Buying Used Motorcycles | Commuter Specials

Motorcycle Cruiser goes on the hunt for pre-owned daily drivers

Two issues ago, we went foraging for used touring cruisers-the bikes we'd buy with our own bucks if our intent was to rack up big miles. In Part Two of our Buying Used continuing series, we went in the other direction and ferreted out the pre-owned bikes we'd commute to work on if we had to lay down our own cash.

This meant we needed to hunt for a different set of preferred features-the standard equipment sought on these machines accentuated slimmer profiles rather than packing prowess-but the chosen bikes could have been anything from a Kawasaki Vulcan 500 to a Honda Valkyrie. These bikes would quite possibly be pressed into service every day, carrying their owners to and from work, and the winners were those that can handle the grind.

Besides mechanical and performance attributes, the bikes we considered have to be manageable in dense, urban riding conditions. While we'll admit not everyone has to wade through crowded side streets before they punch a clock, many do-and we've seen more of you on our local roads lately. (See the sidebar for the number of 9-to-5ers on two wheels.)

We can't help you choose your particular bike, but we can make recommendations and do have definite opinions based on long hours of saddle time (lots of it urban) on many different bikes. While almost any bike can be called into duty as a commuter, we have a pretty good idea of what works well in the urban jungle. Wide, beach-style bars, for example, are usually recipes for disaster (or at least a higher insurance premium). Lighter weight, relative maneuverability and a taller seat height are all attributes that can go a long way in a sea of taillights. And good gas mileage never hurts, either.

Some riders will be happier with more powerful bikes-900cc and up-which have the extra zip to accelerate out of trouble and can be more readily modified for realistic two-up touring, but consider the trade-offs, like increased insurance costs. Also be ready to adapt your riding techniques to the higher intensity of urban commuting. Visit www.motorcycle for a quick refresher.

Our Daily Grind, by the numbersSo how many of us commute via motorcycle? Check out these stats from the Web site (special thanks to Andy Goldfine and his Ride to Work organization).

Motorcycle Transportation Fact Sheet:* Number Of Motorcycles On The RoadAs of 2003, there were 5,370,000 motorcycles regularly in use in the United States, each traveling an average of 1,800 miles per year for a total of 9,539,000,000 miles. U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics

  • Number Of Motorcycles CommutingOut of a total 129,141,982 commuters in this country (USA, 2003), 147,703 ride motorcycles to work regularly. That's 0.11 percent. U.S. Census Bureau

Of all the motorcycles registered in the USA (6,567,197), 4.3 percent of them are used for year-round primary transportation (282,389), with an additional 9.9 percent used seasonally for this purpose (932,542). Motorcycle Industry Council

  • Journey TimesThe average United States driver travels 29 miles per day and is driving a total of 55 minutes per day. (An average vehicle speed of 32 mph.) U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Tests comparing car and motorcycle performance on real journeys suggest that traveling by motorcycle can shorten journey times by as much as 33 minutes for every hour for town center and city travel, and 20 minutes for every hour for travel through a mixture of built-up and non-built-up areas. Motorcycle Industry Association (U.K.)

  • Traffic CongestionThe average roadway delay per person in 2001 was 26 hours per year, and in 2003, it was 47 hours per year, an increase of 81 percent. The average commute time one way is 25 minutes. Texas Transportation Institute

Brasfield: 1998-1999 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 ClassicEvery time someone asks me what my favorite bike is, I feel like I need to further define the terms. Do I plan on touring, customizing or merely rolling through the countryside? Luckily, I had an instantaneous job brief-with no qualifications-when the editors of Motorcycle Cruiser called and asked me to write about my pick of a used cruiser for everyday use.

Just the thought of an early-model Vulcan 1500 Classic takes me back to 1996, when I started my motojournalist career at Motorcycle Cruiser. While the 1500 Classic wasn't the first bike I ever brought home from the office, the big Vulcan became a weekend favorite, and I logged many thousands of miles on the magazine's several long-term units over the years.

I've always felt that the Vulcan Classic was on the shortlist of motorcycles responsible for the mainstreaming of metric cruisers. Off-the-rack, it had the right stuff, and the aftermarket was firmly behind it. The engine was willing-if not overly powerful (although you'd be hard-pressed to say that with the way it accelerated off the line). The single-pin crank doled out the correct amount of shudder when you wanted it yet remained smooth when it was necessary. The bike had unmistakably American style while offering amenities, like liquid cooling, hydraulic valve adjusters and shaft drive, that metric cruiser riders came to expect from their machines. Commuting on a Vulcan Classic was as easy as it was fun. With gas mileage checking in at around 43 mpg, I could go for almost a week between fill-ups if I didn't take any recreational rides. The bike carried its weight in such a manner that low-speed maneuvering in the morning bump and grind made me look forward to the trip to work. The light pull on the hydraulic clutch kept the bike either inching along or roaring away from traffic. Pop on a windshield and some bags, and you've got a competent tourer. The Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic was, quite simply, a good-looking cruiser that could do just about anything you might want.

