Some Motorcycle Pros… and Cons

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If you’re thinking about buying a bike, there’s a lot to think about.

One thing to think about is that bikes – like cars – vary in type and function.

But bikes differ more, in terms of their function, than cars do. What follows are some specific examples – and the pros (and cons) associated with these differences:

Kick vs. electric start –

The best part about a kick-start bike is it’s fun.

Nothing like doing it right … in front of a good-looking woman, ideally.

Also, you’ll never be left hoofing it by a dead battery. Provided your leg still works, the bike ought to, too. Kick-start bikes are also simpler (no electric starter equals no need for a higher-capacity electrical system to turn the starter) and you can use the kick lever to manually rotate the engine without using any tools during tune-up time, which is handy.kick start

The cons: Not everyone can master the art – and even those who do know how may have trouble dealing with a big CC engine that has a lot of compression. For this reason, your choices will be limited to smaller CC, older (and less powerful) bikes.

Some older bikes have both electric and kick start – the best of both worlds!

Air vs. water-cooled –

The chief advantage of an air-cooled bike engine is  lower maintenance. An entire system – the cooling system – isn’t there. No radiator, no fan, no hoses, no thermostat. You will never have to replace these parts because they’re not there to begin with. Also – and consequently – you can usually get to the engine and better yet, you can see the engine. Air-cooled engines are usually good-looking engines, function (such as cooling fins) becoming very attractive in form.

If you keep them from overheating and don’t run them into the ground, air-cooled bikes often last for decades with little required of them except the occasional oil change and tune-up.Triumph engine

Downsides:  Air-cooled engines tend to run hotter, which made it harder for the manufactures to make them hotter, in terms of power output. Sport bikes went water-cooled for this reason in the late 1970s/early ’80s. It’s hard to make a 160 hp air-cooled engine that won’t melt itself. A radiator dissipates the heat it makes. Especially when you aren’t moving. Idling in traffic on a hot day is bad business for a high-performance air-cooled bike.

It’s also more of an engineering challenge to stabilize operating temperature within a certain range because there’s no thermostat, no fan, no coolant to do that with. Just airflow – which is to a great extent a function of how fast you’re moving. And ambient air temperature. Often, you have little control over either – and the bike’s operating temperature will vary wildly. This isn’t good for emissions control (big issue today) and it’s also a potential issue as far as long-haul reliability (which is a warranty issue).      

Chain vs. shaft drive –

If you get a bike with a chain, you’ll need to periodically clean, adjust and grease it. It will also (along with its sprockets) need to be replaced every so often. This is work you’ll have to do – or pay someone else to do. And either way, it’s money you’ll have to spend.

Time, too.chain kit

So what’s the upside? Chains and sprockets are a functional advantage in certain applications (such as high-performance sport bikes) because of the way they transfer power from the engine to the rear wheel. Under hard acceleration especially, the rear wheel has less tendency to porpoise up and down, as throttle is applied and dialed back. Chains are also pretty simple and relatively inexpensive – so if you’re looking at an otherwise solid bike that just needs a new chain (and probably sprockets, too) don’t sweat it.

Shaft drive, on the other hand, is almost zero-maintenance. There’s no periodic adjustment necessary and maintenance consists of occasionally draining the gear lube and replacing it with fresh lube. Which can usually be done in less than 10 minutes with very basic hand tools. There’s less mess (as from chain grease flying all over) and less to do. But – while shaft drives are usually very reliable – if it does break, it will be expensive to fix.

Often, very expensive.

If the bike’s older, it may cost more to replace the dead shaft drive than the bike itself is worth. This is why it’s really important, when you’re considering an old bike, to make absolutely sure its shaft drive is ok before you lay down any cash. shaftie

Shaft drives are usually found on touring/cruising-type bikes, where the shaft drive’s tendency to porpoise under hard acceleration/on-off throttle transitions is less of an issue. Shafties are usually very smooth when the pace is relaxed – which complements the touring/cruiser bike’s design.

Carburetor vs. computer-controlled –

If you’re new to bikes, you may not know that most bikes came with carburetors (not fuel injection) as recently as the early 2000s. Even sport bikes. Cars, in contrast, have been fuel-injected (and computer controlled) since the late 1980s. Some new bikes till have carbs, too – though fewer and fewer of them (and mostly, these are smaller CC, off-road bikes). Emissions control is the chief driver behind this change; it just took longer for Uncle to catch up to bikes.

Carbs have the advantage of not needing a computer to control them. They are mechanical devices; fuel-injection is electronic. And controlled by a computer. Carbs are more tunable – and easily tuned. But they do need to be tuned (adjusted) more often. Fuel injection usually just works. Cold starting is often (but not always) easier and throttle response is often (but not always) superior.carb adjust

Probably the biggest negative you’ll have to deal with if you get a bike with a carburetor (carburetors, if it’s a multi-cylinder bike) is the effect of the alcohol-laced fuels you’ll be effectively forced to feed it. Modern gas formulations are designed for fuel-injected vehicles (cars) which don’t have bowls and floats and jets and rubber parts that alcohol-doped fuel likes to eat (or turn to goo). The maintenance issues that come with owning a carb’d bike (which will likely be an older bike) have become more urgent – and frequent. The carbs will need to be cleaned more often – and you’ll need to avoid leaving the bike to sit for weeks unused, which risks the build-up of gunk via weird chemical interactions between the carb’s internals and the fuel.

But, on the upside, carbs are forever. Or, almost. If you’re handy with a wrench and don’t mind the occasional tear-down and rebuild, you can keep a carb’d bike running for decades, without spending much money. A fuel-injected bike probably won’t ask for much for the first ten years or so. But after that, it may ask for a lot.

