How to buy a vintage motorcycle

I often get asked about ‘what to look for when buying an old Japanese motorcycle’, so I thought I would post a few tips and pointers to help people make informed decisions as to what to look for and what to avoid.
This will be changed as time goes on…

Firstly, decide what you want out of a motorcycle.
This is probably the most overlooked thing as people have a habit of buying with their hearts rather than their heads. If you are under 5’6″ and are just going to ride it about town and not do long road trips, you probably shouldn’t buy a CB750. They are heavy and hard to handle for the beginner. If you want a larger engine but not the bulk, then go for a twin cylinder as they weigh on average 100 lbs less than a four cylinder.

The Yamaha XS650 or Kawasaki KZ750 twins are reliable and easy to get parts for in this category. On the other hand, if you do plan on frequent long rides… a CB350 would be quite the ordeal after an hour of freeway. As a general rule, if you do freeways a lot… get a four cylinder as they are a whole bunch smoother than a single or twin.

Honda CB550′s or CB750′s, Kawasaki  KZ650′s and Suzuki GS550′s or 750′s are a good choice as they have good freeway manners and are not too huge for around town (providing you are large enough for the bike). As far as the big bikes go, the Kawasaki KZ1000, Suzuki GS1000 and Honda CB750 are the only choices for ease of parts and reliability. For about town riding it’s really down to what you feel comfy with, your experience and personal preference. The smaller Honda CB range is a good start… although I would avoid the 175 and 200 twins simply because most of them have been abused and they are getting harder to get parts for. The CB350 and CL350′s are a good choice, as is the CB/CL360 (these are usually a little cheaper and have an extra gear and a little more power than the 350. Although the 350 is always going to be more sought after). The CB450 is a good bike if you get a good one, although parts are getting costly (especially engine builds) and they are heavy. I always say get a Yamaha XS650 instead as they weigh the same, have more power and are a whole lot easier to get parts for… plus they are simply great bikes.

Use your lizard brain.
If something doesn’t seem right… it probably isn’t. If whatever you are looking at has a dead battery, assume it’s never ridden or has electrical issues. At best, it’s not maintained. If it doesn’t idle, it will need a full engine service including a carb strip and clean. If it looks dirty and rusty, it’s been neglected and will need a lot of work to make it reliable. Common sense is the key here. If something isn’t on the road… ask yourself why. There is always a good reason why people sell bikes and that usually means there was a problem with it that they don’t want to deal with… unless they buy and sell them a lot which means they are trying to make a living. Don’t get caught up in the ‘low mileage’ trap. If a 30 or 40 year old bike has only done a couple of thousand miles… that means it’s spent most of it’s life doing nothing… and that’s not a good thing for any machine. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad bike, but any bike that sits for a long while will have teething problems unless you are very lucky. If a bike is used on a regular basis and looks well cared for, these are the ones you need to buy.

Stick to popular bikes.
If you want to use your bike on a regular basis, stick to ones that you can get parts for. Otherwise you’ll be waiting 2 weeks when your clutch cable snaps. The following are easy to get parts for and are also easy to work on:                                                 

  • Honda CB125S, XL100-250, CB350, CL350, CB360, CL360, CB350/4, CB400T, CM400/450, CB550 and CB750. Later CB750-1100 bikes are more expensive to work on, but can still get most parts.             
  • Kawasaki KZ200-400, KZ650, KZ750 twin.
  • Suzuki TS100-400, GS550, GS750, GS1000.
  • Yamaha RD250/350/400 (includes the R5, although any 2 stroke will require more maintenance), DT100-400, XS400 and XS650 (all other XS’s apart from these two are hard to get parts for).

The XS650 is THE easiest and cheapest vintage bike to get parts for bar none. The Honda CB range is also easy, but a little more costly. It’s old and crotchety… like me. Remember, as with ANY old machine, it will need work to make it good. Unless it is completely rebuilt (when I say completely, I mean every single nut and bolt) by someone who knows that bike very well, and you will have issues at some point. Even if it has been rebuilt, it is still a 30-40 year old machine with 40 year old parts. You will not buy a vintage bike and have trouble free riding unless you are very lucky. Use your common sense here people. Even new vehicles screw up now and then… so one that was built before Star Wars was heard of will be a labor of love. Buy the best you can afford. Most bikes that haven’t run in a long while will need approximately $1000-$1500 in labor and parts before it’s road ready. Bear this in mind before throwing all your cash at that low mileage Honda that’s been in storage for the last 30 years… even though it is very pretty. It’s often cheaper to get one that’s well cared for and on the road to start with, than renovate one that hasn’t. Also, cosmetics are THE most expensive part of a restoration… so take that into account if you want a pretty bike. To restore most vintage Japanese bikes to showroom condition, it will cost anywhere from $10,000-$20,000 depending what it is. This includes over 100 hours of labor on average, plus whatever parts it needs.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

