On Buying An Old Bike

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Old bikes, like old cars, are neat. But also like old cars, owning one involves some challenges. If you’ve never bought an old bike before, here’s a Thought List of things to consider before you take the plunge:

* Can You Handle Maintenance?

One of the weird things about motorcycles is that they get officially “old” faster than cars. There are dealers who won’t work on bikes older than about ten years or so – which is barely middle-aged for a late-model car. Part of the reason for this is bike model cycles are much shorter. When a new car is introduced, it usually isn’t significantly updated for five years or so. But an “all-new” bike might be two generations old after five years have passed. If your machine is more than 20 years old, it’s an artifact. The dealer’s technicians may no longer have the tools – or the training – to work on it. In which case, you’ll either have to find a shop that specializes in older stuff – or learn to work on it yourself. If it’s ten years old or older, probably you will need to learn about carburetors.  If it is more than 25 years old, you may need to learn about points.

The upside is that older bikes are usually simpler bikes and so easier to work on than newer bikes. Most bikes over ten years old will not have a computer, for instance. It’s just a simple mechanical device with a simple electronic system – stuff you can learn to handle yourself with fairly basic tools and a good shop manual.

* Can you deal with quirks? 

Older bikes are a lot like older people in that they have quirks – and can be irascible, unless you know how to manage those quirks. For example, you may need to learn where the choke sweet spot is to get the thing running on a cold day. It’s not like a new bike that you just turn on. Often, there’s a procedure you’ll need to learn – and follow. Some old bikes will just do randomly strange things, too.  One of my old bikes – a ’76 Kawasaki Kz900 – will every once in a blue moon just die.  The engine will quit, all lights and gauges off. This is great fun at night when descending a windy country road. It’s just the main fuse. For some reason that I have never been able to diagnose let alone fix, there is a once-in-a-blue-moon voltage spike that toasts the fuse. It’s no big deal. It literally happens a most once every two years.  I just pull off, open the fuse box and pop in a fresh fuse (I always keep several spares) and am back on my way.  If I didn’t happen to know this particular bike’s quirks – and know that when the engine dies, it’s no big deal, just a fuse – it’d be Freak Out Time when the bike’s quirk manifested. Wen you buy an old bike, try hard to get the seller to tell you about your soon-to-be-new-friend’s quirks, too.

There’s also the issue of old technology. For example, some older bikes are like classic muscle cars: They’re all engine – and have weak brakes and poor handling relative to what the engine is capable of. One of my other old bikes – a Kawasaki two-stroke triple – is like this. Ferocious little engine in a high-speed wobble-prone frame with a pair of marginal drum brakes to slow it all down.

Be aware of the bike’s designed-in limitations before you ride the thing.  And ride it cautiously until you know the thing.

* Do You Like eBay Porn?

If you decide to buy an old bike, you’d better enjoy surfing the ‘Net for parts. Especially if you buy a bike that was built in relatively small numbers, a long time ago. I have this problem with another old bike I own: An ’83 Honda GL650 Silverwing Interstate. It was manufactured for just one year – and that one year (1983) was almost 30 years ago. Some parts, miraculously, are still fairly easy to get. But others – especially body/trim parts – are not. And when you do find them, you can usually expect to pay Top Dollar and find yourself in a bidding war with the 15 other guys across the country who have the same bike and need that particular part as much as you do. Here’s some advice based on 30 years of dealing with this kind of thing:

If you’re new to old bikes, try to buy an old bike that’s still fairly popular  – and which was built in fairly large numbers over several model years when it was new. The Honda CB750 (or Nighthawk) series is a good example of a safe bet mass-produced old bike. And a good example of a bike to steer clear of for a first-timer is something like my old Kawasaki Two-Stroke triple. During my year-long restoration of this particular bike, I had to go (via Fed Ex and PayPal) all the way to England to get several critical parts for this oddball antique.

Get spares. It’s not uncommon for the seller of an old bike to have a same-model parts bike (or spare engine) lying around. If he does, buy it. You will need it – or some piece of it – down the road.

Buy parts in multiples. Oil filters and air filters, for instance. When you buy one, get another. This way, you’ll have what you need on-hand for the next oil/filter change – and won’t be desperately scrounging to find what you need.

