How To: Buying A Vintage Motorcycle

Buying a vintage motorcycle is becoming popular these days.  Some are acquired for a custom project, building a cafe racer, bobber, or chopper.  Often it’s for nostalgic reasons, you had one when you were younger, or it was your “dream bike,” from those days.  Maybe it’s purely for enjoyment of riding a vintage, or, as my brother’s friend Adam would say, “Just for the smile factor.”

restored 1948 indian chief
Restored 1948 Indian Chief, if I owned this, I’d have plenty of “smile factor.”

The growing popularity of vintage motorcycles has created an odd market for them.   There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the selling prices.  I have seen restored, or clean “barn finds” of some models being offered at five times their original MSRP.  On the other hand, sometimes that same model bike can be had for almost nothing, or even free.  In some cases, the buyer ends up getting gouged, mainly because they had no idea what they were looking at, or what they were getting into.  I personally know of a buyer who bought a “rare” Honda 305 at a vintage rally that had been “rebuilt” by the seller.  Once they got it home it had endless problems with the fuel and electrical systems.  Had they been equipped with just the basic knowledge of what to look for, they might have avoided this pitfall.

A “rare” 1970 Harley dirt bike, asking price, $200! Not rare, not worth $200 even as scrap!

A few months ago I was trying to help my brother Benjie locate a Honda SL 350 Motosport to purchase.  We live 600 miles apart, when he asked if I would look at a 1971 SL 350 near me, right off I asked for a check list of what to look for.  He has other vintage Japanese bikes, so he’s very knowledgeable in this area.  Sure, I’ve owned vintage bikes before, but that was roughly forty years ago, and they were brand new at the time, so, compared to me, he’s the expert.  I figured if I took pictures, followed his list, and did a decent evaluation, he could make a comfortable decision on buying the bike.  The plan worked perfectly, except for one thing, the seller backed out.  To this day we still don’t know why, Benjie called to complete the deal, left a message, and never heard back from the seller.  I had invested a full day into the process, going to view the bike, taking pictures, the test ride, etc., rather than let the list and images go to waste, I decided to use it as base for this article.

This is Benjie’s list, some items are general, others are SL 350 model specific, but may apply to your situation.

  1. Check the rims for flaked chrome and pitting, do they roll true?
  2. Check the frame for any cracked welds and rust.
  3. Check for rust inside the tank.
  4. Make sure the latch on the cap works.  (Model specific.)
  5. Is the tool box cap missing?  (Model specific.)
  6. Is the tool kit there?  (Model specific.)
  7. Check that that the side panels are not cracked, or the tabs broken.  (Model specific.)
  8. Check the foam on the air filters, does it crumble?  (Model specific.)
  9. What does the battery look like?
  10. How is the battery box?  Is it rusted?  How bad?  Is there acid damage below the box?
  11. Check all the Phillips screw heads, are they stripped out?  (This is a common problem with Japanese motorcycles.)
  12. Check the drain plug isn’t rounded off with a crescent wrench.  (Model specific.)
  13. Check the oil, is it clear?  If not, is it black, does it smell bad, or is there any evidence of water in the oil?
  14. Shove the rear wheel side to side, are the wheel bearings and swing arm bushings tight?
  15. Push down on the front forks, are the steering head bearings tight?
  16. How many miles are on it?
  17. Start and ride it, does it run well and track straight?
  18. Is there decent power?
  19. Does it idle smoothly?
  20. Do both the headlight and tail light work?
  21. Does the speedometer and tachometer work?
  22. Lift up the seat and look at the seat pan, is it rusted?  How badly?
  23. Check the fork tube wipers, any fork seal leaks?
  24. Check the chain and sprockets for wear.

This is a pretty good list, and I’m sure it could be expanded, but it covers the basics.  Some are self-explanatory, others are not, we will drill down on those a little later on.

Here are  some other points I’d like to mention, especially if this will be your first vintage motorcycle.

