Motorcycle? Scooter? Moped?
July 16, 2009 11:47 AM   Subscribe

I need a vehicle that's dirt-cheap, built like a tank, and easy to teach myself to maintain and repair — I'm currently a mechanical ignoramus, and I want to change that. Motorcycle? Scooter? Moped?

I live in Austin, TX. For those who know the area, I'd be riding mostly around UT, downtown and the east side, with some excursions south. I wouldn't ever need to take the bike on the highway, although it could be convenient. Ditto room for a passenger — not necessary, but convenient. It would be my only motor vehicle, but in a pinch I could borrow a car from housemates for long trips or big loads.

I want something reasonably safe. I know there's risk involved with any of the vehicles I'm looking at, and I'm okay with that, but I'd like to keep it as low as I can manage. (No need to tell me about helmets, leathers or safety courses — I'm already convinced.)

I also really want something solid and easy to work on. Like I said, I know fuck-all about machinery. Back when I had a car, I could change the oil, jump-start the battery, and that was it. I'd really like to change that, but I'd rather not jump in at the deep end.

The catch is that I really can't afford to spend much more than $1000. I'd be happier spending less.

What should I be looking for? An ancient used motorcycle? A newer scooter or moped? (Or, hell, an ancient used scooter or moped from back before everything was plastic?)
posted by nebulawindphone to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What about just a straight-up bicycle? (Depending on the bike-ability of your area, of course.)
posted by aheckler at 11:52 AM on July 16, 2009

A moped would probably suit your needs pretty well, be within your budget, and would allow you to learn more about the mechanical aspects of vehicle repair without being way beyond your technical capabilities, since the engine is pretty simple. Moped Army might be a good place to start to find people in the area who might be able to help you out in finding one suited to your needs and who also might be willing to sell you one (and ride with them!).

I'd stay away from Chinese scooters that run about $1000 new. They're junk.
posted by scarykarrey at 11:58 AM on July 16, 2009

Doesn't get more stripped-down than a Honda Ruckus for scooters. If you want to go the motorcycle route, I'd suggest a Nighthawk 250 or a Ninja 250 or one of the variations on a KLR, which comes in 250 and 650. All those bikes have loyal fanclubs and lots of information on the internet about how to fix and outfit them.

A new sub $1000 scooter will likely be pretty awful. Anything too old or exotic will likely be a money pit, in terms of cost of repairs and difficulty finding parts.
posted by electroboy at 11:58 AM on July 16, 2009

Many of us learned mechanical skills keeping our VW Bugs on the road, often with the aid of this book.
posted by notyou at 12:00 PM on July 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'd recommend an older Japanese motorcycle. My best friend growing up bought himself a c.1985 350cc Honda cruising bike for like $500. It had only the rear brake, and none of its lights worked. He had it fixed up within about two weeks for a couple hundred bucks (in tools and parts).

Don't get the moped. It's bloody Texas... there ain't such a thing as a short distance. At some point, you're going to want the highway.

You should be able to work on just about any bike. I don't know of any that have gone to computer engine management. Many of the newer ones are fuel injected, I understand; but, I believe they're still mechanically managed. I guess I might stay away from the luxury brands (BMW, Ducati), since they're more likely to have expensive specialty parts and fittings (and bolts!) and lots more cowling and covering.

Hell, you can actually still work on cars, for the mostpart. For electronics, you take it into the dealer. But, assuming you have the engine hoist and all the right tools, you can still work on a new car. (And there're opensource solutions to interfacing to the EMU, for that matter.)

It's really in access that the bike wins over the car. Modern cars cram the hood full of shit (while older cars appear to have a lot more empty space). This means that to fix one part, you've got to pull (and reinstall) a whole mess of other parts just to get to the faulty one. On a bike, most of the parts are accessible from the side.
posted by Netzapper at 12:01 PM on July 16, 2009

Why not a bicycle, or a car (Volvo 240s, pre-'93 Saab 900s, old trucks and full-sized American cars are easy to work on)?
posted by box at 12:09 PM on July 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

For motorcycles: Kawasaki KLR, Honda Nighthawk, Ninja 250, Any old Honda CB (though they may be going up in price due to vintage-ness?). I'd even reccommend early/beatup Honda CBR600s as those motors take a serious beating and keep running and running. The caveat on the CBR is that even a rough one is seriously fast. Like faster than many sportscars fast, and if you're new to bikes, might be a big too much to start out on. It's less easy to work on than a KLR or nighthawk due to the plastic fairings, but at a pricepoint of $1000, I'd bet there won't be much fairing left.

On the car front: Any old american car pre-mid 70's with a slant-6 or Ford's inline 6. The great thing about learning on old cars is that they are usually easy to work one with a minimum of tools, and there's almost always good online support. Other old tanks: Volvo 242/244 sedans and wagons.

