Classic Motorcycle Build

Five Reasons To Buy A Basket Case Motorcycle

Article by Mark Trotta

Many people would say, "Why bother with a project motorcycle, why not just buy a complete, running bike?" Personally, I like the challenge of bringing a dead machine back to life, and the awesome feeling you get riding a bike you've put together yourself.

Reasons to Buy a Basket Case Motorcycle

What Is A Basket Case Motorcycle?

Generally speaking, a basket case motorcycle will be partially or completely disassembled and in non-running condition. They are often sold missing parts, and in need of a complete rebuild. Very often, they are sold without a title.

Reasons To Buy A Basket Case Motorcycle:

1) The motorcycle has true collector status classic. This means it's on everyone's top-ten list of classic bikes.

basket case motorcycle project

Example: Any pre-Evo Harley Big Twin

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2) The motorcycle was a top performance machine of it's day.

Reasons to Buy a Basket Case Motorcycle

Example: Norton Commando

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3) Antique Status

Finding a 75+ year old motorcycle in any condition is a worthwhile undertaking.

Harley WLA motorcycle project

Example: 1944 Harley Flathead

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4) Scarcity

Even if you have the cash, low production motorcycles in good, restored condition cannot always be found. Limited availability, along with desirability, makes for a good project bike choice.

Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle

Example: Vincent Black Shadow

This last reason leaves out bikes such as Honda CB models, which are great project bikes, but there's just too many of them to bother with one that's been completely disassembled and missing lots of parts - unless, of course, you've paid nothing for it or nearly nothing. Which brings us to our last reason to consider buying a basket case motorcycle:

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5) The Price Is Right

You got it for free or can purchase it very cheaply.

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Buying A Motorcycle Without A Title

Motorcycles without a title are usually cheaper to buy than ones with titles. Getting them titled and registered is not impossible, but some U.S. states make this harder than it should be.

The first thing you need to do when buying a no-title motorcycle is find out whether it was stolen, or just abandoned. Here, in North Carolina, we can call the Department of Motor Vehicles and ask them to run a VIN check over the phone. Another way is to use a service such as InstaVIN or VINhistoryUSA.

Getting Ownership

Before you buy an untitled bike, I strongly recommend checking with your state's Motor Vehicle Department on how it can be done. Remember that they have little interest in preserving classic motorcycles - their only interest is preventing fraud and theft.

Parts and Extra Parts

Are you after a full restoration? Then parts are way more important. The more original parts it comes with, the more a basket case project is worth. However, if it's going to be a custom it doesn't really matter.

basket case motorcycle parts

Very often, when buying a project bike, you get extra parts - which may or may not be to that bike. