There can be a huge sense of pride when it comes to owning an older motorcycle. Motorcycles have come a long way in their technology, but sometimes sticking to classic models from years ago is a bigger preference among motorcycle enthusiasts.
The definition of a vintage motorcycle varies depending on who you’re talking to. In general, a vintage motorcycle means your motorcycle is older than 25 years.
Maintenance on vintage motorcycles is a little different from modern motorcycle maintenance simply because they’re older and require more attention. Here is a list of helpful and crucial tips on how to maintain a vintage motorcycle that will keep it lasting for years to come.
Use Ethanol-Free Gas
Carburetors have been around since the 1800’s. It’s the way a machine delivers the fuel and air mixture to the engine to ensure the engine provides the power the machine needs. Carburetors are still seen today on many motorcycles.
If you own a vintage motorcycle, you’ll likely have a carburetor on it. If so, you’ll need to make sure that you always use ethanol-free, high octane gas (no less than a 91 octane rating). Ethanol in gasoline is an octane booster; there are many pros to having it in gasoline, but it’s not a good idea to use it on machines with a carburetor.
Ethanol in gas readily absorbs into water unlike traditional gasoline and also has a shorter shelf life than ethanol-free gasoline. Essentially, using ethanol gas in your vintage motorcycle will likely gum up the jets inside the carburetor at some point and cause running issues. Sticking with ethanol-free will prevent that. For more information about using ethanol gas, see my other article here.
Use A Battery Tender
I have owned over a dozen vintage motorcycles in the last few years and restored all of them. One of the most common problems I ran into with them is electrical issues and dealing with a drained battery.
The technology on the electrical system of a motorcycle has improved tremendously over the past few decades. Vintage motorcycles are susceptible to wiring issues simply because they’re old and the technology on them isn’t near as good compared to nowadays.
Electrical issues often lead to a phenomenon called parasitic drain. Parasitic drain is when there is a poorly grounded wire somewhere on the motorcycle that slowly drains the battery over time, even when the motorcycle is off. This, in turn, results in a dead battery. In other words, older motorcycles are susceptible to dead batteries.
Using a battery tender can greatly help with this. A battery tender is a device you hook up to the battery when you’re not using the motorcycle and it automatically charges it. It’s a care-free device because it’ll turn on when it senses a drain in voltage and automatically turn off when it senses the battery is fully charged; your battery won’t get over charged.
Properly storing any motorcycle is important if you’re going to own one, but it’s especially important when you own a vintage motorcycle. The weather and it’s elements can be pretty harsh on older motorcycles; they aren’t coated with protectants like newer motorcycles use today.
If you own a vintage motorcycle, it’s best to keep it inside somewhere such as a garage, shed, or storage unit. Water has a tendency to find itself in places it shouldn’t and can cause rust. Too much sunshine can also have a negative impact on a motorcycle (see my article here about what happens when you leave a motorcycle out in the sun).
Temperature controlled environments are even better though most don’t have access to such storage conditions for their motorcycle. Simply preventing exposure to the elements can help make your vintage motorcycle last much longer.
More Frequent Oil Changes
Unless you have a brand new engine on your vintage motorcycle, your vintage motorcycle will require more frequent oil changes. This is one annoying aspect of maintaining a vintage bike but is absolutely vital if you want it to last for years to come.
Motorcycle engines nowadays are engineered for higher tolerances which in turn performs more efficiently. Even though the engines on older motorcycles can last for a very long time if it’s well taken care of, their engine tolerance loosens over time. As the engine wears over time, the requirement for more oil usage goes up.
Vintage motorcycle engines will likely have a lot of wear on them so their use of oil and need for lubrication will increase. This means that instead of changing your oil every 4,000-5,000 miles or every six months, your intervals increase to about 3,000-4,000 miles or about every four to five months (whichever comes first). This will keep the susceptible engine well lubricated and will decrease the chances of it seizing.
