What to Look for When Buying a Used Motorcycle: Part 2

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March 17, 2010 | By: Scott Holton

In Part 1 of What to Look for when buying a Used Motorcycle, I wrote about the importance of conducting a thorough visual inspection of the bike you’re thinking about buying. Today, in Part 2, I focus on evaluating the mechanical soundness of a used motorcycle’s chassis.

Understanding the mechanical soundness of a used bike’s chassis starts by conducting a detailed physical inspection of the bike in question:

Rock the Bike

  1. Take a seat on the bike.
  2. Grab the front brake and apply it as hard as you can
  3. Rock the bike (for and aft) to see how well the brake holds (the goal is to feel the dampening action of the forks). If the forks are mushy, they may need service.
  4. Next, inspect each fork seal, the Master Cylinder, and the complete front brake line for leaks.

The “rock the bike” test also allows you to check the steering head bearings. If you hear a “clunking” sound, that means the bearings are loose. Replacing the bearings can be expensive depending on the model of bike.

Bounce the Bike

  1. Take a seat on the bike.
  2. Bounce on the seat to get a feel for the action of the rear shock. Too much bounce could mean that the shocks could be worn out, while not enough bounce may mean the spring preload could be set too tight or that the wrong shock is in place.
  3. Size up the current owner of the bike (or if s/he isn’t present, ask the salesperson what they know about the bike’s most recent owner). If there is a substantial difference in size between the most recent owner and yourself, you will likely have to make adjustments to the spring settings.
  4. Next, give a firm push on the rear brake pedal. The pedal should be firm with no fade.
  5. Hop off the bike and inspect the entire rear brake system. Obviously, there should be no leaks. As motorcycles only have 2 brakes, it’s very important that both work. While 70% of the bike’s braking action is in the front brake, a working rear brake is absolutely required.

Fork it Over

  1. After the checks from the saddle, go to the front fork and stand it as upright as it can be while on the side stand.
  2. At the axle, grab the front wheel with one hand and the front fork with the other, and firmly pull the fork back and forth in the wheel. This is an effective way to check wheel bearings. There should be no excessive play. Excessive play indicates a bad wheel bearing.
  3. Next, grab a screwdriver and lightly strike each spoke (called ringing the spokes). The spokes should ring to the same pitch. If they don’t sound the same the wheel likely needs servicing.
  4. Proceed to the back wheel and perform the same wheel bearing check. Instead of grabbing the fork, however, grab the wheel and pull/push the swing arm.
  5. Go to where the swing arm attaches to the frame and do the same push/pull test on those bearings. There should not be play at any of these points.
  6. Warning: This part of the inspection is critical. Issues with any of these bearings could result in an accident.

  7. Ring the rear spokes. Same criteria as the front… all spokes should ring to the same tone. FYI: To service spokes, the wheel has to be removed and the tire and tube taken from the rim. The assembly is then placed in a truing stand and the spokes evenly tightened. Note: Finding shops that are willing to true a wheel can be quite a challenge. If you’re buying a used bike from a dealer, be sure to ask if they’re willing to do so the need ever arise.

That’s it for Part 2. Check back next week for the 3rd and final part of this series where I address what to inspect while the engine is running.

Comments: 5 Comments | Categorized Under: Tech Tips

Comments (5)

Scott, Appreciate your experience and years of commitment to the craft you love. Looking forward to your last Blog on checking out a used bike. I have a 93 XLH that I have had for 8 years. Have converted it to a cruiser as best I can. My wife likes to ride with me. Just finished a correspondence course with CSI, affiliated with Penn Foster on motorcycle maintenance. Would like to buy some used bikes to work on & maybe start a business. Value your experience. Thanks, John

Thank you John, I’ve been in the motorcycle business a lot of years and what is really neat is I come to work with a smile on my face every day.

Great info,enjoyed part 1 and part 2. Thanks for the good info!

I like the checklist, but the one thing I disagree with is #2 from “Fork It Over”, I would be concerned if there was any play *at all* in the front wheel bearing. The last thing you want when riding is an unstable front wheel, and none of the 5 bikes I’ve owned have had any play in the front wheel.

The problem with any Blog is to keep it short enough. By keeping it short I did not define excessive play. The specification in the Harley Service manual for 78 1/2 – 84 FL/FX is .004 to .018. That’s not a lot, but that can be felt. If it is any over that, we need to be concerned. That gives you an idea of ‘how much is too much”

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