How to Buy a Used Motorcycle

Buying a used bike, or a lemon? Here are 5 methods to Sherlock your way into a good buy. Mechanical, electrical, psychological - it's all elementary, my dear Watson.

#1 – The Owner

Capable motorcycles are owned by capable people. If the ad uses terms like “phat tire,” “you’re next bike,” and my personal favourite – “whorespower” – there’s a good chance the bike is as defective as its owner.

I always perform the same test of character: (rubbing pegs, bar ends, levers) … hmmm, there’s some scrapes and bends on the pointy bits. Did you drop it by any chance?

Nahhh… must have been the previous owner.

Almost every motorcycle is dropped by every motorcyclist, ever. If the owner isn’t honest about that, they won’t be honest about anything.

Let’s try this again.

Oh cool – aftermarket footpegs, levers and bar ends. Did you drop it on the factory ones by any chance?

… Yeah. You’re one clever son of a bi…

#2 – The Startup

When a motorcycle has lived an abusive and depressing life, it won’t like getting out of bed in the morning. So watch the start.

I always ask that it be left perfectly cold, because this lets me play my favourite joke – Ow! Why would you do that to me?... just kidding, thanks for leaving it cold (muttered).

Now turn the key and watch the warning lights. On most bikes they’ll illuminate with ignition. If they don’t, a devious seller might have snipped a wire to make sure they stay off.

Next, kick the tires and light the fires big daddy! (push) Okay, quick crank, easy start. Bad motorcycles will make bad sounds when they’re cold, so keep watching as it warms up.

Usually I wait till the radiator fan comes on. That way I know the bike also knows how warm it is, and that the fan works. Of course the wait can be long as hel…

#3 – The Maintenance

Bad bikes are badly maintained. So while we’re waiting for the radiator fan, let’s Sherlock the shit out of these tires.

Aha! Mismatched brands or mismatched sizes… this could be good or bad depending on the interrogation. Why?

Uhhh, I dunno

It came like that?

The D606 front is notorious for wandering so I pair it with an MT21

I went down a couple mils on the aspect ratio, just cause there aren’t many tire options in the stock size.

Tires are the foremost maintenance item. Perhaps alongside a lubed and well-tensioned chain. If the simple stuff is off kilter, you can bet the more complicated things are out of wack.

Maintenance is the most lethal of our telltale warning signs, so give it a good minute of scrutiny. Otherwise you’re about to entrust your life to a dangerous piece of shi…

#4 – The Ride

Any halfwit with a Toys ‘R Us toolkit and a subscription to custom magazine can ruin a motorcycle’s handling. So you need to ride it.

Cash. In. Hand – They should say yes.

Brake check before you pass 20km/h. Pulsing and biting means warped discs or pads. Slipping means the ride is over.

The key to a good test is NOT looking at the bike. Save the visual inspection for the driveway… you’ve never ridden this deathtrap before so you better damn well keep your eyes on the road.

Assess with other senses. Notice how I brought sunglasses, so I can keep my shield open to smell for burning. To listen for clanking. If the exhaust is so loud that you can’t hear anything else, be suspicious.

I get paid to tell how good a motorcycle handles. And I’m still kinda rubbish at it.

But anyone can tell when a motorcycle handles badly. It just feels wrong. And that’s our fourth telltale sign of a bad used bike – when it rides like a crazy bitc…

#5 – The Show

The Show is my final test, a pantomime of sorts… and it involves props.

Maybe I’m checking for drips now that the fluids are hot. Maybe I’m looking for rust in hard-to-see places. Maybe I’m seeing if the VIN has been re-stamped. Or maybe the penlight just makes me look smart… A recently-charged battery might start a bike, but a faulty alternator will have it dropping below 12.7 volts by now. A multimeter might look fancy, but unexpected battery leads reveal just as many demons. Test strips diagnose all kinds of antifreeze problems.  But a dip strip is the easiest way to spot muggy oil in the coolant, a sure sign of internal engine damage.

The Show doesn’t reveal anything in particular… but you’d be surprised how many owners will confess something while you’re doing it.

If nothing else, bringing tools and knowing how to use them earns respect. In all likelihood these tests have never been done to the bike before. That puts you in a position of authority – to make judgments, and to name a price.

Negotiating season is now – with the snow falling, everything on MotorcycleDealers is nothing more than a useless piece of metal that takes up garage space. Or better yet, costs the owner their Christmas budget to store. The ball’s in your court, buyers.

Good hunting.