The Craigslist Chronicles: Buying a classic bike online
By John Luck
“Ran when parked.”
I was looking for a project motorcycle. My current old bike was running surprisingly well, occasionally for days at a time, but I was feeling antsy; I needed another project bike. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but I’d know it when I saw it. I wasn’t looking for a Henderson or a pristine low-number sandcast CB750, just a reasonably priced, close-to-running bike I could tinker with, get running, and ultimately put on the road.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave (without wi-fi), you’re aware that the era of brewing a pot of coffee, unfolding the Sunday morning paper and perusing the “Motorcycles for Sale” ads and finding an easy-to-work-on bike 10 minutes from home is long over, and you’ve no doubt heard about Craigslist, the free Internet advertisement website that lets you post anything for sale. And when I say anything, I do mean anything. But as I had no need (at the time) to have a woman in a slinky Star Wars outfit beat me with a kielbasa, I went straight to the motorcycle ads.
One thing is immediately apparent; Craigslist motorcycle ads are a free-for-all rodeo. No longer do you have to consider whether or not that junker bike that’s quietly rusting back into the loam is worth the effort and time of placing a $25 advertisement in a newspaper. With free listings, and the investment of a few minutes at the computer, you can easily add your non-running scrapyard-candidate bike to the immense loop current of junk that’s being peddled on the Internet.
I quickly learned several things; Spelling, as we know it, has gone the way of the quill pen on Craigslist. At first I was aghast at the spelling in the ads (“ths bik huals azz”), but soon got used to it. Still, though, I couldn’t figure out why sellers couldn’t even spell the name of the motorcycles they were selling. Hint to sellers; the name of the bike is usually emblazoned on the tank and /or side panels of the motorcycle you’re selling. On the other hand, maybe there was a company that once made “Sporsers,” because there are a lot of them on Craigslist.
Another thing I learned was that every older motorcycle on Craigslist is a “collector’s bike.” I don’t know if this was caused by too much watching of The Antiques Roadshow” or some of those 24-hour car-auction cable shows, where motorcycles occasionally appear, but everyone seems to think they have a gem sitting in their garage. There are a lot of $2,000 bikes on Craigslist that would cost an additional $2,000 worth of work to be worth, well, $1,000.
I also learned that dealing with Craigslisters was like consulting a particularly uncooperative oracle. “The bike runs” actually meant, “It ran in the distant past,” “It ran once, before it made a dreadful clanging noise and it never ran again,” or, “With a great deal of time and money thrown at it, who knows, it may indeed run again.”
A casual “You might want to clean the carbs” inevitably meant that the carbs looked as if someone had poured honey into them a decade ago and allowed it to crystallize. “The exhaust doesn’t have any leaks,” meant that the seller had epoxied a section of beer can to a rusted-out section of the muffler.
Even specific and concise questions might not result in an accurate response. I asked one Craigslister about the condition of the brakes on his bike, and I was assured they were in working order. When I actually saw the bike, I very quickly noticed (I’m quite observant) that there was no front brake … at all. There was a front brake lever, but downstream of that, nothing … no rotor or brake assembly. I pointed out this subtle flaw to the seller and he responded, “The other dudes that came by got all bent out of shape about that, too.” For subsequent bikes I amended that question to, “Are there front AND rear brakes, are they actually attached, and do they work?”
I got to the point where I located my old Magic 8-Ball, and consulted it when I saw an interesting ad; “Oh, Magic 8-Ball, will this Craigslist Honda be the bike of my dreams?” The answer was inevitably, “Outlook not so good,” “Don’t count on it,” or “On Craigslist? Are you kidding me?”
And titles. Those pesky things. Craigslist sellers seem to have an issue with titles. “I don’t have the title, but I, ah, could write you up a bill of sale. The DMV will take that.” Sure, and while you’re at it, why not just take a piece of cardboard and some crayons and make me up a custom license plate, too. That would be just about as valid as your bill of sale. One rule I learned quickly; ask at the very beginning if the seller has a title to the bike they’re peddling. Otherwise, you probably just bought a parts bike.
After awhile, it became something of a game; I never knew what I would find…there was the person whose “runs good” motorcycle had actually fallen entirely through the rotted floor of his shed, and it was obvious that the bike hadn’t run “good” or even badly in this decade or the last. This was the person who in his ad had typed, in all caps, “THIS BIKE WON’T LAST!” He was right.
I learned as I went along; I emailed one person who was advertising a Honda CB500. He had a title to the bike, he seemed normal in our email correspondence, and he answered my questions forthrightly. He even sent me a several digital images of the bike. It wasn’t until I was driving the 50 miles to look at the bike that it vaguely occurred to me that every shot of the bike was a photo of the left side. Of course, when I finally saw the bike, it looked as if someone had taken a belt-sander to the right side. The right front turn signal was nothing but a stub, the tank was dented, fairing shredded, the muffler was crushed, and the brake pedal bent.
I turned to the seller. “I couldn’t help but notice that there’s some damage to the bike. Now as far as I know, we’re not living in Two Dimensional World, so you must have known that when I got here, I’d inevitably walk around to the other side of the bike, the one you didn’t photograph. Why didn’t you mention that damage?” “It’s only cosmetic; it’ll buff right out” he argued. He might have said more, but I was already back in my car and heading home. I heard the phrase, “It’s only cosmetic” and “it’ll buff out” a lot. I’ve got to work on my buffing skills, obviously.
As I wearily drove home, I made yet another rule…when inquiring about a bike on Craigslist, have the seller photograph both sides of the bike. And the front. And the back. And the underside.
