A Bike Called Olive

by Karen Neill

Motorcycle Projects

In September 2015 Zenith Motorcycles lost one of its biggest fans and I lost my Grandmother, Olive. Without going into my life history, let me just say that my grandmother was my hero. She was without a doubt for me an anchor that has always been holding me safely in place throughout my life. She never blinked an eye when I told her I wanted to open a Motorcycle shop, she supported me every step of the way just as she had done all my life. When the shop opened, my mum made sure my nan came to visit, to see my creation, even in her frailty she made sure she showed me how proud she was.

My Grandmother fascinated me, she was a woman of many layers who, to the day she died no one knew or understood. She was sometimes harsh and, to some could be viewed as cold, but to me, she was love and safety and kindness and hope. She gave me hope when at times for me there was none. She came from a generation of women who knew how fragile life was, who knew what suffering and fear were, the Second World War generation that knew hunger, loneliness, and loss yet still survived and hoped for change and peace. When peace came my grandmother carried on fighting to maintain it, she marched for CND, she protested if she believed in a cause, she never sat by and watched change happen, she tried to make it happen. To me my nan was part of history, a history she would sit and tell me about, a history I can only imagine through her stories. Evacuation, land work, working in munitions factories, giving birth during the Blitz, the people she knew, and the travels she made are forever etched in my memory as is her unique story. My Nan was 95 years old when she went to bed one night as usual in her hair net and nightie and simply fell asleep. She departed this life with grace and dignity and just like the real lady she was she always knew when to leave.


I have never been a person to handle grief well, I have in the past almost become a non-person, burying myself deep inside so that only a few people including my grandmother could find me. This time my Nan would not be there to find me, to pull me out of myself, so I had to find another way. This time I had to allow myself to feel and make sure I didn’t fall into the abyss of self-destruction into which I had fallen in the past. This time I had to live.

My idea came one evening, in a flash of inspiration I told my partner that I was going to build my Nan a bike. My partner is used to my slightly odd thinking didn’t bat an eyelid, continued her knitting, and said “Good idea love”. So that was it, my plan was given the green light and I started with a pen and paper and drew the first sketch of what I saw my Nan’s bike to be like.

I had a strong image of what I wanted right from the start. I wanted a bike to reflect my Nan’s generation, uncomplicated yet stylish, functional but beautiful. It had to be reminiscent of the 1940s era in design with modern handling and running. I wanted a bike that didn’t as yet exist.

I discussed, as I do everything, with my right-hand man and head Zenith Motorcycles technician Garry, and the perfect donor bike for what I had in mind was found on eBay for £185.00. A 1998 Yamaha SR125 that had been sitting unloved in someone’s garden and had not been ridden in over 10 years. In November 2015 we took delivery of what was to become Olive.

Obviously, as the bike had not been started in a number of years our first priority was to get the engine running and find out exactly what we had bought. The wiring was a mess and once we had got past the non-sparking issue we managed to get the engine running. It sounded terrible and smoked like a 1940’s docker but it ran. That was not an issue for us as we planned on stripping and rebuilding the whole bike including the engine but at least we knew what we had and what we had to do.

We stripped the whole bike down to its bare frame, removed the engine, and rebuilt it with genuine new Yamaha parts. Cylinder, piston, cam chain, alternator, and bearings were all changed by our engine master Cosmo, while I set about painting, polishing, and enameling various parts. Once the engine was rebuilt we then began to design the frame and make alterations. We cut around a foot from the rear of the bike and with the help of my mate Paul and his pipe bender, we fabricated our own seat hoop.

A Bike Named Olive
A Bike Named Olive

Once we had welded the seat hoop in place we could all see the future of this bike and the lines we had to work with.

I then found an off-the-shelf brat-style seat and brought it along with the lights dials and handlebars I wanted to use.

I then found some pattern Harley Davidson front and rear mudguards I knew I could work with. At this point, we were thinking that we may be able to work with the original fuel tank but it just didn’t work with the lines of the bike no matter what we did or how we positioned it. At this point I decided the tank had to go, it didn’t fit with my ideas and it was simply not good enough. So, again I went shopping and found a new fabrication of a Honda CG125 early model fuel tank. I had it imported and as soon as we put it on the bike we knew that was the one.

We re-assembled the entire bike, Saint Cosmo fabricated a fire guard and battery box while I went to town with the air angle grinder on the front and rear mudguards. Lazlo the electrical genius sorted out our wiring problems and little by little we ended up with lighting and a semi-running bike. Bear in mind that this project was done only when we could fit it in between running a busy business. Sometimes weeks would pass before we had time to get any work done on it and it would sit in the corner of the workshop tormenting me.

When we had the time the final push came, and we stripped the whole bike back down to its frame, I managed to enamel the frame and fork lowers in the workshop with the help of our apprentice Snakes, we sent the tank, mudguards, side panels and wheels to our painter Tomas for painting (colour had been chosen months ago by my partner Natalia and my friend Nick “Mr Click” made the Vinyl decals). Within a few days, the paintwork was ready and when it arrived I cried like a baby.

A Bike Named Olive

The bike was assembled in a few days and again with the help of Lazlo more work was carried out on the electrics. The chain, sprockets and paintwork was fitted and the braided brake hoses and rebuilt calliper were put in place. The custom exhaust that I had made was finally fitted and, last week, over a year and a lot of blood, sweat and my tears, Olive took the first breath of her new life.

A Bike Named Olive
A Bike Named Olive
A Bike Named Olive
A Bike Named Olive

She sounds like the bike I dreamed of, she looks better then the bike I wanted and her journey is complete.

Zenith Team With A Bike Named Olive
Karen Neill With A Bike Named Olive

Now Olive’s journey is complete and I am happy. My grandmothers bike is built, the bike handles like never before, its brakes are amazing, it’s fast, and it looks amazing.

This is the story of a bike called Olive, my nan’s bike, and my chance to thank the people I love for taking this journey with me and helping me make it happen. Especially you nan, my true North. Thank you for believing in me and my little bike shop and thank you for being there. I love you and I will always thank you for my life.

Leave a Comment

Member of Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI)
Member of Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI)
Member of National Motorcycle Dealers Association (NMDA)
Haringey Council Contractor