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Looking into buying a motorcycle can be exciting, but it can also be a bit stressful if you don’t know exactly what to look for especially when it comes looking for potential issues. I’ve been there many times myself; I bought and restored over a dozen motorcycles while I was going to school. Through this experience, I was able to get a good idea of what potential issues to look for in a possible motorcycle buy while out for the test ride.
I could get pretty technical with everything you’ll need to check during your test ride. But if I did that, this list would go on forever. There are a lot of things you can check, but every motorcycle is going to have a small problem or technicality here and there, even brand new motorcycles. This list is meant for buyers who are looking for the most common and obvious problems that can save the most money.
One of the first things you (and everyone else) will notice about a motorcycle is the way it looks. This is also one of the first things you should look at when you’re about to test ride any motorcycle. I’m not here to necessarily tell you what condition you should and shouldn’t buy, that all depends on you, how much money you’re willing to spend, and what level or expertise you have. But I can tell you about how much it’ll cost to fix.
Before you test ride a motorcycle, it’s always a good idea to do a visual walk around. Take a few minutes to really look at the nitty gritty stuff. Get down on your knees and look at places you couldn’t normally see on the bike. One of the first things I like to look for are any scrapes on the engine or engine covers. This often indicates that the motorcycle has been dropped at some point.
A dropped motorcycle isn’t necessarily a bad thing (because most, if not all, motorcyclists will drop their bike at some point during their ownership). You’ll just want to look at the severity of the scratches. Long, deep scratches on the covers may mean you’ll need a new cover altogether. It’s possible to shine up parts of the engine so the scratches are hardly noticeable. But new engine covers can be relatively cheap for common motorcycles, especially if you can find a decent used one.
Along with scratches on the engine, you’ll also want to look at the condition of the heat fins, too. These fins serve an important function to the motorcycle because they help cool down the engine. If one of these is broken, you risk gaining a localized heat spot.
A small chip here or there isn’t really much of a big deal and can be patched up with some JB weld to make it look better. Larger chips or fins that are completely gone is a more serious problem and may require replacement parts to the engine which could be costly. And larger chips also means there was a hard fall or collision.
I also like to take a good look at the tank to check for any dents on it. Tank dents don’t really impose on it’s function, but it can certainly be an eye sore and a possible expensive fix if you don’t know how to fix dents yourself. Try to look at the tank in different lighting to ensure full transparency of it’s condition.
I personally don’t mind a few dents because I know how to fix them, but in any case it’s really annoying buying a motorcycle only to discover a big dent you didn’t notice before. See my other article here to learn more about how to fix dents in a motorcycle gas tank.
Now that you’ve made your visual scan of the motorcycle, you’ll need to take it for the anticipated test ride. It’s very important you always test ride a motorcycle before you buy it so you can detect any potential problems you couldn’t see before.
The next thing you’ll want to look out for is any strange sounds the motorcycle may be making. The first sound I listen for is any sounds from the engine. There shouldn’t be any clicking or grinding coming from it at all. Any sounds like that could likely mean it’s about to give out in the near future.
Next, I pay attention to the exhaust. Try to see if there are any exhaust leaks anywhere. A leak in the exhaust will first likely manifest itself through a popping sound when the motorcycle is first turned on and subside the longer the motorcycle remains on. You can also tell if there’s a leak by any unusual draft coming from anywhere on the pipes besides the end of the muffler.
Exhaust leaks from the flange surface on the headers could mean the header bolts are loose which is a fairly simple fix. Pin holes anywhere on the pipes will likely mean you’ll need to replace the headers altogether (especially if they’re caused by rust). Click here to see my other article that discusses in more depth about how to tell if a motorcycle has an exhaust leak.
Also notice any backfiring. Backfiring happens because of the presence of uncombusted fuel in the exhaust pipe which most commonly means the engine is running too lean or too rich (which also means there may be some carb issues). Backfiring could be a simple fix, but it could also be an expensive fix; it’s hard to know for sure so that decision is up to you whether or not you are okay with it. See my other article here to learn more about why a motorcycle backfires.
Lastly, I always like to listen to the acceleration while I’m test riding a motorcycle. The acceleration should feel smooth and the sound should stay linear as you continue to rev up. Anything otherwise, such as vibrations, rattles, or poor acceleration could mean tire issues, engine issues, chain issues, or carb issues.
Most motorcycles are manual, so the clutch health is always important to observe during any motorcycle test ride. Obvious signs of malfunction to look for are hard shift and any grinding coming from changing gears. The transition from one gear to another should be smooth and sound free (that is, if you know how to properly shift through the gears).
