Two Wheeled vs. Four-Wheeled Worries

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You may know all about buying a used car – the things to look for (and watch out for). But how about a used motorcycle? Lots of people who’ve never ridden before  are turning to bikes (especially low-cost used bikes) as a way to save money on the cost of getting around. But what applies to buying used cars may not apply as much to used bikes.

Or, the reverse.wheelrigh

For instance:

* Brakes –

If it’s a car, brake work can be a big (and expensive) deal. Potentially, a deal killer.  No one with more than half a brain rattling around in his head wants to buy a $2,500 beater (car) that needs $1,200 worth of brake work.

A bike? Not so much. Basic maintenance such as changing out pads (and shoes, if the bike has a drum brake rear) is – usually – both very inexpensive and very easy. In part because the components are much more accessible. On the front end, the caliper is exposed and “right there” – minimal tools are typically required to pop out the old pads and pop in new ones. You don’t have to jack anything up or remove a wheel.  Often, all you have to do is remove the two bolts that hold the caliper to the fork, then pull out a little clip to get the old pads out of the caliper. In most cases, you can do the job yourself in less than ten minutes – and barely get your hands dirty in the process.baldie

If you need to bleed the brakes, that’s usually simple, too – because most bikes (except for some of the latest/newest bikes) do not have ABS. Which means, no special skills – or tools – needed. No worries about replacing $800 ABS pumps, either.

Bottom line, worry less about a bike that may need brake work.

* Tires –

On a bike, there are just two (vs. four) tires, which right off the bat cuts down your replacement costs. And – unless the bike is a high-performance sport bike – the tires will be refreshingly low-cost relative to what it costs to put four new tires on almost any car. Even high-performance sport bike tires are relatively inexpensive – figure about $150 or so for the rear and a bit less for the front.

If it’s just a standard touring-type tire, $75-$100 or so (each) will usually cover it.

There is a catch, though. Bike tires generally don’t last as long as car tires – because there are just two of them. And because one of them – the back tire – is doing most of the work, it wears out even faster. And you can’t rotate them to even out the wear – as you could (and should) with car tires – because bike tires are usually different sizes and can’t be interchanged.

Sport tires have the shortest lives of all.

Still, motorcycle tires are a pretty small expense relative to what cars tires cost – especially late-model cars equipped with 18, 19 and 20-inch tires that can cost $150-$200 each. clutch

* Clutch/transmission –

When buying a used car with a manual transmission, everyone knows (or ought to know) about checking for problems with the clutch – because replacing a worn-out clutch means lots of work (especially if it’s a FWD/AWD or 4WD vehicle) and so, lots of money. The transmission has to be removed just to get at the clutch – and the actual replacement of the worn-our components requires skills and tools most non-mechanics don’t have.

Bikes are – usually – just the opposite. In most cases, installing new clutch discs is simple and doesn’t require tearing the engine apart. The work can often be done with basic hand tools. If you can change spark plugs, you can probably do this job yourself. And even if you have to pay someone to do it for you, it’s not going to put you in the poorhouse.transfullview

Transmission issues, on the other hand, are much more involved with a bike than a car. Because – typically – the only way to get at the transmission is to take the engine apart. And before you can do that, you’ve got to take the entire powerplant out of the frame.

Big job.

A bike’s engine and transmission share common cases.The whole enchilada has to be removed as a unit, completely disassembled, then reinstalled after the work is done.

Big bucks – if you have to pay someone to do it for you.

In a car, the transmission is a separate unit that can usually be unbolted and removed without having to remove (much less tear apart) the engine. This makes it possible to swap in a new/rebuilt (or good used) transmission fairly easily – and cheaply – at least as far as the labor part is concerned. Unbolting a dead car transmission – and bolting in a new/rebuilt/good used unit – is physically challenging but basic DIY-doable. Tearing apart a motorcycle engine to get at the transmission – and putting it all back together correctly – isn’t.plastic

* Cosmetic damage –

This one can really bite the newbie. The newbie bike buyer, that is.

An otherwise sound used car that maybe needs a new front fender (or even a whole front clip) can be a very good buy, even if you have to pay a body shop to do the repairs. But a motorcycle that’s been damaged in an accident might not be worth fixing, even if it’s still running fine. This is especially true of bikes with lots of plastic fairings, such as sport bikes. A fairly minor accident can turn a $5,000 used sport bike into a parts bike worth almost nothing – because it may cost half what the bike’s worth to replace the damaged fairings.  Be very cautious about buying any used bike with cosmetic damage, no matter how minor it may appear. Find out exactly what you could be getting yourself into before you get yourself into it.

