Vintage motorcycles stand apart, both visually and functionally, from the rest of the two-wheeled pack. The old-school appeal, heavy on mechanical aesthetics, is a stark contrast to everything we expect in modern culture. There is a connection to the road, the journey and the environment that’s far pithier than modern options of travel.
The plan to ride a vintage motorcycle requires ownership, which itself requires buying. None of that is difficult, but the task of acquiring the bike often becomes daunting. The market for vintage motorcycles is as broad as it is deep. With “picking,” thrifting and spring-cleaning all more popular than ever, the market is just shy of flooded.
If you’re in the market to buy a vintage bike, you have some serious sifting to do. How can you possibly pick a bike from the masses and have any confidence that you made a good choice? How do you find the right bike in the right condition for the right price? Anyone can buy a vintage motorcycle, but how do you do it well?
Unfortunately, it’s all too common for an excited buyer to buy a poorly selected bike and end up never realizing his or her dream of riding a vintage motorcycle. That dream isn’t impractical, impossible or even that difficult to accomplish, and the experience can be extremely rewarding and enjoyable. The key is buying well!
This vintage motorcycle buyer's guide is by no means comprehensive; there are also exceptions to every generalization. The goal here is to help you objectively evaluate a bike independent of your own emotions and the seller’s information. A lot comes down to common sense, but when a cool bike comes along that seems like a good deal, common sense can become dangerously uncommon in favor of excitement. We’ve all done it!
First, before even hitting the classifieds, you must have a very honest conversation with yourself about the purpose of your purchase. Are you buying a donor bike for customization? Are you buying a restoration project? Are you buying a bike that you want to ride the same week you acquire it? Your end goal matters when determining what is and isn’t appropriate for the bike’s present condition. If you are going heavy-duty with customization and doing things like big-bore kits and fork conversions, then the condition of the engine and suspension is obviously of negligible concern. If you’re doing a restoration but don’t want to spend 1000 hours on it, look for a bike with a solid engine but perhaps riddled with cosmetic issues. If you want an old, awesome bike that you can ride immediately, you’ll want to make sure it’s more or less solid in all areas and has been reasonably well-maintained.
Second, in all of these cases, it’s important to already know how much of the project’s work you plan on tackling yourself versus paying a mechanic to do for you. The less that must be done obviously equals the less the project will cost. Similarly, doing the majority of the work yourself will keep the project cost down. Buying a bike that needs a lot of work that you’ll have to pay someone to do will be far more costly than buying a bike that needs a little work that you can do yourself. Know your goal and know your abilities. Often, a good-condition bike that costs more initially will be cheaper over the course of the project than a banger of a deal on a bummer of a bike. You may spend an extra $2,000 in response to the $500 you “saved” by buying a poor-condition donor.
Third, related to the above point, know your budget. There is nothing worse than having a project stall early or late because of financial strain. There is more than one way to bust your budget. Figure out what you think you can spend on the purchase of the motorcycle and stick to that like glue; get the best-condition bike for your needs that you can afford. If you over-spend upfront, that can delay progress down the road in getting parts and work completed. Likewise, if you under-spend and end up with a junkeriffic bike, you may burn through your budget unexpectedly quickly buying lots and lots of parts. Again, a huge savings in the purchase of the bike rarely pays off. It’s a matter of balancing initial cost with project cost, which takes some knowledge about what particular motorcycles need to run well.
Fourth, educate yourself on what makes a particular motorcycle a poor-, good-, or excellent-condition bike. If you’ve already decided that you want a CB550, consider buying a service manual for it and reading it before meeting with any sellers. Right off the bat, you’ll probably know more about the bike than the seller and you’ll be harder to bamboozle. Sellers want to get as much as possible for their item, and rightfully so; what often happens, though, is sellers will be ignorant of issues or the severity of known-issues. Educating yourself on the bike, even if just the basics, puts you in a position to evaluate the condition for yourself instead of relying on the knowledge and honesty of the seller.
Having covered the basics now, let’s dig into some of the finer points of evaluating a potential bike for purchase. Some of these may force you to learn a skill, but they’re useful skills that will undoubtedly be useful again. Covering as much of this list as possible will better inform you about the real condition of the motorcycle and, as a result, give you significant leverage for negotiating the price if you decide to buy it.
- If the bike has hydraulic brakes, does the lever/pedal feel excessively squishy or have no resistance? If so, it indicates issues in the calipers, brake fluid level and/or master cylinder. Take a look inside the reservoir(s) and assess the condition of the brake fluid there. If it looks like maple syrup, it will definitely need to be flushed.
