What you need to know before buying your first classic bike

Everyone wants you to enjoy your classic bike! But be aware that old bikes can break, leak and misfire. They assume some common sense – brakes are poor and lights are terrible. Most problems old bike specialists see are owners who don’t realise what they’ve got into, so follow our guide…

What are you buying?

Look at what you’re getting – is it complete? If it’s a runner, then if you can, get a ride (make sure you have insurance, and most sellers will insist on cash in their hand first). Hopefully, it’s cold first (had they had it running before you came – then why?) Hear it run. Are the tyres legal (1mm tread) or do they have cracks?

A quick checklist is: centrestand – does it lift the bike up? Wheels – are they straight? Check the spokes for loose or broken ones, rock the wheels for play in the wheel bearings, look for worn chains – will pull away from the rear of the sprocket, and worn sprockets – teeth like shark’s teeth. Are the fork stanchions pitted? Are the head race bearings loose/notchy/stiff? Do the clocks work? Is there rust at the bottom of the petrol tank? Is the seat ripped? Is there play in the swingarm? Do the brakes work and feel all right? Are the various cables in good order?

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And we haven’t even got to the engine or gearbox…

Ask questions – lots. What oil do they use? When do they check the valve clearances? What problems have they had? Does it like choke when cold or not? You’ll be getting an idea of the owner, which gives you an idea of how the bike’s been treated. If you’re serious, then take someone who isn’t wearing rose-tinted specs… 


Is there a (V5) logbook? In the name that of the seller? Does the address tie up with the story? Sadly, many bikes are sold by the family of a deceased owner, in which case, there should be evidence. If in doubt, walk politely away.

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What is ‘matching numbers’? This is when the registration number, engine number (stamped on the block) and frame number match the factory records. They should at least match those on the logbook. Some bikes may have had their reg number sold and reissued with an age-related plate; others will have had an engine go pop and it was more economical to swap the engine with another. This is not a problem as long as everything adds up but must be reflected in the price.


One of the best ways to look into the machine’s past. Old MoT certificates, service receipts, parts receipts, even old tax discs can build a picture of whether you are looking at a family friend or a hastily put-together mis-mash.


Set a budget. Under any circumstances, do not buy the cheapest you can afford. Talk to club members and check dealer ads. Auction realisations are accurate price reflections but are more applicable to dear machines. Know how much work will cost: how much will a rebuilt wheel, an exhaust or an oil leak cost to fix? And beware, like the plague, ‘shiny sh*t syndrome’. Look beyond nice paint and chrome. Do your homework, and then you have more chance of enjoying your new machine!

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