Buying a Used Motorcycle (Without Being Abused)

I'm pretty sure Mr. Randolph wasn't describing a used motorcycle, but he might just as well have been. Over the years, I've seen way too many guys-guys in fact who should have known better-toss away tons of money on bikes that were junk, simply because they didn't know how to separate the shine from the stink.

Buying a used bike ain't rocket science. With a modicum of common sense and a few simple guidelines, just about anyone should be able to negotiate a satisfactory deal. Now, I can't provide the common sense, and I really can't help you with your negotiating skills, but what I can provide are the guidelines you'll need to avoid a stinker. Follow them, and I can guarantee you won't end up with a dead fish on your hands.

To begin with...Unless this is your very first bike, you probably have some idea of what you're looking for. That being the case, take the next logical step and learn as much as possible about it beforehand. Many bikes have certain idiosyncrasies, which the uninitiated may mistake for serious problems. For example, BMWs tend to smoke on startup if they're left parked on the kickstand for any length of time. This is a harmless byproduct of their engine layout and in no way means the engine has bad rings or anything else-something you might not realize if you're not familiar with the breed.

I'd also recommend brushing up on your basic mechanical skills. You needn't be an experienced wrench to buy a used bike, but you should at least know what a worn-out sprocket looks like or how to tell if the steering-head bearings need attention. We've covered many of these topics in previous issues, and there's always the how-to section down at the local library or bookstore. As a last resort, you have my e-mail address if you really need help quickly.

Rather than bore you with pages of techno-babble, I thought it'd be much easier on both of us if I just provided a handy checklist. I'm sure the circulation department would rather you bought a fresh copy of Cruiser every time you looked at a bike, but for my money, feel free to make a few copies. Since I'm not much for math, the checklist doesn't provide any values-it's simply there to show what you should be looking at. Once you've run the list, you should have a very good idea of what kind of shape the bike is in; after that, it's all up to common sense and the depth of your wallet.

The Official Motorcycle Cruiser Used-Bike Checklist

Body workFuel tank: general condition and paintFenders and side covers: look for scratches, dents, broken side-cover tabsSeat: look for tears and missing trim, collapsed foamPaint and chrome: look for repaired areas, general condition. Chrome should be shiny and rust freeWindshield: properly mounted, any cracks or glazing?Saddlebags: inspect hard bags for signs of damage, soft bags for tears or abrasions, especially on the wheel sidepanels

Engine/transmission/clutch

Oil: the level should be correct, and the oil relatively clean. (Cleanliness is subjective of course. If there's any doubt, find out when it was last changed.)Oil leaks: this ain't 1965; there shouldn't be anyStarting/running: most sellers will have warmed up the engine, so this can be deceptive. The engine should start easily, even if it's cold, and warm up within a few minutesSmoke: any heavy, black or blue smoke is cause for concern and reason to move onIdle/throttle response: a warm engine should idle smoothly at a reasonable speed. It should also respond smoothly to the throttle. If it spits and sputters before the rpm picks up, something is wrongNoise: any decent engine should be fairly quiet, though some engines are by nature mechanically louder than others. Knocks, rattles and rumbles often indicate potential disasters. Minor problems can cause an otherwise healthy engine to play a few bars from the anvil chorus, but it takes a trained ear to decipher them. Anything that sounds really wrong probably isTransmission: trannys are best checked during a road test, something that may not be in the cards. In general, the transmission should engage smoothly, and never, ever jump out of gear. If you can't road test the bike, you may be able to observe the owner run it through the gears. Listen for a missed shift, which may indicate an engagement problemClutch: make sure it's properly adjusted and doesn't drag or slip. Like the transmission, a clutch is best tested on the roadExhaust: look for exterior physical damage, especially rust bubbles. Look for broken hardware, particularly at the cylinder head. The system shouldn't leak

Handlebars/controls/switches

Handlebars, grips and mirrors: bars should be straight, grips in good condition, mirrors in placeLevers: should be straight and properly adjusted; check the ends for scratches possibly indicating the bike was droppedSwitches: make sure they work; a big shower of sparks when you try to use one indicates problemsCables: should operate freely without binding. Look for tears in the rubber covers. Check the routing, especially if aftermarket bars are fitted

Fuel tank/lines and petcock

Fuel tank: check for internal rust. The tank should be securely mounted, and there shouldn't be any signs of leaksFuel hoses: properly secured and in good conditionPetcock: if there is one, make sure it moves freely and doesn't leak

Cooling system (if applicable)

Leaks: there shouldn't be anyCoolant level: should be roughly halfway between max. and min. marksTemperature gauge: with the engine warmed up, the gauge should be reading normalCoolant fan: these all differ in operation. The owner or owner's manual should be able to fill you in on the particulars, but in the main the fan should come on whenever the gauge approaches the red zone and sometimes when the bike is parked with a hot engine, even if it's off