I prefer the five-speed versions in the 1998-1999 model years, although (almost) any of the pre-injection bikes would be fine. (The only Classic model I'd avoid would be the 1996 version-and only if no proof was available that the potential second-gear issues of the first production year were addressed.) Don't think I'm dissing the 1500 FI by leaving it out-I'm just saying that the carbureted 1500s are a bit cheaper and offer more value at a relatively small functional cost.

Much to my surprise, the place I had the most luck researching a used model of this bike was; eBay turned up a big goose egg, while Kelley Blue Book ( and NADA Guides (www. gave me numbers that differed by almost $800. In my search around the country for used Vulcan 1500 Classic prices, I found remarkable commonality in price range. I'd expected to find better deals in less urban areas, but I was wrong. Bone-stock 1500 Classics were offered at $2500 to an unrealistically high $6000. The average for a well-kept specimen was about $4000. The choice is yours as to whether to go with a low-priced fixer-upper or stocker. While some great deals can be had by buying someone's lightly customized Vulcan, you'll have to negotiate a bit more to get the price down into the bargain range.

For that reason alone, I'd be tempted to look for a stock Classic. However, in most cases, I'd go for stock over an accessorized bike for a whole tassel of other reasons. For example, I don't like windshields, so I'd immediately remove one that came on the bike. When it comes to aftermarket pipes, I'm extremely particular. I don't like them overly loud and absolutely loathe the sound of straight pipes. On the other hand, a reasonable-sounding pipe and a well-jetted carburetor can increase the functionality of almost any bike. Still, many "extras" that intrude on the bike's usability would tend to devalue it, in my eyes. Items-like a good custom seat or an attractive set of bags-that increase the bike's versatility would be worth paying a bit more for. After all, this bike would live a fairly utilitarian life as a commuter-Evans Brasfield

Buying Used The Numbers

Representative price averages as of December 2006 (local prices will vary)
1999 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic (Craigslist) $5000
1999 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic (Kelley Blue Book) $4785
1999 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic (NADA Guides) $2830-$3720

Cherney: 1998-2004 Kawasaki Vulcan Vn800aWe're targeting street-oriented rigs in this installment, so the parameters have changed drastically from the travelers we focused on initially. My commuting reality consists of a 20-mile slog through one of the country's busiest metropolises-Los Angeles. That means six lanes of soccer-mom-driven SUVs and lurching semis followed by a dozen hairy miles on gridlocked streets surrounded by drivers wielding more cell phones than actual liability insurance.

It's no wonder that when I began my quest for a used motorcycle commuter, words like "nimbleness," "lightweight" and "narrow profile" kept floating to the top of my must-have list. I further whittled down the contenders by insisting on a 4-gallon gas tank and neutral ergonomics and found myself coming back to the same two machines: Kawasaki's bulletproof Vulcan 800a and Triumph's 900cc Legend. Either choice meant I wouldn't be coaxing more than 500 pounds of iron around overheated Hyundais or have to pry more than $3500 out of the ol' wallet (I'm a cheapskate-just ask my wife).

After that, I'll admit, I caved to baser instincts. You should like what you're looking at when you're not riding it, and for some reason the chopperish Vulcan floats my boat. It also didn't help that the Legend only stayed in Triumph's lineup for a couple of years, which wouldn't make my hunt for aftermarket bits very easy. And the fact that the Vulcan's a great value-an easy-to-handle workhorse with a reliable service record and hefty aftermarket support-sealed the deal. So long, Triumph.

I knew the Vulcan's 805cc, liquid-cooled V-twin produced enough poop for everything from side-street blasts to top-gear freeway cruising (though the redline kicks in rather early). And some riders report that 50 mpg is not out of the question.

The single rear adjustable shock won't win many converts, though, primarily because the underseat placement makes it a bear to get at, and the single-disc front brake is on the mushy side. For moderate cruising, the stock suspension will do the job, though choppier roads will probably convince me to upgrade.

While I have no beef with its close cousin, the Vulcan 800 Classic, I was always a bit keener on the 800a's riding position-sit up straight and comfy-though without a shield, that stance will occasionally give you the parachute-in-the-wind effect. The seat is nicely padded, and as a street bike the Vulcan moves well and steers lightly, making short work of urban maneuvers in the concrete jungle (that 21-inch front wheel can be a handful at parking-lot speeds, though). You won't hear too many folks tell you the thing's a powerhouse, but the 800a is good fun to ride.

The other side of my brain likes the numbers it cranks out-with that 4-gallon tank and efficient engine, you can wring close to 200 miles from a tank of gas. The 800a is smooth and powerful enough for traveling, too, though the seat's a butt burner on long hauls.

If I were scouring the classified ads, I'd skip the newest '04-'05 listings, simply because the bike is essentially unchanged from the late 1990s original (save for some cosmetic upgrades).

