IMAGE BY BRAD HOLT.
In that year, I’ve put 2,100 miles on my Rat, and hauled her the exact same distance across the country to live in a new city. I’ve ridden her in the blazing heat, and in the pouring rain (though not on purpose!).
I’ve found a new hobby that helps me find sanity, balance and confidence. And I’ve met many amazing people who have supported me, educated me, and helped me along my journey.
Also in this past year, the vintage and custom bike scene has continued to explode. People around the world are taking their first steps into this crazy art/sport/hobby/passion, and I’m proud to count myself among their ranks.
So, in honor of my first year with The Little Rat, and the growing vintage motorcycle scene everywhere, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned about owning a vintage motorcycle. And hopefully, if you’re also new to the vintage moto scene, you’ll be able to avoid some of my mistakes 😉
Find a mentor.
If you take only one thing from this post, let it be this: if you’re new to vintage bikes, you need a mentor.
Before I met Sofi and George Tsingos, I was a lost little puppy riding around on a hunk of metal I didn’t understand. Together, Sofi and George have taught me just about everything I know about motorcycles, and they’ve saved me hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars.
But Loryn, you might say, what about YouTube videos and forums? What about manuals? Well, sure, I’ve learned a lot from those, too.
But if you have an old bike, especially if it’s not a super popular model, you’re probably going to run into an issue that isn’t documented anywhere ⎯ or at least, not anywhere you can find. You’ll end up hunched over your laptop late at night trying to figure out if the “clicking sound” a forum commenter is troubleshooting is the same snapping noise you’re hoping to fix.
If you know exactly what your problem is, online information and manuals can be a fantastic resource. But if you don’t… you’ll need to find someone with real experience.
Also, remember, mentors are extremely precious resources. It can be really hard to find someone who is willing to donate their time and expertise to help you keep your bike on the road. So, once you find that person, treat them with respect, don’t abuse their time, and never forget to say thank you.
Get comfortable with shit going wrong.
If you freak out when things don’t go according to plan, or are quick to lose patience with unreliable equipment, you should probably keep a safe distance from any bike built before 1990.
With an old bike, shit breaks. Things get gunked up, dried out, cracked open, vibrated loose and all manner of messed up. One minute you’re speeding down the highway, the next you’re on the side of the road without power.
And you know what? It’s okay. As long as you’re out of harm’s way and nobody got hurt, everything’s going to be alright. Except, maybe, your bank account, but that’s another story 😉
Even with a vintage motorcycle like mine that’s been skillfully restored, these things happen. After a rebuild, especially, issues that might not have been apparent on the shop floor can rear their ugly heads as things get broken in.
Because of this, it’s always best to have a towing backup. After all, nobody wants to spend their parts money on a tow truck. Either invest in your own setup, or make a deal with a good friend. When it finally does happen, you’ll be glad you planned ahead!
Do your homework.
Even if your vintage moto has been garage-kept, meticulously maintained, ridden regularly, and otherwise kept on a velvet pillow, you need to educate yourself. I honestly can’t stress this enough.
For one thing, unlike modern bikes, vintage bikes were made to be worked on by the owner. Things are (for the most part) easy to find, replace and repair (if you have the right instructions), and manufacturers expected their customers to be at least a little handy with tools.
So yes, if you have a pristine mid-70s jewel of a bike and you want to ride it, you should know how at least a little bit about to work on it. Otherwise, you’ll end up paying $85/hr for oil changes, cleaning dirty points, checking fuses and replacing spark plugs. No thank you.
Also, if you own an old bike and choose to not even try to learn anything about it…. what are you even doing? One of the most damn fulfilling things about owning a vintage bike is being familiar with its intricacies and eccentricities, and knowing that you’ve contributed to keeping its wheels turning.
One of my biggest mistakes, though, was that I didn’t spend enough time learning about motorcycles before going shopping. I figured that I’d find a bike in good condition, and go from there. Oh, I was so naïve…
Before you even start combing Craigslist, you need to begin your motorcycle education. Learn how an engine works, and the different types of bikes you might encounter. Revzilla has a good guide that covers a lot of the vintage bike basics I wish I had known.
And then, when you do start shopping, be sure to research the model you’re looking at thoroughly. Try shopping for parts for your bike online. Read up on forums. If you were to purchase that bike, what would your resources be? If there aren’t many resources available, you might want to stay away from that bike ⎯ at least, until you’re not a beginner anymore 😉
Finally, when you go to look at a motorcycle, try to take a friend with you who knows something about vintage bikes. Failing that, here’s a great checklist of things to look for when you’re checking the bike over.
“Check your economic logic at the door or don’t come in.”
This last one I stole from Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I’ve been stealing a lot from lately. The point is, even if you do some, most, or even all of the work yourself, restoring and maintaining a vintage motorcycle is expensive. Especially one with hard-to-find parts. Or fancy paint. Like mine.
If I’m being honest, the money I’ve spent on my bike makes no economic sense. A more economically sound decision might have been just to buy a brand new motorcycle altogether. But, that’s not how things played out, and frankly, I’m glad they happened this way.
So, if you still think vintage bikes are for you, consider this a warning. Decide now what your financial limits are, and know that you might have to make some sacrifices to make sure you don’t exceed them. I wish I had had the foresight to research costs and make a budget. It would have saved me a lot of headache down the road.
You might think that I’m bringing up a whole heck of a lot of negatives here, talking about everything that can go wrong and how much things cost and how hard it is to find information and so on. But really, that’s not how I feel about my bike at all.
Owning an old motorcycle has taught me so much more than how to change my oil or rebuild my starter. More than anything, caring for my bike has taught me patience and humility. Patience, because sometimes you just have to wait 24 hours for sealant to dry, beautiful weather be damned. Humility, because despite your best efforts and those of the people around you, things do often go wrong.
But, it’s such a great feeling to solve all the problems and come out the other side with the throttle wide open, knowing that you’ve stuck it out, that you deserve the gorgeous, enigmatic machine you’re riding.
As always, thanks for reading! If you’re also a moto-newbie who’s considering getting into vintage motorcycles, I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line in the comments or on Ask Ridewell. If you’re an experienced vintage bike owner, do you have any tips of your own to share?
Keep the rubber side down