Get An Old Bike… While You Can Still Afford An Old Bike

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As new bikes become more and more like new cars – that is, complicated and expensive, both to buy and maintain – the remaining supply of old bikes is going to get pricier as a result of increasing demand.classic bikes 1

After all, they’re not making any more of them.

The situation with bikes today is a lot like it was with cars – especially now-classic muscle cars – yesterday. Well, when yesterday was about 30 years ago. At that time – back in the ’80s – today’s six-figure Barrett Jackson “investment grade” classic muscle cars were just junky old cars. Redneck gas hogs respectable people wanted nothing to do with. Which meant teenagers could afford to buy them on a part-time McDonald’s summer job budget. My Reagan Era high school parking lot was teeming with SS Chevelles and Novas, ’60s and ’70s Mustangs and Camaros. They weren’t meticulously restored and venerated icons, as today. They were dented and rusty, primered and jacked-up – with cheap headers, glasspacks and chrome-peeling cheap mag wheels bought at Pep Boys for $27 a piece.

But they were affordable and fixable yourself and thus, ordinary people – including teenagers – could own (and drive) them.classic cycles2

Then – overnight, it sometimes seems – things changed. Our high school beaters were suddenly highly desired by middle-aged (and older) people with money. Teenagers – hell, people in their 30s and 40s – could no longer afford them.

You know the rest.

Expect the same dialectic to play out with motorcycles. For similar reasons.

For the moment, you can still pick up a ’70s classic (and very everyday ridable, too) like my ’70s Kawasaki Kz900 in solid mechanical if not pristine cosmetic condition for $3k or less.

Often, a great deal less.

That means almost anyone can grab one – keep one – and ride one. classic bike ad

This will change – probably sooner rather than later – because (if you’re paying attention) new bikes have, in an amazingly short period of time (about ten years) almost caught up with new cars in terms of technology and complexity, with cost coming along for the ride. Other than maybe a small cc dirt bike or two, there isn’t a new bike on the floor of your local toy store that hasn’t got fuel injection – and with it, a got-damned computer.

Computer-controlled fuel-injection will work flawlessly… for a time. But forget about a simple – and fairly easy – take ’em off and clean ’em with solvent and toothbrushes free (assuming you did it yourself) rejuvenation when it’s no longer working beautifully  (which will happen, eventually).

Which you could do with carbs – ands can’t with FI.

When FI stops working, it’s often replacement time. And – usually – not do-it-yourself time.

This is the road ahead.

New bikes (especially sport bikes) are Christmas-treed with electronics, including traction and stability control, ABS and rider-selectable modes – just as you’d find in a new high-performance car. Plus catalytic converters – and 02 sensors. Also included is a car-like sticker price. Have you been to a bike store lately? The new Yamaha YZF-R1’s MSRP is nearly $17k.

That will buy you a car, easily.'15 R1 dash pic

And when it breaks, the R1 (and bikes like it) will cost you as much to get serviced as a new car. Because – as with new cars – you probably won’t be servicing it yourself. The deep knowledge and specialized (read: expensive) diagnostic equipment necessary to do so are – for the most part – beyond the orbit of the Average Guy.

Now yes, it’s absolutely true that a new liter-class sport bike like the ’15 R1 is a one hell of a ride. It is more bike than most riders will ever even begin to be able to deal with (unless the rider is named Rossi). A full-on MotoGP contender with street-legal paperwork. It is magnificent, epic, audacious (like the new 700 hp Dodge Challenger Hellcat).

But like the Hellcat, increasingly like a supermodel behind a plate glass window. Bill Joel may be able to date her.

Joe Sixpack not so much.R1 cut-away

If the MSRP (and forget-about-DIY service) doesn’t keep him away, the cost to insure such a bike usually will do the trick. And the cost to insure the thing ties into the cost of fixing/replacing the various car-like “safety” and other electronic systems now being grafted onto motorcycles.

Just wait till they mandate air bags (the Honda Goldwing already offers them).

Which brings us full circle back to the old stuff. Which does not have computers, ABS, wheel speed sensors, TCS, fuel-injection, 02 sensors, catalytic converters, “maps” or “programs.” And forget – hooray! – air bags.

