Old Bike Oil Change: Step by Step

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Owning a vintage bike is great – but there’s a catch. Many dealers won’t work on a bike that’s more than about ten years old (let alone 20 or 30) and even if they do, there’s no guarantee they’ll do a better job than you could. But there’s a 100 percent guarantee they’ll charge you twice or more what it’d cost to do the job yourself.

Let’s walk through one of the most basic normal service procedures there is – changing the engine oil and filter.

The guinea pig for this article will be an ’83 Honda GL650, but the general principles are the same for virtually all bikes, with the differences being the location of the oil drain plug and the location (and type) of filter involved.

Step 1:

Buy new oil and a new filter. The oil is easy to find; any bike dealer will have it. They’ll usually have – or be able to get – filters for older bikes, too. Or, buy online from a seller such as Dennis Kirk. Most bikes take somewhere between just over three and just under four quarts. The capacity should be on a sticker on the bike’s frame, under the seat or stamped into the engine case near the fill plug. If you have the owner’s manual, it should tell you in there, too. Look under “maintenance.” If you can’t find the sticker or don’t have a manual, buy a Clymer or Haynes service manual for your bike. Make sure you get enough oil. And be sure to get oil that at least meets the factory recommendations for protection (see your owner’s manual). Do not use car oil. Bikes are not cars; they have different requirements and many (most) have wet clutches, which means the clutch is bathed in the same oil the engine uses. The additives in car oils can be bad news for a motorcycle’s clutch. Use only oil formulated for motorcycles that meets the  manufacturer’s requirements for your particular bike. I like to use Honda oil – or Motul synthetic. But any name brand bike oil will be fine.    

Step 2: 

Get the tools you will need. In this case, a 17  mm socket for the oil drain plug and a 10 mm socket for the bolt that holds the oil filter canister on. Usually, only a few very basic hand tools are necessary to perform an oil change on a motorcycle. Also get a pan with enough capacity to catch the old oil as it drains. A plastic funnel to pour the new oil will often be helpful, too – because on many bikes, the fill hole is located down low and at an awkward angle for pouring in directly from the container.

Step 3:  

 Warm the bike up to normal operating temperature. Never change oil with the bike’s engine cold. Warming the bike up will make the oil drain faster than it would if cold and will also get more of the “gunk” out of the crankcase. Stop the engine and let the bike cool down for about 10 minutes, so that the surfaces you’re going to touch such as the filter housing and drain plug aren’t burn-your-fingers hot. If the bike has a center stand, put the bike up on it.

Step 4:

Locate the oil drain plug. It will usually be on the very bottom of the engine, or on the lower left or right side. (See where my finger is pointing in the picture.) It should be visually obvious. Next, locate the oil filter/housing. Some bikes have disposable spin-on filters, just like a car. Others (like the ’83 Honda used in this story) have a paper and metal filter that’s located inside a metal canister or behind a cover that must be removed to access/remove the old filter. Sometimes, the filter cover will be located on the very bottom of the engine; in the case of the ’83 Honda, it is conveniently located right on the front of the engine. (It’s the finned thing on the lower right in the picture, with the bolt in the center.) 

Step 5:

Remove the oil fill cap/dipstick which will help the oil drain faster. Place the catch pan underneath the drain plug. Carefully turn out the drain plug. Most bikes have aluminum engine cases, which are more fragile than cast iron – so it’s very important not to force anything. Do not ever use an air gun on the drain plug! Remove the oil drain plug, set it aside and let the oil drain. Once the flow has mostly ended and it’s just trickling out, temporarily hand-screw the oil drain plug back into place and move your catch pan to underneath the filter/canister. Loosen the filter/bolt with your tools and you can usually turn it out the rest of the way by hand. Once you have it out and the oil is drained, slide the pan back to under the drain plug and remove the plug, to let whatever oil remains in there drain out.

Step 6 :   

Wipe off the area where the filter/canister bolts on, as well as the area around the drain plug. Be certain that the filter’s o-ring did not stick to the mounting boss when you removed the filter. Reinstall the oil drain plug bolt, being careful not to overtighten it. Just slightly past hand tight is usually just right. If your bike has a car-type spin-on filter, it installs exactly like  a car filter. Just spin it on the mounting threads and tighten just slightly (about 1/4 turn) past hand-tight. Do not overtighten it or you risk crushing the gasket and being rewarded with a messy leak. If your bike has a cartridge-type filter like the ’83 GL650 in this write-up, you do the following: Remove the old filter from the metal housing, wipe out the housing to remove any remaining old oil; install the new filter intot he housing. If the new filter came with new o-rings, use them. Be careful to note the order of any internal parts, such as the little spring in this example.

Step 7:

Add the correct amount of fresh oil. Be absolutely certain to add just enough – not too much (or too little). Pour in one quart at a time. For the final few ounces (most bikes take “point two” or “point three” something; for instance, 3.2 quarts in the case of the Honda GL650) just use the gradation marks on the side of the oil container. Or, if you want to be really OCD, use a marked beaker to measure out the exact amount. 

Step 8: 

Re-check your work. Confirm you’ve put in the new oil and that you tightened the drain plug and filter. Ok. Now start the bike. The oil warning light should go out almost immediately. If it stays on, shut the bike down and re-check your work. This will probably not happen, but it’s important to be ready, just in case. Once the bike’s running and the oil light’s off, check for any leakage. If there’s none, you’re done – Mission Accomplished.

And congratulations!

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  3 comments for “Old Bike Oil Change: Step by Step

  1. dom
    February 21, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    Love the action photo (oil draining)!


  2. Tim
    February 24, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Excellent step by step withs the pictures. I’m letting the shop do the oil change when they’re doing the rest of the work on the bike, however any future small jobs including oil changes I tend to do myself. I already ordered a repair manual for the bike.

    • February 24, 2011 at 10:32 am

      I owe you, Tim – you inspired me to do the story! Look for more to come. I have a decent camera rig now….

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