Friday 17 May 2013

The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle

Honda CBR1000F - 160mph for less than a grand!

In Ireland Right Now, it's a Buyers Market. This wasn't always the case. During the 70's and 80's Ireland's economy was in recession, unemployment was high and most motorcyclists couldn't afford new machines. Sales of new bikes here were low and consequently the second-hand market was restricted. This relatively large demand and low supply in Ireland kept second hand prices high. Up until the early '90s it made sense to import bikes privately from the US or UK.

Japanese Domestic Market Imports

By the mid '90s, this demand for 2nd hand bikes led to the import of a large number JDM bikes. They were shipped here by the container-load from Japan where they were effectively worthless. Supposedly, there was no second hand market in Japan and if you bought a new bike in Tokyo, you had to pay a substantial disposal fee for your old one. So people just parked them up in the street, removed the number plates and abandoned the bikes to their fate.

This is why so many couriers rode Honda 400 Bros' and CB400s. It's also why you still see plenty of unusual machines here like Honda CX400s, CBR250RRs, 250cc Katanas and those little 250cc Dominator clones. There's a lovely little late 90's GPZ250R parked near here that I'm pretty sure came from Japan.

The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle
Kawasaki GPX250R.

There were also a lot of mid-size dirt bikes and Paris-Dakar type bikes imported from Italy. There was a really tasty Aprilia Tuareg Wind 600 going for a song in Dublin recently.

The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle
Aprilia Tuareg Wind 600 - Cheap to buy, cheap to insure, 60+mpg.

Bikes from the US tended to be older and larger. A lot of the 70's Kawasaki Z1s in Ireland originated in the 'States. And you still see the occasional 700cc Honda here - 750cc machines sleeved down to beat an import tariff imposed in the US market to fend off competition from a troubled Harley Davidson during the late '70s.

The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle
Honda CBX 750 - Also available as a 700.

The Celtic Tiger
By the late '90s, the economy of Ireland was booming and sales of new motorcycles increased accordingly. I suppose many of these machines were bought as playthings. In Dublin, a dedicated Ducati dealership and more recently, a Harley franchise were established to meet demand for these high-end products. Consequently, Ducatis and Harleys are fairly common here now, whereas in the past they were considered pretty exotic.

The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle
Harley Davidson Sportster - Great value new so there are loads of them around. Expect low second-hand prices soon.

BMW GS's, Yamaha R1s, Hayabusas, Blackbirds and other prestige bikes sold like hotcakes here during the noughties. These bikes are now making their way back into a depressed second-hand market and prices are generally lower than in the UK and the rest of the world.

That's all well and good, but that's not what we're about here at MERCENARY. We're interested in cheap bikes. Really cheap.

What's important here is that a lot of those bikes that were imported over the last twenty years are still around and for all practical purposes, nobody wants them. There is, and probably always will be, a market for late model bikes but who wants a 1985 Honda Sabre 1100?

Well... I wouldn't mind.

Weird, Old Japanese Bikes
And what the hell is a 1985 Honda Sabre 1100 anyway? Google it. The salient points are it was manufactured by Honda so it's well built and reliable, and it made 120 horsepower so it's pretty quick.

The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle
Honda Sabre 1100 - 120hp, shaft-drive.

There are another couple of salient points that I won't dwell on - it's heavy and the brakes aren't up to much. There was one of these behemoths for sale here about a month ago with very low mileage (I think it was less than 10k). The asking price was €1,300 but I expect it sold for less than that, maybe a grand.

So weird and unfashionable generally means cheap, but it doesn't have to mean uncool. A 1976 Yamaha DT 400MX? Steve McQueen probably had one. And I'd take a DT400MX over a late model 250 Ninja any day.

The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle
Yamaha DT400MX - Cool, fun and cheap if you can find one.

Yamaha Fazer 600s anyone? Not the late-model Fazer with the upright riding position. No, the weird muscle/cruiser hybrid a bit like a V-Max.

Yamaha TDM 850? Suzuki 350 Goose? Kawazaki Specter 1100? The list is endless..

