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Older Bikes

Motorcycling is supposed to be enjoyable.  There are many different aspects of this sport that can provide that enjoyment.  Riding a motorcycle is generally perceived as the penultimate description of that enjoyment.  Different people take different paths to this riding aspect, nearly as many different paths as there are people and the motorcycles available to do it.  What we will deal with in this article is the choice to buy an older bike.  Now I’m not talking a three or four year old model, but one from the 80’s or early 90’s that may have an initial attraction due to lower price, but pitfalls in the area of repairs and/or maintenance. 


The first recommendation when looking for an older bike is to have a reasonable idea of the budget available for the entire project.  Not just purchasing it but also:

1.)    Inspection fee(s)

2.)    Costs of recommended safety-related services and repairs

3.)    Insurance

4.)    Upcoming service-interval maintenance

That classic on ebay may be a labyrinth of future expenditures that will be a superb buzzkill for this project.

Spend the money to have a trusted professional inspect the bike.  Specific areas of concern would include but not be limited to:

1.)    Tire condition.  Not just tread wear, but age deterioration issues, also valve stems

2.)    Brakes.  On older bikes, the tendency of brake fluid to absorb moisture can cause corrosion problems that affect the ability of the brakes to apply properly, but just as important, release properly.  Brake overhauls will often involve piston and/or slider replacement which is becoming more and more of a challenge due to finding the pistons and seals due to parts scarcity.  The wear on the friction materials needs to be checked at this time also.

3.)    Carburetion and related rubber parts.  Often the carburetors are suffering from improper storage issues, compounded by the use of ethanol-dosed gas.  See the tech tip on our website relating to gasoline issues.  To properly service these older fuel systems the float valves and related o-rings need to be replaced.  Often these parts will be in the $30 to $45 range each.  We have spent $3000 on a special ultrasonic cleaning system to do the best job of cleaning without damaging the nylon bushings and internal o-rings that the conventional carb dip tanks can destroy.  The rubber manifolds holding the carbs to the head and connectiong to the airbox can be a source of poor running and air leaks.  You need to budget $25 to $45 each for the manifolds and $11 to $24 each for the airbox connectors.  Some bikes have pre-molded fuel and vent hoses that will need replacing along with the sealing o-rings for fuel delivery tubes.

4.)    Chain and Sprockets.  Often older bikes will have these issues even if it from sitting and the chain rusting up.  Push up in the middle of the chain between the sprockets and with your other hand pull out on the chain where it runs on the rear sprocket.  If it pulls away at all from the sprocket, at least the chain will need to be replaced and the sprockets more closely inspected. 

5.)    Engine/powertrain (clutch, transmission, rear end, etc.) condition.  Excessive smoking, abnormal engine, not running on one or more cylinders, and similar bad behaviors should throw a red flag.  It is often difficult to tell when issues with carburetion make it difficult to ascertain the true condition of the motor and powertrain.  Dyno testing (with the consent of the present owner) can show problems and deficiencies, saving money down the road.

6.)    General appearance.  The overall appearance can be an indicator of how the previous owner(s) felt about the bike.  A clean, non-rusted appearance indicates that at least the bike was kept indoors, out of the weather, which in northern climates weather damage can and does include salt corrosion.  On the other hand, I have seen some of the ugliest bikes have a heart of gold and run much better than their appearance would indicate.  Weather damage includes cables, rubber parts, gauge faces and covers along with paint and chrome. 

As mentioned earlier, an inspection by a professional is highly recommended to allow the purchase of an older bike from a position of knowledge.  These inspections generally take from half an hour to two or three hours depending upon extensive you feel is needed to be comfortable or is recommended by the inspector.  This also gives you a chance to ask questions and get personal opinions from the inspector on various models.  We do not recommend purchasing an older bike for cross-country touring as a rule, but they can be very cost-effective transportation and a lot of fun.  An older bike is also a perfect venue for a person (male or female) who would like to look into learning a bit more about a bike than where the gas goes in.  Service information is available and most of the newer bike issues have been resolved by now.

Taking it one step farther, I wasn’t aware that you could buy a motorcycle in running condition as the first five or six of them came home with me in boxes and bushel baskets!

While the points mentioned above apply to any age of motorcycle, they are especially pertinent for the “aged to perfection” units. 

Take care and happy riding!

© Bill Whisenant 2007
updated 11/26/2012


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