More and more modern motorcycles are starting to have ABS for obvious safety reasons. Anti-lock braking technology was first used on airplanes in 1929 and not used in cars until 1978 by Mercedes-Benz. The first motorcycle to use the technology was the 1988 BMW K100.
There are 5 ways to tell if a motorcycle has ABS:
- Wire Running Down To Front Brake Caliper
- Slotted Disc In Line With Front Brake Rotor
- Proportioning Valve That Ties Together All Brake Lines
- ABS Light On The Instrument Cluster
- Owners Manual Specifications
Above are listed the 5 visual ways to inspect a motorcycle yourself to see if it has ABS, but remember that every motorcycle is different. Some of these may not apply to every ABS equipped motorcycle on the road. Always look for the visual signs as well as searching online for your specific make and model on forums or manufacturer’s websites to verify if it has ABS or not.
Below I’ll describe each of the 5 ways in more depth to help you find out if a specific motorcycle has ABS.
Wire Running Down To Front Brake Caliper
If you’re looking at buying a used motorcycle from a private seller or a dealer and they have ABS advertised I would follow one of my workplace slogans that says, “Trust But Verify”. Look for as many of these signs on the motorcycle as possible. If you’re buying a brand new motorcycle from a dealer and it has ABS advertised then I would take their word for it since it’s illegal for them to advertise false information about vehicle specs. But always verify!
Checking to see if a wire runs down to the front brake caliper is one of the most universal visual checks to whether a motorcycle has front wheel ABS. Every ABS unit needs some sort of wire running to it, which is usually just one single wire that runs right next to the front brake line down to the front brake caliper.
It might blend in or be tucked away behind fender mounts and other hardware, but a wire running down to the caliper would either be for ABS or for a light.
Most motorcycles do not have stock lights down by the front caliper. If there is a light down there, it is most likely added as an aftermarket upgrade and will look out of place. An ABS system will certainly not look out of place. If a wire is running down there and goes into the brake caliper then you can be pretty confident you have ABS since most people do not have lights by their front brakes.
Slotted Disc In Line With Brake Rotor
This visual check does not apply to all motorcycles. Many modern motorcycles that do have ABS have a slotted disc that bolts in line with the disc brake. It looks a lot like a small disc brakes with a much smaller diameter that is bolted to the front axle. Those small slots are what causes the pulsation of the anti-lock brakes when you hit the brakes too hard on a loose surface or lock them up at higher speeds.
Some of these slotted discs even come in aftermarket kits that can bolt onto your brake caliper and front axle. Being an engineer, I would not personally recommend adding an aftermarket ABS system. The brakes on a motorcycle are the most important safety feature you have, so doing anything that could compromise the integrity of the system is a bad idea.
Proportioning Valve That Ties Together All Brake Lines
Most modern motorcycles have separate master cylinders for the front and rear brakes, which means there is no use for a proportioning valve. So if your motorcycle has a large proportioning valve tucked away somewhere in the middle underneath one of the side covers then chances are you have ABS.
A proportioning valve does not really look like a valve at all. It looks like a square block of aluminum or steel that has two or three brake lines threaded into it. If you have a proportioning valve on your motorcycle and also have a front and rear master cylinder then you most likely have ABS, or else there would be no reason to have two separate master cylinders.
A proportioning valve is a device that splits up brake pressure between the front and rear brakes. So if you want 80% of braking power to come from the front and 20% from the rear then you can do that.
ABS Light On The Instrument Cluster
This is maybe the fastest check to see if your motorcycle originally had ABS from the factory. IF your motorcycle still has the original instrument cluster and gauges then put your key in the ignition, turn it one click to the “Accessory” position and see if an ABS light turns on.
Just because the light comes on does not mean you have ABS, it means that motorcycle had it at one point. Many people take ABS off their motorcycle because they don’t like how it feels when it pulsates. So if you’re looking at buying a used motorcycle and the instrument cluster has an ABS light then verify a few other things on the motorcycle before you feel confident that it does have ABS.
Owners Manual Specifications
If you have access to a paper or digital copy of the owners manual then check the braking section to see if it says anything about anti-lock brakes. But similar to the last section, just because the motorcycle came with ABS from the factory does not necessarily mean that it still has a functioning ABS system. Many people disable it or remove it completely.
People usually disable ABS by simply removing the fuse that is directly connected to it. Most do this because they want to perform stunts on their motorcycle which ABS does not allow.
If they have just disabled it then that’s good news for you. Plug the fuse back in and make sure that the brake lines running to the ABS proportioning valve are connected and bled correctly.
Contact Your Local Dealer
One of the faster ways to figure out if a specific motorcycle has ABS, but you currently don’t have access to the motorcycle, is to call a motorcycle dealer of that brand. Any Harley-Davidson dealer in the world can tell you whether a 2012 Harley Nightster 1200 has ABS, so give them a call and let them look it up for you.
If you do contact a dealer and they say they can’t answer that question then call a dealership in a bigger city. In my own experience the bigger city dealerships tend to have more experienced technicians because they have a larger pool of potential employees, so they can hand-pick the more experienced people.
Look At Online Forums
One of the best things about the internet is having a plethora of information constantly available at our fingertips. If you search for a specific model, you’ll most likely get a forum post from other people that own that exact motorcycle. Join the forum and ask all the questions you could ever want!
If you can’t find any answers online about a specific model then start a new post on a forum. People will usually get back to you within the day and answer your question.
I’m part of a forum for my 1969 Triumph and constantly use it to ask specific questions about my classic motorcycle. I feel like I know a large amount about motorcycles but having a huge community of like-minded people is an amazing resource to learn new things from.
Anti-lock brakes are a huge selling point for motorcycles and absolutely make them worth more. It is one of the safety features that I have never personally had on one of my own motorcycles, but I have ridden plenty of motorcycles that do have it, and it’s a pretty cool feeling knowing that you can’t lock up the brakes even if you try.
It’s always a good idea to check and make sure you have ABS on your motorcycle if you don’t know for certain. You will be able to quickly find and see the clues to prove whether you do or do not have ABS on your motorcycle.
Why do motorcycles have different size wheels? Most motorcycles have larger front wheels, meaning they’re bigger in diameter and skinnier, to help with movement and steering. The back wheels are shorter in diameter and wider to help with traction and control of the motorcycle since that is where the power is coming from. Click here to see an article I wrote that discusses this in more detail.
Is it possible to put ABS on a motorcycle that doesn’t have it? It is possible to install anti-lock brakes on a motorcycle that does not have them already. If you’re mechanically minded, you may be able to do it yourself. It is more recommended to take it into the shop and have it done to make sure it is done right.