Older motorcycles are known to need maintenance now and then. Everything from stuck cables to valve and fuel issues can mar a rider’s experience, particularly if he or she doesn’t know how to fix it. A lot of riders, especially newer riders, have little hands-on experience with repairing older motorcycle systems. However, many issues can be taken care of with a bit of knowledge and the right equipment. Rather than spending money at a mechanic’s or wondering whether the bike is worth keeping, learn how to make simple repairs at home.
These problems can affect you whether you have EFI or carbs, a Harley Davidson or a Honda. Even if you don’t plan on making all your repairs yourself, learning how your bike works means you are less likely to be hoodwinked by your mechanic. It’s time to get a bit of grease on your hands – let’s fix that bike!
It is common for throttle and clutch cables on older bikes to go bad. You don’t want to be on the road when something completely gives in. It is important to recognize the warning signs for when both of these cables are starting to go. Once you recognize signs of wear and tear, you should be prepared to replace your cables entirely. However, sometimes you just need to get your bike back home before you can worry about replacing cables.
Your throttle cable will let you know that it is going to go soon when it does not snap back after being turned and released. A throttle that does not snap back is called a “suicide throttle” because it locks the throttle in place. If you’re riding anywhere someone or something might make a sudden appearance, you could get into a nasty crash. You can check that your throttle is unaffected by turning the handlebars from side to side. Damage to the clutch cable is more difficult to notice until it really stops working. As it wears down, the clutch cable begins to move less and less in the sheath. Eventually the clutch can no longer release and begins slipping instead. When this happens, it’s time to replace your whole cable. In older bikes, pieces like the clutch cable have a limited lifespan. You should expect to replace it eventually.
There are three common causes for cables getting stuck and going bad. The cable is too short, you’ve gotten into a crash or you have failed to adequately maintain it. You are expected to provide regular maintenance to the cables, which can include lubing them up depending on the model. You can get a cable lube attachment from your local powersports store. But when you’re in a pinch, you can fix a stuck cable temporarily by doing the following:
By stretching it out and thoroughly applying the lube, you can minimize the chances that it sticks anymore for at least a few more miles. You can even create funnels out of Silly Putty to soak the cable overnight, minimizing the manual labor you have to do. It’s not pretty but it more or less gets the job done. It is important to make sure you get lube into the outer shell. And at the end of the day, if that’s not working, you can try to ride sans clutch.
A sputtering bike typically means you are almost out of gas, but still have reserves left over. If you’re running out of gas and you aren’t sure where the nearest gas station is, stop. There are a few tricks you can use to try to get a few more miles out of the fuel tank. That should give you enough time to find a gas station you can refuel at. The first time your bike starts sputtering, you probably still have reserve fuel in your tank. There should be a fuel petcock—a small shut-off valve—somewhere near your gas tank. Look for it, and check what it is set to. Typically, in older-model motorcycles, the settings are on, off and reserve. When you are operating, it should be switched to on. Double check that it did not accidentally switch to off before proceeding. If it is on, you should switch it to reserve in order to get more gas out of it. Once you fill up your tank, remember to switch the petcock valve back to on.
If you are sure the petcock is not the problem, there are some other steps you can check. The fuel pump and filter should be examined next. When you look at your filter, it should be relatively clear, and the dark portion should still have liquid in it. Then check the fuel pump, which you can find by tracing the gas lines, and should be readily accessible. To check the fuel pump, you should put a finger on the pump and turn the ignition off and on. The pump should sort of ‘click’ as the bike primes up. If that does not happen, you should then check whether your fuse is stable. On the other hand, if it clicks multiple times, there may be a jammed filter or kink in the line. In that case, it may be necessary to replace the fuel line.
If you’ve run through everything and haven’t found the source of the problem, shake your tank a bit vigorously. This moves the gas around so that it is pushed towards the rear of the tank and into the line. Make sure there are no obstructions or loose cables in your bike. You should be able to shake enough gas up to get you to the nearest gas station. There, you can either fill up or arrange to have your bike examined.
