Rat Bikes …

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Bikes are cheap transpo – and “rat bikes” even cheaper transpo. You can pick one up – a functionally (and maybe even aesthetically) good one you can ride every day – for less than $3,000 and it’ll give you better gas mileage and a lot more fun than a brand-new $30,000 hybrid.

But, there is a catch. Ok, a few catches. They’re not huge ones, but you should be aware of them going in.

The first catch is that some dealerships won’t work on a bike older than 15 years or so. Some draw the line at ten. This is very much unlike the situation with cars. You can take a 20-year-old Honda to any Honda dealer … provided of course it’s a four-wheeled Honda. Many people do not know about this… but find out about it when they take their newfound oldie in for a valve clearance check and carb adjustment and the shop says no go.

It’s important to factor this into your decision whether to buy an older bike – especially if you can’t do most major (and even minor) work yourself. Ask around and see whether there’s an independent shop/mechanic in your area you can go to. There usually is – with the caveat that specialists are often even more expensive than a dealer.

The second issue you’ll confront with rat bike ownership is related to the first – parts. Both availability and expense.

First, availability:

The good news is that, for most major brands (Honda, Kaw, Harley, etc.) basic maintenance stuff (oil filters, brake parts, etc.) is usually easy to find either at the dealer parts counter or through aftermarket mail order suppliers such as Dennis Kirk even after the bike is 30-plus years old. I have a ’76 Kawasaki Kz900 and an ’83 Honda GL650 and it has never been a problem to get routine service parts. Sometimes it takes a few days, but no big deal.

However, after about ten years or so, the availability of factory new replacement trim parts, electrical bits and pieces and even things like factory footpegs/grips, etc. often begins to decline – especially if the bike was not a popular model that was produced in large numbers over a period of several years. My ’83 Honda, for example, is an oddball – made just that one year. Finding used replacement badges/trim/stuff like gauges, etc. is a real challenge. Finding new/NOS replacements is next to impossible.On the other hand, my ’76 Kz was a popular model and the same basic bike was made for many years from about 1974 all the way into the ’80s – so it is much easier to find parts for the bike and the aftermarket produces reproduction trim/emblems and many other parts besides.

Depending on the bike, you may have to scrounge the used market (or eBay) to find what you need. It could take time. It’s smart, therefore, to stock up on spares for stuff you know you will need eventually – such as grips and pegs. Generic stuff can usually be made to work, but factory stuff is always preferable.

Now for the last “catch” – the sometimes startling cost of parts:

While the rat bike itself may be miraculously cheap to buy, if a major/critical component croaks the thing can turn into a money pit quicker than you can say ElectraGlide in Blue.

Example: A croaked alternator on some bikes can be a $400 deal; radiators (water-cooled bikes) are similarly expensive. Ditto CDIs and other electronic components, without which the bike will not run. I once owned an early ’80s Honda XL250 dual sport. The CDI unit died and finding a “new” used replacement was neither cheap nor easy and what they (the dealer) wanted for a new unit was enough to turn the bike into lawn sculpture for several months…

Of course, the expensive parts are precisely the parts most likely to croak on you, if you have an older bike.

Certain older bikes, in particular.

Like cars, some bikes (and brands of bikes) are known to be more (or less) trouble-prone than others. Given the repair-to-worth ratio of a $3k bike, it is doubly important to take a little time to research the known history of any older bike you’re thinking about buying as cheapie transpo. Fifteen minutes of Googling is usually plenty of time to discover any significant red flags and things of particular concern, such as a given bike’s propensity to suffer shaft drive failure or something similarly catastrophic – and catastrophically expensive.

The Internet is a your friend. Unhappy owners of a problem bike can be counted on to leave lengthy posts about their experiences. It may not be that the bike’s a “bad” bike – just expensive to fix.

Check owner’s boards for the make/model of bike you’re interested in. The info is usually readily available.

If you’re thinking about an old C7B50, say, find a classic Honda owners’ BBS (or general Honda bike board) and leave a post asking previous owners and others for their input, pros and cons. Ask people you know who know bikes, too.

Bottom line, a low-bucks rat bike is a great bike to have – provided you’re careful about which bike you end up having.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. I have owned and driven bikes for 40 years, all of them old classics. This article is full of good advice for prospective owners, but I would say that if you are going to be a biker you are more or less obligated to be able to do everything required to maintain it. This requires and investment in time and self training and one has to go through a “baptism by fire” with each bike. But the results are well worth it. Nothing better than an old classic bike that purrs like a kitten and can blow the doors off a Ferrari.

    The air-cooled Japanese bikes made in the ’80s, have the best motors ever built; bullet-proof,powerful and easy to service.


    • I agree – but would amend that to include the ’70s stuff, which is what many of the ’80s stuff was based on. The Z1900 (and kz900/Kz1000) is a great example. It was overbuilt, especially the bottom end, which is almost unbreakable. Kaw continued to develop this engine and variants of it were made (in police service) all the way through to the early ’90s!


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