Which may be more than you’re willing (and financially able) to give it.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Eric,

    Just stumbled across this article.

    FYI.

    Curious about your reaction.

    Royal Enfield’s Classic 500 fools people into thinking we’ve restored it

    When it comes to modern classic motoring, Royal Enfield occupies a pretty unique niche. To drive a brand new car with truly retro styling, you’re paying through the nose for something like the Morgan AR Plus 4.

    On the other hand, you can pick up something like the Classic 500 motorcycle, in this case done up in army green as a homage to the motorcycles of World War 2, for about the same price as your average commuter bike. Like Morgan, Royal Enfield just never bothered to modernize, so it’s about as authentic as it gets.

    http://gizmag.us1.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=57c04fd0f2defe64b0f583dc7&id=c067dd4e85&e=1480f0235d

    • Hi Bevin!

      I’ve seen it (though not ridden it) and like the way they’ve hidden the modern fuel injection and kept the rest of the bike simple. IN fact, other than the FI, it is very much like a “standard” from the ’70s.

      They had to go with FI Because Uncle….

  2. Good point on Kickstarters. Once you learn the dance it is a treat. Before that sometimes you think you are going to die.

    Other note on kickstarters. It isn’t displacement that is the issue. It is displacement per cylinder.

    My XT500 can be a bitch. (not since I learned the dance)…but my old CB400f you could start with one hand every time. Why? 400/4 is only 100cc per cylinder. More chances to get one of those little columns of fuel/ air to fire off and help you out. Less chance of one lighting off too early and biting back.

    That XT the trick is to get the on piston at just the right spot on the exhaust stroke to pull in one new fuel/air charge and have just enough inertia to get it to tdc and beyond in one full kick at a speed high enough to fire the CDI ignition.

    I nearly sold that bike due to the kickstart only and I am sure there will be days I will regret it. But when it works it is magic.

  3. Eric,
    You left out one important drive, belt drives. They are clean, reliable, virtually maintainance free, and far superior to chains. The first one on my H-D lasted 175,000 miles. It did finally break, and the replacement is still going at 360,000 miles on the clock. They have far outlasted the engines!

      • Eric,
        Check out this article I wrote about Phil Ross of Supermax belt drives. He was the man who brought belt drives to Harley. Phil was a good friend who passed away far too early. Vyvyan Ross still does poly pulley overlays that make the belts and pulleys impervious to wear. She tells me she is now doing overlays for the Morgan three wheelers.

        http://supermax.net

    • Hi Kit,

      You must have an iron butt to ride over 500K miles on a Harley. That said, belt drive is also available on bicycles with internally geared rear hubs that eliminate the use of a chain with all the maintenance problems associated with them. If I were much younger and much richer, I’d get me a internal hub belt driven bicycle and ditch all the rest.

      As to kick starters, that’s what’s available on my vintage BMW. It cranks right up most of the time with a little tickle on the carbs. The challenger for both older motorcycles and old bicycles is getting replacement parts. The shaft drive on BMWs was a huge advantage over chain driven bikes of that era.

      • Giuseppe,
        Thanks for the compliment. To be clear, the total mileage on the bike is 360,000 miles, not 500,000. It may have not been clear in my post. While I am still riding that bike (it’s a “92 dresser), I also have a Victory Cross Country, which in my opinion is the best motorcycle on the road, at least in its class.

  4. The biggest issues for old iron, be it 2 or 4 wheeled, is properly maintaining a 20th century beast with 21st century materials, obtaining quality new/used parts, rebuilding poorly manufactured/engineered components, replicating deteriorated parts, and dealing with hidden wear and abuse from previous owners. Mechanical versus electronic failures, both will create severe headaches.

    Not for the reckless, poor, stupid, easily discouraged, or faint hearted.

    • 3d printing should take care of a lot of that. I understand Leno has one for hard to get rubber and plastic stuff for his toy collection. When we get to the point where we can scan and print a new ethanol proof carb, a lot of headaches will go away. The electrical failures are a lot more expensive, which is why most of my stuff is pre 96.

      • Rapid prototyping processes are limited in what they can do. However investment casting using a wax produced by the SLS process or even a sand casting with sand mold created by a rapid prototyping process are good at remaking formerly irreplaceable cast parts.

        As far as seals and such, soft materials, it’s basically two part urethanes created by first making an SLA or other type of rapid prototype part and then making a mold from it in RTV. From there the part can be cast in urethane. Of course for seals the process could make an SLA mold and then cast the part in RTV or anything one can cast in. For plastic parts just make an SLA or FDM or SLS and then do a lot of hand finishing to make something that looks good.

        Long story short it isn’t the miracle people have been lead to believe it is. Maybe it will get there someday, but not today.

        • BrentP, so tell us about using 3D printers with aluminum. I’ve read of a couple instances but nothing technical included. I believe one instance I saw was an AR style rifle. Nobody has yet to mention whether in using aluminum it is liquified, powdered or something like wire going on with an arcing current.

          • The direct metal stuff sounds like it has some promise. But it’s very expensive last I heard.

            Someone with specialized skills and equipment will always be able to make firearms. But the population at large and the people they want leading them are now so far removed from making stuff they don’t get it. A direct metal additive process to make most of a firearm is an interesting exercise but little more than that.

            You’re better off making your gun from billet or with sheet metal. A 1:1 scale PDF, a way to print it on paper, and piece of sheet steel and some simple tools and one can make a receiver.

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