  • There are many things that are a bad idea but are commonly thought of as being cool. Here’s a short list of them:
  • Pod filters. Yeah… Unless they are real K&N’s or real UNI filters AND your carbs are jetted to match, these will LOOSE you power and gas mileage. Cheap pod filters are way worse than the stock air box as they not only flow too much air, but they flow it all in the wrong directions.
  • Exhausts. These have a massive bearing on how your bike runs. The length of an exhaust also has a huge effect. Hondas as a rule like long mufflers, such as Dunstall reverse cones… they just run right with the right exhaust.
  • Short mufflers or just head pipes usually loose you all your low range power, but will run OK at high RPM. Long pipes with too much restriction will make the bike bog down at high RPM. So it’s important to get an exhaust which not only suits the engine and intakes, but your riding style too.
  • Header wrap. This was originally designed for cars to keep the under-hood temperature down… which it does very well. However, on a motorcycle it insulates the headers so that they actually can’t get rid of heat and can overheat the exhaust valves. Ignore any crap about it accelerating the gas out of the exhaust and making more power… unless you are track racing, you will never notice.

Any idiot that runs a bike with only a rear brake is f***king crazy. Bikes need both brakes no matter how cool it looks without the front brake. The ONLY machines that should only run a rear brake are dirt trackers that are actually racing.

If you come across those hideous Firestone trailer tires on a bike, plan on getting a set of real tires. Any of those square-section ‘cool’ bobber tires will eventually kill you. I cannot stress enough how dangerous they are, especially in the wet.

Cafe’s and Bobbers.
Most cafe style bikes and bobbers are badly made with no thought to mechanical integrity. They are made to look a certain way and function is mostly an afterthought. I’m a firm believer that form should follow function, not the other way around. If you are dead set on having one… take a close look at the quality of work. make sure the wiring is neat and properly color coded… and not all red/black (it takes about 6-10 hours to wire a bike properly from scratch). Check everything functions the way it should and the bike idles and pulls without hesitations. Make sure it has proper fasteners and not horrible standard Home Depot bolts everywhere. In short… if the work looks like it was done buy a professional who cared about finish and quality, it’s probably safe to buy. Otherwise, walk away and get someone who knows what they are doing to build one for you… it will work out cheaper and better in the long run.

Speed is a question of money, how fast can you afford to go?
Most things people do to get more power out of an old bike are the wrong things. The best way to get power is to get a faster bike to start with. But, if you love the bike you have but want it to be faster, then get it on a weight loss program. This is called ‘free power’. It adds no more stress to the engine (in fact, it removes stress) and your power to weight ratio goes up… which is what you want. There is NO down side to weight loss on any vehicle… unless it’s a tank or earth mover.
Next to that, making the engine breathe better is the way to go. Cylinder head porting is probably the most cost effective power increase on a older bike, but this must be done right or you will loose power. having the correct carbs and exhaust is also critical. Bigger is not always better when it comes to these things… it’s all about creating harmony between components. Having huge free-flowing filters on a crappy engine won’t help a thing… it will literally become worse. It has to be able to breathe in AND out efficiently.

Does it look well cared for? If not, prepare for a lot of future problems and cost as parts wear out. Does it run well? Most bikes should be able to hold a steady idle of around 800-1300 RPM. If it cannot do this for more than 30 seconds, there’s a problem that will more than likely include carb, valve and ignition work.

  • Rattles. These are generally a very bad thing. Now, all engines have some valve train noise… but this should be minimal and not be able to be heard while riding. If you can hear it while wearing your helmet, you are more than likely in for a top end engine rebuild (from $700-$2500 depending on what bike).
  • Does it pull well when accelerating? Dead spots and a hanging throttle (when the revs don’t come down to idle quickly) are sure signs of either a blocked carb, or a poor choice of air filter/exhaust.
  • Do the brakes work? If you cannot stop quickly and safely, there’s a problem. Most brake issues are pretty easy to sort out… so if that’s the only thing it’s not too much of a worry.
  • Check the fork oil seals. If there is oil on the front brake or around the fork tubes (the shiny part of the front forks), then the seals are leaking. It’s about 2-3 hours work to strip, clean and re-assemble with new seals and oil. It will also fail inspection when leaking. When the forks are dry of oil, the front end becomes a pogo stick and very dangerous… so worth fixing.
  • Does the bike behave well on the road? If it feels twitchy or unstable, it could be anything from the forks to the swing arm bushings. Any bike in good condition should feel well mannered and safe. If you feel unsafe while riding (taken that you can actually ride a bike), then it will more than likely need some new bushings, bearings and adjustment.
  • Do ALL the electrics work? It’s quite normal for the odd bulb to blow, but all the essentials should be functioning fine. If the wiring looks like a sorry old birds nest, then you may be in for future charging and lighting problems. Oh, and if you see household wire nuts anywhere on the bike… run away!
  • Check the oil level and make sure it doesn’t look like crude oil. If this is the case, the bike obviously has been abused.
  • Check the steering is light and free from notches. If it wants to really be pointing straight ahead, then the bearing cups are worn and will need replacement (about 2 hours and $40 in bearings).
  • The most common thing to wear out on any bike is the chain. It should look like it’s seen oil sometime this decade and have roughly one inch of free play top to bottom at the center of the chain between sprockets.