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Quick Guide To Choosing a Classic Motorcycle

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Quick Guide To Choosing a Classic Motorcycle


By Buzz Kanter

Okay, so you’re at a bike show or bike night or local coffee shop, and you see a classic motorcycle that stands out from all the others. You’re locked on it as you take in all the details. Your heart beats faster. You feel a shortness of breath. You want—no, you need—to know more about it. Well, my friend, it’s time to learn more about this motorcycle, and classic motorcycles in general, and figure out if and how you can own one.

I was recently riding my 1931 Indian 101 Scout. I had parked in front of a local coffee shop for a minute or two before a young man pulled up on a nice, modern scrambler. He walked over to inspect my Indian, and it was obvious he was totally smitten—happens a lot with this stunning old Indian.

Our exchange was typical: he said, “Nice bike, what year is it?” I replied, “You tell me, take a guess.” “I don’t know. 1950?” “Not even close. 1931, but most people guess wrong.”

From there, I usually answer lots of questions: “How long have you had it?”; “What’s it like to ride?”; “Is it hard to get parts and service for it?”; “Where’s the clutch lever?”

I always take a few minutes to answer questions. I explain how the bike works and some of my history with it. I point out the suspension, or lack thereof, on the rigid-framed machines, how the foot clutch and handshifter, kickstarter, and other parts work. Most riders today grew up with disc brakes, footshifters, electric starter buttons, and EFI. My classic motorcycles have drum brakes, handshifters, kickstarters, and carburetors.

The young man admitted he knew very little about the classic bikes but wanted to own one. He told me “classic” bikes from the 1970s were his ideal. I smiled and felt pretty old. This encounter inspired me to write this article when he asked me the best way to buy a classic motorcycle. In addition to being the editor in chief of this magazine, I have bought, ridden, and sold many hundreds of classic motorcycles over the decades. While there is more to this than I can cover in this magazine, here is a recap of what I have learned from my experiences.

Three variations on Harley Panheads: the 1948 has a rigid frame and springer forks, the 1955 (with sidecar) had a rigid frame and telescopic forks, and the 1965 has a swingarm and 12-volt electrics (for the new electric starter).
1931 Indian 101 Scout. This bike looks mostly correct, but get close to note it has been converted from 6-volt to 12-volt electrics with a modern generator.

Please note this article is focused on how to choose a classic bike, and not a comprehensive guide on how to buy a used bike without getting burned. Perhaps we can do that another time. If you are serious about buying a used motorcycle, there are many tests, like compression/leakdown tests, mechanical tests, and identifying original vs. aftermarket parts, to get a full understanding about what you are buying.

The Three Critical Factors

Your Budget: You need to figure out how much you can pay for the motorcycle and everything needed to get it running and dependable. Typically, you have three choices: one, buy a well sorted out, ready-to-ride bike; two, buy one that sort of runs but needs time, skills, and money to get it running well; three, buy a basket case. For the first option, you will usually pay more up front, but this helps save money in the long run. The second and third options are like buying on an installment plan, needing less cash up-front, but with greater future costs (time and money).

A trained eye will know this has been converted to a 1940s recirculating oil pump.

Your Mechanical Skills: If you are a world-class motorcycle mechanic, you don’t need to bother reading this. So I will assume you are somewhere between a total novice and a decent mechanic. I do not recommend that a novice buy a classic bike unless he has the resources (money and access to a great mechanic) to keep it running. The greater your mechanical skills, the more complex or “needy” a bike you can consider. And we can, and often do, learn more about our bikes as we live with and ride them.

Your Planned Uses: Be realistic—are you looking for a motorcycle to park in your living room to admire and occasionally trailer to bike shows, but never ride? How about a great classic for occasional local rides? Or do you want something you would ride on a regular basis? Let’s not even consider extremes like the coast-to-coast Motorcycle Cannonball, as that goes way beyond the scope of this brief article.

Now that we have the three critical factors in mind, it’s time to start doing your homework. Use the Internet, Facebook, motorcycle forums, and local car and bike shows to start figuring out what look you like best. It’s personal. Some people love old Ironhead Sportsters, and others only want rigid Indian Chiefs. There are literally hundreds of motorcycle models and years to consider. Some year-to-year changes are subtle, and others are obvious once you start digging and doing your homework. For example, let’s look at three different-year Panheads to illustrate my point. The 1948 Panhead is the last year for Harley Big Twins to run a springer front suspension. The 1955 Panhead had telescopic forks and no rear suspension. The 1965 Panhead (basically the same engine) had rear shocks, 12 volts, and an electric-start system. But they are all Harley Panheads.

First- and last-year Harley Panheads. The blue one on the left is a 6-volt 1948 EL with rigid frame and Springer forks. The black 1965 Panhead on the right is a 12-volt model with telescopic forks and a rear swingarm.

No matter what you have read or heard from the so-called experts (myself included), if you look at a particular motorcycle and respond to it strongly—positively or negatively—take that into consideration. Your response alone is not enough reason to buy or pass on a bike, but if you don’t like the way a bike looks, no matter how well it’s regarded by experts, pass on it. No one wants to own a bike he or she doesn’t like the looks of. On the other hand, if you really like the way a bike looks, read up as much as you can on it and other similar machines. Is one year’s model better or worse than another? Why? Does it matter to you? Only you can decide, but make your decision based on your research. AIM 353

This story was featured in issue #353 of American Iron Magazine.