Chappell Customs 1981 SR500 Cafe Racer

February 18, 2014
Byron Wilson
Byron Wilson
Associate Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

Byron's sure to be hunched over a laptop after the checkers are flown, caught in his own little version of heaven. Whether on dirt, street or a combination of both, MotoUSA's newest addition knows the only thing better than actually riding is telling the story of how things went down.

A stock 1981 Yamaha SR500 isn’t likely to make anyone’s pulse race, and rather than try to improve the wheel I’ll simply borrow a description of the model from MotoUSA contributor Frank Melling; it’s “the sort of bike Trainee Accountants would ride on their way to a seminar on tax allowances for worm breeders in Social Priority Areas.”

With some vision and creative fabrication however, an SR500 can be the envy of all the cool kids and with little effort you can find examples of gorgeous SR choppers, bobbers, trackers, café racers and even some space-age-looking concepts. Its simplicity and ubiquity has made the SR500 a popular base for customizers, especially among the growing sect of builders that value simple execution and an attention to detail over elaborate flourishes. One such customizer is Chris Chappell of Chappell Customs.

Chris and his brother Rob operate Chappell Customs and have shops in Southern California and Ontario, Canada. Chris is in Cali while Rob remains in Canada and both have been wrenching for years.

“We’ve kind of been doing it our whole lives, whether on bikes or cars” says Chris. “I was a mechanic prior to this and I had a shop back when I lived in Canada. I’ve been doing stuff like this in the background for a while and then the time came when I couldn’t even move in my garage, so I had to get a shop.”

Since then Chappell has done slick work on vintage XS650s, Harley Sportsters, KZ400s and others but recently he’s been putting time into SR500s. One of the first, a 1978 model-year built for a customer, ended as a blacked-out, grey-accented café racer. Following that project Chappell decided to begin work on the antithesis of the brooding machine that had just left the shop.

“The idea was that the last bike was the devil, everything was black, everything was painted and this one was going to be the angel,” explains Chappell.

So Chappell stripped the ’81 he had in the shop (which only had 7000 original miles on it!) and set to creating his Angel.

The stock engine was in superb condition thanks to its sparse use over the past three-plus decades. Chappell left the engine internals alone but did add new gaskets, an aftermarket carburetor, air filter and exhaust. He also swapped out the battery for a capacitor that sits under the seat hump, simplifying the wiring and cleaning up the look.

Chappell also left the main frame stock but fabricated a new lower swingarm brace, “just to be a little different,” then powder coated the whole she-bang.

Chris Chappell designed this custom seat  which is available for purchase through
Chappell fabricated a speedometer and tachometer mount out of a single piece of aluminum that had LED lights built in for turn signal  high beam and neutral lights.
(Above) Chris Chappell designed this custom seat, which is available for purchase through (Below) Chappell fabricated a speedometer and tachometer mount out of a single piece of aluminum that had LED lights built in for turn signal, high beam and neutral lights.

He began polishing pieces and eventually “polished pretty much everything you could think of on this bike.” Initially there was no plan in place to have a polished tank, but after the aesthetic of the bike became apparent there was no other choice. There was also the unexpected trouble of getting the bare-metal tank to fit.

“So my buddy found this tank on Ebay and ordered it, brought it to the shop and it didn’t fit the bike. As soon as you put it on it was right up against the front forks and you couldn’t steer the motorcycle. So I had to modify the tank; I cut the front and back mounts off and welded new mounts, brought the tank back probably three-inches or so and down maybe an inch.”

The aluminum wheels are custom as well and required some creative thinking to get them just right.

“Spoke wheels don’t come on SRs so we had to use an XS650 front hub and get custom spokes made. They’re actually fat spokes like Harley would use. A Harley guy that builds custom wheels did the spokes for me. So we had to source a rear hub that would work on this bike, which I believe is from an XT or something along those lines. There was a lot of work just getting the wheels right on this bike.”

The forks are stock, polished to the nines and rebuilt with Progressive springs and new seals. Out back Chappell added a pair of Works Performance shocks.

An abundance of braking power is available out front thanks to the dual rotor set-up Chappell built.

“I had another SR in here and had a couple of spare calipers so instead of just running a single disc we ran a dual disc with high performance rotors. They’re really small and really light, it’s pretty much overbraking for this small motorcycle. I put a small master cylinder on it to help keep the front from locking up.”

There are a number of one-off pieces on the Angel too, including the front sprocket cover, which Chappell fabbed out of aluminum with a CNC router. He also fabricated a custom speedometer and tachometer mount out of a single piece of aluminum that has LED lights built in for turn signal, high beam and neutral lights.

More LED lights are found in a strip under the rear of the seat, which includes both right and left turn signals and the brake light. Chappell also integrated LEDs into the front end with turn signals that wrap around the front fork tubes.
The bars are aftermarket clubmans held by XS650 rubber-mount risers. Previous Chappell-made SR500s used clip-ons, but the vibey Single would leave your hands ringing after a long ride, so he opted for a more comfortable set-up with the Angel.

The seat is a custom piece as well and available from Chappell’s retail subsidiary,

All this work has resulted in a ride that’s night-and-day when compared to the original stock SR.

“This thing rides amazing,” says Chappell. “I rode this bike the day I got it when it was totally stock and it’s a totally different bike now. I could barely ride it at first. It’s surprising how well the 500 goes because it doesn’t weigh that much; doesn’t take a lot of motor to make it move.”

If you have a cool custom, know a builder or are a builder yourself with great work to share, let us know. Send us a line at