Find friends. Get to know people who know your bike. If not directly – as by joining a local club – do it online, by finding (and joining) a Forum or BBS dedicated to your old bike. There’s one for pretty much every make/model – even if you get something really oddball. In fact, the oddball stuff often has a very dedicated and knowledgeable bund of loyalists who are (usually) very eager to welcome a new member to the group. Just Google around some – you’ll find it in no time.

Throw it in the Woods?

 

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19 COMMENTS

  1. This article reminds one of the most significant advantages to owning and riding an old Harley-Davidson: availability of spare parts. You can still get NOS and reproduction parts, or even some different part that will work in the broken part’s stead for just about every Harley built since around 1947. Heck, you can even get both newly manufactured crankcases and/or transmission cases for them going back that far.

    Things start to get more difficult when they are old enough that the engines are flatheads but those particular engines don’t even *have* that many parts to begin with! And there is no dearth of mechanics and machinists who know how to work on older Harleys or even fabricate the parts from scratch that might be necessary to fix them.

    If you get a older Harley with an Evolution motor the things are even reliable and don’t leak oil either.

    • Hi James,

      Yep – and the same’s true for Hondas, too. Old man Honda made it policy for Honda the company to produce spare parts for all Honda models – and though the old man is long gone, it is still usually very easy to get any maintenance/functional part for almost any Honda bike ever made.

      Kaws are harder – but these bikes (and other Japanese bikes) rarely need spare parts. I have three in regular service that are 30-plus years old. This durability/reliability is perhaps the reason why the Japanese ate the British motorcycle industry’s lunch – and almost killed off Harley, too!

  2. Luckily for me, my old college room mate owns a business that restores and sells parts for vintage BMWs. My 1960 R60/2 is both an interesting ride because of the Earles forks and a real attention getter. But you are exactly right about having to learn to do maintenance on an old motorcycle yourself. Of course, the old technology was much simpler so learning how to work on the old beamers is a lot like working on half of an old VW bug.

    • Yup!

      The work itself is (usually) pretty straightforward. What’s hard – sometimes – is finding replacement parts for older bikes. As an example, it is damn near impossible to find factory pipes for old Kaw triples; most of the originals have rusted away or are otherwise in awful shape. If you do find a nice (repro/NOS)set, they’re going to cost you a staggering sum – around $2k. Aftermarket pipes are available – but also not easy to find – or cheap. About $1,000.

      It’s well worth the effort to read up on a particular bike before you buy it, so you have some idea what you’re signing up for before you actually do sign up!

  3. I still have a 1986 Yamaha FJ1200. I’ve even owned some parts of it since 1985 😉 If I had the dough I’d more than one or two motorcycles, for sure.

  4. Eric:

    I had an old 1982 Yamaha Virago (bought in 1991) and sold it after some electronic malfunction reared its ugly head that would have cost more than the bike was worth to fix. It seems cycle dealers have an even higher markup on parts than auto dealers (which are 500-1000% over cost).

    Rotors for my friend’s Yamaha (can’t remember the model – but crotch rocket circa 1995) cost over $300 each.

    Ouch!

    Have things goten better with the Internet for finding non-OEM replacement / maintenance parts?

    This is the only thing that keeps me from buying a cycle.

    What say you?

    • OEM (NOS) stuff for old bikes can cost a fortune – but, good used parts are much more affordable. If the bike is a “rider” – as opposed to a “resto” – used parts will work fine. Stuff like stators, radiators, etc.

      You can usually get rebuild kits for brake pistons/master cylinders – and the rest is usually just routine maintenance.

      The key here is to get a bike that’s popular or was built in large numbers or which shares its engine/major parts with other bikes. My Kz900, for example, is more or less the same in most respects (many parts interchange or can be made to work easily) as the earlier Z1900 and the later Kz1000s that were built right through the early ’90s (as cop bikes).

      • Thanks for the tip.

        Can you provide any other bike “families” that meet this criteria aside from the Kawasaki Kz?

        Nothing against the Kz, just trying to keep my optioins open.

        I’m pretty ignorant regarding bikes.

        What – in your humble opinion, is the “K car of bikes,” as far as parts commonality is concerned?

