Buying a large, fast motorcycle in a developed country is an act of passion. No matter how rational and logical we are.
Even though there are some practical benefits to motorcycles, like mileage, ease of parking and ease of getting through traffic, you could also find good or maybe better reasons to ride a stand-on scooter, ride an electric bike or moped, drive a car or drive a minivan or truck, ride a bicycle or just run or walk.
Faced with logic, the motorcycle rider says "Oh yeah? Well, I'm riding."
Because motorcycles are awesome.
It's awesome to ride them, to work on them and sometimes even just to look at or listen to them.
Buying a motorcycle, like buying a gas-driven car, is also buying a piece of a soon-to-be distant past. Internal combustion engines will be all but extinct by around 2040 with the continuous rapid advancement of electric motors. Just like digital cameras, the take-over will be swift, and contradict nay-sayers everywhere. Some people will hold on to traditional engine vehicles as a throwback to a past, a nod to different days, just as some people still use film cameras in 2018 to make an artistic point (or respecting their unique colour qualities), but eventually, the inconvenience and rising price of gas will price them out.
If you're the kind of person to value antiques like old watches, cars and other mechanical instruments, a motorcycle might be just what you're looking for.
Why buy a classic motorcycle?
If we admit that we're doing this for love, we can broaden our minds a bit to what it is we love.
Let's look at the above reasons – riding, how they look and sound, and working on them – and see what kinds of motorcycles this would lead to.
You might love riding above everything else. At its most extreme level, this would mean buying the best motorcycle for riding, irrespective of how it looks or sounds. For example, the wonderfully utilitarian Suzuki V-Strom 650. It's comfortable over any distance, has decent power, is efficient and can take a lot of luggage. They're also fun to ride, with enough power for sporty riding.
You might love how motorcycles look and sound. For this, look no further than MV Augusta, who make art on motorcycles. Or any of the other Italian brands, or Triumphs, or the various other beautiful motorcycles from Japanese manufactures. Yeah they ride great and they're not necessarily unreliable, but those factors are secondary.
Or you might like working on motorcycles. Keeping them maintained, restoring them or building custom models. Most motorcycles need maintenance, so you should pick up a motorcycle that's at least a pleasure to maintain (or not a total dog's breakfast). And most are good platforms for building, but you can't go wrong with a Honda CB750 Nighthawk, one of the most established platforms for building custom motorcycles. Or a Honda CX500, or a Yamaha SR500. You'll find a plethora of guides, custom parts and even builders all over the world to help you with your custom project.
But I'm here to argue: You can do all three with a classic motorcycle. Buy the right classic motorcycle and you'll have one that's fun to ride, looks fantastic and is enjoyable to maintain.
Here are a few of my favourites.
Ducati Monster M900 (1994-2001)
The Ducati Monster 900 was my dream motorcycle when I was a teenager in the nineties. So it was my first port of call twenty years later when I realised I might actually be able to afford one. Since the 90s Ducati released all kinds of variants.
The Ducati Monster was originally a "parts bin" motorcycle build, using a frame from one motorcycle, an engine from another and so on, until this iconic design was built. The things that made it stand apart from other motorcycles of the time were:
- The "trellis" frame - that attractive gold blocky frame, taken from the 900 SuperSport engine.
- The v-twin engine - most engines at the time in standard motorcycles were inline four engines. The L-twin gives it a unique rumble.
- The dry clutch, giving the distinctive Ducati rattle and clatter that makes many riders swoon, and many car drivers thinking your engine is about to explode. They're no more or less reliable than wet clutch motorcycles.
What Ducati Monster to buy
The most commonly available motorcycle is the Ducati Monster 900. Focus on that. The sweet spot is 2000-2002, when they had fuel injection (just better reliability and easier maintenance!). Stay away from the M620 and M750, as they're harder to sell. Other major contenders are anything from later, large capacity air-cooled era, like the S2R800 or S2R1000. If you want more power, look no further than the S4 series, with the S4RS being the pinnacle (producing over 130hp... and still pumping it through a dry clutch).
You can also get a Ducati Supersport 900 (commonly known as a 900SS), which was built on a similar platform, but has a fairing and a different riding position. The only downside of the fairing is more parts to remove when you have to do a valve job, and more things to worry about cracking when you crash it.
How to buy a used Ducati Monster
You can get these in the US for $2,500-4,000 for one in good condition and that has been maintained.
If it has high miles, that's actually OK, as long as it has had few owners and the valves have been serviced regularly. Just use it to your advantage and get a discount. It's very hard to sell a motorcycle that has more than 50,000 miles on it. (But remember: what goes around comes around when it's your turn to sell it.)