Maybe not MotoGP material – but (for the most part) DIY fixable with basic hand tools. And – key point – fixable almost forever. At least, as long as you will probably be around. It is not, as they say, rocket science to keep a 40-year-old bike like my ’76 Kz900 road-ready. Because it was not hard to do that 40 years ago. A few turns of the screwdriver here, unbolt this, clean that – reinstall – and you were good to go.clean jets, etc.

It will not be hard to do this 40 years from now.

Hence, affordable, accessible – and (wait for it) fun. The reason most of us throw a leg over in the first place. Which by the way includes tinkering with the damned thing.

The current stuff? You can’t fault ’em by the numbers – well except the numbers on the sticker – but they are more like iPads (in a very real sense, they are iPads) that you use until they stop working and then throw them away. Interchangeable, replaceable.


For as long as you can afford to buy in.

As new bike prices continue to track upward in tandem with the agglutination of complexity – including ever-more-elaborate “safety” and emissions stuff (as with cars, expect direct injection to replace regular ol’ fuel injection before the end of the decade if not sooner) the desirability – and hence, the price – of the older iron is going to go up, too.ontruck

Which is why it’s a damned good time to think about getting in now, before that happens. Before new bike sales begin to wilt. Which they will. Because they must. Most people who ride are not rich and keep bikes for… fun. They are mostly young – 20s and 30s – and that demographic cannot deal with $20,000 bikes that cost $3k a year to insure that they can’t fix themselves. The economy sucks and people – young people’s – incomes (if they have any) will not support $20,000 toys.  It’s cool to see what the engineers can engineer; that it’s technically possible to offer a 200 MPH 9 second through the quarter-mile production bike that could compete in MotoGP right off the showroom floor. But if the kids – and semi-young – who desire such bikes cannot afford such bikes… The bubble’s real – and it’s about ready to burst.

But old bikes abound. And, they’re cheap.

For the moment.

Better hurry.

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  1. Eric,

    I’m glad I bought that 84 VT700 Shadow this past winter. I still have a shit load of work to do on it but I’m now using it as a daily rider to commute to work and back. DMV wanted to know if I wanted an antique tag. Nope, regular don’t need the hassle of the po po when I ride to work. BTW, I paid 1400 cash for it. Not a great deal but not a bad one either. Since I bypassed the fuel cut off relay the bike has been solid as a rock, engine wise. No oil leaks.

    I will be selling my Kaw 05 VN750A soon. I bought it new and rode it for 10 years putting 45k on it. But now it needs an alternator rebuild (requires an engine R&R). A ring job (thanks to K&N for F’n me with the crappy air filters) and probably a set of seals and gaskets. It leaks oil due to excessive engine compression blow by (plug one leak a new one appears very quickly). Since Kaw no longer makes gasket sets for this bike a rebuild would be in the 3k range. To much moola for a bike that only cost 5k to begin with.

    Wish I had a way to post some pictures of the work in progress on the Honda. But it is what it is.

    David Ward
    Memphis, Tennessee

    • I do want to add that it is getting harder to find parts for these bikes just like one earlier post mentioned. However, I was actually able to find an aftermarket ignition with key for this bike. That in itself is remarkable. This bike is 30 + years old and I found someone selling a brand spanking new lock cylinder ignition switch for it. Astounding and Outstanding at the same time. Lots of Honda parts are interchangeable with other bikes that still have a huge following so Honda still makes parts for them. It is just getting the part number for the original and finding out what newer bikes used the exact same part. I’ve got two throttle cables that will fit this bike that I have to install and route. Who ever owned the bike prior didn’t route the ones now installed properly and the PVC jacket has a hole due to rubbing against the gas tank. Not good. I’ll also reroute the choke cable when I do that work. It is not routed correctly either.

      Same with the brake and clutch master cylinders. They both have occluded sight glasses and the sight glass is on the road side and not the operator side. Can’t figure that one out.. However, I found an aftermarket dealer that makes both units in chrome with the sight glass on the operator side. To boot, the vendor included a rebuild kit with each master cylinder. Awesome! So, that is the next project after the throttle cables. Like I mentioned earlier, I still have a lot of work to do on this bike. For example, the front turn signals work but the amber running lights do not so that means a rewire of that subsystem. But when I get finished the bike will be pretty close to how it left the show room and that’s what it is all about anyway, right? Dependable transportation that is easy to work on and looks good. 🙂

      P.S. Added a windscreen to the bike for an easier ride when it rains! LOL!