My last Craigslist adventure was the one that finally broke my spirit. A person in Maryland was advertising a Kawasaki KZ750, which, according to the seller, was complete and running. The price seemed a bit high, it was an hour’s drive away, but I thought it was at least worth checking out.
I drove to the address — after calling twice while on the road since the directions were wrong. “Did I say turn right on Morris Street? I meant turn left. I bet that messed you up, huh?” Why, yes, it did.
When I finally got to the house, the garage door was open. I peered in … no bike. I went to the front door and knocked. I was greeted by a cadaverous looking guy who looked as if he might have had a bad head cold, judging from the collection of Ephedrine boxes he had on his coffee table. And he seemed intently curious as to who I might be, in spite of the fact that I had been on the phone with him only minutes before when we were both trying to figure out his address. Finally we determined who I was, and he stepped back from his doorway. I walked inside the dark living room; every curtain was closed, and there was a stain on the floor that looked like the outline of a body. “So, the bike?” I prompted. “It’s in the basement,” he said.
“Which way to the basement?” I asked. “That door there,” he answered distractedly, as he warily peered out at the street from a small slit in the curtain. I opened the door and it was pitch black. Fumbling, I found the light switch and clicked it … nothing. “Ah, I think your light’s burned out.” “It’s all right. Your eyes will get used to the dark,” he answered, still scanning the street. Was he looking for inconvenient witnesses? “Go on, I’ll be right behind you.” Peering down the stairs, all I saw was Stygian darkness.
“You know what, I don’t think I ate enough carrots today. I’m going to get my flashlight,” I said. “I’ll be right back,” and with that I dashed outside to the car, picking up my beautiful, heavy, weapon-of-last-resort four D-Cell Maglite. I also made a quick call to a friend and told them where I was (left on Morris Street) in case I wasn’t seen for a few days, and proceeded back inside. I visualized some bored detectives on the shore of a lake, looking down at my well-marbled corpse days from now, chewing on their cigars and muttering, “Another victim of the Craigslist Motorcycle Want-ad Killer.”
With the flashlight burning away the darkness, and the seller in front of me (he fell for the “beauty before age” ruse), we descended the stairs. There was indeed something resembling a motorcycle at the far corner of the room. I aimed the light on it, and there it was, a solid-looking mid-80s Kawasaki. It was dusty, the king-and-queen seat had to go, and the tires were almost flat, but it looked to be in reasonable shape. I noticed that there was a block of wood under the kickstand, which made the bike almost vertical, but idly thought the wood was there to protect the tasteful brown shag carpeting.
“Can I hear it run?” I asked. The seller peered at me as if I’d asked him a question about the nuances of the bicameral brain. “You want to hear it run?” “Why, yes, you told me on the phone that it was running, and that you started it up from time to time, and it had run just recently … do you remember this?”
The seller scratched at an imaginary insect on his arm. “Oh yeah, I do remember. That means we’ll have to take it outside, I guess.” Nobody moved. We were at an impasse. “OK, I’ll help you,” I cheerfully replied. Half an hour later, after moving a washing machine and dryer, a few decades worth of yellowed newspapers and two disassembled lawn mowers we stood out in the sunlight, and the bike wasn’t looking quite as good outside its Goth basement surroundings.
We actually managed to get the bike started (with the aid of a jump start from my car. “Go ahead and drive on the lawn … it don’t matter.”), and somewhat running, after pouring in some fresh gas, and clearing the clotted rust out of the fuel filter. The minute the bike stumbled to life, the seller immediately twisted the throttle, revving the engine to astronomical levels of noise and smoke. Something was clattering, and it was more than just a valve needing adjusting.
Another note to Craigslist Sellers: If your bike actually does run, don’t run it up to 12,000rpm the minute the bike starts. That sound of metal screaming actually is the sound of metal screaming.
The seller went back inside and quickly put that mysterious block of wood under the side stand. As the bike settled into something approaching a lumpy idle, he went inside, and I, curious about this mysterious block of wood, removed it and put the bike in its normal parked position. Within a few seconds, a drop of oil appeared on the patio stone, followed by a more regular flow of oil. Kneeling, I peered at the underside of the aluminum engine case. Something (a fall? a stray bullet?) had cracked the case, and a large blob of what looked like JB-Weld had been smeared on the fracture
The owner came back outside, and I asked, “What’s this?” pointing at the spill. He looked at the growing pool of oil and back at me, as shocked as the Chief Inspector in the movie Casablanca. “It’s never done that before. I have no idea what happened.” He looked around for the block of wood, which I handed to him. He quickly placing it under the kickstand, and seconds later, in a more vertical position, the leak slowed to a random drop. “There, it stopped.” he said proudly.
“You know what, I’m going to have to think about this,” I said, as I retrieved my jumper cables and got back in the car. “The seller looked disappointed. “You wanna talk price, I can go down a little bit.” “That’s fine, thanks. Goodbye.”
That was it. I gave up on Craigslist. Too much time, too much effort, too much anticipation and subsequent letdown. I ultimately did buy a bike though. I know it sounds like crazy talk, but I bought a bike at, of all places, a local motorcycle dealership. Someone had just pushed in a 25-year-old bike as a trade-in. It needed some minor work, and the shop didn’t feel like putting a lot of time into a brand of motorcycle they didn’t carry, so I got a fair price on it – and I actually got a complete project bike with a real title.
That whole experience with Craigslist seems like a bad dream … I only look at it four or five times a day now. –
Classic motorcycle enthusiast John Luck is a writer and photographer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
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