Aside from listening to what the clutch sounds like, also pay attention to the clutch handle and it’s tightness. It should be an easy pull with just a little bit of resistance. Sometimes clutch handles can be stuck which means it’s difficult to pull on it or it is completely loose with zero resistance. This is a sign of either a bad clutch cable or simply a bad clutch altogether.
Sometimes dirt and grime get inside the clutch and make the plates stick together. In any case, it can be a lot of time and money to fix the problem. To learn more about clutch health, see my other article by clicking here.
Excessive Engine Vibration
You’ll want to watch out for any excessive engine vibrations during a test ride on a motorcycle. There will always be a certain amount of vibration, but too much of it can lead to problems.
Imagine the feeling of pushing an old lawn mower for a few hours with your arms feeling like they’ve been rattled and a little bit numb. You’ll notice a similar sensation when you ride a motorcycle that has excessive engine vibration.
An engine that vibrates during a ride is a sign of a poorly designed or poorly maintained engine. For example, my 1969 Triumph was well maintained but poorly designed from the factory and made my arms feel like jelly after riding. Excessive engine vibration will eventually lead to oil leaks and loose bolts. You will constantly be tightening things up and fixing things on the engine when there’s so much vibration.
I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent trying to get the electric wiring just right on every single one of my motorcycles. That’s partly because I buy project bikes, but it’s always a headache having to deal with the electronics and getting everything to work properly.
Any time you are test riding a motorcycle, you need to always check all the electrical components to ensure they work. Such things include the horn, turn signals, headlight (high and low beam), and the brake light. It’s also a good idea to pay special attention to the speedometer and tachometer; they need to arise smoothly and coincide with the motorcycle’s acceleration.
Specific parts, such as new turn signals or a new speedometer, really aren’t that expensive to buy. It’s wiring them into the motorcycle that can cause a world of headache. Accidentally grounding the wrong wire will have a domino affect and cause other problems such as parasitic drain. I’m not saying it’s impossible to learn how to do it yourself, just know that if you’re looking into buying a motorcycle that has electrical issues, you’re in for a big learning curve (unless you are willing to pay someone to fix it for you).
Tire And Rim Condition
The last important thing you’ll need to check while out on a test run is the condition of the tires and the rims. Before you take any motorcycle out for a ride, inspect the tires to ensure they’re durable enough to ride on. You’ll want to check for any cracks and bulges on the tire and see how worn down the tread is.
Worn tread isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an indicator of how soon you’ll need to get new tires. But flat tread is dangerous and should never be ridden on. If the tires seem to be in poor condition, plan on spending about $100 for each tire plus about $50 to get them mounted onto the rim.
Motorcycles are unfortunately more susceptible to bent rims when bigger bumps are hit on the road. It is my rule of thumb to never ride a motorcycle that has any type of bend anywhere on the rim. So while you’re inspecting the tires, take a look at the condition of the rims, too. Do not ride the motorcycle if you see any bends anywhere on the rims.
Bends on the rim can cause a dangerous situation for you, especially if the tires are tubeless (which most motorcycles have, unless it has spoked rims). Tubeless tires rely on that tight suction against the lips of the rims, so any little bend could mean the tire deflates out on a run. And a deflated tire during a ride could be very dangerous.
But sometimes it’s hard to see bends in the rim with the naked eye. They will manifest during a ride on the motorcycle because that tire will wobble. Any wobble on a motorcycle isn’t a good sign and you should stop immediately if you notice that happening.
It is possible to get a bent rim fixed, but I highly discourage any amateur to do it themselves. It requires some heavy machinery and exactness that most people don’t have in their garages. If you’re interested in getting a motorcycle and noticed it has a bent rim, you’ll either need to get it professionally fixed or buy new ones altogether.
To summarize what we’ve just discussed, here’s a check list that can make a test ride for any motorcycle much easier. Feel free to copy and print this off to take with you if you are planning on test riding a motorcycle soon.
Checklist For Test Riding A Motorcycle:
- Engine dents/scrapes
- Engine fins condition
- Gas tank dents
- Exhaust leaks
- Smooth acceleration
- Hard shifts or grinding from clutch
- Clutch handle too loose
- Clutch handle too tight
- Excessive vibration
- Ticking or grinding
Tires And Rims
- Bald spots or bulges on tires
- Worn tread
- Bends on rims
- Tire wobbles