Resist High Speeds
There are plenty of ways to show off your vintage motorcycle, but one way you shouldn’t do it is by racing it or going high speeds on highways or freeways. The engine and accompanying parts to your vintage motorcycle are old and will not work the same way they used to when they were first released.
Motorcycles are a lot like humans; when they get old, they require to be delicately handled and needs more maintenance. Just as you wouldn’t expect a 90 year old to run a marathon, you can’t expect your vintage motorcycle to go 80 miles per hour on the highway without causing some serious wear.
Here’s a little example. As I had mentioned earlier, I’ve restored a lot of vintage motorcycles and sold them for a profit to help pay for my college education. One particular motorcycle I restored was a 1974 CB500T. It turned out beautiful, but it was clearly an old motorcycle so when I went to sell it, I made sure to inform the new owner that it’s only meant for leisurely rides and shouldn’t be ridden hard.
A few hours later, the owner called very angry and said the engine was spewing oil everywhere. I asked him about his recent activities with the motorcycle in which he informed me that he took it on the freeway at high speeds. The engine gaskets couldn’t handle the high pressure and failed which caused the engine to leak oil.
Frequent Carburetor Cleaning
Maintaining a vintage motorcycle often means you’ll need to do more frequent carburetor cleaning. As useful as carburetors are, they can be a bit finicky, especially older ones because the jets inside of them are so small and can be clogged easily.
Throughout time, deposits will likely develop in the fuel system of the motorcycle. And it’ll be likely that previous owners used ethanol gas which easily clogs those jets up. A combination of poor previous ownership and natural deposits that can develop in the system will mean the carburetor will need more cleaning.
Carburetor issues often lead to the motorcycle not being able to run at all. If the engine isn’t getting the fuel and air mixture it needs, it won’t run. So carburetor cleaning is a step in maintenance you simply can’t skip.
This does’t necessarily mean you need to remove your carburetor and completely rebuild it several times a year. It is possible to simply remove the bowls on the bottom and spray cleaner inside (see my article here to learn more about how to clean a carburetor without removing it).
You will, however, need to remove it every once in a while (about once every year or two) and do a thorough cleaning. This should include using an ultrasonic cleaner to ensure all deposits, dirt, and grime are removed from every part of the carburetor.
Keep It Locked Up
One large aspect of maintaining a vintage motorcycle is keeping it locked up and secure so you have a motorcycle to maintain in the first place. Motorcycles are a big target for thieves, especially vintage motorcycles, because they’re much more accessible and lighter compared to other vehicles.
The best way to keep a vintage motorcycle safe is by keeping it locked up inside something such as a garage, shed, or storage unit. That creates the biggest obstacle for thieves. It’s always good practice to use something like a disc lock alarm that will alert you if anyone is tampering with your motorcycle. Click here to see my list of recommended ways to secure a motorcycle.
A vintage motorcycle should be shown off to those who will appreciate it’s history. But there’s a right way to show off and a wrong way. Keeping your vintage motorcycle parked in your driveway all day without you being outside with it is a good way to have it stolen.
Similarly, don’t keep your garage door open all day to show the world all the precious items you have inside. If a thief is motivated enough, they’ll find their way in to snatch up that bike. If they don’t know there’s a motorcycle in there to steal in the first place, it’s less likely you’ll become a victim to theft.
Get Towing Insurance
Owning a vintage motorcycle means you’ll likely break down more. That’s just how it goes with older machines. You’re working with older parts that don’t function the way they used to.
Having towing insurance on your vintage motorcycle is always a good idea. Any time a motorcycle breaks down is usually when it’s the least convenient for you, so having the back up of towing will always come in handy.
Motorcycle towing insurance isn’t that expensive, usually averaging about $20 a year per motorcycle. Motorcycle towing insurance usually includes services such as battery jumping, fluid delivery (such as if you’re out of gas), and towing services to a shop within a certain amount of miles.
Towing insurance can be purchased either through your own motorcycle insurance or through an independent towing company. Most towing companies/insurances have 24/7 access so you won’t have to worry about what time you might break down.
