Please help me make a decision about my motorcycle
September 12, 2013 8:03 PM   Subscribe

I made what I believe was a mistake in purchasing a used (90s) cruiser motorcycle on CL. It starts very inconsistently and frequently dies at stoplights. I need help determining the best course of action.

My latest experience with this bike (I've had it for going on 1 year and not really ridden AT ALL due to the general feeling of being ill-at-ease riding it, given its behavior) was driving it about 20 blocks, with it dying it almost every stoplight, then parking it, getting groceries, and coming out to find it would not start. I took out the (new as of last October, tended over the winter) battery and charged it overnight, since I ran it down trying to start it, and when I put it back in, the bike still wouldn't start (turns over but doesn't catch). This is a familiar tune for this bike. Other behavior: engine seems to race at idle (stoplights). I have asked on forums specific to this bike for help and they have been as helpful as is possible for people who are not there in person. But the bike continues to behave badly despite my attempts at troubleshooting.

I am a 'novice' mechanic with no workspace (other than NYC streets) and frankly the bike has been depressing to own for a beginner rider. I have had it serviced 2x and each time the mechanic (2 different ones) said that the bike was 1) fine (didn't go back there) or 2) has a faulty starter switch and that I can look on eBay but has a 'solid engine' and I will 'enjoy it for a long time'. I don't have any friends riding bikes to plead with for help getting the real deal on what's going on with this bike.

I paid $1,000 for the bike. I probably got ripped off, I should have known that the seller was hiding problems (8-year-old tires which I replaced, battery secured by a zip-tie & turned the wrong way, semi-working starter switch all never mentioned, seller told me it was fine to ride away) but I'm beyond that, lesson learned and my fault for not taking a mechanic. At this point it is not about the money, it's more very sad feeling that I have 'failed' with this bike and not wanting to end my motorcycling experience so soon.

What should I do with this bike? Keep it and continue to try to figure out what's going on (I have the Clymer Manual, standard tools, and guide to Motorcycle Maintenance)? It's getting wearisome to move a nonfunctional bike for alternate side parking 4x a week. Should I be completely honest about its condition and sell it on craigslist? What should I ask for it, given the information above (plus it has a dent in the tank and rust on the body but not in the tank)? Should I just donate it to charity? I don't want to saddle another new rider with this disappointing bike. The title is clean.

I'm honestly paralyzed by this decision as I really, really want to own and ride a motorcycle, I seem to be a good enough rider based on my courses/lessons and limited riding experience, but this bike frustrates me and I am afraid of being stranded with it somewhere on the side of the road, especially on a ride longer than 30 minutes. Am I approaching this wrongly - have I simply not tried hard enough to fix it? Do I sound as though I am not cut out for motorcycle ownership, or do I stand a chance with a brand new bike?

posted by xiaolongbao to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
Best answer: If you paid $1000 for a motorcycle that starts and rides (even with problems), you didn't get ripped off. That's about the lower bound price for a rideable bike.

I suspect you may have had unrealistic expectations from this 20-year-old $1000 bike.

I would not give up on this bike, but I would also take everything you do and don't like about it and use that as the basis for deciding what your next bike will be.

As a general rule, I would recommend most first time riders get a 500cc bike or smaller, about 5 years old, and expect to spend about $2000.

As for this bike, keep fiddling and keep riding. Let it warm up for ten minutes before you ride it. Take it for short rides and psych yourself up for the idea that it dying on you doesn't have to ruin your day. And carry some starting fluid.

It's sort of nice to have a real junker bike to learn on, because you won't feel like such an idiot when you drop it. Plus, it's a great way to learn basic motorcycle mechanic skills without worrying too much about breaking something.

As far as what the actual problem is, it's very hard to diagnose over the Internet, but my first two moves would be to adjust the idle screw and clean the carburetors.
posted by 256 at 8:31 PM on September 12, 2013

How many miles are on it? That's one proxy for how worthwhile a repair or three can be.

Also, you should get an estimate of the repairs needed before you decide to give up altogether. You are stressed out partially because you are struggling with the weight of uninformed decision making, so do what you can to lessen that burden.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:42 PM on September 12, 2013

Response by poster: 19,000 miles
I'm a bit reluctant to throw more money into this bike. Do mechanics normally do consults without charging? (last tuneup was ~$200 here in NYC)
Thanks for the answers so far...
posted by xiaolongbao at 8:52 PM on September 12, 2013

You don't mention the manufacturer/brand, but I would suggest seeking a dealer shop, especially for an inspection and estimate of repairs. They will probably charge for this but it should give you a more realistic basis for deciding whether to go forward. If the two mechanics both felt it was a "solid motor" that's a good sign, although peripheral repairs can get expensive. If it's a decent model "cruiser" with only 19,000 miles you would be doing fairly well if you could get it running reliably for even another $1K or $2K in costs.
posted by uncaken at 8:56 PM on September 12, 2013

Ask someone who owns this bike and works on them to come over. Supply them with food and beer in exchange for their informed opinion. Alternately, go to a mechanic who comes highly recommended on one of the forums and ask for them to inspect the bike. Expect to pay for an hour or two of their time.