      David Ward
      Memphis, Tennessee

    • I never heard of any problems with K&N filters. I have 10’s of thousands of miles on them in numerous BMW motorcycles. What happened?

  2. Eric, I gotta respectfully disagree. I have been riding for 42 years, and have restored my 1979 KZ 1000, and a 1969 Plymouth Fury III. Both vehicles were annoying to drive and work on, and I have since sold the KZ, and the Plymouth might be next.

    Don’t lament the whiz-bang Yamaha R1 – it will be obsolete in 2 years, and most units will have been crashed to pieces by then. It was made to homologate bikes for WSB racing and be a flagship technological masterpiece. I won’t own one, but they are cool.

    The reason the old bikes suck is their weak frames, crappy suspension and their oldness. I have friends on a Yamaha Super Tenere forum that have over 100,000 miles on their bikes with hardly a problem. My Super Tenere has upgraded suspension and a manual cam chain tensioner (which fixes the one weak spot on that engine) and I fully expect the bike to go over 150,000 miles with just routine maintenance. Most bikes these days are so well made that the service nightmare you outline in your essay will never happen, because the bikes simply won’t have big problems.

    If you have to have old school, you can still buy those kinds of bikes brand new: Suzuki DRZ 400, DR 650, Kawasaki KLR 650, Ural, and probably a few others.

    Besides the fact that new bikes are simply much better overall than old bikes – better frames, leak-free engines, incredible durability and reliability, and better components throughout, parts availability for old bikes gets worse each year. You might not be able to keep an old bike running due to lack pf parts.

    I understand the dis-trust of all the new tech. I don’t like a lot of it either, and some new bikes are not trustworthy machines (Certain KTM and BMW machines come to mind).

    But new bikes are so refined and simply much better machines than the older ones, it makes sense to at least look them over and pick one that will serve your needs without overwhelming you with computers. There are many available.

    • Hi Mark,

      I’ve had my Kz900 for decades – and ride it regularly. I trust it completely. The only issue it has is a once-every-two-years-or-so blowing of the main fuse. I’ve never been able to fix this, so the “fix” is carrying spare fuses for the once-every-two-years-or-so blowing of the main fuse.

      But other than that… 😉

      I agree the frame is heavy, not the hot ticket for track days or fast street riding. Ditto the stock brakes. But the bike is otherwise very modern feeling – and riding – and reliable.

      I should have mentioned the one major upgrade I did do: Got rid of the points and replaced them with a modern ignition. Set it – and forget it.

      • I have to back up Eric on this aspect. Many older bikes are very very dependable. My first VT700 was super dependable never had a problem with it after I rebuild the alternator system on it. I bought it with a marginal system but put off rebuilding it until it became necessary. The only time it quit on me was when I ran out of gas on the darn thing coming home from work at 9:00 p.m. and that was my fault as the bike has a sensor for low fuel that lights an indicator and I tried to make it home like an idiot. Hey! I was tired! I was more tired after I pushed the bike to a service station for a half mile to get gas, but it is what it is.

        I sold the bike because at the time I could not find fork parts for it. The left tube was slightly bent. Funny thing ten years ago parts like that were hard to find but now I see them everywhere supplied by third party folks that fill the need for such things. Thank the free market for that. After I sold the Shadow, I bought the Kaw (BTW, it was based on 80s technology as the first of this series was produced in 1985 and surprisingly looked almost like my old Honda Shadow. As a matter of fact, I have the VN750 in my driveway next to the Honda VT700. I could take photos of both and post them and I bet dollars to donuts no one here would be able to say which was the Kaw and which is the Honda unless they could tell by sight the differences) and as I stated before that bike was also super dependable. It was my idiotic use of K&N filters on the Vulcan that screwed me.

