A project bike is your starter motorbike for any kind of project you are ready to undertake. That could be a restoration, converting the bike into a café racer, scrambler, bobber, tracker or any other project you might feel brave enough to take on. There is nothing worse than seeing a great looking Honda or Yamaha online, picking it up, and by the time you start taking it apart at home you discover a list of problems that have turned your bargain conversion or restoration into a mammoth project potentially costing you a lot of money.
Knowing what to look out for will help avoid situations like this. It’s important to spend time upfront investigating the bike, as you may be able to negotiate a better price for faults you can fix at home with little to no added cost. It will also save you time on the project, as you don’t have to spend time fixing unexpected problems.
This list applies to anyone buying second-hand bikes too. So, let’s begin!
1. Do Some Research
Spending a little time ahead of your decision to even go see the bike is a good plan. Check prices for the same bike around the market and find information about the bike. The more you know about the make and model, the easier it is to find faults. Most forums can even tell you common problems with certain makes and models.
Asking to see the paperwork of the bike is essential. There are several online checks you can do, do them. Make sure the bike is not stolen or has been written off. In the UK, check MoT certificates and if has failed any or not got one currently, ask why. Private owners selling their bike will normally be selling from home, so check the address on the paperwork matches where you are seeing the bike, and so on.
3. Visual Damage
Scratches on the paintwork, scuffs on engine plates, damaged foot pegs and brake levers are clear signs that the bike may have been dropped. The next question you need to be asking is how severely dropped. Was the bike involved in an accident? Or was it simply a drop at home? You are likely going to change all the visual damage anyway or paint it with professional motorcycle paint, so it isn’t a case of not buying the bike, but it is a sign that there can be other problems with the bike. Check for non-visual crash related damage too. This can be a damaged exhaust, bent forks or engine related issues.
4. The Engine
First thing you should do is check if the engine is cold. If it is warm, then be suspicious. You want to start the bike cold and see if there are any troubles starting the engine. Run it for a while and listen for any noises that sound out of place. Heavy clunks under the engine could mean you need a whole engine rebuild. High frequency taps at the top of the engine could also mean trouble if the tappets are worn and need replacing. If you don’t hear either noise hold your hand over the exhaust for 5-10 seconds to see if either starts playing up. Any oil leaking from the cylinder head is also bad news, as is black smoke from the exhaust once the bike is warm.
Look at the oil level glass and if you see a milk like emulsion, that can mean the head gasket is faulty. Any seller who says “the fuelling needs setting up” is suspicious too – why haven’t they done that job themselves?
Check the forks for any sign of visual damage. Check if they are straight too. Then hold the front brake and bounce the bike. From there you can check if there are any oil leaks, leaving oil on the shiny parts of the forks. Lift the dust cover too, to check if there is any rag trying to hide a leak. You also need to check for pitted rust spots, because they will lead to constant leaks. You can do the same for the back suspension too. Check how easy it is to push the back end down. If it is too hard or too easy, and comes up too fast or too slow, those can be signs of bad adjustment or worn out springs.
Move the motorcycle back and forth and test the breaks. Check if the brake light works when applying front and back. If the brakes grind or make any form of sound, it could mean that you need to clean them, or they need new callipers. Check all disks for any warps or scratches.
These are tyres, the chain, battery, a damaged light or mirror, hoses, cables and all the small pieces of a bike that, once added up, can cost the same as the bike. Try and find bikes that have had this work recently done, preferably with receipts.
Check for severe rust or corrosion on the exhaust. If it is not the original one, ask for the original and make sure the one fitted is road legal.
With the engine running and with the engine off, check all the electrical components are working. Check the lights, indicators, horn and if you can, check if the battery is charging well with the engine running.
10. Test Ride
If everything is going well, ask for a test ride. If something doesn’t feel right or makes strange sounds when riding, ask and investigate. These could be signs of worse problems.
Many of these checklist items are not deal breakers when taking on a project. It is up to you to decide which ones are and which ones aren’t. If you are not experienced enough to do your own engine build or any address any other mechanical issues, then it is best to avoid bikes that could have engine faults. If you are happy to use motorcycle paint to make your bike look amazing, then superficial damage will be no big deal for you. However, if you are looking for your first motorbike, then all of these should be on your checklist.