MOTORCYCLE FAQ
(E-mail questions and answers)

By Chuck Hawks

Q: I enjoyed reading your motorcycle articles . . . thanks for taking the time to compile all the information in your charts.

A: Thank you for taking the time to write. I have learned a lot from people's comments and questions, and I really do appreciate all the e-mail I receive.

Q: How long have you been riding, and what bikes have you had?

A: I have been riding for over 35 years. For a considerable period during that time, a motorcycle was my primary means of transportation year 'round. I have had a couple small Hondas, a Triumph, a BSA Lightning (one of my all-time favorite bikes), three Yamahas, a Harley-Davidson Sportster, and a Buell S3 Thunderbolt. I am currently riding a H-D Super Glide Sport. In addition, I have riding buddies with BMWs, Buells, Harleys, Hondas, Suzukis, and Yamahas, who have been kind enough to share their experiences with me and let me ride their bikes.

Q: You seem like a guy who loves Harleys . . . do you look down on "rice burners"?

A: No, not at all. I am not a Harley snob. I have had five Japanese bikes, two British bikes, and three American bikes (all H-D products) over a 30 year period (see above). Actually, my sentimental favorites have traditionally been the British bikes. My 1997 Sportster was my first H-D purchase. When I went looking for a new but classic-type standard motorcycle, the Sportster was about all that was available. (You must understand, in my formative motorcycle years the Bonnevilles, Lightnings, and Sportsters ruled the streets.) However, now that I have had a Harley, it would be pretty hard to buy a non-Harley product. My local H-D/Buell dealer (Doyle's in Eugene, Oregon) is, in my opinion, the best mc dealer in my area. H-D products and Harley dealers seem to foster customer loyalty.

Q: Which brands do you think are good motorcycles today, and which would you recommend?

A: In terms of value in a new bike, I would buy a Harley-Davidson if it fit my needs, because H-D has the best resale value, reasonable maintenance costs, and thus the lowest overall cost of ownership. If a Harley did not fit my needs, I would look at a new BMW, Buell, or Triumph. For a good value in a used bike, I would recommend any of the four major Japanese brands (Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha). Pay a fair price (usually from a private party) for a clean one that is only a year or two old, and you have a good deal. I have especially warm feelings for Yamaha, whose bikes have served me well. I tell people that today it is hard to buy a bad motorcycle--I think that they are all good. By that I mean the major brands: BMW, Buell, H-D, Honda, Kawasaki, Moto Guzzi, Suzuki, Triumph, and Yamaha. Some of the lessor known brands, and specialty sport bikes, may be more temperamental; I don't know much about them.

Q: I have always wanted to own a (certain model of) Harley-Davidson, but it costs more than a look-alike metric cruiser. Is it worth it?

A: In terms of resale value, which primarily determines the actual cost of ownership over time, the Harley wins hands down. According to my copy of the Motorcycle Price Guide, you can buy a Harley, own it for a few years, and sell it for close to what you paid for it. The real cost of ownership (the difference between what you paid for it and what you sold it for) is much less than if you initially bought the cheaper look-alike brand, and sold it after a similar time. So, while a Harley sometimes (not always, check the Sportster prices!) costs more initially, it is the best buy in the long run. Behind Harley, other bikes with good resale value include BMW, Buell, and Triumph.

Q: I've been riding Japanese motorcycles for many years, but on some level I've always loved the timeless look, sound, and aura of Harleys. Now I am thinking about getting a Harley at last, but I wonder if they are as reliable as Japanese bikes? None of my Japanese bikes has ever left me stranded. Could I reasonably expect the same from a new Harley? I am not a mechanic, and I do not want a tinker's bike.

A: My Harleys have been as reliable as the Japanese bikes I have owned. Today Harley's workmanship is second to none. Take a close look at a new Harley: the paint, chrome, everything on the bike, and I think you will be impressed. I know of no other mass-produced bike finished to such a high standard. They seem to build the engine pretty well, too. I am not a mechanic, either, and my Harleys have not required that I become one.

Q: I am in my 40's, and I want to buy a motorcycle that will last the rest of my riding days. I really like the (certain model of) Harley-Davidson. Is it a good choice?

A: With care, a new Harley will probably last the rest of your riding life. Think about the many older Harleys you still see on the street. Note that many of the older Harleys you see are still in good condition. Then reflect on the much smaller percentage (compared to their annual sales) of old bikes of other brands that you see. In my area, other than Harleys, I see a fair number of old BMWs and Hondas, and a few old Yamahas. That's about it. I can't offhand remember the last time I saw a 15+ year old Ducati, Kawasaki, or Suzuki. In particular, most of the older Japanese bikes that I see are junkers. That suggests something to me about which of today's bikes are likely to last, and also which manufacturers (and the aftermarket) support their customers with parts for the older models. I think it also indicates which of today's brands are most likely to be around many years in the future.

Q: My local Harley dealer sells his/her bikes at a figure considerably higher than the list price. Is this the kind of markup I can expect to find at Harley dealers everywhere?

