Inspecting A Used Bike - How To

"Money's tight, times are hard, a brand-new bike just ain't in the cards." -Lester Duckbutter, world-class poet and used-bike salesman

Things are tough all over, and if your financial situation is anything like mine, buying a new bike may not be the best way to dispose of what's left of your disposable income -especially after you've blown most of it on luxuries like food, shelter and clothing. A better alternative may be something euphemistically known as a pre-owned motorcycle.

Consider this: In the U.S. the average motorcycle is ridden fewer than 2500 miles a year. In most cases that means a 10-year-old bike will have clocked fewer than 30,000 miles, and there are plenty that have turned less than half that.

Buying any used bike involves a degree of risk, especially if you unwittingly buy something that's been "rid hard and put up wet." Purchasing through a dealership is one way to protect yourself. Most offer at least a limited warranty on used bikes, and in some cases your new ride may even come with the remainder of the factory warranty to protect you. But dealers do command a premium, assuming they even have what you want in stock.

The alternative is to buy privately, and in that case it's your responsibility to make sure the bike is in good mechanical nick.

Inspecting a used bike can get pretty involved, especially when you don't do it on a regular basis, but as always your friends at Motorcycle Cruiser can help. That's why we've condensed all the information you'll need to inspect a pre-owned motorcycle into a handy-dandy checklist, complete with color illustrations.

Because we've covered all the technical blather in past issues, this list concentrates on what you need to check, as opposed to the 1-2-3 of actually checking it. You can find that info under the tech section at or by e-mailing me directly. Feel free to make as many copies as you need, but don't tell the lawyers I said so.

Major Components
Inspecting someone else's motorcycle up close and personal takes a certain amount of diplomacy. Some guys are resentful, others take it in stride, but at the very least the seller should let you make a basic mechanical inspection of the bike.

Frame: Check for signs of repair or crash damage.

Steering Head: Check the steering head bearings for signs of denting, or improper adjustment.

Forks: Check for signs of physical damage.

Fork Seals: Check for leaks.

Fork Alignment: The forks should be parallel to each other and aligned with the handlebars.

Fork Action: The forks should operate smoothly in both directions without binding or sticking.

Swingarm: Look for signs of physical damage. Make certain the rear wheel is centered and square to the swingarm. Check the bushings/bearings for excess play.

Linkage: Check for wear at pivot points, loose or missing hardware and physical damage.

Springs: Should at least support the weight of the rider and passenger without bottoming out.

Mounting Hardware: Make sure it's all there and in reasonably good condition.

Rear Shocks: These should operate smoothly in both directions; check for leaks.

Front Wheel: Look for missing, bent or broken spokes; check for worn bearings; check trueness.

Front Tire: Check tread depth (see this issue's tips on page 92), sidewall condition and pressure.

Rear Wheel: Look for missing, bent or broken spokes; check for worn bearings; check trueness.

Alignment : Take a look at the tire alignment. This takes some practice, but wheels that are grossly out of line are pretty obvious. If there are other signs of crash damage (even repaired crash damage) and the wheels look out of kilter you may be looking at a tweaked frame.

Front Master Cylinder: Check fluid level and condition. Lever feel should be firm when squeezed.

Front Hoses: Check for chafing and overall condition. Make sure they're properly secured and there are no leaks.

Front Caliper: Check for leaks, and make sure all mounting hardware is there.

Front Pads: Check the wear indicators; most manufacturers recommend a minimum pad thickness of 1.5-2.0mm.

Rear Master Cylinder: Check fluid and pedal travel.

Rear Hoses: Check routing and condition.

Rear Pads: Check wear indicators.

Rear Drum Brake: Check wear indicator* and adjustment.

*Drum brakes normally have wear indicators on the actuating arm, but it's not unknown for guys to reposition the arm on the brake shaft rather than replace the rear brakes when they're worn. Ninety-nine percent of the time there'll be a punch mark on the brake shaft that's meant to line up with the slit in the brake lever or with a datum mark, and it never hurts to check that.

Battery: The battery may be difficult to examine physically. If the bike turns over easily you can assume it's in half-decent condition.

Starter: As above.

Kill Switch: Flick it and see what happens.

Kickstand Safety Switch: Make sure the engine dies if the bike is placed in gear with the stand down.

Clutch/Neutral Interlock Switch (if present): Ditto.

Wiring Harness: Look for any signs of obvious damage. Unless you pull half the bike apart it's impossible to fully examine the wiring harness, but at least check the area around the steering head and under the seat and shine your flashlight under the tank. A big cloud of smoke and a shower of sparks when you turn the key is always a bad thing.

