Carbon Café Racer from Mike Mitchum of MCAM Moto…
In the spring of 1977, the Suzuki GS550 arrived, following close on the heels of the company’s first four-stroke street bike, the GS750, introduced just six months before. The market was shifting away from the smoky, peaky power of two strokes, and Suzuki needed a strong performer for the competitive middleweight class. The 49-hp GS550 delivered:
“It was no slouch, with quarter-mile times in the sub-14 second range. That put it ahead of Honda’s go-fast looking Honda CB550F Super Sport and ahead of Suzuki’s own GT550 2-stroke…” —Motorcycle Classics
The GS also received high marks for its reliability and handling. If there was one area where the bike took flak, it was the styling, which was called subdued, sedated, or downright boring. Fortunately, there are modern builders with the talent, vision, and skills to transform these middleweight classics into showstoppers.
At the recent Handbuilt Show, we came across one of the finest examples of a custom GS550 we’ve seen. It’s the work of our new friend Mike Mitchum of MCAM Moto, a modern renaissance man who fell in love with motorcycling a decade ago, starting out on a Suzuki Boulevard before moving up to a Yamaha XSR900. Over time, building and working on bikes has become as much a love as riding them:
“My workshop/sanctuary is my two-car garage at home. I derive great fulfillment through working with my hands and producing a tangible artifact as evidence of that work.”
Mike bought this first-year ’77 GS550 from Facebook Marketplace as a bit of wreck, as the purchase price attests: $250! Over the next three years, he set out to give the GS a new lease on life, treating the project as an “exercise in skill building.” He taught himself composite fabrication in both fiberglass and carbon fiber, practiced his welding, and dived into what he calls “old bike shit” — carbs, brakes, old ignition and charging systems, etc.
“My fingerprints are absolutely everywhere on this bike. I grew up learning from my grandfather, uncles, and stepdad to wrench on cars, and those mechanical skills translated handily into the world of motorcycles.”
The result is one incredible GS550 café racer, which not only nails the target in terms of stance and silhouette, but features a staggering array of one-off custom work, including the split seat with red inserts and diamond stitching, handmade chain guard, interior-routed wiring, and the homemade carbon fiber pieces that lend the bike its name, “Tanso” — Japanese for carbon.
Mike’s talent is obvious, but he says perseverance is key:
“I’ve been told by family members that I have a gift, but I like to say that my gift is that I’m not afraid to try, fail, and learn.”
Amen to that, Mike. The greats in many fields have exhibited that same level of persistence and dedication. We can’t wait to see what you turn out next!
“Tanso” Suzuki GS550: Builder Interview
• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
I fell in love with motorcycling right away when I began riding in 2011. I bought a 2011 Suzuki Boulevard S40 as my first bike and learned to ride on it. I pushed that bike pretty hard and used it even for long road trips. I still have the bike and my wife rides it now. I upgraded from that to a 2016 Yamaha XSR900, which is my daily rider now. I love the mix of performance and ergonomics on the XSR, and the engine is buttery smooth and characterful all at once. I’ll probably have that bike for a long time!
My workshop/sanctuary is my two-car garage at home. I derive great fulfillment through working with my hands and producing a tangible artifact as evidence of that work. Motorcycles are one, very important way that I scratch that ever-present itch. My wife was gracious enough to let me run wild with it and completely transform it from car storage to full-on workshop. It vacillates between fabrication shop, repair shop, and paint shop depending on the need. I’ve built it out so it can be reconfigured with movable furniture and a bike lift. This allows me to do what I need to do and still honor my wife’s one request, which is that I leave room to get her car in the garage at the end of the day. Unless the place is an absolute wreck or I have the paint booth assembled, I can honor that request most days. My wife has been extremely understanding and supportive.
• What’s the make, model, and year of the donor bike?
1977 Suzuki GS550. It’s the first year that Suzuki made the GS550.
• Why was this bike built?
This bike was built through on and off work during just under a 3-year period. It was built as a way to challenge to myself and as an exercise in skill building. I learned composite fabrication in both fiberglass and carbon fiber, including creating custom molds for parts, through trial and error. It helped keep me sane and prevent idle-hand syndrome during the pandemic, for which I am supremely grateful. I also took what little experience welding I had at the time and put it into practice on this bike. Although the welds are functional, they aren’t the prettiest. I’m happy to say that I’ve had some additional training and practice since then and my welding continues to improve.
I also took on the project as my training ground and entry into what I like to call “old bike shit.” This encompasses everything from engine maintenance, dealing with carburetors, old braking systems, ignition systems, charging systems, you name it. My fingerprints are absolutely everywhere on this bike.
I grew up learning from my grandfather, uncles, and stepdad to wrench on cars and those mechanical skills translated handily into the world of motorcycles. I also, wanted to do as much of the actual customization and other work as humanly possible on my own, and I achieved that having only outsourced the powder coating and the custom seat cover. I’ve been told by family members that I have a gift, but I like to say that my gift is that I’m not afraid to try, fail, and learn.
