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Thread: The low down on rat bikes

  1. #1
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Jul 2006
    The Land of The Edentulites

    The low down on rat bikes

    Bikes are cheap transpo - and "rat bikes" even more so. You can pick one up for $3,000 or less and it'll give you better mileage and more fun than any brand-new $20,000 hybrid.

    But, there is a catch.

    Older bikes have their owns set of issues. The first of these is that many dealers won't touch a bike older than 15 years or so. Some draw the line at ten. Many people do not know about this informal rule - and get a big surprise when they take their newfound oldie in for a valve clearance check and carb adjustment.

    This is very much unlike the situation with cars. You can take a 20-year-old Honda to virtually any Honda dealer - provided it's a four-wheeled Honda.

    It's hard to know the exact reasons why this disparity exists between bikes and cars. Some say it's because bike technology changes faster and the techs of today aren't up on the service procedures of yesterday. But that sounds suspicious to me since car technology changes rapidly, too - and if anything, the older stuff is easier to work on than the newer stuff.

    My guess is the profit margins are lower.

    In any event, it's important to factor this fact into your decision whether to buy an older bike - especially if you can't do most major (and even minor) work yourself. Ask around and see whether there's an independent shop/mechanic in your area you can go to. There usually is - with the caveat that specialists are often even more expensive than a dealer.

    The second issue is related to the first - parts. Both availability and expense. The first is fairly obvious, even if many don't think about it much.

    The second less so.

    The good news is that, for most major brands (Honda, Kaw, Harley, etc.) basic maintenance stuff (oil filters, brake parts, etc.) usually remains easy to find either at the dealer parts counter or through aftermarket mail order suppliers such as Dennis Kirk ( even after the bike is 30-plus years old. I have a '76 Kz900, for example, and it has never been a problem to get those things. Sometimes it takes a few days, but no big deal.

    However, after about ten years or so, the availability of factory new replacement trim parts, electrical bits and pieces and even things like factory footpegs/grips, etc. often begins to decline - especially if the bike was not a popular model that was produced in large numbers over a period of several years. Watch out for low-production bikes built only for a year or two.

    You may have to scrounge the used market (or eBay) to find what you need. It's smart, therefore, to stock up on spares for stuff you know you will need eventually - such as grips and pegs. Aftermarket stuff can usually be made to work, but factory stuff is preferable.

    But here's where you can get burned: While the cost of a rat bike may be miraculously low, the failure of a major/critical component can render the whole works a money pit quicker than you can say ElectraGlide in Blue.

    Example: A croaked alternator on some bikes can be a $400 deal; radiators are similarly expensive. Ditto CDIs and other electronic components without which the bike will not run. (And which renders the bike effectively worthless.)

    Of course, these are precisely the parts most likely to croak on you, if you have an older bike.

    Certain older bikes, in particular.

    Like cars, some bikes (and brands of bikes) are known to be more (or less) trouble-prone than others. Given the repair-to-worth ratio of a $3k bike, it is therefore doubly important to take a little time to research the known history of any older bike you're thinking about buying. Fifteen minutes of Googling is usually plenty of time to discover any significant red flags. The Internet is, indeed a wonderful tool. Irate owners of a problem bike can be counted on to leave lengthy posts about their experience. And it may not be that the bike's "bad" - just expensive to fix.

    Check owner's boards for the make/model of bike you're interested in. The info is usually plentiful as well as readily available.

    If you don't find anything specific, ask. If you're thinking about an old C7B50, say, find an owner's BBS (or general Honda bike board) and leave a post asking previous owners and others for their input, pros and cons. Ask people you know who know bikes, too.

    Bottom line, a low-bucks rat bike is a great bike to have - provided you're careful about which one you grab by the tail.
    Last edited by Eric; 05-09-2009 at 12:10 PM.

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