Charging System: If there's no charge indicator, start the bike and let it idle; turn on the high-beam, a turn signal and a brake light. When you rev the engine the headlight should brighten. This isn't a very accurate test, but it will give you an indication as to whether or not the charging system is working.

Headlights: Check high/low-beam and indicator (flasher if so equipped).

Check that each of these is functioning:

Taillight/Running Lights

Front And Rear Brake Lights

Turn Signals And Indicator (and self-canceling feature if it's there)

Indicator And Instrument Lights


Accessory Lights

Sound System


Road Test
Some things just can't be checked when the bike is stationary. I recently looked at a very nice motorcycle that passed every point on the checklist. The only problem was that it jumped out of third gear. It's a serious issue and one I wouldn't have found if I hadn't ridden the bike. When I mentioned it to the seller he just smiled and said, "Oh, yeah, it's been doing that." The problem is that in this day and age a road test might not be that easy to come by. If it comes to a test ride I'd suggest asking very nicely and offering up enough of a deposit to show you're serious. At the very least the seller should be willing to run you around the block a time or two. If the owner consents to a road test, remember you're on someone else's bike-you can find out all you need to know without riding it like you stole it.

Clutch: The clutch should engage smoothly and shouldn't slip.

Transmission: Although every bike has its own idiosyncrasies, in the main the tranny shouldn't whine or howl, it should shift positively and under no circumstances should it jump out of gear.

Tracking: The bike should go straight with only light handlebar pressure.

Handling: This is largely subjective, but as a rule of thumb if you're not happy with it now, chances are good you'll be miserable later on.

Engine Performance: Intrusive vibration, odd noises under load and a lack of performance are all cause for concern. In short, the engine should run sweetly, pull with authority and sound like it's in good shape.

Grin Factor: A bike can pass all the other tests with flying colors. But if it doesn't make you smile when you ride it, pass. Somewhere out there is a bike that'll make you grin like a Cheshire cat every time you ride it, and half the fun is searching for it.

What To Take
Cash: You'll need at least enough to give the seller a deposit.

Small Flashlight: Handy for peering into the dark recesses.

Knowledgeable Friend: If he's not so knowledgeable bring him anyway; a little moral support or a cool head is always handy.

Price Guide: Though not a strict necessity, knowing the market value of the bike you're looking at always comes in handy. If you can't find what you need at your local Barnes & Noble, try Googling ("used bike prices" works), ask your local dealership what Blue Book for the thing is, or go to

Notebook And Pen: For the obvious reasons.

Because engine problems are always dealbreakers I like to vet the engine before I waste a lot of time looking over the rest of the bike.

Oil Level And Condition: The condition may be hard to assess, especially if you're checking it through the sight glass. Don't be bashful-ask the owner when it was last changed.

Ease Of Starting: Some engines just start harder than others, but unless special circumstances are involved the engine should turn over without laboring and start within a few cranks.

Idle: A cold engine should idle on the choke; a warm one should idle at the recommended rpm without loping or misfiring.

Throttle Response: The engine should respond smoothly to the throttle without hiccupping, coughing or sputtering.

Smoke: Some wispy white smoke is normal during warm-up, particularly when the engine and ambient air temperatures are ice-cold. Thick black or blue smoke is never a good sign, and it's a really bad sign if it increases as the bike warms up. Heavy dark smoke may be indicative of an overly rich mixture or an engine that's burning oil. Heavy white smoke usually means coolant is entering the combustion chamber.

Fluid Leaks: Check for external oil, fuel and coolant leaks.

Exhaust: Blued head pipes are only a cosmetic issue, but severe rust, rot or big dents are omens of impending pipe replacement.

Noise: In the main there shouldn't be any odd rattles, bangs or wheezing, but noises are tough to diagnose. Some perfectly healthy bikes sound like threshing machines. If there's any doubt, pass or have a qualified mechanic take a listen for you.

Maintenance Records
A verifiable service history is a real bonus. In this day and age mileage in and of itself isn't that great an indicator of a bike's condition. A bike with 20K on it whose owner can't remember the last time it was serviced may not be as a good a value as the same model with 30K or even 50K on it that's been meticulously maintained. In my experience the fact that the owner is conscientious enough to keep service records speaks for itself.

Watch Out For
Since our example bike on page 86 is a VTX1800, we felt we should point out potential problems. Earlier VTXs had some plug fouling and, every so often, rear-drive flange-bolt looseness. We plan on doing periodic model-specific reviews in upcoming issues.

Final Drive: Chain/Belt/Shaft
Chain: Check for wear, lubrication and adjustment.

Rear Sprocket: Look for hooked or damaged teeth and loose or missing mounting bolts. Check for excess play at hub.