Either way (and I recommend the latter) will give you the information you need to make a decision. You've got to accept the limits of your nascent bike and engine wrenching skills and put your trust in someone more experienced in order to make an informed choice.
posted by zippy at 9:01 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What make, model & year of bike is it? The behavior you describe can be caused by a few different systems behaving badly, especially if it's an early 90's bike equipped with mechanical points ignition and a carburetor. If the engine dies at idle but you can keep it going by opening the throttle just a bit, your carburetor most likely needs to be cleaned and adjusted - try fiddling with the idle screw like 256 mentions.
If it dies eventually no matter what you do and is tough to start even if it's getting the proper air/fuel mixture, that points to an ignition/electrical system or engine timing problem.
Both issues are caused by neglect and deferred maintenance, but both can be fixed in a day by any marginally competent motorcycle mechanic, or through trial and error on your own. I'm betting it had been sitting in a garage unused for a long period of time when you bought it, right?
My advice would be to ask around for mechanic recommendations in your area that work with a lot of 70's, 80's and 90's bikes. If your bike is American or European this will be extremely easy. If you have a Japanese bike it will be a little harder but still doable. Good luck!
posted by azuresunday at 9:10 PM on September 12, 2013

Best answer: Zippy has the right idea. Everywhere I've lived, there are at least a couple of rider groups populated by a combination of friendly, knowledgeable, mechanically-inclined, and Internet-savvy riders. New York ought to have that in spades. There'll be somebody who owned your exact bike (maybe a previous owner of your actual bike!) and who will know what hose or carburetor screw or whatever you need to fiddle with to solve the problem.

If you're not yet experienced in frobbing IC engines, I'd recommend against trial and error. You might not break anything, but you probably won't have enough success to drive off the frustration. Find somebody who's willing to come over and poke around if you buy some beer. Or, the groups I know (in LA and Portland) have occasional garage days, where somebody plans to be working on his bike and invites others over to do their own repairs, kvetch, or commiserate about having to wrench instead of ride. If you can find something like that, and can manage to get your bike over there somehow, you're likely to ride home happy.

If you can't find anybody local any other way, I'd try joining the Adventure Rider forums and see if there's anybody in New York.

Good luck...having an unreliable bike sucks (unless it's an old British bike, where you don't have a choice, or if you're confident you can fix it with whatever multi-tool you carry in your jacket pocket.)
posted by spacewrench at 10:01 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your symptoms sort of sound like ones I've experienced. You may want to check on your choke lever/plug. If it's a cable from the bars to the carburetor, make sure the cable is not too tight. Check that the end that goes into the carburetor is actually seated and happy at the carb end. It's an easy fix if either of these things is wrong.

And finally, some words of encouragement. My bike lives on the street in front of my apartment in Chicago. While it's been parked there, I've taken a good chunk of the engine apart and put it back together again multiple times, using only directions from the internet, my Clymer manual, and hand tools. This is my first motorcycle, and I had no vehicle maintenance experience before this bike. Would the work be easier in a garage with a real collection of tools? Of course. But don't let circumstances keep you from learning how to work on your machine. There's no scarier thing than riding on a bike that you're not 100% confident on - this is your chance to build some trust between you and your machine. (That said, my bike does have a solid online community - it's definitely been an important resource while learning, and one worth hunting down for your bike. The ADVRider forums linked above are definitely a good start.)
posted by Wulfhere at 10:08 PM on September 12, 2013

Best answer: I feel your frustration. The solution is to find a good trustworthy mechanic. This can be really difficult in a big city where most of the 'shops are focused on newer bikes. The two you have consulted so far are evidently not very good as they failed to listen to your description of the issues or resolve them.

From reading your description, particularly the surging idle and startig problems I suspect a carb rubber is leaking. A very common problem on older bikes as they inevitably age and crack. You can fix this pretty easily yourself with your manual and set of tools by replacing them with new. You could bodge fix the existing rubbers with a silicon sealant but my philosophy is to do it once and do it right.

Join online bike communities and maybe a local bikers social club to help find the mechanic and technical support you need.

Bikes need way more mintenance than cars. They also deteriorate quicker, particualy outdoors and if seldom used. Before you do anything else decide if this urge to bike is worth the necessary time and money.