Frequently washing your vintage motorcycle is a must when it comes to maintaining it. And this isn’t just so it looks good all the time in case you take it to shows.
Older motorcycles and cars are more susceptible to rust and breakdown because of the materials used to make them. Motorcycles and cars nowadays are made with a galvanized steel that is coated with a rust-resistant zinc. The paint that’s used on motorcycles today is much more rust resistant than the paint they used 30 plus years ago.
Since older motorcycles were made with less rust-resistant materials, they’re more susceptible to breaking down; dirt, grime, water, and salt can speed up the rusting process. Vintage motorcycles require more washes to eliminate anything that may cause it to rust.
Note: never use dish soap when washing your vintage motorcycle. New detergents are extremely harsh on clear coats. Use an actual car wash or motorcycle wash soap.
Use A Fuel Filter When Appropriate
As I had mentioned before, older motorcycles have a tendency to build up grime and dirt inside it’s systems. That’s simply a natural occurrence as a motorcycle ages.
Dirt and grime can build up inside the gas tank which delivers fuel to the carburetor. Having an inline filter between the gas tank and the carburetor can save your carburetor from a lot of grief. I would often put these on my motorcycle rebuilds and it yielded excellent results.
This is especially needed if you ride your vintage motorcycle frequently. However, if your motorcycle is mostly for looks and you often take it to shows, you may want to skip this step of maintenance. Most older motorcycles didn’t come with a fuel filter and it may seem unoriginal if you put your vintage motorcycle in a show with one installed.
You may easily be able to change out the fuel filter on some older motorcycles that have an “off” position on the fuel petcock. But a lot of older bikes didn’t, so changing from a regular fuel line to a filtered fuel line would mean gas would be going everywhere.
Take It For Regular Rides
An older motorcycle will last much longer if it is taken for regular rides. It may not seem so, but I’ve seen what happens first-hand when you simply let a motorcycle sit, even if you do keep it clean.
Without regularly taking your motorcycle for a spin, the gaskets in the engine becomes brittle, the tires become brittle, the oil still breaks down, the chain becomes stiff, rust begins to form in unseen places, the fuel begins to gel up, and condensation begins to form.
Again, motorcycles are a lot like humans. If you sit for days at a time, you can expect yourself to go run a marathon the second you get up. When a motorcycle regularly runs, every part of it is “exercising” and serving it’s function which makes the vintage motorcycle last much longer.
As a good practice of maintenance, take your vintage motorcycle out for a ride at least once a month. Be sure to do a ride long enough to shift through all the gears and it gets up to running temperature to circulate the oil and burn off any condensation that may have built up.
Have The Right Tools For Fixes
An article about how to maintain a vintage motorcycle wouldn’t be complete without mentioning having the right tools to maintain it in the first place. Older motorcycles aren’t too complicated of machines, so a set of basic tools will suffice.
The most frequently used tools I use on all of my motorcycles is a socket/ratchet and wrench set. Click here to see the set I use in my list of recommended tools for motorcycle maintenance. This particular set is great because it comes in both English and Metric unit sizes.
Other tools I use frequently are channel lock pliers and a motorcycle lift. Each motorcycle may be different with the type of needs they have, so make sure that whatever tools you buy to get the job done are good quality. You’ll use them more than you think.
Regularly Grease The Bearings
Vintage motorcycles have a lot of places that need greasing. Really, anything that rotates is going to need some greasing and regular checkups. This is something a lot of people ignore or aren’t aware that it needs to happen during regular vintage motorcycle maintenance.
The bearings that need to be greased include the ones on the triple clamp, rear swing arm, and the front and rear axles. Going without maintaining these parts can not only make an annoying sound, but it can also be dangerous for you as the rider. Your motorcycle won’t be able to run as easily which can make it hard on the engine.
It’s best practice to at least check on the bearings’ lubrication about once a year. Make sure to keep any grease away from the brakes since that’s the last place you want any lubrication.