Apart from the usual things to check for, look for the following:
Were the valves serviced recently? Were the belts replaced? Belts and valves need inspection every 6,000 miles, and belts have to be replaced half the time. Some people just don't do this, in which case you have to plan on doing it yourself. It needs a couple of special tools, plus buckets to put over the shims, and about 4-6 hours of your time. I did mine under the supervision of an experienced Ducati mechanic, Lucy, at Motoguild in San Francisco. It took me a few hours (and I added on some more time to replace the belts plus change the oil and do a few other things.
Do the electricals all work? Make sure the displays work and that the charging system works (take a voltmeter). If there's a bad connector, loose wire or other fault in the wiring loom, diagnosing and repairing is kind of a nightmare on a Ducati. Also, these problems are super common. Failed rectifiers are probably the most common, and luckily, the easiest to fix.
Is the tank intact? Dents in the steel tank are not only expensive to replace ($750, as it's very hard to get a second hand tank that's intact!), they're extremely common from the way the handlebars are placed. Basically if one has been dropped, even at a standstill, then the tank is dented. It's annoying to look at and hurts your resale. I'd caution against buying one, unless you know a guy who can fix it.
Does it have a Termignoni exhaust? The stock Ducati mufflers underserve the Ducati motorcycles. Termignonis cost over $1,000 new, and people slapped them on (and can get almost nothing for them now, used), so buy one already equipped. It's worth waiting for. Other exhaust systems are fine too, but just stay away from no-bame eBay units, which are more often a sign that a bike was dropped on its muffler than a sign that the owner wanted to invest anything.
Kawasaki ZRX1200R (2001-2005/7)
The Kawasaki ZRX1200R was originally built as a throwback machine, a nod to Kawasaki motorcycles of the past, but it has already become a classic again in its own right. They have a smooth four-cylinder engine that produces 120hp in stock form.
There were a few other motorcycles in its era that were similar, like Yamaha's XJR1300R and Suzuki's GSX1400. They were all similar - sporty, comfortable and extremely torquey. If you're in the Europe, the UK or Australia, you can get the Yamaha or the Suzuki if you shop around. In the US, the ZRX1200R is all you'll find. Also, it was sold until 2005 in the US, but until 2007 in Europe.
It's a carburetted engine with water cooling, with four separate carburetors. So expect do so some maintenance, especially if it has been sitting. Interestingly, in Japan it was updated in 2008 with fuel injection... but only sold in Japan. So you might be able to get a grey import, but not cheaply.
What model of ZRX1200R to buy
The models remained essentially the same in the US and Europe. The main variation you'll find is colour.
Green (pictured above) is the classic colour. If you want to be able to sell it easily, or if you want to swoon at your motorcycle more than at any other colour, buy green. You will often pay a premium for green... as much as $1000 more!
How to buy a used ZRX1200R
Expect to pay between $2,500 and $4,000 in the US. You'll pay the lower end for something with 50K miles and in red; you'll pay $4-5K for one in green that's intact and has lower miles (around 20K is the norm). I saw one for $4,000 and it vanished within a day.
Look for the following things unique to this motorcycle
- Does it have scratches on the left hand side? Or a dent in the tank? Unfortunately the kickstand is only stable when the motorcycle is on a level surface. If it's not, it can tip over. Make sure it hasn't, so you don't have to replace any bits (or the tank!) to sell it again later, if you ever want to.
- Are the forks leaking? You need to take it for a ride, or even have the owner take it for a rride for a few minutes. Leaky forks can best be found after the wheel has moved around a bit (otherwise the owner might have wiped them down). The ZRX1200R has soft suspension compared to a sportsbike, but is often ridden like a sportsbike, and might have been wheelied.
Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird (1996-2007)
This was the original super fast bike before the Hayabusa took the crown (keeping it, except for occasional disruptions by the Kawazaki ZX-14R).
Whether it's the fastest or not is immaterial to most people, who shouldn't be riding too fast on streets because it's illegal and dangerous. Suffice it to say that the CBR1100XX Super Blackbird is fast enough for just about anything with a top speed of over 280km/h. It pulls strongly from 3,000 rpm and delivers over 150hp at the top end (over 160 on the earlier carbureted models). Plus, it looks the business, and has less controversial styling than the Hayabusa (love it or hate it), and is less aggressively sporty than the ZX-14R. Look, they're all great bikes, I just wanted to include one lesser-acknowledged one, that usually sells for a little less.
What model of CBR1100XX to buy
The CBR1100XX was carbureted for the first few years (1996-1998), after which it got fuel injection. The carbureted model reportedly had a mid-range flat spot that was slightly annoying but not a deal breaker, and can be tuned out. Many enthusiasts PREFER the carburetted ones because they're faster, and had fewer electrical faults.
Electrical faults common to the EFI ones included
- Failing stator coil
- A diagnostic plug on the wiring loom which can spread corrosion to the rest of the wiring loom (catastrophic failure)
- Failing rectifier (also common to carburetted models)
The only thing to watch out for is the linked braking on the carbureted models which was a little 'unrefined' according to many reports (I haven't ridden one).