Tires/wheels and sprockets

Tires: there should be plenty of tread left, with no signs of dry rotWheels: look for dents, and, if possible, give the wheel a spin. If there's a noticeable wobble, it'll need to be trued, or replaced if it's a cast wheelSpokes: should all be snug and straight. Give each one a light tap with a pencil or screwdriver handle. A tight spoke will give off a "ping," while a loose one will sound flat. Bent spokes will have to be replacedWheel bearings: these don't give much trouble unless the bike has very high mileage or has been pounded with a high-pressure washer. The wheels should spin smoothly without excess playChain: should be properly lubricated and adjustedRear sprocket: teeth should be properly formed and straight. If they're hooked, bent or missing both sprockets, the chain will have to be replacedBelt: check for nicks, cuts, abrasion and adjustmentBelt pulley: look for excess wear, chipped cogs or external damageShaft drive/rear end: check for leaks; make sure the wheel turns smoothly without making any odd noises

Electrics/instruments

Battery: should be capable of starting the bike without strainLights: check the signal and brake lights in turn, and don't forget the high and low beams. Make sure all the indicator and instrument lights come onHorn: it either works or it doesn'tAccessories: all electric accessories should be properly installed. If it looks like "who did it and ran" wired the thing, figure on redoing the job ASAP.Wiring harness: be on the lookout for large gobs of tape or wires that have been spliced into the harness, which would indicate that someone's been in there fooling aroundCharging system: with the engine running, apply a brake (to turn on the brake light) and watch the headlight as the rpm rises. It should get slightly brighter as the charging system kicks inInstruments: these should be legible and work smoothly

Frame/Rear Suspension

Frame: look for indications of an accident, particularly around the steering head. Repainted areas, welds or deep scrapes indicate problems. If there's any doubt, move onRear shocks: look for leaks and loose mounting hardwareSwingarm/suspension pivots: check the swingarm for play; if the bike uses linkage, check each pivot point

Miscellaneous items

VIN numbers/engine numbers: altered, missing or non-matching numbers are a warning that something's not kosher. There may be a perfectly good explanation, but I'd recommend you consult with your local DMV before purchasing any bike with numbering issuesAftermarket parts: a gray area at best, particularly with cruisers.I'm always leery of "performance modifications." A pipe and airbox kit are one thing, especially if the stock parts are included in the deal, but unless you know exactly what you're getting into, hot rods can lead to serious headaches. Tread carefully, particularly if you intend to use the bike as a daily rider. As far as things like saddlebags and windshields are concerned, you can always take them off if you don't like themService records: these are nice to have, but few riders keep themPaperwork: verify that all the paperwork is complete, and that the numbers on the title and registration match the numbers on the bike. Make absolutely certain everything's in order before you hand over that cash.

First impressions

Those of you who attended Miss Manners School of Etiquette should recall the old adage about first impressions being the most lasting. The same is true of used motorcycles. In my experience, a bike that looks like it's had a rough life, probably has. As a rule, guys who don't worry about the way their bikes look generally aren't too concerned about the way they maintain them, either. While there are certainly some riders who take a perverse pride in riding a scruffy-looking yet immaculately maintained motorcycle, they are few and far between. Yeah, that cobby-looking Vulcan/VTX/Virago or Volusia may be a diamond in the rough, but chances are far more likely it's just rough.

Five for the RoadIf I were in the market for a used bike, these are the five I'd be looking for. (All prices are NADA Blue Book as of April 2006.)

Kawasaki 1500 Drifter(1999-2005; $4660- $9800): Sure it's goofy, but it's all in good fun, and they're a hoot to take to the AMCA meet.

Triumph Thunderbird(1996-2003; $2975- $5200): Gotta love that three-cylinder howl. These things are fun to ride and very reliable-a nice blend of style and practicality.

Suzuki Intruder 1500 LC(1998-2003; $4425- $7410): Yeah, they're slow and have limited fuel range, but they're comfortable, stable and solid. Look for the later models with upgraded brakes, and keep the steering-head bearing adjusted.

Honda Shadow ACE Tour(1999-2001; $5150- $5406, slightly cheaper in basic black): What can you say, it's a Honda, and a very attractive take on the traditional American touring bike, to boot.

Harley 883 SportsterA ringer if ever there was one. Why buy used when these puppies are going out the door new for less than $6500!

Front ForkSteering head bearings: check for play and dents; indented bearings must be replacedFork tubes: when viewed from the side, the tubes should appear to be perfectly straightFork seals: look for leaks, torn dust covers and signs of unusual wear on the fork tubes where they pass through the sealsAlignment: the fork tubes should be parallel, with the wheel centered. When the handlebars are in the straight-ahead position, the front wheel should also be straightClips: make sure any securing clips for the brake hose or speedometer cables are in place

The dealer dilemmaWhile the majority of used bikes change hands privately, there are certain advantages to buying one from a franchised dealer. First, dealers generally only take trade-ins that are in first-class condition. They don't want problems any more than you do, and they know that if they sell you a lemon, you'll have some legal recourse. To that end, most will even give you some sort of limited warranty. (In many cases the bike may have been sold there new, which speaks well for the dealer's ability to generate repeat business, and gives him access to the bike's complete history.) Second, dealerships can arrange financing, registration, facilitate any applicable remaining factory warranty credit and in some states sell you insurance, making the whole buying experience a little easier on you-especially if you're new to this. By no means am I suggesting you only shop for used bikes at a dealership, but it is an alternative, especially if it's your first bike.