frame and swingarm — to Union Motorcycle Classics in Nampa, Idaho, he thought he wanted a bobber. What he got was something entirely different.
Union Motorcycle Classics are specialized builders of road racing-style machines based on British and Italian platforms, and for the past five years the company has turned out some exquisitely detailed projects. But they all have a certain style, and the bobber isn’t among their repertoire.
Mike Watanabe is one of the partners behind Union Motorcycle Classics, along with Luke Ransom. Together, the pair collaborates on the builds, each working within their area of expertise. Mike handles design, fiberglass bodywork and metal fabrication. Luke takes care of the mechanicals and also does metal fabrication.
The roots of Union Motorcycle Classics go back to 1998, when Mike and his friend Bret Edwards formed Glass From The Past, or GFTP. At the time, they were a pair of young kids obsessed with British road race bikes from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, machines often outfitted with fiberglass fairings, seats and gas tanks. “The trouble was,” Mike explains, “that bodywork was unobtanium, and we couldn’t afford it if we found it.”
So instead of trying to find and buy what they wanted, Mike and Bret decided to reproduce their own fairings and gas tanks. With a background in fine arts and graphic design, Mike had a talent for shaping plugs, which are the forms to make the molds that will eventually yield fiberglass components. Bret, meanwhile, proved adept at working with fiberglass, and GFTP was created.
Skip forward to seven years ago. Mike created his own custom motorcycles using GFTP pieces, and while displaying one of his creations at a local motorcycle happening, Luke approached him and asked where the bike came from and who had supplied the bodywork. “I gave him my card, and he came around asking what fairing would work on his Yamaha RD60,” Mike recalls. “I sold him a Dunstall-style fairing, and he later showed up with the fairing neatly and cleanly mounted on the bike. We started talking, and I learned Luke was not only a talented fabricator, but he’s also a factory-trained mechanic.”
Mike and Luke worked together on several projects, and they began helping local motorcyclists by making one-off components for individual builds. That’s when Luke suggested they open a shop, and Mike knew the ideal location — one where there’d be little, if any, overhead.
Mike grew up on a dairy farm, and his father still owns the property. An old barn on the property, once suitably renovated, became the home of Union Motorcycle Classics. It’s the barn you see in the photos here.
A few years ago, Luke got a call to look at an old Triumph. It was in pieces, and Luke told the owner that Union would be happy to help put it back together. Instead, the owner listed the project on Craigslist. Todd Van Dorn had been looking for a vintage Triumph, and he bought the basket case machine — which he then took to Union. Luke was surprised to see the Triumph not only in new hands, but in his shop.
“We asked what Todd was looking to do with the bike,” Mike explains. “And that’s when he said, ‘I’d like to build a bobber.’ I told him that’s not what we do.” Todd picks up the story: “I went down to Union and talked to Luke and Mike about what I wanted to do, and that’s when I got captivated by the old fairings and all of the old parts in the shop,” he says. “They had several of their café-style bikes on display and I instantly changed my mind — I wanted to get involved with them because of their sheer passion, so I said, ‘How about a café racer?’”
That was more in line with Union’s style, although machines rolling out of the shop’s doors go well beyond what is the café norm. “I told Todd I’d been dreaming of building a Gary Nixon tribute bike, and I thought his Triumph parts and pieces might work for such a project,” Mike says.
Todd went home and researched the late Gary Nixon, who was famous for racing 500cc Triumphs. He was 1967 and 1968 AMA Grand National Champion, and won the 1967 Daytona 200 on a Triumph 500. “That clinched it for me,” Todd says. “I was honored that they suggested the Nixon-tribute was the bike for me — actually, I was flabbergasted, and said yes immediately.”
Mike draws up a design brief for every UMC project. “That way we don’t drift; we don’t end up with modern upside down forks on a 1952 Matchless — and I know people do that, and that’s cool, but it’s not what we do,” Mike explains. In his brief for Todd’s T120RV, Mike mused about what would have happened had Triumph “done something dumb like race their oil-in-frame Bonneville without having changed any of the recognizable bodywork from the race bikes of the late 1960s.”
Key to Todd’s Triumph is the gas tank. GFTP’s Bret Edwards is something of a Gary Nixon fanatic. He’s been documenting Triumph race bikes for years, and he’d always wanted to recreate the distinctive, and very rare, gas tank from one of Nixon’s original mid-1960s race bikes. Although Mike said he could likely get very close to the correct proportions, he really needed to see one in person to get it right. That’s when Bret found the correct tank on eBay, incorrectly identified as a Dunstall item. With the tank in their possession, Bret and Mike were able to recreate the vessel.
