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April 28, 2009

Advice from The Voice of Experience Part 3

Nick Diaz

Alas, my third installment on buying a used motorcycle, one of my favorite activities. Buying a used motorcycle, as I’ve mentioned before, is much more fun than selling one.


Folks enjoy the careful, systematic unwrapping of the unit and becoming acquainted with its quirks, virtues, and deficiencies. The planning and executing of ways to improve the motorcycle in question is not only amusing and fun to do, but it enhances one’s problem-solving ability and resourcefulness. To paraphrase the late Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, buying a used motorcycle is “the art of rationality itself.”


Part II of this series dealt with the homework a buyer must perform well ahead of the shopping phase, to narrow down the type of motorcycle one wants. First impressions of both the human being selling the motorcycle and the unit itself come next. On with the actual inspection.


The Inspection:


Start with the electrical system. First, check the battery and wires for loose connections and signs the battery has been properly filled and that there is no corrosion or leaks. Use a flashlight to look under the fuel tank at the coils and plug wires. These, too, should be clean and free of obvious defect.


Then, sit on the bike. Make sure all the lights and bulbs function properly. Give the horn a honk, and make sure any modifications such as heated grips work. (Heated grips on a motorcycle? What’s this world coming to…?)


Next, check the brakes. They should feel firm, but not stiff or spongy. Neither of the levers should easily go all the way to stop. If they do, walk away. Both brake levers should illuminate the brake light. Take the bike off the stand and roll it forward and backward, testing that the brakes actually stop the bike. The brakes should release fully. Sticking can be a sign of future brake work.


Put the bike back on its stand, and get down and look at the rotors, brake pads, and lines. These should be clean, clear of crimps and kinks, and free of nicks, cuts and leaks. Look into the calipers at the pad material, most have a wear indicator line. Also, take a look at the brake fluid in the master cylinders (there are typically two). The brake fluid should be light amber in color. Any darker than this, and the fluid probably hasn’t been changed in awhile.


Since you’re down on your knees looking at brakes, check out the tires and wheels. Make sure the tires are properly inflated. Check for obvious cracks and cuts in the rubber, and that the tread is still serviceable. Also, check the wheels for dents, warpage, and bends. If the bike has a center stand, get the rear wheel off the ground and make sure it spins freely.


After the wheels, inspect the suspension. The front fork tubes should be smooth and without defect. Slide the dust covers up to check that the seals aren’t leaking. Sit on the bike, grab the front brake lever, and push down a few times on the handle bars. The forks should have some resistance, but not be overly stiff. Clunking noises or sticking are indicators of serious problems. Also, test the steering head bearing by giving the handle bars a good push and pull. They should be tight, with no wiggles or looseness. Then bounce up and down a bit on the seat to test the rear suspension. Again, there should be some resistance, and the bike should spring back.


Then, inspect the final drive. Chains should be free of rust and kinks. At the mid-point between the front and rear sprockets, check to make sure the chain’s tension is not too tight or loose. Spin the wheel if possible and test the chain in a few places. In addition, see if you can pull the chain off the rear sprocket. If you can, the chain is shot. Hooked or bent sprocket teeth are a sign they will need to be changed.


If the bike is belt driven, the manual should give you some indication of how to check the tension. At minimum, make sure the belt is free from cracks and cuts.


Use that flashlight to look into the crevasses in the engine and frame. You’re looking for cracks or broken welds in the frame, fluid and oil leaks in the engine. If you see discoloration on engine covers, this may be a sign of an oil leak. If the bike is liquid cooled, make sure the coolant level is correct in the reservoir, and check the sight window in the engine for the oil level. Black oil has not been changed in a while. Also, use this time to check the petcock and gas tank for leaks. You can use your flashlight to look into the gas tank for signs of rust. A rusty gas tank could cause carburetion or fuel injection problems sooner rather than later.


Finally you’re to the fun part: starting the bike. Ask the owner for the starting procedure, even if you’re a seasoned rider. The electric starter should turn the engine over easily. If you have to grind away at it to get it to start, this could be a carburetor issue or it could be an electrical issue. (Kick starting – what’s that…?)


Be aware of how long it takes the bike to warm up. Extremely delayed warming could be a sign of issues to come. Make sure the bike idles at a low, steady rpm and doesn’t make any funny sounds.


While you’re waiting for the bike to warm, check out the operation of the clutch. Pull the lever in and release it. The action should be smooth and free of binding. Shift the bike into first; shifting should be even and the gears should click into place. Make sure the bike rolls as if in neutral with the clutch pulled in. You can slowly let the clutch out and feel for the friction zone to make sure the clutch is engaging properly. When the clutch engages, it should not be an abrupt jolt. Be careful: don’t go flying down the driveway!


Now that you’ve inspected the bike and know it is safe, make sure you have your riding gear together because it is time for a test ride.


By now, you’ve done a thorough job of inspecting the bike; you not only know it is safe to ride, but you are salivating at the thought of wrapping your hands around those grips and twisting the throttle (make sure the friend you brought along is helping you keep your head). You, however, are not done yet!


Next time: The test ride and the closing of the deal.


For photos of my recent motorcycling adventures, go to . Enjoy spring and ride safe. If you need someone to go tire-kicking with, let me know. E-mail me at


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
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