But if I did manage to land a mint stocker, there are some issues that'd need to be addressed. As mentioned earlier, the single front disc brake is merely adequate, a situation only worsened by the silly rear drum setup; a pad upgrade and stainless cables here might help the situation. A re-jet would also be in order, and an aftermarket air filter would appeal to me-I remember the stock bikes we tested years ago running lean out of the box. I've heard of other riders getting good results with Mustang or Sargent aftermarket replacement saddles, and I'd also fit an adjustable, removable passenger backrest for extra luggage and comfort options and perhaps a small screen up front to keep the urban grit at bay.

At the low end, I'd expect to pay about $2000 for a 1999 Vulcan 800a in average condition, a bit more for a newer one and about $3300 for a prime 2001 model with low miles. You won't be winning any drag races on the Vulcan 800a, but if you have a sweet spot for all-around performance and low maintenance costs, the bike is tough to beat.-Andrew Cherney

Buying Used The Numbers

Representative price averages as of December 2006 (local prices will vary)
1999 Kawasaki Vulcan 800c (Craigslist) N/A
1999 Kawasaki Vulcan 800a (Kelley Blue Book) $3220
1999 Kawasaki Vulcan 800a (NADA Guides) $1630 -$2145

Zimmerman: 2001-2003 Triumph Bonneville/T100In most of the world, commuter bikes typically are dull, drab, low-powered two strokes. Fortunately, those gray-porridge, go-to-work hacks have never been popular in the U.S. In this country, we ride to work on real motorcycles.

Back in the day, a lightweight sporting roadster was considered the hot tip as an "all-'rounder"-a bike that is equally at home dragging your butt to work, carrying you and your squeeze off to some romantic liaison or even sneaking some amateur racing on the weekends.

In my youth, the Triumph twin was considered the ultimate A-R, so I've always had affection for them. That being the case, my pick for a cruiser/commuter is (cue drumroll)...the Triumph Bonneville Standard or its slightly better-dressed sibling, the T100.

Here's my reasoning: Although the Bonneville line incorporates seven styles and two displacements, I picked the standard/T100 variants because they're time-honored all-'round motorcycles built with the traditional upright ergonomics I prefer for general-duty riding. More than that, these are stylish, comfortable and reliable motorcycles with tractable engines and well-chosen gearbox ratios. They're light and narrow, which makes them a delight to thread through traffic and easy to muscle around in parking lots. With a gentle throttle hand, they can manage between 40 and 50 miles to the gallon (providing close to a 150-mile range before you hit reserve), and they're easy on things like tires, brakes and chains. Best of all, they're fun to ride and extremely versatile. Like the all-'rounders of the past, they're the perfect way to get to work. They also work quite nicely as light touring bikes, and, yes, they can even be raced.

Prior to the 2006 model year, the only real differences between the two were the level of finish-the T100 having some extra sparkle and a tachometer standard, while the standard model was rather plain and equipped only with a speedometer. Both used the same 790cc motor, which, while not exactly a powerhouse, is sporting enough to make the ride interesting.

Beginning with the 2006 models, the T100 acquired the 865cc engine sourced from the hot-rod Thruxton Caf Racer, while the standard continued along with the 790cc lump.

As delivered, both of these are pretty basic motorcycles, but there's a ton of factory-supplied and aftermarket accessories available that'll let you roll your own. Fancy a dresser? Order up bags and a windshield. More of a hot-rodder? How about a big-bore kit, pipes and cams? The factory catalog is comprehensive, which simplifies finding and installing lots of stuff, and if it can't be found with a genuine Triumph sticker on it chances are good that the aftermarket makes it. Since the basic design hasn't changed a whit since the Bonneville's introduction back in 2001, finding the right accessory-even for a first-year model-shouldn't be a problem.

Overall, the Bonnevilles have few inherent problems. Early ones tended to be a little cold-blooded, but most of those bikes were re-jetted by the dealers. If not, up the pilot jet a size or two and install a shim under the needle and you should be good to go. However, because the bikes are so easy to work on, they tend to attract inveterate tinkerers, so lots of them have been modified-often with pipes and airbox removal kits. This doesn't make them bad, but it may make them a less-desirable commuter. By the same token, Bonnevilles also draw lots of mature enthusiast owners (like yours truly), so used ones, even those that have been heavily modified, seem to be in better-than-average condition. On the downside, used Bonnies are scarce, so nice ones, regardless of year or model, command top dollar. That said, the '01-'03s tend to be more reasonably priced. -Mark Zimmerman

Buying Used The Numbers

Representative price averages as of December 2006 (local prices will vary)
2001 Triumph Bonneville (Craigslist) N/A
2001 Triumph Bonneville (Kelley Blue Book) $4585
2001 Triumph Bonneville (NADA Guide) $2260-$2970
2003 Bonneville T100 (Kelley Blue Book) $5675
2003 Bonneville T100 (NADA Guide) $3510-$4640