        I just want to add one other thing. The people that will be buying the bikes that Eric mentions in the article will drive suppliers to open the market for parts. In the past, most people depended on the MFGs for parts. Now the MFGs turn a blind eye to retro buyers. The market will always demand someone fill the void the MFGs ignores. It is how things work (like the ignition switch I recently purchased. Did it come with a premium price? Probably but 59 bucks is cheaper than a ticket from the Bartlett, Tn PD for your tail light not working). In a free world that is how it should be. Sure modern bikes are probably nanny state safe. Those people that want that can damn sure buy them. I’m not holding a gun to anyone’s head and say don’t do it! But and here is the big BUT those of us that adhere to the KISS principle will always demand exactly that (BTW, if you don’t know what that means it is Keep It Simple Stupid!).

        Just my two cents.

        David Ward
        Memphis, Tennessee

        • Check out the motorcycle wrecking yards to save money on parts. Forking by Frank has been a reliable after-market supplier of fork tube for decades. Joining motorcycle clubs for your brand is another good source to find parts. I have been doing this for close to 50 yrs. I have twin & K bike BMW’s from 75-99. We all have our passions. I could get you a nice BMW for a reasonable price. Good Luck!

          • Hi Dr!

            The Hardley is coming along. I have the calipers off/apart for rebuilding and did a little polishing work on the rocket covers and other such. It is beginning to show a glimmer of hope!

            On Monday, I’m gonna go see the local HD parts store and see about the push-pull cables (getting a set that will work with these aftermarket bars/controls that are on the bike).

      • I’d like to find an ’81 or maybe bit newer Suzuki 1100 GL. That extra gear made them great cruisers. A full fairing for the front end would be just the ticket. I know everybody has to put up with birds but already I can see this is going to be one of those grasshopper years. I’ve had plenty that sounded like I was running into rocks. I liked the adjustable air forks.

  3. I hate to say it but if SHTF an old pre 80’s small block chevy truck would probably be my first choice because parts to fix it will be the easiest to find. So if that’s the case then I’d have to get a harley for a bike for the same reason.

    • moparman, a 4WD pickup is probably the best bet. I only have spare engines, intakes, cams, used and new, distributors and plenty other parts for a SBC. I have a BBC 3/4T 4WD that would run with a new timing chain set and run fairly well with re-worked heads and a new cam. Probably the only thing I don’t have is extra 15″ tires for my half ton with a SBC that ran well when I parked it……and a spare transmission for it. The tire thing is going to be the rub since they age even in the dark of the rack in the pump house.

      What I need to pick up somewhere is a propane kit since I have a fair amount of propane on hand. I only have 250 gallons of tank for diesel or gas. That won’t go far. I think fuel is going to be the main problem. Maybe I should buy that Honda 50 I found.

  4. My 1st bike was a 76 KZ750 I bought for $600. It was a great bike, but stupidly I sold it when I decided to upgrade to a 2000 Shadow VT1100 which I regretted because it was just way too heavy for me to handle and I never felt comfortable riding it. I ended up selling it after I had my car accident to help pay for bills. A couple of years after I initially bought the Shadow, I had an opportunity to make a trade on an old Porsche 924 with a blown engine to a kid who had a 82 Honda GL500 Silverwing that was in good running condition. It came with all the accessories, a chilton manual, and mechanically it was rock solid other than a very minor oil leak at the front of the engine case. It’s great engineering…water cooled so you can run all day long and shaft drive so no worries on the chain either. I love that bike more than the KZ750 or Shadow because it was much smaller and easier to handle. I still have that one stored in our barn up in Ky in hopes that I’ll be able to ride it again one day. I figure it’s a great vehicle to have in a SHTF scenario too since it’s reliable, great on gas, & has all the hardbags and the trunk too. I remember when those bikes first came out that Honda had a commercial showing a guy & some hot girl with a great looking ass pull into a motel parking lot on one of those, then each of them pulled off one of the suitcases and went into their room, and then came back out, clipped the bags back on and got right back on the road again. I looked on youtube, but couldn’t find the original commercial, but I can still remember seeing it back when I was in high school.

    • For SHTF or End game, I wonder how far back to get clear of solid state electronics? I remember my dad’s 1973 MB 280SE had a electronic ignition and IIRC EFI. Unless you get back to a magneto system or a generator, i.e. no alternator it probably has at least diodes in the system.