  1. If this is your first, start off small, by “small” I mean motorcycle that is more or less complete, and something you can get parts for.  A basket case Vincent Rapide is no place to start for a newbie.  Go with something well supported in the aftermarket, like a Yamaha XS 650, Honda CB 750, or one of the Kawasaki KZ models.
  2. Know that there will be rust, and most likely, plenty of dirt and grease too.  Unless it is an extremely clean “barn find” or already restored, expect plenty of rust and grime.
  3. Does it run?  If not, it’s a “Forrest Gump,” like a box of chocolates, you don’t know what you’re getting.  At the very least, try and turn the engine over to make sure it’s not seized and get it at the lowest price possible.
  4. I can’t stress this enough, know what you are buying.  Have an idea of what the current market value is for your intended purchase, running, and non running.  You should also have a good idea of the weaknesses of that model, the “fixes,” and how much that will cost.  Parts can be an issue as well, some parts are not reproduced, and you can pay dearly for a used, or NOS (New Old Stock) part.  Expensive, or non existent parts can kill a project, or at the very least put a huge dent in your wallet.
  5. Not all vintage motorcycles are “rare,” in most cases there were plenty of them built, so don’t fall into that trap.  You should know if you are being bullshitted or not.  If you hear “rare” early on in the conversation, walk away.  There were thousands of Japanese and European motorcycles imported into the US every year during the sixties, seventies, and eighties, so “rare,” is rare.  If a vintage motorcycle is truly rare, you should already know that going in.
  6. Can you put a plate on it?  In a few states a title is required to license your vehicle for the road no matter how old it is.  If your purchase has no title, and your state requires one, you might as well think of it as a source of parts.  It is common for old bikes to have missing titles, in some states, a title is not required to register a motorcycle for road use.  In my area an inspection of the VIN is required by a police officer to make sure the motorcycle is not stolen.  If it’s clear, you get an official form from the officer saying so, that, a bill of sale, and some cash will register a motorcycle in Georgia.  The process varies from state to state, so do your homework.
  7. Is it hot?  I don’t mean “hot” performance wise, I mean hot as in stolen!  Theft of vintage motorcycles has gone up with their values, if there is no title, have a police officer run the VIN, a legitimate seller should not balk at having the VIN checked.  It’s a bad day when you find you’ve dropped serious coin on something hot, you lose your cash, and the bike.
  8. Speaking of checking the VIN, it’s a good idea to know the VIN numbers for the model years you will be looking at.  Just because the seller says it’s 1970 model doesn’t make it so, knowing the VIN will help you know the year for sure.

Enough about what to watch for, let’s get our hands dirty and do an inspection.

1971 Honda SL 350 right side view
The prospective purchase, Honda SL 350, asking price, $1,500.

Here is a restored SL 350 I photographed at Barber Vintage Days.  It’s a good idea to have images of the model in stock condition, then it’s easy to tell if something is missing or modified.

restored 1971 Honda SL 350 right side view
Restored Honda SL 350, Barber Vintage Days.
restored 1971 Honda SL 350 left side view
Restored SL 350 left side view Barber Vintage Days.

For a dirt bike the Honda was reasonably complete.  It didn’t have the stock pipes, most don’t, those were often tossed in favor of something lighter.  The original fenders were still there, that’s a plus, usually those were lost in a crash or replaced with plastic.  It had what is called “survivor” paint, the original paint with some chips, scratches, fading, etc.  In general, the body work was decent for a motorcycle over forty years old.

1971 Honda SL 350 front fender
Scuffed up some, but in good shape.
1971 Honda SL 350 front left view
Front left view.
1971 Honda SL 350 right side view
Right side.

I think it’s a good idea to take pics, even if it’s just with your cell phone.  It’s funny how your mind glosses over details to the point you don’t see them.  The things you might miss, oil leaks, evidence the engine has been worked on, missing parts, damaged fasteners, etc., they all become quite clear in pictures.  It also helps with your “to do” list if you decide to buy the bike.  Make sure you get some close up shots, it can reveal a lot you might miss otherwise.

1971 Honda SL 350 left side view headlight
Headlight, speedo, tach, notice the fork legs, both fork seals are leaking.
1971 Honda SL 350 left side view engine head detail
Notice the sealant coming out between the rocker box and head, somebody has been in there.
1971 Honda SL 350 left side view engine detail
Lots of corrosion and rust, even on the coil connections.
1971 Honda SL 350 top view headlight speedometer, tachometer
Speedo, tach, in decent shape.
1971 Honda SL 350 top view gas tank cap
I checked in the tank, no rust, the gas cap latch worked.
1971 Honda SL 350 front wheel detail
Front wheel, some minor corrosion, it might polish out, might not.
1971 Honda SL 350 left view engine
Typical dirt bike wear on the frame near the foot pegs.
1971 Honda SL 350 right side view engine
Same “dirt bike” wear on the case, very common.
1971 Honda SL 350 right side view engine detail
Here’s one of those items we were watching for. Wallowed out “phillips head” screws.

Helpful tip:  The Japanese JIS (Japanese Industrial Standard) “phillips head” screw is not a phillips head at all, it’s slightly different, so it doesn’t fit a phillips bit tightly.  If the screw is even the least bit stubborn, our standard phillips screwdrivers slip and damage the head.  If you are going work on a vintage Japanese bike it would be a good idea to buy a set of these screwdrivers.

1971 Honda SL 350 right side view tool box detail
Here is the tool box, another item on the watch list, the cap is missing.

Editors Note:  The missing cap is common, unfortunately nobody makes a replacement, so buying a NOS or used cap could get a bit expensive.

restored 1971 Honda SL 350 right side view tool box cap detail
Restored SL 350 with the tool box cap.