Countershaft Sprocket: An examination of the rear sprocket is a clue to the condition of the countershaft sprocket, so you don't have to go nuts here, particularly since gaining access to the countershaft sprocket may require removing a cover or two.

Belt: Check for physical damage, cuts and embedded debris.

Cogs: Check mounting hardware and condition. Cogs rarely wear out unless the bike has very high mileage.

Shafts: Listen for any rumbling, creaking or squeaking when the bike is rolled forward or backward.

Good To Know
Although we're primarily concerned with cruisers here, one thing I'd caution you to watch for, particularly if you're looking at a sportbike, is safety-wire holes drilled in things like the brake caliper bolt or oil drain plug. If they're there the bike has been on the racetrack, so make sure you know what you're getting into.

Pre-Flight Check
Ten Things To Do Before That First Ride Of The Year

It doesn't matter if your bike was properly put away in a
climate-controlled Garage Mahal or just left to stew in its own juices while you frittered away your time on the beaches of Monaco. There're always a few things that need doing before that first ride. Obviously if the bike was stored the way it should have been, running through this checklist won't take too much time.

But if it wasn't

Make sure the battery is fully charged; if not, charge or replace it.

Drain the float bowls. This is crucial, especially if the bike was put away and forgotten over the winter.

Gasoline takes about 90 days to deteriorate into a foul-smelling liquid that may or may not support combustion. So unless the fuel was treated with a preservative or is less than 90 days old, drain the tank and pour in at least enough fresh gas to get you to the nearest pump.

Check all, and I mean all, the fluid levels before you fire up the bike. If you can't remember when you last changed the engine oil and filter, let alone the brake fluid or tranny oil, now might be the time to do it.

Check the tires, look for dry rot and sidewall cracks, make sure there are no wear bars poking up and then adjust the tire pressure. If the tires are questionable make plans to replace them ASAP.

Check the electrics: Make sure the lights, horn and kill switch work (and don't forget the kickstand safety switch).

Make sure all the controls work smoothly and operate the way they're supposed to. Few things in life are more exciting than grabbing a big handful of front brake and having the lever come straight back to the handlebar, so pump it a few times first.

If the bike has a chain, oil it and make sure it's not going to fall off the sprockets before the first turn. Likewise give the belt a once-over; belt failure is rare, but it happens. Shaft drive? Check the oil.

Start the bike and let it warm up. While it's doing so look for leaks that may have developed as the bike sat.

Take it easy for the first couple of miles-your skills are going to be rusty, and it'll take some time for them to come back. Your bike may feel a little odd as well; some things may be a little stiff, and there may be surface rust and dirt on the rotors that'll take a few miles to get ground off before the brakes are up to snuff.

Tech Tips
Hoop Health
Is That A Wear Bar In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Glad To See Me? How do you know when a tire's ready for the scrap pile? The obvious and admittedly wiseguy answer is "when it's worn out." But how can you really tell if the tire's shot?

Under most statutes a tire is worn out when the tread has worn to a depth of 1/16 inch or less. Most manufacturers incorporate a wear bar into the tire to let you know when the tread is down to that point. Of course these only work if your tires have them (about every street tire I can think of does) and you know what they mean. I'd also argue that by the time they appear the tires are so beat they're doing little more than holding the rims off the ground. If your tires don't have wear bars, a simple trick is to insert a penny headfirst into the tread. If old Abe's head is fully visible the tread is too shallow to do any good. If a portion of his head is still hidden the tire's safe, at least as far as the law is concerned.

Preferably I'd like to see tires changed when there's at least 1/8 inch of tread left. You can measure it by inserting a ruler, squinting carefully and guessing at the reading, or you can pick up an inexpensive tool known as a tire-tread gauge. As the name implies it's a tool used to measure tread depth, typically marked off in 32nds of an inch.

The problem is that tires can be shot long before the tread is used up, which is why you should inspect them regularly. An unusual wear pattern can denote anything from an underinflated tire to a mechanical problem-or it may be perfectly normal.

For instance, tires that show a lot of wear at their edges might be underinflated or just subject to lots of hard cornering. If the tire's center is worn, the tire may be overinflated, or you might be spending too much time riding in a straight line. Most front tires will show some evidence of cupping or scalloping, especially if the bike's ridden hard. Cupping is a more or less normal part of tire wear; however, it can also indicate the tire is severely out of balance or there's a mechanical problem with the front fork. In any event it can become so severe that it has a detrimental effect on handling long before the tread has reached its minimum thickness.

The tire's sidewall should also be scrutinized. Look for cracks, especially if the tire is old and the bike sits more than it's ridden, and keep an eye peeled for bulges and blisters, which indicate some kind of physical damage has occurred to the cord.