When the bike was completed, I took it to several shows and local motorcycle gatherings around the city. It has become a bit of an advertising piece for me and has since brought me customers who want their own bikes repaired and/or customized.
• What was the design concept and what influenced the build?
I wanted to keep true to the classic café racer aesthetic with the low clip ons, analog gauges, and suspension upgrades that kept with the OG look from the factory. I also wanted to keep the classic spoked wheels and large diameter rims as opposed to smaller, cast wheels common to modern “standard” bikes.
The color scheme was influenced by the Moto Guzzi V7 Racer, but I also wanted to do something different from what I saw on a lot of other custom builds. Rather than keep the frame black, I made it a highlight point along with the wheel hubs, swingarm, and brake caliper by having them powder coated in “illusion red”. Also, rather than make it a shiny jewel, all of the powder coating is a matte finish, and the tank and body parts are all finished in matte 2k clear.
• What custom work was done to the bike?
- Custom wiring harness from scratch
- Chopped rear end of the frame and welded on a frame hoop that I bent myself
- Rebuilt/rejetted OG Mikuni carbs for pod filters and 4 into 1 exhaust
- Custom fabricated electrics tray to house the M-Unit Blue, starter solenoid/main fuse and other electronics
- Rick’s stator and lithium Compatible Rec/Reg
- Dyna coils and electronic ignition
- OG wheel hoops powder coated and laced with Buchanan’s stainless spokes
- Custom chain guard and side mount license plate bracket
- Custom, handmade carbon fiber components
- Seat pan/café hump with quick release mounting pins (battery housed under the hump)
- Front headlight cowl
- Front fender
- Rear tire hugger
- Speedo/tach mounting bracket
- License plate bracket
- Chain guard and heel guard inlays
- Engine covers
- Fork stanchion cover tubes
- Fuel cap cover (skinned in carbon fiber)
- Modified kick stand to work with Cognito Moto rearsets
- Custom top triple clamp from Cognito Moto
- Custom painted engine
- Custom design and paint on the tank, including graphics (not stickers)
- Custom painted graphics on the carbon fiber engine covers (not stickers)
- Modified MAC 4 into 1 exhaust and custom carbon fiber wrapped silencer
- Custom rear set backets. Though I still consider them to be temporary. I designed some custom brackets in Fusion360 that I plan to have milled on a CNC. They will replace the temporary, steel brackets.
- Modified the rear drum brake rod to accommodate the upside-down brake cam lever
- Custom designed split seat
- Radiantz LED brake/tail/turn signal light strip
- Through the frame wiring in various locations to keep it looking clean and tidy
- After market bolt-on/drop in components
- Rizoma bar end turn signals
- Rizoma billet aluminum grips
- CRG Hindsight Lane Splitter bar end mirrors
- Motogadget switch gear
- Dime City Cycles analog mini speedo and tach
- Progressive rear shocks and springs
- Progressive front fork springs
- Antigravity lithium battery
- Custom stainless steel front brake line from Galfer
- New wheel and steering bearings from Timken and All Balls
• Does the bike have a nickname?
“Tanso” which is Japanese for “carbon.” This is what the kanji painted on the tank and engine cover reads.
• Can you tell us what it’s like to ride this bike?
This bike, with its aggressive café stance, is supremely uncomfortable and exhilarating all at once. It begs you to go faster so it can summon the wind to give you a little assistance and relieve your back, core, legs and wrists of some of the duty of keeping you upright. The visceral experience of the characteristics of the inline 4 engine, the non-assisted clutch pull, the tactile feel of shifting through the ancient gear box, the sound of the MAC exhaust, the feel of the direct connection of the throttle tube to the carbs via cables rather than electronics, and the smell of the engine through the breather cover filter excite all the senses. Riding a modern bike daily can make you forget about the raw experiences of riding a classic motorcycle and I love that this bike is always eager to remind me of that.
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
The handmade carbon fiber parts are an obvious point of pride, but I’m just as proud of the sometimes-overlooked details on the bike. This includes the split seat with red inserts and matching diamond stitching, handmade chain guard, the color-matched tube that hides the wiring for the side-mounted plate light, all the bits that make hose and wire routing tidy, and the fact that the body of the bike is kept clean by running wiring through the frame.
Having fallen in love with classic motorcycles, I’m also very happy to have been able to give what was a non-running bike surely headed for the scrap heap another lease on life. In addition to that, the awe that my wife expressed when seeing the bike in its finished form was very rewarding. She had (understandably) serious reservations when I brought the bike home in its original state. The bike was recently damaged in transit on the way to the Handbuilt Show in Austin, and she was way more upset than I was. That kind of support and appreciation can’t be taken for granted.
Lastly, and this is probably a bit of human vanity, which I try to keep in check, I was overjoyed when I nervously took the bike out in public to have it appreciated by my peers in the motorcycle community. It’s not perfect by any means, but I am pretty proud overall with the bike as my first build and I look forward to taking lessons learned and new inspiration into my next build and challenging myself even further.
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• All photos by me (except the bike in its original form, which is from the Facebook marketplace posting that led me to purchase it for $250).