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How to Start an Old Motorcycle

How to Start an Old Motorcycle

Jul 24, 2019

Motorcycles are fun to ride and can make for affordable and convenient transportation or even that exciting cruise with fellow bikers. If you’re a v-twin cruiser bike enthusiast, you might have an old bike laying in the garage or have a friend who wants to get rid of an old bike. In fact, there are so many bikes that have been ridden for five to ten years and then just parked in a garage, burn or a shed to rust. The question is, how do revive and start an old bike?

Reviving an old bike will require money and different steps depending on the type of bike, how the old it is, the level of damage done, and whether or not you simply want to get it up and running for day-to-day use or have some bigger plan to improve performance or build a collector’s machine. Here’s our expert’s guide on how to start an old motorcycle:

Inspect the Old Bike

First of all, you’ll want to make sure that all the parts are there. Missing and broken parts must be replaced. Pay close attention to the gauges, carbs, brakes, side covers, and sprockets. Check to see if the engine is seized and whether you can shift through gears to be sure that transmission will work. Does the bike still have compression when you kick it over.? A bike in good condition will be easier to revive and start.

Check the Bike’s Service Manual

Parked retro motorbike by the water

Once you’ve inspected your bike, you’ll need to look at the owner’s manual from the manufacturer. This is, especially important if you’re not a pro in handling bikes. Checking the service manual will get you through some basic maintenance as well as everything from checking your battery, changing oil, and rebuilding your engine.

If you don’t have a manual for that old bike, you can always buy one online. Here, we’re not doing a complete rebuild, but trying to start an old bike without any major work like changing engines. As you can see, learning how to start an old motorcycle may need a little bit more work, but with the bike’s owner’s and service manual, you just need to follow some basics.

Check the Battery

Rusty green retro Yamaha motorcycle

Is the battery working? Check the fluid level and top up with battery acid or distilled water. Put on a trickle charge - you can use a 2-amp setting. If the battery doesn't charge to about 75%, replace it with a new one. When the battery is fully charged., reinstall it correctly in the bike. Some bikes will run without a battery and others will not. The last thing you want is damaging your bike’s charging system or ignition, so take caution.

Inspect The Fuel Delivery System

rusted retro motorcycle

Inspect the fuel delivery system and drain any old gas in the fuel tank. Make sure you’re working where there are no open flames and dispose of the fuel safely. Look out for any signs of rust and dirt in the fuel tank. Light surface rust may not be a problem, but if there’s any flaking or crumbly rust, you need to clean the fuel tank before you take any further step on how to start an old motorcycle.

Fill the tank with ⅔ of soapy water and drop a handful of washers in into the tank, close the tank and give it a good shake. Drain the liquid and repeat the process with clean fresh water until you get rid of all dirt and drain clear water. You can also use a garden hose or pressure washer to make this process faster. Next, take these steps:

  • Check for any leaks on the fuel line and replace if necessary. When replacing, be sure that the hose clamps from the petcock to filter, and filter to carb are in place and sufficiently tight. Learning how to do these small fixes will make it easier for you to start an old motorcycle.
  • Inspect the fuel filter to be sure that the fuel is flowing through. If it’s flowing slowly, you can clean the filter using carb cleaner and make sure to wear eye protection. Replace filters that can’t be flushed.
  • Check the fuel valve or petcock to also verify if fuel is flowing through. Follow the right procedure to remove the valve from the tank so you don’t damage the gaskets. Clean the valve with carb cleaner and reinstall it. Replace any damaged seals or gaskets.

Clean the Motorcycle Carbs

Retro motorcycle near a rusted train

Most motorcycle carbs are pretty simple to clean with a bit of practice - just like every step in this “how to start an old motorcycle” guide, follow the service manual. Gently remove them from the bike, remove the bowl, the float, and the fuel valve or needle and clean them carefully, make sure to also clean the openings, exposed jets inside the body, bowl, and throat of the carb. Use a tiny wire and carb spray to get it done.

Once you’ve cleaned these parts, replace these items in reverse order. The float should travel freely and open and close the needle or valve properly. Remove the cap, venturi, slide, and piston and clean any exposed parts of the carb body and reassemble in reverse order too. Reinstall the carb while making sure not to damage the intake boot. Done!

Check the Condition of the Plug

Cool Harley Davidson motorcycle

This is the most critical step on how to start an old motorcycle as it tests your entire ignition system. Pull the bike plug and look out for any worn, fouled, sooty, or damaged look as these could be signs of other bike engine problems. You can clean an old plug using carb cleaner, a wire brush, and compressed air. If you can’t save your old plug, replace with a new one and be sure it matches your bike make and model. Gap the plug to the manufacturer's specs.

It's time to test whether your plug will fire. Attach the plug to the plug wire but not the head, turn your ignition, with the kill-switch set on run, and give your bike a kick or crack. If everything’s okay, the plug should make a flat blueish spark. If you don’t see a spark, you have an electrical problem that needs to be fixed either due to a short, a damaged component, or bad connection.

Resolve the electrical problems and check for compression too with a pressure gauge or manually using your finger while someone else slowly cranks the engine. If you have spark at the plug and good compression, install the plug, connect the wire, and you’re ready to go. This is the last step on how to start an old motorcycle.

Start-Up the Bike and Get Riding

animated image of a motorcycle

Once you’ve got compression, perfect fuel delivery, and a working plug, you can now start your bike. Make sure to follow the right procedure depending on the type of bike - kickstart bike or electric start. It should work with no issues. To give your old ride a new and stylish look, consider getting some customizable parts and accessories you can install yourself like exhaust kits, seats, fairings and windshields, and mufflers.

West End Motorsports specializes in supplying a variety of customized parts and accessories for v-twin cruiser motorcycle riders. Shop at our online store and get free shipping on orders over $99. Have any questions? Call us at 570.992.1113.