Fashion Turns 

Sports bikes are currently very fashionable in Ireland. Ninjas and GSXRs and suchlike are sought after and although they're generally less expensive than in the UK and elsewhere, they're not exactly cheap.
The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle
Suzuki GSX1100F - Cheap if you can find one.

Adventure bikes are also currently trendy thanks to Ewan McGreggor and Charlie Boorman's exploits and are consequently expensive.

And some models just have a cult following and hold their value - Africa Twins, Pan Europeans, V-Maxes and Moto Guzzis are weirdly expensive.

Recently, I saw an Africa Twin going for €5K! That makes no sense to me. Africa Twins are great but for 5 grand I can get a low mileage KTM 950 Adventure. And I saw a Pan Euro with 90,000 miles going for over 2k. Pans are reputedly very reliable but I just wouldn't consider buying a bike that's done 90,000 miles. And certainly not for two grand!

During the 90's, sports tourers were all the rage. Now, because it's all Hyper-sports and Adventure Bikes, nobody wants sports tourers anymore. So FZR1000s, CBR1000s, ZZR1100, GSXF 1100s can be picked up for about a grand. I bought a slightly tatty '94 CBR1000F with 39k miles last October for €600. It needed a rear tyre (€130 or so) and a battery (€50), both of which I replaced on the day I bought it, and new steering head bearings (GB£20 on Ebay) which I replaced a week later. So a total of about €800. Since then I've done three and a half thousand fast, comfortable, trouble free, wintery miles on the thing and only now is it due for a service. That's 134 hp and 165mph for €800 with Honda build quality and reliability.
The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle
Yamaha FZR600 - Beautiful, rare, unloved and cheap.

There are loads of models that just went out of fashion. An FZR600 is for all practical intents and purposes (except racing on a track maybe) the same as an R6. These were extremely popular in the mid 90's but there are very few left now. When they do turn up they tend to be very cheap. Similarly, the country was awash with red and black Suzuki GSX 750/1100Fs 20 years ago. They had the same motors as the GSXRs but were a bit less sporty and a lot more comfortable. They were everywhere, driven two-up by young men in over-sized leather jackets, denim jeans and trainers. They're rare now but when they do show up, they're cheap. The CBR600F was the best selling bike in the UK for most of the 90's - now they look sort of blobby and nobody loves them (Except the pre-injection racers in Mondello).

Doing the Deal 

Buying and selling motorcycles and parts privately is kind of a hobby in it's own right. It's fun and it's a good way to meet people and learn some interesting things. Don't treat it with trepidation, just get stuck in. Some sellers won't haggle and some can be dismissive and rude. Fuck 'em. Don't deal with them. And some buyers are headwreckers. They show up, tell you your bike is rubbish and offer you about half of what it might reasonably be worth. Fuck them too. Ideally, both parties should walk away happy - it's a game. It's supposed to be fun.

There are a couple of strategies to this. Generally, the asking price has some haggling room built in. Also, the longer the ad is up, the more unsure of the price the seller becomes - you'll see bikes go up for stupid money, say €2,000 for a 1994 Ducati 600SS. That's unrealistic. A reasonable value for that bike might be €1,600 but this is a depressed market and that's not a popular bike. Over the course of six or eight weeks the price drops to something sensible like €1,200.
The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle
Ducati 600SS - These get bad-mouthed by people who've never driven one. This is a quick, characterful bike with fantastic handling. It only goes 120mph - So what? Watch out for rusting petrol tanks, change the timing belts and you're gold.

So waiting is a good idea. Then when you go to see the thing, a wad of cash and a way to take the bike away right then (either ride it away or load it into a van) works wonders. If the seller wants €1,200, its likely that an offer of "€1,000 cash and I'll take it right now" might seal the deal. Everybody's happy.

In a lot of cases, particularly where the bike has been laid up for a while, the seller is under pressure from a wife/girlfriend/mother to get rid of it. The seller may be conflicted. Partly, they have a romantic attachment to the bike or maybe they feel as long as they have a bike they can still identify as a biker. And partly they're getting grief about the thing and they see it as a liability. And partly they might like the idea of having a wad of cash to spend on their wife/girlfriend/mother- there are ways to exploit this inner conflict.