Memail me if you need any help.
posted by BenPens at 4:14 AM on September 13, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughts and encouragement, everyone. I will gladly pay someone (in beer or in cash) for advice, the main problem is finding someone who's not just after the money and who has experience with this model bike (it's a Honda Nighthawk, 250cc). I'm also shy, particularly given I know next to nothing and no one. I joined some motorcycle meetups, but they of course revolved around rides and I didn't feel comfortable riding this bike given the issues. I think I'll take out an ad on Craigslist, perhaps someone will turn up who can come to my aide...

How does one source parts for an old motorcycle? I have looked at eBay and also sites that sell OEM parts. The starter switches on eBay looked positively crusty, not much better than my own, so I have been hesitant to snatch one up.
posted by xiaolongbao at 8:22 AM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Parts: ebay, general web searching with the Honda part number, and web forums/communities dedicated to the particular motorcycle (there will be many, but probably one much larger than the others). For old-ish motorcycles (yours qualifies), you'd be amazed at how much you're part of a club just by owning the same/a similar motorcycle. For my CB650, when I need some odd-ball part that I can't find on ebay, I can just post to the forum if anyone has one. For small things, people will usually just ship you one for postage; for bigger/rarer things, they'll typically just charge you what you'd have to pay at a local scrap yard or on a decent ebay deal.

Old motorcycles basically require you to either 1. be an amateur mechanic or 2. have a good working relationship with an honest service shop (and a decent amount of money). If you don't want to be either of those, sell the motorcycle and buy something much, much more modern and reliable (i.e., fuel injected, not Italian, something very popular so lots of shops know how to work on it). The Nighthawk was a very popular bike from a very popular series, so any place that knows how to work on 90s-era Hondas will be able to work on it. It's also a fantastic little motorcycle and engine, so if you get it running it'll very likely treat you well.

Also, a $1000 bike that mostly runs is not a rip-off at all. A $1000 bike is not ideal for someone who is new to motorcycles (and doesn't, say, work a lot on a car, etc.), because $1000 implies that it has some Problems. But you have what you have and you can make it work.

As to the motorcycle's problems, it's almost certainly not a faulter starter "switch", since you say it turns over when you depress the starter button but won't "catch." Starter == fine. If you pressed the button and it didn't turn over, or the starter did something but just whined (didn't turn the engine), turned over but stopped turning almost immediately ... yeah, then you've got a starter system problem. You? You do not appear to have a starter system problem. Engine revs at stoplights? Doesn't want to keep running? Won't reliably start? Yeah, that's a traditional air/fuel/spark problem, which 99% of all motorcycle running problems are.

Motorcycles basically only need three things to fire up and run: fuel, air, and spark. If you want to diagnose it yourself, you start with the simplest of problems and work your way down the list towards the complicated ones. Your problem is that you don't know where to start. That's okay! You can join a forum and ask questions, etc. Heck, feel free to PM me; I know old-ish Hondas well enough.
posted by introp at 10:13 AM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Upon re-reading, maybe they mean the ignition (kill) switch and not the starter switch? If so, that's hella easy to test: when it doesn't want to start, remove the spark plug and clip the body to the frame (i.e., ground it). If your kill switch is bad, you won't see any spark. Now, there are a number of failures that might cause you to get no spark, but if you *do* get spark, you know it ain't the kill switch.

(Google "testing for spark" if the procedure isn't clear in your head. I typically don't like the "hold it to the frame" and resort to resting/clipping it on there, because getting shocked because you don't have it held tightly against the frame is mildly painful/unsafe.)
posted by introp at 10:24 AM on September 13, 2013

The NightHawk is a very, very common motorcycle. You should not have a difficult time finding somebody who is familiar with its quirks.
posted by waldo at 12:46 PM on September 13, 2013

Response by poster: Well, I got the bike started today after reinstalling the fully charged battery, and was able to move it to a lot so I don't have to alternate side park. I've connected with some helpful folks on forums once again and we have narrowed the issue to the kill switch - most likely. The bike started (after randomly fiddling the kill switch as is always necessary) in neutral and doesn't die when I put it in gear, so the kickstand switch appears to be cooperating (another trouble spot id'ed by the mechanic). I was able to ride about 20 blocks before the bike died and I wasn't able to restart it...I started pushing before I completely drained the battery, as it has been a bad habit of mine to keep cranking.

Now I'll be opening up the switch housing and testing with a multimeter. I may take a few of you kind souls who offered help up through PM on that offer in the future. No one responded to my CL ad, so I'm headed to biker night at Ear Inn as was suggested to me in a previous post, with the hope of making a few friends despite my shyness.

Thanks all, for the wise & encouraging words.
posted by xiaolongbao at 5:48 PM on September 15, 2013

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