Instead of making a replica tank to fit pre-oil-in-frame Triumphs only, they modified the bottom of the tank to fit the wider backbone of the later oil-in-frame spine-tube chassis. It seems these frames, and subsequently the motorcycles that use them, have been saddled with something of a stigma because of increased height and weight. Beginning in 1971, both BSA and Triumph 650cc motorcycles shared the oil-in-frame platform. Although BSA was in production for just two more years, Triumph 650cc and later 750cc twins continued to use the oil-in-frame chassis, right up to the end of production in 1983.
It was Mike who got started building Todd’s bike, installing the fiberglass tank and a highly modified GFTP seat. The frame needed to be shortened, so the old seat hoop was removed and a new hoop was bent and welded in place. The larger, longer tank covered the oil filler neck in the spine tube, so Luke blanked off the stock location. He then fabricated a filler tube, welded to the spine tube and running back and up to a horseshoe opening at the front of the seat pan. The oil is still carried in the frame: What looks like an aluminum oil tank under the seat actually carries the battery and other electrical pieces.
Up front, a handcrafted upper triple tree replaced the stock Triumph unit. Although machined from billet aluminum, Luke massaged the new piece to make it look like cast aluminum. The new top tree allows the fork tubes to be pulled through and clamped, giving a lower ride height. Magura clip-ons feature early Amal controls, polished to a fine luster. The keyed ignition switch was frenched into the side of the flat Lucas headlight shell, accessible by reaching in front of the left clip-on and under the dash. The fork lowers are stock for 1972, while an earlier 1969 full-width Triumph/BSA twin-leading-shoe brake and hub were modified to suit.
The rear swingarm is stock and it’s sprung by Red Wing shocks. The conical rear hub is stock, and cooling holes and screens have been added to both it and the front hub. The hubs are laced to shouldered Excel rims (WM2 18-inch front and WM3 18-inch rear) and are shod with Heidenau tires. With wheels under the bike, Mike modified a stock GFTP lower belly pan to fit. Luke fabricated the intricate rearset foot controls, and even made his own plug for the sandcast 6061 T6 aluminum brake lever. After casting, it was heat treated, machined and polished — there’s only one lever like it, and it’s on Todd’s Triumph.
To create the signature Nixon exhaust, with the low right side and high left side for Daytona’s high-speed left turns, Luke ordered stainless steel exhaust tubing and bends from Cone Engineering in Los Alamitos, California. He stitched together the headers, even putting a kink in the left side tube so the primary chaincase inspection cap would still be accessible for checking chain tension or adding oil. The mufflers are also from Cone Engineering, and Luke made his own heat shields.
As purchased, Todd was told the 649cc Triumph T120RV engine — R indicates Bonneville, and V a 5-speed gearbox — had been rebuilt and was ready to run. Apart from tidying up a few loose ends, Luke hasn’t done any work to the powerplant.
With the project ready for paint, Mike sought Todd’s input. He gave Todd two options — blue, or blue. “Todd picked light blue, and it’s not where I would have gone because the Nixon bikes were darker blue,” Mikes says. “But the light blue turned out great, and it really sets the tone for the bike.”
Anything black on the Triumph was spray painted; there’s no powder coat on this bike. Luke laid down the base white, and Mike spent an evening taping out the graphics. Mike also subtly modified a Triumph “T” logo for the back of the seat cowl, and Brandon Herzberg of Interior Revolution in Nampa, Idaho, sewed the seat cover. The finishing touch is Nixon’s famous No. 9 on the lower fairing.
“I was a believer from the beginning,” Todd says, “and I was 100 percent confident I’d get something spectacular. They exceeded my expectations by miles.” Todd comes from a woodworking background, and he’s been riding since he was a teenager. He’s a master craftsman, having won several awards for his cabinetmaking skills. That means he understands the creative process. “When someone hires me, they hire me for my ingenuity and my vision. I felt akin to that working with Union.”
At the time of writing, Todd had yet to take delivery of his Nixon tribute machine, and he hasn’t even ridden it. But he’s not worried, because he says it was important that the project be a rideable motorcycle. That’s the only kind of machine Union will build — a fully functioning piece of kit.
It might not be a bobber, but in Todd’s mind, it’s something far better. And when he does get a chance to ride the Triumph, he plans to ride it hard and fast. That would do Nixon proud. MC
The latest classic motorcycle events and tours.LEARN MORE