Last item – and it’s a big item: Insurance –mafia last

Everyone knows it costs more to insure some cars than other cars – and that it’s important, therefore, to shop insurance before you buy the car. With bikes, it’s even more important. Because the cost to insure some bikes – even used ones – can be tremendous in both real and relative terms. It’s one thing to spend say $500 a year to insure a car you bought for $15,000. But how about $1,500 a year to insure a bike you bought for $5,000? Ask around – that’s not uncommon. It’s very possible to spend more to insure a bike than you spent to buy the thing – especially if the bike in question is a sport bike – and the buyer is under 35.

As important as it is to get a quote before you buy the car, it’s much more important to get a quote before you buy that bike.

Throw it in the Woods?  


  1. Eric,

    Tire replacement can be even cheaper if you pull the wheels yourself and take them to a shop; then, you only pay labor to change the tire itself. I used to do this when there was a good shop in town. I’d pull the rear, take it over to the shop, and have them change the tire. While they were changing the rear, I’d go back to my place and pull the front wheel. By the time I pulled the front and brought it to them, the rear wheel would be done. I’d take the rear and put it back on the bike. By the time I finished, I’d go back to the shop, get my front wheel with the new tire, take it back to the house, and put it back on the bike. They charged me like $30 to change the tire. Since I did the hard work of removing and reinstalling the wheels, I saved quite a bit of money on labor. Unfortunately, that shop closed down… 🙁

    Now, as for sport bikes with battered bodywork, they’re not necessarily a lost cause. If the frame, swingarm, etc. are ok, you can still use the bike; it’ll just be uglier than when new, but it’ll still be a rideable, usable machine. What a lot of guys do when they damage their bike’s bodywork is simply take it off and make a naked bike out of it; they also call these bikes street fighters. It became such a trend that the Big Four all started making similar bikes that you can buy new.

    One of the big cycle mags had a good article about doing this, i.e. converting a sportbike to a naked. The author picked up a used sportbike with battered bodywork for $1,600. He put a few hundred into it changing tires, stuff like that. All told he spent about $2K. It turned out to be a good machine. Since it was ugly, NOBODY wanted to steal it; he could park it anywhere and not worry about it. Even so, it was still good enough to do a track day at Parump.

  2. I used to insure my Kawasaki road bike for $62/year. OK, we’ve have inflation going on (lots higher than the feral gov. will tell you), but say $120 / year nowadays. However, that was for liability only, which is what I get on all my vehicles.

    So, for insuring the asset itself, it sounds as though insurance payments will be a (relatively) high fraction of the bike’s value vs. the fraction a cars value of a car insurance payment. The opposite of the case was my experience when buying only liability.

    This pretty much makes sense, as, for the liability case, you are mostly going to hurt yourself, or I could say, an idiot driver may force you to hurt yourself, on the bike. A bike usually doesn’t do so much damage to other vehicles. For the case of collision or comprehensive insurance, I could see the argument that, during the average wreck, a bike could sustain more relative damage (is more likely to be totaled) than a car or truck.

    • Yup!

      Even though I’m in my 40s now (and been riding accident-free for decades) if I bought a ZX10 I’d expect the quote to be around $500 a year – for a liability-only policy. And would not be surprised if they demanded twice that.

      For a 25-year old?

      Forget it.

      On the other hand, I’ve found that one can get a very inexpensive liability-only policy for an old “standard” or middleweight touring bike.

      I pay $75 a year to cover my ’76 Kz900 (even though this bike, modded with a big bore kit, has as much hp as many current middleweight sport bikes).

      • You have to shop the insurance companies hard. I used to be with one that charged about $140 a year for an SV650, but if you got the SV650S, same bike just with a fairing, the price went up to about $600. Also, the same agent told me they really don’t want to insure sport bikes so they throw out outrageous quotes like $4k a year for a 1000cc sportbike. I have since taken my business elsewhere for cars, bikes, boat and homeowners because of this.

        Other stuff to consider on a used bike is our old friend ethanol. For the love of God, stick your finger in a metal gas tank and feel around the inside upper edge. See if it turns orange. If it does, walk away unless they are willing to come way down. Rusty tanks are a ton of trouble down the road on everything from the fuel filter to clogged carbs to even messing up the rings. Leaky fork seals and wheel bearings that have slung out all their grease are other telltale signs of neglect.

        • Hi Mike,

          Amen on the ethanol-laced “gas.”

          It’s imperative to seal/coat the tank of any older bike (especially those made before they began adulterating gas with “oxygenates” in the 1980s) and always use fuel stabilizer if the bike is not going to be used regularly – and even then.

          I’ve got five old bikes and so far – so good. But only because I’m pretty compulsive about maintenance, especially preventative maintenance.


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