- Look around for oil leaks. Check the gaskets on the side and bottom of the engine as well as the crankcase-to-cylinder, cylinder head and valve cover gasket areas. If you see a dark stain running down or back, it’s a sign the engine is leaking oil. Depending on the location and severity, an oil leak could be a deal-breaker or cosmetic inconvenience. Drippy side-cover and oil pan gaskets are generally not as concerning as a heavily leaking head gasket.
- Take a look at the carbs for any evident damage, missing parts or cracked rubber boots. On just about any vintage motorcycle, some carb work will be necessary, but it's best to at least get an idea of how much will be needed before buying.
- Does the bike cold-start without the choke on? If so, it indicates likely carburetor jetting issues that will create problems down the road.
- Does the bike only idle or run with the choke left on? If so, this indicates other carburetor issues such as clogged pilot jets and an overall dirty carburetor.
- Ask to have a spark plug or two pulled out by the owner so you can inspect it. Do your research on basic spark plug reading and you’ll get a fair idea how the bike has been running.
- Does the ignition system function? This “test” is really only pertinent if the bike is not currently a running motorcycle. Take along a new spark plug with you and plug it into one of the plug caps, ground it to the engine and watch for spark. Be certain that there is no leaking fuel or other combustible fluid/vapor in the area around where you’ll be hopefully creating a strong, open-air bluish spark. A yellow or purple spark could indicate failing coils, stator or weak battery.
- On a test ride, does the engine seem to consistently hesitate at any RPM range? If so, it could indicate anything from dirty carbs to a failing stator. An engine that hesitates has an issue somewhere that will need to be resolved before it can be considered reliable.
- How old and worn are the tires? There are date codes on every tire indicating when they were manufactured, though not when they were installed. If the tires are more than several years old, visibly “dry,” or cracked at all, they should be replaced. Furthermore, if the tires are 3-5+ years old but have very little wear, you can be certain that the bike has sat a great deal during that time. Find out why! A bike may sit for un-fixed mechanical issues, but even a mechanically sound bike will rapidly develop issues if not regularly run.
- Take a good look at the wheels, too. If they are spoked, check the condition of both the spokes and nipples. Broken, bent, heavily rusted or missing spokes will need to be replaced before the bike can be safely ridden. If the wheels aren’t spoked, check for any major denting in the rim area and damage to the “arms” of the wheels.
- Take a multi-meter and set it to volts-DC. First check the voltage of the battery with the ignition off. The battery should be around 12.4-12.8 volts when charged. Now start the bike and run the RPMs up to about 3,000; the voltage should rise to 13.5-14.5 volts depending on the size of the bike. Now rev the engine higher to see if the voltage exceeds 15 volts; it should not with a healthy charging system.
- Take a compression tester and investigate the health of one or all the cylinders. Find out what the minimum spec for compression-psi is for the bike before going, and test against that number. If any cylinder shows 0 psi, start asking respectful, probing questions of the buyer. An engine that has no compression on one or more cylinders will definitely need more than plugs and an oil change!
- Take a look at the triple-tree and inspect for any cracks, especially at the clamp points where they hold the fork tubes. A crack here is not expensive or difficult to rectify, but it’s indicative of a crashed/dropped bike or other carelessness. Cracks in the suspension generally render the bike unsafe to ride until repaired.
- Do the electrics work? If some or all do not, inquire about the reason why. Electrical issues can amount to a $1.00 lightbulb or $500+ rewire.
- Is the engine firing on all cylinders? Unless all the cylinders exhaust through a single silencer, feel each muffler for even “puffing” and warm air exiting. If one seems weaker and/or cooler than others, it’s likely that cylinder isn’t running well or at all.
- Pull the oil dipstick, or ask to have a little oil drained if the bike doesn’t have one. The condition of the oil may or may not be a good indication of the bike’s previous care. New oil only means that it was recently changed; it doesn’t mean it was regularly changed. Definitely smell the oil, though; if it smells like fuel, that’s a problem. Fuel in the engine oil can happen several ways, but they all mean that the engine hasn’t been getting proper lubrication and will have excessive wear.
- If possible, get the rear wheel off the ground using the center-stand or a jack. Grab the rear wheel or swingarm and push side-to-side. There should be no movement, but if there is, it indicates worn bushings in the swingarm and/or bearings in the wheel hub.
For a visual, quick-reference look at the basics, refer to the below image. Realize, again, that there are specifics and exceptions not visible in it, but use it as a way to navigate the options you will no doubt have laid before you.
While on your search for your perfect vintage motorcycle, questions can be directed to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need clarification or some advice.
Ver. 1.01, Updated 4/29/2018