        Thanks in advance for the advice.

        Blake

        • You bet, Blake!

          The Honda CB750 and its descendants/variants are great bikes; one of the best bikes I ever owned was a CB550. Any Nighthawk (650, 700 SC, 750) is a great choice. Also the CX series (bulletproof twins). Honda is probably the best choice overall because of three things:

          * They made a lot of bikes.
          * The bikes they made during the ’70s were built very well.
          * Old man Honda made it policy (while he was alive) that Honda always made/stocked parts for every bike it ever sold. It is still usually easier to find parts for an old Honda bike than for any other brand of bike.

          I’m sure others will chime in with their suggestions, too –

            • The gas mileage… tell her about the gas mileage!

              My GL650 touring bike (last bike pictured in the article) gets 55-60 MPG – better than a Prius or anything else on four wheels – for a fraction of the acquisition cost. On top of that, the bike is versatile – and useful. You can tote an amazing amount of stuff with one of these things.

              I actually know where you can find a very nice, low miles GL500 Interstate (same bike as mine only a 500 twin rather than a 650). Don’t be scared by the fact that it’s “only” a 500 cc bike. These are strong little twins – with a 9,000-plus RPM redline. Plenty of power for knocking around – and on the highway, too. I think he wants about $3k for it…

              If you’re interested, let me know and I will pass on the info –

            • I’ve owned all kinds of Hondas over the years and never had a bad one. Now, I am partial to Kawasaki bikes – they have more ‘tude – but for build quality, thoughtful engineering and overall value, Hondas are really hard to beat, or go wrong with.

          • Thanks again. I think the drive would be a bit far (I’m near Detroit), and I won’t fly if I can possibly avoid it due to the TSA gate rapers – so a one-way ticket is out. There are plenty of good used bikes around here. Since they’re seasonal, they wont be rusted hulks like the older cars. Probably not as many as in the more temperate climates, but enough to choose from.

            I better get one before “cash for clunker bikes” stimulus comes out after H-D claims they are going bankrupt.

  5. If you paint that 83 silverwing white it will look like it came out of a 1980s Schwarzenegger sci-fi film.

    (but don’t, it looks totally awesome, dude, the way it is)

    • Ha!

      I won’t… I dig it, too. That bike was a lucky find. I paid $1,400 for it – with about 12,000 original miles and needing nothing but to be ridden. I’ve put more miles on that unit in the past two years than I have on any of my other bikes….

      • The bike is too old, and wasn’t a successful model for Yamaha. It raetufed counter-balancers to smooth its vibrations out, called Omni-Phase Balancers by Yamaha. Unfortunately, they tended to froth the motor oil at high revs, leading to oil starvation and crankshaft failures. No performance parts are available, and it’s not a motor you want to push too hard. It’s also a motor that seems to constantly go out of tune, requiring frequent carburettor adjustment and balancing.

    • Weight is not the issue, balance is.I usmase you can walk upright so you’re already familiar with keeping your weight balanced (at least when you walk), so your body has already adapted to your particular weight level. Whew!Ok, the rest is all about practice. One suggestion that is used to teach kids to ride a bike is to lower the bike seat so that your feet can touch the ground while you’re sitting on the seat (you can already raise it later when you’ve learned how to ride). Then practice (preferably on a very slight downhill) coasting on your bike (that is, get the bike moving with your feet, Flintstone’s-style, and then lift your feet in the air). If you start to lose your balance, you can easily put your feet on the ground to regain balance.Once you’ve mastered sitting/balancing on a moving bike then you can start thinking about pedaling the bike. To keep yourself from feeling that you’re going uncontrollably fast, I’d suggest you do this on a slight uphill.Yes, the faster you go, the easier it gets to balance your bike (thanks to the gyroscopic effect of the wheels). But if you’re new to cycling, you’ll probably feel out of control before your bike is moving fast enough to feel such an effect. Hence the recommendation to lower your seat and learn to balance yourself first.Finally, don’t give up! Riding a bike is the most awesome feeling in the world. Not only is it good exercise and a brillant sport, but it’s great form of transportation. I’m guessing that once you get hooked on cycling, you’re days of being 193 will soon be over Good luck.

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