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How to buy an Old Motorcycle

Updated on October 26, 2013
A row of inexpensive classic and vintage Japanese motorcycles in Portland, Oregon.
A row of inexpensive classic and vintage Japanese motorcycles in Portland, Oregon.

Buying a Classic Motorcycle.

There's something about old bikes. Something visceral, something emotional. The small quirks, the audible and visual mechanics of the bike, the bit of artistry that modern motorcycles, for the most part, seem to lack.

These, and all the other points of what we call "character" can build a bond between the person and machine that is seldom found with the high-tech wonders of current state of the art motorcycle manufacturing.

While many well loved, running, and meticulously maintained classic and vintage motorcycles come up for sale, they demand a premium. This article is targeted at those who are looking for a deal on a classic motorcycle, and what to look for to get the bike you want.

Starting your search.

Before you start your search, make a general outline of what you want, your budget, and an honest appraisal of your own ability to perform repairs and maintenance.

American and European classic motorcycles are, generally speaking, more expensive than their Japanese counterparts, as are replacement parts and labor, if you need professional work done.

Be sure to research these issues before making your decision.

Once you've gotten an idea about what you want, peruse the internet for forums that are specific to the makes and models you are interested in. There are many very good ones, with helpful people, that can apprise you of the average cost of the bike you are considering in your area, the common areas of failure, and costs of repair for those failures.

When you've gathered the information you need, it's time to start searching for your new-to-you classic bike.

Good places to start your search are your local craigslist, local papers classified ads, your friends, eBay auctions in your area, and publications like Cycle Trader.

The pitfalls of motorcycle classified advertisements

Here is a short list of things to be on the lookout for in the advertisements:
"Ran when Parked."
Very few people park a perfectly running motorcycle, never to ride it again. It was more than likely parked because something was wrong with it. Get the real story behind it's 'decommissioned' status.
"No title, bill of sale only. Should be easy to title."
Some states do not require a title for bikes built before certain years, but most do. Check with your states DMV (or equivalent) before you buy a motorcycle with no title. A bike without a title can be very time consuming and costly to obtain a new one, and complete the titling. For the most part, in most states, an untitled bike is worth it's junking or parts value.
"Tires only had 100 miles on them before it was parked."
First, refer to the "Ran when Parked" situation. Second, understand that mileage is not the only metric to determine the safety and condition of a tire. Age of the tire is very important. As tires age, regardless of their mileage, they lose elasticity, strength and grip. Ten year old tires that haven't been mounted are still unsuitable for use. In addition, tires that have sat in one position for too long, especially if low on air, develop a flat spot, which is unsafe and not suitable for use.
"Probably only needs a carb cleaning and a new battery."
Considering that a running motorcycle commands two to three times the price of a non-running motorcycle, it would only make sense that the seller would perform these tasks before advertising the motorcycle, but for some reason, hasn't. Generally speaking, this means the bike doesn't run and the seller doesn't know why.
In addition, this means that proper storage protocol was not adhered to, and extra work and time will be required to deal with the aged fuel and fuel varnish in the tank, carbs and fuel lines, as well as other fluids that should have been changed or removed.
Remember that all bikes that have been sitting for any length of time will require a carb cleaning and battery replacement.
"low speed accident, minor damage."
Low speed accidents generally cause damage only to hand and foot controls, fairings (if applicable) and handlebars.
If there appears to be greater damage than this, the motorcycle may have been in a more serious accident than indicated by the advertisement, and when viewing the bike, special care should be given to inspecting forks, frame and wheel.
This is a small, but most common, set of statements that should raise a flag of caution to you.

Inspecting a Honda CB550

Up close and personal with a classic Honda motorcycle.
Up close and personal with a classic Honda motorcycle.

Checking out the bike

You've found a bike for sale that piques your interest, you've called the seller, and made an appointment to inspect the bike.
If you can, bring these items with you:

  • A charged motorcycle battery.
  • A set of small jumper cables.
  • Starting fluid.
  • A small flashlight.
  • A multimeter.
  • A small set of tools common to the bike you are inspecting. This includes a spark plug socket.
  • Half a gallon of gas.

You may not need all these for every bike you look at, but it's a good idea to have them all with you when looking to purchase an older bike that may have been sitting for a while.

And finally, bring a knowledgeable friend. Two sets of eyes are always better than one.