A: The Motor Company is trying to get some of these dealers that are ripping off their customers under control. However, since "fair trade" pricing, which allowed manufacturers to set the selling price of their products, was deemed illegal in the name of consumer protection, there is a limited amount companies can do. Sometimes a model or brand is in such demand that people will pay a premium for it. I can remember this same situation when the Honda CRX sports car was introduced, and again when the Mazda Miata sports car was introduced. Harley has been increasing their production every year, but demand remains higher than supply for many models. Try other dealers in your state, maybe their prices are better than those at your local dealer. Then, too, if a dealer offers exceptional service (which my local dealer does), that is worth paying something extra. I have found that, in general, Harley dealers seem to perform at a much higher level than many dealers for Japanese bikes. Why this should be, I can't say, but it's sure nice AFTER you buy a Harley!

Q: I am thinking about buying a Buell, but I have read mixed comments about them on Internet Bb's and such. What have you heard?

A: All of the guys I talked to in my local HOG group that have Buells just love them. Most of these guys have more than one bike, and in every case the Buell is their favorite. A couple of the guys working at my local H-D/Buell dealer (Doyle's in Eugene, Oregon) own Buells for their personal bikes, and they are also extremely high on them. The 1999 models, the first since the Harley buyout, are very improved, with new frames, suspension, seats, etc. Motorcycle Online magazine has an article on the 1999 Buell line, which you might find informative (follow the Motorcycle Magazines link to them).

Q: I am looking at a Honda Valkyrie; what is your opinion of them?

A: I have no direct experience with a Valkyrie, and I have never ridden one. However, everything I have read about them has been positive, and the ones I have examined appear to be well made. It is a VERY large bike. Motorcycle Online magazine did a Valkyrie test (follow the appropriate Motorcycle Magazine link). It is an original power cruiser, not Harley clone, which is a point in its favor as far as I am concerned. The Valkyrie owners I have talked to have been very positive about their bikes. If it were me, and a Valkyrie was the bike I really wanted, I would go for it.

Q: I am interested in the Yamaha V-Max. Anything you can tell me will be appreciated.

A: I wish I had something to tell you. Yamaha's Mad Max is a bike I have been interested in for some time. It has been the top performing power cruiser ever since its introduction in 1984, an unheard of length of time at the top of its class. Motorcycle Online magazine did a "Muscle Bike" comparison test you can read on the Internet (just follow the link on my Motorcycle page), which included the V-Max, although the Buell S1 was their consensus choice. I appreciate the fact that the V-Max is an original, not a copy of anything. Before I bought my '97 Sportster, I kept my eyes open for a good used V-Max, but never found one. They are not common in my area. I am intrigued by what I have read about them (except for some reservations about their handling), and I would love to ride one. Why don't you get one and let me test ride it?

Q: I see that "laced wheels" are standard on some Harleys and metric cruisers, and optional on others. What exactly is a laced wheel?

A: Laced wheels are regular wire (spoked) wheels. The term that applies to building a wire wheel is "lacing" it (you've probably noticed how the spokes cross, like shoe laces), and that is why they are called laced wheels. The best laced wheels have alloy rims and stainless steel spokes.

Q: I understand that laced (wire) wheels require inner tubes. I also understand that tires with inner tubes are more prone to blowouts that tubeless tires. Is this important or trivial?

A: Laced wheels typically require inner tubes. They require an inner tube to prevent air loss through the openings in the rim where the spokes come through. And it is true that the tire with an inner tube is more susceptible to blowouts than a tubeless tire. But how many blowouts (as opposed to flats) have you heard about in the last 10 or 15 years? Modern tires are pretty tough. To help protect against blowouts, I put "Slime," a puncture sealer, inside my inner tubes.

Q: What are the respective advantages of laced and cast wheels? Which do you prefer?

A: I prefer cast wheels because they are more functional. They are more rigid, which improves handling, easier to clean, and require no regular maintenance. They also usually allow the use of tubeless tires, which are less prone to blowout than tubed tires (see above). On the other hand, laced wheels are generally lighter, and this lowers unsprung weight, which is a good thing. Many people prefer the appearance of laced wheels, which is hard to dispute.

Q: I have heard that most H-D owners immediately replace their mufflers and air cleaner elements. Why?

A: More power can be had from both Evolution and Twin Cam 88 engines by simply replacing the restrictive EPA mandated mufflers and air cleaners with H-D Screaming Eagle replacement parts, and rejetting the carb. Almost all H-D owners do this as soon as they complete the break-in period, at the recommendation of their dealers. These simple modifications noticeably increase power.

Q: Is the factory 883cc to 1200cc conversion for the H-D Sportster worth it, and does it affect reliability or the manufacturer's warrantee?

A: For those who want more power than can be gained with the usual low restriction and rejetting changes, the H-D big bore kit is the simplest answer. If the work is performed by your H-D dealer, your warrantee is not affected, and the reliability remains the same as stock. I rode my Sportster as both an 883 and a 1200, and although it slightly increases vibration, I really like the punch of the 1200cc engine. Such an upgrade is very cost effective.


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