      I’ve owned an R69S BMW and flex chassis, WEAK brakes, and a 30K mile tear down to clean the oil slingers! But it would start without a battery even installed, did many times when the battery was too expensive for my budget:)

      • True…there are some electronics on the Honda, but they’re minimal like a voltage regulator and a starter. One thing the KZ750 had that the GL500 doesn’t but I wish it did is a kickstarter. But then again, I seem to remember racking the shit out of my shin trying to kickstart that bastard when the battery died and going up to Advance for a new battery once I stopped limping. The 82 GL500 is definitely very easy to work on compared to the Shadow though and it has the advantage of having just enough of the old school technology with the benefit of a water cooled engine and shaft drive to make it a perfect option for me.

        • That kick start thing brought me back, when I was riding a big 350 thumper and HAD to use the compression release! That one would literally throw you over the bars, at least my 130lb frame:)
          Yeah if your not racing a shaft drive it pretty damn nice! But if you start down that slippery sloop then EFI is damn nice, just punch a button and it starts 99.99% of the time!

        • TB, also I hate to tell you but the 82 GL500 had solid state ignition and an alternator! I always toyed with the idea of slapping Moto Guzzi badges on one just to see how long it took my bike friends to notice it was a Honda underneath, then when they noticed, blow some smoke saying Guzzi out sourced the engine 🙂
          I never got the GL500 but I did have the VFR1000F a V4 longitudinal mounted. But I’ve always like the Wings and BMWs for the low CG.

  5. I agree Eric – if you’ve got available investment money, buying a 70’s or even an 80’s bike (like the 1st gen BMW K series) has the possibility of returning serious coin in a few years. Heck, buy two – one to ride, one to put into storage.

    I’ve seen several vintage Hondas (with the flat seats) being ridden around Austin by young “hipsters”. As a class, hipsters are trend leaders. What they do today is what will be mainstream in a few years.

    And as they get seen riding these older bikes, people who rode them when they were new will get feelings of nostalgia, and bid up the prices, because now they have money, unlike when they were in high school and college and rode a bike because it was affordable reliable transportation.

      • Was Austin ever populated by Texans? I wonder. Why would a mascot be an emasculated bovine when a cow is about as rank as it gets?

        I watched my best friend get his horse downed by a cow, then she ran after him and tore through the fence he jumped over and wrapped him up in the fence she drug behind her. Later, he got in the middle of the gate to the pens and she blasted through trying to get him. He jumped over the top rail and we jammed 3 big cedar posts in-between the rails of the gate. She blasted through all three and left the area. She took up residence in a tank and nobody could get near the tank to fish or do anything else.

        Dove season comes along and we find her right at the edge of the water with a big hole between her eyes where she went after some unlucky dove hunter. He probably had to clean his pants afterward. Nobody lamented her loss. Every crazy cow turns out a crazy calf without exception.

        I finally loaded one I had and then had to get gas. She almost got out of the trailer trying to get to me. I pumped gas while hiding under the pickup and then hauled her dirty butt to the sales. Pulled up into the unloading chute and opened the trailer door. She put every cowboy there on the run and over the top rails. Last I saw of her she was spinning in a circle looking every which way and slinging snot. This was the second day after she got on her feet from being down in a tank I drug her out of and into a trailer and doctored her for weeks including slinging straps under her and getting her back on her feet. I spent $150 on vet bills and medicine and weeks of my time getting her back to health. She sold for $98. Shoulda coulda woulda. That was one bullet that wouldn’t have been wasted.

        Tell that story to somebody in Austin and they’d just have a blank look or pity you for being a stupid rancher and not getting one of those good gummint checks they are all cashing.

        • That is hilarious! You should start a reality show and let some of those clowns experience what you went through with that cow. That would be fun to watch.

          • Yep, probably the funniest part would be me trying to give the old bitch a bolus and her slinging her head around and damn near crippling me hitting my leg….finally gave her a big shot of amoxicillin in the ass where she couldn’t get me.
            I know some old cows from college who live in Austin. They’re probably just as crazy and dangerous to boot but you could probably lure then into the trailer with a nice Brie and an expensive cabernet sauvignon. I’ve notice old cows tend to like soft cow cheese, almost cannabalistic.

            I’m guessing a show would be mostly beeps with little other dialogue.


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