Now it's time to look over the bike.

Things to view first would be, assuming the motorcycle has not been in an accident:

Check controls. Throttle, brakes, and clutch. Do they all appear to work? If they don't, is the reason apparent? Broken cables can be replaced easily. Replacement of brake caliper pistons, if frozen, are much more difficult and costly, as are stuck clutches and frozen carb slides

.Does the engine turn? If the bike doesn't run, and has a kickstart, make sure it's in neutral and attempt to kick the bike over. If the engine turns freely, but with some good resistance, that's good. It means the pistons aren't stuck. If the kickstart moves with no real resistance, there could be larger problems, such as a stuck-open clutch, a damaged/out of adjustment kickstart gear, or other problems. If the kick wont move at all, the bike may have a seized engine. Again, make sure the bike is in neutral.
If the bike does not have a kickstarter, hook up your battery with your jumper cables to the bikes battery (do not reverse polarity, positive goes to positive, negative goes to negative), and attempt to turn the engine over with the starter button, the same rules as above apply.

Open the tank and use your flashlight to look for rust and varnish. Old gas can be emptied, but varnish and rust are another matter. Many radiator service shops can clean and seal an old tank, but it is an expense, and often the paint job must be redone.

Pull a sparkplug or two and hold your thumb over the sparkplug hole. Have your friend either kick over the motor or hit the start button for you. If the pressure blows your thumb off the hole, then compression is happening. Of course, this will not tell you how much compression, but a piston with a hole in it won't blow your thumb off the sparkplug hole.
While you are there, check the condition of the plug wires and boots, and check for spark at the spark plug with your battery connected (be careful, holding the boots or wires while cranking or kicking over the engine can give you quite an uncomfortable shock.)

If the bike has a centerstand, set it on the centerstand and, if possible, turn the wheels by hand. 'Chunkiness', noises or 'notches' may be noticeable. If so, the bearings will need to be replaced (do not confuse the 'chunkiness' of an old chain for bearing wear.)
While there, inspect the wheels. Any noticeable divots or flat spots on the wheel itself (not the tire) will require replacement (or at least a truing, if it is a spoked wheel.)
Do the same for the steering while the bike is on the centerstand. Have your friend hold down the back while you turn the wheel slowly from right to left. If there is a notch, chunkiness, or it 'falls' into a groove, the steering bearings will require replacement.

Also, be sure to check the fork stanchions for pits or rust. If pitted or rusted, they will tear the fork seals and have to be replaced.

If, incredibly, the bike only requires fresh gas and fresh battery to run, start it up (making sure there is sufficient oil first) and use your multimeter on the battery terminals. Test voltage at idle, and off idle (usually between 2200 and 3200RPM on smaller displacement bikes.)
The voltage should be showing at least 12.4 volts at idle, and anywhere between 13.7 and 14.5 at higher RPM's.
If these values are lower or higher than that, the bike may have issues with the regulator, rectifier, or the generator.

I've left out discussing the aesthetics (i.e. condition of paint and chrome, etc.) because these are not a requirement for a well-running classic bike. These details are entirely up to your discretion.

New Home

This neglected mid 70's Suzuki GS550 is in the back of a truck on it's way to a new home.
This neglected mid 70's Suzuki GS550 is in the back of a truck on it's way to a new home.

Making your decision

Now that you have a list, it's time to look at how much this motorcycle will actually cost you. After you've done a good checklist, it's easy to determine an approximate cost of getting this old bike up, safe, and running.
Remember to add:

  • Cost of the motorcycle
  • Cost of title
  • Cost of repairs
  • Cost of replacement parts
  • Cost of tires and battery
  • Cost of required maintanence

Once you've added these all up, compare the sum to the price of a roadworthy, operational bike of the same make and model. This will help you decide whether you are getting a good deal or not on the bike you are looking at.
Many people find themselves surprised that the bike they picked up as a 'bargain' ultimately ends up costing them more than if they had bought a good condition running and cared-for bike of the same make and model.

Most of all, have fun, and enjoy your time with a motorcycle that appeals to the soul as much as to the mind.

Restored Honda CL350

The total cost of this beautifully restored Honda CL350 was more than the cost of a well maintained, though not perfect, specimen.
The total cost of this beautifully restored Honda CL350 was more than the cost of a well maintained, though not perfect, specimen.

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