In any case, you need to strike up a rapport with the seller. Playing hardball, dissing the bike and offering stupid money from the get-go will only antagonise him. Encouraging him to think that his bike is going to live on in the hands of someone who will cherish it and have adventures on it might put him in a more sympathetic frame of mind. So don't tell him you're going to take his beloved CB750K and paint it matte black or turn it into a cafe racer.

Sometimes you see bargains though and the bike sells almost immediately. You need to recognise these for what they are. There was a BMW R100RS on DoneDeal last year for a grand. I wanted it. It went before I could do anything about it. If you see a bike like that, don't wait and don't haggle. Just go and snap it up.

Things to Consider

  • Does the bike have an Irish reg? Importing a newish bike is expensive and a hassle. Unless the bike is still cheap when you factor this in, walk away.
  • Where is it? If you live in Dublin and the bike is in Donegal or Kerry, its a big investment in time and money to go see it and to transport it back to civilisation. Factor this (and the risk of making a trip and coming back empty-handed) into the price. Or better yet, just find a bike in Dublin.
  • Is it standard? Aftermarket exhausts, windscreens, heated grips, hard luggage - That's all good. But home-made modifications, heavy-metal paint jobs, ill-considered customisations, bodges, rusty 250cc choppers, lashed-up cafe racers, hideous streetfighters, unfinished projects - Forget about it! Don't go there - BUY A STANDARD BIKE.
  • Has it been maintained? Check the tyres for wear. Is there life left in the chain? (BTW Every Honda Bros in Ireland has it's chain hanging off because you need a special tool to adjust it). Check to see that there is life in the brake discs. Is there side to side movement in the swingarm? Are the steering head bearings stiff and notched? Are the fork seals leaking? Are the fork stanchions pitted? Has the bike been warmed up before you came to see it? (It's better to see it start up from cold). And while you're at it, check to see it still has a frame number that matches the logbook.

