Buying a Motorcycle

This is a guest post from one of the best riders I know. I’ll call him Van G. He’s been riding motorcycles since the 5th grade. This post is actually an email Van G sent to a friend of mine who was thinking about getting a small capacity vintage cycle to get started on.

This is some truly outstanding guidance to anyone who is thinking about buying an older motorcycle. – Ben

Congrats on having an endorsement and being positioned in this economy to be considering less-than-perfectly-practical vehicles!!!

I just got to jump on the Ducati and run up the gorge past Hood River and back… Motorcycles certainly make life a little more fun. I’m excited for you!

In my years of motorcycle shopping and owning experience, I have conjured only ONE 10-Commandment-esque “creed-level” rule on buying motorcycles, if you care to ride motorcycles, and it is: “NEVER buy an old motorcycle”. Then, years and years later, because my sweetie is tiny and the world doesn’t make small motorcycles anymore, I broke my rule and bought a gorgeous little black 1970 Honda CB 160 with chrome tank out of someones garage and was reminded after months and months of work, impossible to find parts (literally), and hardly any time running at all let alone running good, that I had in fact broken that rule… put there to protect me from exactly this situation… and now I’m just an idiot. I sold it while staring $3,500 in fixes in the face and at that point I may as well have bought a brand new bike and spent my time riding instead of fixing.

Now, lucky for you, you’re your own Man, you make your own rules. Seriously my rule is completely at your disposal, and not a requisite that we share it for us to be friends. You should do what you want.
Ok, so you’re well-heeled enough that you can put any amount of money toward keeping an old bike running, so really it comes down to selecting a bike that will have:

(1) Plenty of old spare parts and better yet even a healthy aftermarket supply of parts and
(2) A shop that specializes in the bike you purchase so that you have a place to take it for upkeep, and
(3) a dream that matches reality.

If you can put those 3 parts together you should be fine.

1) If I were in your shoes, I would consider only THE MOST popular bike in the 200cc to 360cc range, and buy THAT one. This has nothing to do with showing off or being coveted. I would want a bike that sold extremely well in it’s day so there would be some semblance of a guaratee that parts would not be impossible to find some 50 years later… which is about how far back you’re going to have to go to get that small a capacity motorcycle. I would want to know that there are aftermarket companies that support this bike, for even more comfort in the area of finding parts.

2) I would want to check out the shops in PDX that specialize in this bike, have been around for a long time, and appear to be NOT just open, but flourishing as a business so they have happy customers and will be around long enought to meet your needs. And then I would expect to spend as much on this small capacity bike and it’s care and maintenance as a brand new expensive larger Honda/Yamaha/Triumph etc.

3) I imagine with the small capacity that you’re after, you’re thinking about poking around the city streets, SE PDX residential back roads kind of stuff. This is great! I do want to make sure though that nowhere in your thought processes are, say, a run from SE PDX across the Broadway bridge, over the hill to Helvetia Tavern, back roads all the way, with a gal on the back to get dinner some night. Extended drives at up to 50mph will be out of the question, except maybe for a 400. These bikes have been past their prime for decades, will have lost 1/5 of their purported performance when new, and the smaller the capacity, the harder they’ve been worked all their lives carting people around. A trip up the gorge like I just took yesterday will never ever happen on a bike like that, so this is just a reality-check that you’ll need a bigger bike if you want to consider a range/roads beyond what you could/would do on a bicycle, only not needing to pedal.

All that to say I think you’ll want to focus on Honda for the brand, as it was the most popular back then, and man just really try to find the very most popular style because you don’t want the off-model one year that tried a weird carb, you want the most bullet-proof thing they sold, and sold a lot of, so there’ll be spares. I have to be honest with you, even Hondas of that small capacity weren’t really built to last. I really recommend a larger capacity, as in nothing under 500cc. I read a lot of cycle mags, and they absolutely rave about the Honda CB 750. Apparently that was a very well built and popular bike, and it has that great “look” that looks like what you’re after. Anyway, I know that’s twice the capoacity you’re looking for, so sorry to answer questions you’re not asking.

Anyway, that’s all I know, keep me posted, I’d love to have an “old, small capacity, city cycle” success story for which I can offset my rule.

May the force be with You! Hope this was helpful in any way.

– Van G

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