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10 Tell Tale Signs Of A Terrible Used Motorcycle

Jul 26, 2023Jul 26, 2023

Poor surface-level maintenance usually bodes ill for the overall health of a used motorcycle, but what are the most obvious signs?

Purchasing a used motorcycle as a smart way to try a new motorcycle brand, segment, or model? Trying to get your dream bike at lower costs than mint? Or buying a rare retro classic from the '90s? It is lifesaving to be vigilant about potential issues that might lurk beneath the surface, and know how to detect them.

Keen visual inspection and then a cautious test ride will reveal all the symptoms this list talks about, but also keep your wits alive and watch out for strange seller behavior like inconsistencies in the background of the motorcycle, or reluctance to share information about the motorcycle like documentation and chain of custody.

This list delves into the ten key indicators to pay attention to that can reveal the actual condition of a terrible used motorcycle. As always, a good rider and a good bike are those that make it back home safely, and we recommend that you take a flashlight with you to inspect your next used bike candidate.

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Rust can be a silent assailant, corroding both functionality and aesthetics. Just like with cars, rust can infiltrate a wide range of components, weakening the motorcycle's structural integrity. This compromise in safety becomes particularly concerning when vital parts like the brake discs, calipers, frame, or suspension are affected. Rust doesn't discriminate, and even frequently moving parts like chains and gears are open season in damp conditions. Rust in electrical components or wiring can result in sporadic issues and even complete system failures of electrical systems like lights, signals, and ignition. The financial burden of rust damage is substantial, necessitating costly removal and replacement that ultimately negates the worth and cost-effectiveness of a used motorcycle.

Damage that is spread across the motorcycle, easy to spot in cracked or scratched fairings, offers insights into a motorcycle's usage history, accident damage, and potential future problems. Serious collisions or impacts can leave a noticeable trail of damage as stress lines across different parts of the bike, and imply that structural integrity may be compromised. Dented, bent, or damaged frame components may jeopardize stability and safety if they go unnoticed and unrepaired.

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A motorcycle's chain is the only link between its power and delivery, and is integral to both performance and safety. A neglected chain, whether due to prolonged poor tensioning or inadequate lubrication, always makes more noise than it should, yields less torque than the RPM suggests it should, and spells big trouble beyond performance woes. A worn-out chain is at risk of suddenly breaking while in motion, or 'chain jumping' - disengaging from the sprockets, leading to catastrophic power loss to the rear wheel, which may easily be fatal hinging on immediate traffic and road conditions. Beyond these concerns, compromised performance and acceleration, and increased wear on drivetrain components come into play.

Uneven, asymmetrical, or peeling-off tire wear usually indicates that the motorcycle has been ridden to the extremes, been used for stunts, or ridden in ways it was not designed for, like offroading a naked streetfighter. It can also signify deeper mechanical or alignment issues. Uneven tire wear can compromise handling and traction, escalating the risk of skidding and loss of control, and also adversely affecting braking performance.

Bent or damaged front forks may indicate severe impacts, accidents, or neglected wear and tear, and have far-reaching consequences. One sure indicator of a fork problem is misalignment or a subtle lean towards one side when you let the handle adjust itself to momentum. If the forks are visibly leaking, rusted, or otherwise misaligned, we advise that you skip the test ride altogether, and look for a less cursed resale motorcycle option. Issues with the front fork can often coincide with other areas of damage, and it's easy to see why everyone takes their health so seriously.

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Strange noises emanating from a cold engine may be perfectly normal or benign, but unpleasant noises from an engine that's warmed up can indicate detonation or engine knock, indicating severe underlying issues and a history of neglect. Strange noises can come from damaged pistons, worn cylinder walls, broken clutch or transmission components, and various other engine components. Reduced performance is a consistent comorbidity in this case, and chances are, there are only a few drops of blackened engine oil in the machine along with some chipped-off cog teeth and powdered metal dust from the abrased interior walls.

Detecting poor alignment in a motorcycle can be done with a lightweight rope or string and a rear-wheel stand or double-stand. Place your motorcycle on the stand, take a length of the string, and wrap it to the front tire, then pull the rope's loose end toward the rear wheel with reasonable tension, touching it to the rear wheel and straightening the front in the process. If necessary, you can use duct tape at the ends to secure the rope between the tires. To inspect the alignment, view the string from front and back, looking at the straight line formed between the tires, which should not be diagonal.

Poor alignment in a used motorcycle most commonly indicates rough riding and accident damage. Misaligned wheels can cause cascading damage to other motorcycle parts, resulting in symptoms like veering in a particular direction, a resistant or partially blocked wheel, uneven tire wear, handlebar vibrations, and tire squealing.

When the torque on a motorcycle predictably lags or dips upon opening the throttle rapidly, there is a serious problem, and you need to stop riding and call a mechanic. Flickering, jerky, or cogging torque is indicative of severe engine issues and is likely accompanied by the other engine-related symptoms mentioned on this list. Dismal performance might be the least of the affected motorcycle's drawbacks, as this symptom usually shows up a short time before the engine is about to 'seize up' from prolonged and total neglect of maintenance, an event that will likely turn even more engine components into dust, inducing a dangerous sudden halt. An engine seizure will require significant parts of the engine to be replaced, at a steep cost.

An overheating engine is a clear impediment to safety as well as the life of the engine. Like most other signs on this list, poor maintenance is the prime suspect behind this unfortunate stage in a motorcycle engine's deterioration. Engine oil leaks, using the wrong oil, a failure of cooling systems, or neglect of routine servicing are common reasons that an engine may overheat. The implications are many, the key one being that critical engine components have been experiencing increased friction and wear for a considerable time.

Vibrations in a motorcycle's fairings are more than a mere annoyance, they indicate that a motorcycle has been ridden over uneven terrain that it was not designed for, or has been ridden to the extremes. These vibrations can lead to misaligned, cracked, or even loosened fairings, undermining both appeal and resale value. Loose and vibrating fairing components can become safety hazards, potentially leading to parts detaching during rides, or parts creating stress points on other parts. Moreover, rider discomfort and fatigue stemming from excessive fairing vibrations erode the overall riding experience, jittering through the handlebars, foot pegs, and other parts of the motorcycle that the biker interacts with.

Shantanu is a passionate motorcycle writer who brings together his versatile expertise in various forms of creative expression and experience writing for Electric Vehicle ecosystem stakeholders to TopSpeed. He has a preference for the most nimble & agile of sports and naked motorcycles over cruisers and tourers. A motorcycle enthusiast in real life too, Shantanu has owned and ridden bikes from various critically-acclaimed Asian motorcycle brands over a decade, and aspires to own a retro Honda Fireblade from the 90's someday because it reminds him of the game 'Road Rash'. Shantanu's hobbies include MMA & martial arts, video games, writing books, plotting for world peace, and animals. He fathers three cats- King Sunrise(Ginger), Saint Crystal (Black), and Sir Onyx (Grey).