Buying Your First Motorcycle : What to Look For ?

Buying First Motorcycle

Buying a used motorcycle seems something of a crap shoot to the uninitiated. Judging a dependable bike from a pile of junk may appear difficult to the first-time buyer, but a couple of basic motorcycle characteristics make it easier than you might think.

First, motorcycles have nothing to hide. If a frame has been repaired, you will see welds or cracks in the paint. If the bike leaks fluids, those fluids will ooze out before your eyes.

Second, there’s just not that much to a motorcycle. Compared to cars, they are relatively simple devices.

Further simplifying the buying process is the fact that what you need to check is limited to just a few basic items; luckily, you won’t need to worry about all the parts of a motorcycle covered in Anatomy of a Motorcycle Category (at least on Japanese bikes—European and American machines present a few more challenges). The things to look for when buying can be broken down into two broad categories: condition and completeness.

Critical : Condition

You need to ascertain the mechanical and cosmetic condition of a motorcycle before you make an offer.

Judging a bikes’ cosmetic condition is easy: Just ask yourself how it looks. By looking at the bodywork and such items as mirrors, turn signals, and mufflers, examining those items for scratches, dents, and other deformities, you can usually tell if a bike is in good shape. Pay particular attention to the outside edges of those items, the edges likely to contact pavement in even the most minor tip over.

Usually you will find some evidence of a tipover, even if it’s just microscopic scratches. Finding a machine that hasn’t fallen over at least once is rare. If the scratches are so minor they are difficult to see, you needn’t worry. Often, they can be minimized with some chrome polish and some elbow grease. (Be aware, however, that a dealer will also find these scratches should you someday decide to trade the bike in.)

Even if you find more major evidence of a low-speed spill, that shouldn’t dissuade you from buying the bike; Just reflect the costs of cosmetic restoration in your offer. Often, the owner will have already taken such things into consideration when setting a price.

When purchasing European or American motorcycles, there are a few other things to watch for. Cosmetically, Harleys will more often than not be immaculate, but you need to check things such as the belt-drive system. Fraying or missing teeth indicate future problems, problems that are expensive to correct.

The level of finish on European bikes tends to be lower than that of Japanese motorcycles, and corrosion can be a problem. This is especially true of Italian bikes, but it can even be a problem on BMWs. For example, BMW doesn’t apply a clear finish to exposed aluminum on items such as the fork legs. While this finish tends to yellow with exposure to sunlight, giving the forks on older Japanese motorcycles a dingy appearance, it protects the metal from corrosion. This corrosion becomes more pronounced in coastal areas, because of the salt in sea air. It’s also a problem for machines used during the winter, because of the salt placed on roads in snowy climes.

The outside condition of a bike can help give clues to the condition of internal parts. If a bike looks good and runs well (if it starts easily when both cold and hot, if it idles smoothly without making horrible noises, and accelerates adequately for a bike of its size), the odds are it’s okay inside. The owner has more than likely lavished as much care on the motorcycle’s internals as he or she has on the bike’s appearance.

Notes : Some motorcycles have built-in odd noises. Suzuki’s two-valve GS series, for example, has a camchain guide that allows the chain to slap while idling at low speeds. This causes no damage whatsoever, but the mechanical knocking sound has caused many unnecessary top-end rebuilds because owners didn’t know about the defect and thought something was wrong.

I once went shopping for a Harley-Davidson with a friend of mine who was looking for an Electra Glide. At one dealership, we found two of them. Both bikes were the same model year, both were similarly equipped, and both had around 57,000 miles on them. The price on each bike was identical. One bike was black, the other a hideous dustyrose color. My friend was partial to black motorcycles.

Unfortunately, the black one was in much worse shape, cosmetically. It had spent much of its life sitting outside in the elements, judging by the corrosion on the engine and other aluminum parts. This was a red flag to me: If the previous owner had taken such abysmal care of the outside of the bike, what sort of care had he given the inside?

I advised my friend to buy the rose-colored bike, if he was determined to buy either. But he bought the black one with the pitted aluminum.

The bike was nothing but trouble, right from the start. He’d had it less than a week when the clutch went out and left him stranded on the freeway. The next week, the drive belt went out. After we fixed that, he started having trouble with the carburetor. We took it apart and discovered that someone had tried to repair it using what looked like rubber cement.

My friend had that bike for several years, and he never did get it to run right, even after he overhauled the engine. He spent so much money fixing the thing, he could have painted the rose-colored bike several times over.


Along with the condition of a bike, make certain that all the pieces are there. Items such as missing side covers or other body panels can cost as much as a cheap motorcycle. Check a motorcycle to make certain it has the following items :

- Side covers. These are the plastic covers that cover components located behind the engine, under the seat. These can often break and come off the motorcycle, and are very expensive (and in some cases impossible) to replace.

- Emblems and insignias. These are often glued or screwed to the tank or sidecover, and are also difficult to find for older motorcycles.

- If a bike has an aftermarket fairing, make certain all the original lighting and turn-signal brackets and components come with the bike. Should you decide to restore the motorcycle to its original condition, you’ll need these pieces, and on some bikes, they can cost as much as the motorcycle itself.

- Fenders. This will probably only be an issue if someone has tried to build a chopper out of a motorcycle. Generally, such bikes make poor candidates for restoration, and should be avoided.

Costs for individual parts, especially on Japanese motorcycles, run high, partly because of the Japanese manufacturers’ practice of custom designing nearly every part on each individual model. On the other hand, Harley-Davidson, and to a lesser extent the European manufacturers, tend to use many of the same parts on various models. Only minor tweaks, such as different wheels and fenders, differentiate one Harley model from the next. This enables them to spread development costs across the entire line.

Be especially concerned with completeness when buying an older motorcycle. You may find items like side covers and seat covers unavailable for an older bike. These parts usually can be found with a little leg work. Just because a bike is not complete is no reason to reject it outright: Just reflect the potential cost of replacing parts in your offer.