One of my concerns was the amount of rust under the tool box, apparently the battery had barfed acid big time on the frame.

1971 Honda SL 350 right side view rusted frame detail
Rust on the frame.
1971 Honda SL 350 bottom view rusted frame detail
Hopefully a good media blast is all it needs.
1971 Honda SL 350 bottom view engine
More rust, and grime, remember I told you to expect grime?
1971 Honda SL 350 bottom view engine
At least the drain plug was not rounded off.
1971 Honda SL 350 seat pan and foam
Under the seat, in decent shape, might need new foam.

You can expect most non metal parts to show deterioration of some kind, rubber cracks, plastic fades, or becomes milky if it was clear, and foam crumbles.  Count on replacing almost everything made with these materials if they can’t be reconditioned or repaired.  Two good examples, the air cleaners and side covers.  The air cleaners had a cleanable foam wrapped around a rigid core, common for the time, these were long gone and replaced with air conditioner foam.

1971 Honda SL 350 left side view air cleaner
Airconditioner foam wrapped air cleaner core.

The plastic side covers were prone to cracking, these had been repaired.

1971 Honda SL 350 right side view air cleaner side panel
Repaired with epoxy, according to my brother, a good repair.
1971 Honda SL 350 left side view air cleaner side panel
Left side repaired too.

The chain and sprockets were almost shot.  If you see hooked teeth on the sprocket, it’s bad, so is the chain.  If you don’t see hooking on the teeth, pull the chain up off the sprocket at roughly the 2 o’clock position, if you can pull the sprocket by a 1/4 inch or more, they’re done.

1971 Honda SL 350 left side view chain and sprocket
Chain and sprockets.

A typical wear point for vintage Japanese motorcycles is the swing arm bushings.  Back in the day swing arm bushings were made of nylon or plastic, and wore quickly.  The best replacement for them is bronze, if you are lucky, somebody makes them, if not, perhaps a machine can make replacements.  You test the bushings by grabbing the back wheel and pushing back and forth, checking for play in the rear.

1971 Honda SL 350 left side view checking swing arm bushings
Checking for swing arm play, it failed.

After the inspection I was allowed to go for a short test ride, it ran and shifted ok for its age.  If you are looking at a running bike, do a test ride.  Because of nightmare Craigslist stories some sellers might hesitate.  Their reluctance is totally understandable, but do what you must to make it happen, leave your child or wife as a hostage if need be, I’ve also heard that letting the seller hold your cash works too.  However you work it out, just make sure you get that test ride, discovering a mechanical issue after you’ve got it home sucks!

Editor’s Note:  Check to see if your insurance covers you when riding a motorcycle other than your own.  Bad things happen to good people, even on a short test ride, make sure you are covered if you have an accident.

You might think that by the way I picked this Honda apart it was in a really sad shape, not so.  Sure, it was missing some parts, and it was a bit rusty, but for the asking price, it was in pretty good shape.  Here are some comparisons for you, these were found at the Barber Vintage Days Festival, they make this one look like a gem!

unrestored 1970 Honda SL 350
This one looks like a dog’s ass, asking price $1,200!
unrestored 1970 Honda SL 350 at barber vintage days
Unrestored 1970 (I think) model with original pipes.
unrestored 1970 Honda SL 350 at barber vintage days price detail
Unrestored, dirty, rusty, only $3,200!
beaten up unrestored 1970 Honda SL 350 at barber vintage days
Another 1970, the sales tag says “complete,” so why is right side tach cover missing?
beaten up unrestored 1970 Honda SL 350 at barber vintage days right side
This thing has had a rough life, dented tank, bent fenders, covered in grime, rusty.
unrestored 1970 Honda SL 350 at barber vintage days price detail right side view
Beat up, supposedly “complete,” a bargain at only $2,395?

Were these worth the sellers asking price?  If you were doing a full restoration it might get expensive to bring them back to their factory fresh condition.  I saw this professionally restored and correct 1971 SL 350 with an asking price of $5,000, was it worth that?  I guess so, it was going home with its new owner that day.

fully restored 1971 Honda SL 350 front left side view
Professionally restored, and actually complete, $5,000, you get what you pay for.

When it’s all said and done, you have to balance what you are paying for the motorcycle  with the cost of getting it where you want it to be.  If you are doing a factory “correct” restoration, it makes sense to pay more for something in better condition with all the parts.  If it’s a “play bike,” or the base for a custom project, buy the rougher one at a lower price.

Motorcycles quit being practical years ago, we buy them purely for the pleasure of owning them.  Hopefully this article will help you find a vintage motorcycle that you love, buy it, then go out and have fun.

Words By:  Terry Cavender

Images By:  Terry Cavender

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