The MERCENARY Guide to Buying a Really Cheap Motorcycle

  • Has it been crashed? Pay close attention to foot-pegs and hangers, handlebars and controls, engine casings and look for scuffing on the frame, swing-arm, forks and particularly the exhausts. If the bike has some crash damage, it isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, particularly if your intention is to modify the bike into a Cafe Racer or a Streetfighter or whatever. If the damage is cosmetic, go have a look at the bike and make a list of parts that you'll want to replace. Then have a look at Ebay and do the maths. If the plastics are damaged and you intend to replace them, it might put the bike beyond economic repair. And if the plastics are damaged, the sub-frames that hold them in place may well be damaged too. If the bike is badly damaged, just walk away. 
  • Mileage. It's a buyers market. You should be able to get something around 20,000 miles for around a grand. Generally, don't bother with anything over 40K unless it's very cheap. If the mileage is unknown or even slightly suspect, just walk away.
  • Age. The age isn't actually very important. Anything Japanese built after say 1990 should be okay. Late 80's bikes had weird anti-dive and air suspension and odd sized wheels (18" rear/16" front or 16"/16" for example). This stuff is weird and pointless but if you wanted to you could easily run a bike like this. Its not much of a disadvantage and some of those bikes are cool in an 80's futuristic sort of way.
  • Age II. There are still plenty of 70's and early 80's Japanese bikes kicking around. They were and still are pretty reliable and they tend to have simple suspension (no air or anti-dive) and relatively normal wheel size (18" rear/19" front). 30+ year old electrics can be a little problematic but there's no real reason you couldn't run a vintage bike. The only real downside is the brakes (by modern standards) range from barely acceptable to criminal. However, the thing to consider is that generally, for the same price you can buy a 90's bike with better handling and brakes, fewer previous owners and fewer potential problems. For example, a Yamaha Diversion 600/900 is essentially a late 70's XS 600/750 with brakes and handling updated for the mid 90's. For practical purposes it's a better bike and it'll be much cheaper and easier to find than a low mileage XS.
  • Sometimes you see ads for 'mint', low mileage, never dropped etc. But when you talk to the owner he tells you he's just replaced the clutch or the clutch cover, or the head gasket or something else that is at odds with the description in the ad. If he claims that the bike has never been used in the wet and then says that the only thing wrong with the bike is that the exhaust is rusted out, he just might be lying. And if he's lying about that, what else is he lying about? Just walk away.
  • Non runners. Don't go there unless you know what you are doing. I'm guessing you want a motorbike that runs so you can have experiences and adventures on the thing. Working on a project bike in a warm well equipped garage is a different kind of experience. Working on a project bike, outside your house, in the rain, without the proper tools - that's a whole other experience. And don't underestimate the commitment involved in building a bike. It makes no sense to spend €200 on a cheap bike, spend the best part of grand (and six months over the summer when you could have been out riding) fixing it, to end up with a shit bike that's now worth €500. Much better to just buy a bike for a grand in the first place that will still be worth a grand when you sell it. Decide what motorcycle experience you want and choose a bike accordingly.
  • If you do decide to take on a project, its MUCH cheaper to replace an engine than to rebuild an engine. If you want more power, its cheaper to buy a bigger engine (or just get a bigger bike) than to tune an engine. Building engines is interesting and rewarding - but its VERY expensive. I spent about a grand and several months rebuilding a four cylinder 8 valve engine. It was a thing of beauty and wonder. I sold the bike for €800 shortly after...
  • Parts and Availability. With Ebay and access to worldwide owners groups, this isn't as troublesome as it used to be. In addition to this, Japanese manufactures tend to share parts over a range of models, particularly on older bikes. This is also true of Ducati. And a lot of parts (brake master cylinders for example) can be swapped easily between bikes from different manufacturers. Wheel bearings can generally be sourced from your local industrial bearing factors (and at a fraction of the cost of getting them from a main dealer). There are plenty of bike breakers around. I'd recommend City Spares in Dublin - They're helpful and they're trustworthy. So generally, if the thing was mass produced in the 80's or 90's, parts availability shouldn't be a problem.

Things to Watch Out For

Consider the following for EVERY bike you look at. What looks like a cheap bike needing some work can be a money pit. For example, leaking fork seals are fairly common on older bikes. The replacement seals and oil are only about €30. The problem is, replacing them is outside the comfort zone of most motorcycle riders and so you might have to consider getting this done professionally. I'd imagine this is about three hours labour - say €120 plus parts plus VAT. So maybe the total is €200. That's a lot of money relative to the €600 you spent on the bike. The same is true for steering head bearings so if you are getting fork seals done, it might be an idea to get the steering head bearings replaced at the same time. A lot of the labour is common to both. See below for a list of possible issues and the approximate costs of parts.
  • Spark Plugs €5-15 each
  • Valve Shims €5-10 each*
  • Oil Filter €10-15
  • Oil €20-50
  • Air Filter €15-40
  • Tyres €200-350
  • Battery €50-120
  • Coolant €15 (Doesn't apply to air or oil cooled bikes obviously)
  • Brakes Pads (much cheaper since the advent of ebay) €20 per caliper.
  • Brake Disks €150 each
  • Chain and Sprockets €100-160
  • Steering Head Bearings €30-50 (This is a big deal to replace)
  • Fork Seals and Oil €30 (This is also a big deal to replace)
  • Swing Arm Bearings €25-60 (Also a big deal)
  • Wheel Bearings €30 per wheel
  • Rear Shock €50- 450!!
  • Exhaust €50-600!!
  • Cam Chain €50- 100 (Big deal to replace)
*Some Yamahas have 20 valve shims. Most bikes use 2 or 4 per cylinder and you generally only need to replace a couple of them at a time. A lot of Hondas and smaller bikes don't have them at all, instead using Screw and Locknut adjusters. Most riders don't feel comfortable replacing valve shims. This is the No. 1 reason why Ireland is full of Kawasaki air-cooled Fours that won't start.

#BuyingAUsedMotorcycle #UsedBikeGuide #Mercenary #MercenaryGarage

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