How to buy a used CBR1100XX
In general owners say the Blackbird is one of the most reliable motorcycles you can buy!
Here are a few things to check for
- Does it come with panniers? This is a long-range motorcycle, and is actually not well-equipped for the track because of linked braking. If you're going to travel, you'll need luggage, and I doubt you'd want to spend $500-1000 on the aftermarket for new luggage. Panniers are basically thrown in, so make sure they come with it.
- If the exhaust was replaced, was the carburettor re-jetted or the EFI remapped? Look for flat spots under hard acceleration in second or third gear... if you can keep up.
- Does it charge? Make sure the rectifier is working. A battery tender would mask this.
Honda VFR1000 SuperHawk
The RC51 is the real darling of collectors, but the SuperHawk is much more easily attainable. You can find them for $2-3K in the US, or $3-4K in Australia where they were more common.
It's a 1000cc fuel-injected v-twin that'll have you laughing. It was Honda's answer to the Ducati V-twin dominance of the late 90s and early 2000s, and it worked quite well.
Only complaints from people are that they run a little hot, have a range of under 120 miles (180kms) and don't handle as well as an SV1000S. But they have a name that's much cooler (both "Honda" and "SuperHawk").
Ducati 748 and 916
These motorcycles were simply works of art. There are relatively few on the market these days, as owners tend to be getting older, and appreciate them more, just wanting to hang on to them.
They're not the best Ducatis for racing. The better ones were the 848 and various Panigale models that came out later. They're not the best ones for the street; those would be the Monster models. They're definitely
Triumph Speed Triple
Whats not to love? The roar of the triple. The snaking chassis lines. The twin headlights up front. That branding, if that's important to you. The Speed Triple (or it's more svelte cousin, the Street Triple) is a winner.
There were two generations of Speed Triple that looked the business: the 955i and the 1050.
The Triumph Scrambler is more than just a modified Bonneville, even though that's how it starts.
The most importand differences between the Scrambler and the Bonneville are
- The Scrambler has a 270 degree firing interval between the pistons. This means one fires, then 270 degrees later the other fires, then 540 degrees later the first fires again. This is in contrast with the Bonneville, which is an even 360-360. In practise, this means there is more torque low down on the Scrambler, as well as a v-twin like roar.
- The Scrambler has high pipes and a guard for the engine at the bottom. This is to equip it nominally for going through things like high grass, occasional rocks and sometimes water, without destroying the underside of the Bonneville.
- The Scrambler has a tachometer. Some later Bonnevilles do too, but Scramblers always did.
There may be some trivial differences with the suspension too.
I like the Ducati Scrambler a lot too. It technically might even be better - it's lighter weight and has much more power. But it is a newer motorcycle and thus they haven't dropped under $5K like the Triumphs have—at least the older ones, and in the US.
What model of Triumph Scrambler to buy
There are three phases of Triumph Scrambler. You're good with any, but it's most likely you'll only be able to afford the first if spending just a little.
- Phase one - 2006 to 2007: Carbureted. This is my favorite phase. It has the same horsepower as later EFI ones, but a simpler and more honest design. The tank is just a tank, with no fuel pump inside it. The carburetors are actual carburetors, not throttle bodies designed to look like carburetors. They have an actual choke. They run smoothly and if you're in a warm climate (like I tend to be) they run fine all the time.
- Phase two - 2008-2016: EFI. The fuel injected versions of motorcycles are usually better. They do require less maintenance and they're easier to start in the cold. But I personally don't think the price hike is worth it for a Scrambler. It's a motorcycle that is meant to hearken to a simpler past. The things that bug me most are the faux styling features—the fake 'choke' that really just revs up the engine, the throttle bodies designed to look like carburetors. On the other hand, you can't ignore that replacing the exhaust doesn't need rejetting—you just modify the fuel map with an Android app. Pretty sweet. And you never have to clean the carbs.
- Phase three - 2017+: Street Scrambler. This was when they really leaned in to the Scrambler being a motorcycle designed for the streets. The sound was cleaned up, the engine
How to buy a Used Triumph Scrambler
Very little goes wrong with a Triumph Scrambler. However, there are a few things to bear in mind and that you should check.
- There are oil leaks on nearly all of them. Make sure to check if oil is dripping around somewhere. It's actually usually ok, but might give you a little bargaining power at purchase.
- Check the handlebars are straight. A lot of these are dropped by people attempting to "scramble" before realizing how heavy they are. The handlebars bend easily.
- If it has an aftermarket exhaust, ensure it has a flat power curve with no hesitation. If the installer was lazy, they might not have replaced the exhaust header gaskets or flashed the computer.