Are you riding a somewhat newer motorcycle with emissions controls? In some cases, the bike may run out of power and stall repeatedly if it is low on gas. If this is happening, riders should try opening the gas cap. The bike may start performing normally again. There are vents in the tank meant to release some of the gases that can get clogged sometimes. When that happens, the bike struggles to create the suction necessary to pull the gas. Opening the tank can prevent that from happening and allow the gas to flow again.
Sometimes your bike idle is off—it could be quiet and unusually weak, signaling that it won’t perform well. For older models, this could mean that your bike is running rich or lean. This refers to the ratio of fuel and air being pulled into your engine. Too much fuel, and you may be running rich with excess, unburned gas. This burns through your tank and makes you waste gas faster. In addition, your bike may idle strong but then lose power once you give throttle. That would be because there is too much gas for the engine to burn. Signs of a rich engine include the smell of unburned fuel, black smoke and soot. To fix it, try tapping the bottom of the carburetor to make sure all the floats allowing gas through are free. Double check that the choke cable is functioning. If none of that fixed the problem, you may need to check the spark plug gap or the fuel bowl levels.
If your engine is running lean, that means there is more air than there should be in the engine. Lean engines tend to hang when you rev the RPM, then slow down when the throttle is closed. Other signs include general reduced power, clean spark plugs or a bike that runs exclusively on choke. Lean motors might stall out when given throttle, which you don’t want to happen on the road. Begin by examining the vacuum hose. If it is loose or open, reconnect it. If there’s no problem there, spray carb cleaner or a starter fluid where the carb connections to the engine. While doing that, listen to see if the RPM changes. If that doesn’t work, double-check that the fuel is moving around again as advised in the section above. If everything is running smooth but your bike is still running lean, you probably need carb work or a tune-up. Time to take your bike into the shop.
If you have a modern bike with an Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI), then you will have some different troubleshooting steps. The most likely problem an EFI will have is vacuum-seal leaks, similar to the carb. Make sure that the cables are connected, and tap to make sure everything is flowing correctly. In addition, your EFI should have a self-diagnostic mode that can give you a code informing you what is wrong. You can save time and guesswork by checking that first, looking the problem up and finding the relevant instructions to fix it.
If your motorcycle completely refuses to turn on, you may assume you have to take it to the shop first. Probably a good idea, but you can fix some problems yourself. The first step is to make sure the battery is working and the engine can turn over. If the battery is fine but the engine is not, check that its ground cable is connected. Also check that the fuses on the battery’s main switch are right. If that doesn’t work, try starting the back with the kickstand up, clutch in and bike in neutral. If all at once doesn’t work, you may have to bypass the switches with the paperclip on both ends of the connector. Finding the connectors might be a challenge on some bikes, so if you cannot do this, it may be shop time.
Another step you can take is roll-starting the bike. Get a friend to help you push your bike, then move the clutch into second gear. If it starts, that means the issue with your starter system and you should check the connection. If it doesn’t, you should check the spark plug wire. Turn the wire about a fourth of the way in each direction and then pull it. Do not yank the wire. You can test it by pressing it against the engine, but that could cause a serious fire. A spark plug tester will do the job properly. If there’s a spark, make sure the plug fits properly. If there is not a gap, the problem may be impossible to diagnose yourself.
Diagnosing major problems in your motorcycle can be overwhelming. For most of these problems, you will need professional assistance to fix your bike. However, it can be helpful to identify what part of your bike is malfunctioning. Some general guidelines are as follows:
Keeping up with the needs of your bike doesn’t have to mean taking a trip to the mechanic every time something goes wrong. Learning how to fix some of the more common issues you might encounter yourself can save you a lot of frustration, time and money. When you do have to take it in to the shop, remember to ask lots of questions about what they see and what they plan to do. That includes asking about what parts are being used and why. If your shop has a problem with you learning more and staying involved in the process, don’t waste your time with them. Find a different shop.