For the best all-round experience (in my opinion): Find a beat up BMW 2002 between 1970 and 1975. You can occasionally find them for $800-$1000 in rough shape, but they are simple, surprisingly tough, and one of the best drives in vintage cars. Also the community is hugely supportive and generous, and parts are readily available.
posted by gofargogo at 12:11 PM on July 16, 2009

Nighthawk 250 for $900 on craigslist. See if they'll inspect if before you buy.
posted by electroboy at 12:15 PM on July 16, 2009

200cc or better vintage Italian scooter, from the 60's-70's - Labrettas or Vespas - fully restored examples abound on Ebay for under two grand, and rideable beaters go for a lot, lot less.

They're easy to work on, easy to find parts for, and there are a lot of local and internet enthusiast resources to help out with the "how to." Plus, vintage scooters are damn fun and cool as hell. I'd stay away from the 50cc or 125cc models - they're not much good outside the city. Mopeds by definition are too underpowered to be much fun, and they look dorky.

Another option would be an old VW-based dune-buggy or kit-car. The old air cooled VW motor is easy and cheap to find parts for, and easy to put the parts in once you got 'em. (VW - no part is more than fifty bucks or fifty pounds. Never trust an engine block you couldn't lift!) Kit-cars and dune-buggy conversions are easy to find, and generally go for a lot less than VW Bugs or Vans with their original bodies.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:23 PM on July 16, 2009

I would have suggested vintage Italian scooters if the OP's mechanical abilities were anything more than "nil", but honestly, they might not be the best idea. They're broken all of the time! They're definitely fun, but if you want something that you want to ride more than work on, they're probably not the best, or the most economical, option.
posted by scarykarrey at 12:33 PM on July 16, 2009

IIRC, there's a guy who fixes up and sells old BMW /5 motorcycles in Austin. I don't know how much they go for, but it might warrant a look.
posted by willpie at 12:33 PM on July 16, 2009

I don't know what the moped scene is out by you, but around these parts, a lot of the vintage mopeds are in the hands of kids who can barely turn a wrench, can't get the oil/gas mix right, and basically treat the bikes like total crap (they only need them to ride to the nearest bar though) - I can outride most of those things on my bike. Not exactly something I'd want to buy used. I'd say stick to the 100cc or bigger bikes - they're less likely to have been treated like a toy, though you lose the ability to roll them into your apartment.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 12:36 PM on July 16, 2009

seconding notyou's link to that volkswagen book. my dad had that, and as an 8 year old i was astounded to see hand drawn diagrams showing (for just one example) the engine as individually rendered parts, all floating in the air as if jedi magic were about to assemble the whole thing. it was great for me, because when i looked at an engine in a car i saw a single item, but the book made plain and clear what each piece did and what part it played in the whole.

maybe you don't care about volkswagens specifically, but the book is great for the learning you'd like to do in general.
posted by radiosilents at 12:38 PM on July 16, 2009

As someone who almost died riding an underpowered scooter when I was being tailgated by a jerk in a sportscar, I only have one thing to offer: do not get anything under 200cc. You want to be able to keep up with traffic.
posted by chez shoes at 12:57 PM on July 16, 2009

(That's not supposed to be an exhaustive list of cars that are easy to work on in my above comment, by the way--my point is that if safety is a concern, you might consider a more enclosed vehicle.)
posted by box at 1:15 PM on July 16, 2009

The Suzuki GS500 (my first bike) has been made for over 20 years so there's lots of parts & knowledge. 500cc is a good size and is plenty big for freeways. It's air cooled so you don't need to futz with a cooling system.

Downsides are: It did require nearly constantly fiddling to keep the valves corrected adjusted. It's not terribly comfortable.
posted by chairface at 1:30 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

if you're going to get a scooter, get a beater Vespa P200. Easy to work on, parts are available, and they can get up to expressway speed (50-55pm)
posted by vespabelle at 1:30 PM on July 16, 2009

Response by poster:
Another option would be an old VW-based dune-buggy or kit-car. The old air cooled VW motor is easy and cheap to find parts for, and easy to put the parts in once you got 'em. (VW - no part is more than fifty bucks or fifty pounds. Never trust an engine block you couldn't lift!) Kit-cars and dune-buggy conversions are easy to find, and generally go for a lot less than VW Bugs or Vans with their original bodies.
Really? Where do I look? I've been hearing for years that it's impossible to find old VWs in good shape for cheap. I would be thrilled to find out that that's not true.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:44 PM on July 16, 2009

Response by poster: Or are you suggesting I build my own kit car from scratch? That seems like a good long-term project — and I do mean long term; I'm a grad student, and free time isn't something I've got a lot of — but in the meantime, I'll still need some way of getting around town, which brings me back to the current question. :)
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:48 PM on July 16, 2009

Response by poster: (Same goes for the other cars being suggested, actually. If it's possible to find a good used Volvo, Saab, etc for under a grand, that's excellent news, but it is news to me — I'd always heard you shouldn't trust a car that cheap unless you're desperate, and I'd rather have a solid bike than a barely-working car.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:52 PM on July 16, 2009

Look around for an old BMW R60/5, R75/5, or R80/7 boxer twin motorcycle. There are hundreds of these bikes from the late 80s around, and while they may not be the cheapest thing you could find, parts are readily available, and they are the most owner friendly motorcycles ever made, for DIY wrenching. Very, very easy to work on, and you need virtually no machine shop facilities, if replacing factory parts. You can easily find machine shops to do cylinder heads, cylinders, etc. if you need that, using UPS or FedEx.

And unlike their 4 wheeled brethren like the 2002, and 3 series cars, two wheeled BMWs do turn into rust buckets in front of you, while you are trying to fix them.
posted by paulsc at 2:04 PM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Er... "do not turn into rust buckets in front of you".
posted by paulsc at 2:06 PM on July 16, 2009

As cool as they are, don't buy anything Italian. Parts are easy to get because they break all the time.

Honestly, dirt cheap and built like a tank? Early 80s non-turbo diesel Mercedes 300. That thing is literally a rolling bank vault. I've said it before, but that will be the last car running after the nuclear holocaust. If you can get one up to 620,000 miles, Mercedes will send you a 1,000,000km decorative hood badge.
posted by hwyengr at 2:48 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Get a classic scooter. A Vespa wideframe from any time period up to the 80's should do you fine. The engines and cabling systems are super-simple to maintain and repair, the frames are solid steel, and you can readily get parts in Austin from American Scooter Center.
posted by kaseijin at 2:55 PM on July 16, 2009

I'd always heard you shouldn't trust a car that cheap unless you're desperate

For what it's worth, I sold an incredibly solid, well-running diesel VW Jetta (1990) on Craigslist for $475, so the excellent deals are out there. The kid who got the car was thrilled.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 3:16 PM on July 16, 2009

Look around for an old BMW R60/5, R75/5, or R80/7 boxer twin motorcycle.

I don't know, you're looking at $2000 or so minimum, plus parts and professional service are pricey too. Professional motorcycle service in general is pricey, but that's another story.
posted by electroboy at 3:17 PM on July 16, 2009

Yeah, as much as I loved my R90S, those bikes hold their value like no other -- I'd be surprised if you could get one for less than 2 grand.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 3:20 PM on July 16, 2009

As someone who's owned a variety of scooters and mopeds in the past and has a classic Vespa now, a few pieces of advice.

Don't buy anything on eBay. The vast majority of stuff on eBay comes from Vietnam and there's a reason the scooteristas call them Vietbodges. You literally do not know what's under that paint. If you've decided that you must have a classic Italian scoot, check with your local scooter club and ASC. Also, check for potential rides.

You need at least 150ccs in a four-stroke to carry a passenger. Expect an engine that size to respond like a beat dog with a passenger. Depending on how big you and your potential passenger might be, you can get away with 150cc in two-stroke (Vespas are two-stroke). It'll respond better but it won't exactly be awesome. I would never take a scooter that size on a highway.

If you want to go motorcycle, I can heartily recommend just about anything Japanese from the 70s forward. The Honda CBs, in particular, are built like tanks and parts are incredibly easy to find. 250s are considered beginner bikes and are probably a touch underpowered for highway. They'll be good in the city tho.

And if you want to go the VW route, the John Muir book mentioned earlier is essential. We had a VW when my family lived in Austin in the 70s and I read it like a comic book. There's an illustration of a really steep hill in the book that I thought (at the time) was of one of those really steep roads over by Pease Park. I learned a lot about VWs reading it. It's essential if you want to buy a bug; it'll tell you everything to look for (including rusted out heater channels). VWs are reasonably easy to work on and parts are incredibly plentiful.

Whatever you decide on, you'll eventually want the Haynes and/or Chilton manuals and the original shop manuals (if you can get them).
posted by jdfan at 4:18 PM on July 16, 2009

Get yourself an old (mid-1980s) Honda Elite scooter. I have a 1984 125cc that looks almost brand-new and (until recently) had a working popup headlight, and I only paid a bit more than your budget -- you could get an 80cc (without the troublesome headlight) for a lot less than your budget. They're darn near bulletproof, much like the Honda Cub motorcycle was.
posted by davejay at 4:38 PM on July 16, 2009

OH, forgot the passenger thing: there are lots of 150cc Elites out there, and even if the headlight won't pop itself up, there's simple provision to manually pop it up and leave it up, so you should do well in finding a cheap one. By yourself if the scooter is in decent shape a 150cc has a top speed around 65, so is legal on highways (the 125cc and below are not.)
posted by davejay at 4:39 PM on July 16, 2009

One more piece of car advice: one of the easiest vehicles to work on is an old Jeep (I mostly mean CJs here). Everything's easy to get to, and it's all relatively simple. The bad news, though, is that it's pretty much guaranteed that a thousand-dollar Jeep is a vehicle that you'd spend a whole lot of time working on. If you want to drive around and feel the open air, though, and you don't necessarily want to go fast, and you're hoping to do a lot of maintenance yourself, a Jeep can be a pretty fun choice.
posted by box at 7:49 PM on July 16, 2009

Honda CB750

You'll never look back.
posted by Frasermoo at 8:51 PM on July 16, 2009

Volvo 240 or a toyota tacoma...if either of them passes inspection for about a grand take it and run and then spend the next 10 years trying to kill it with won't.
posted by iamabot at 9:20 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older “On Monday I wished it was Tuesday night, so I...   |   Suggestions for kayaking spots around Chicago Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.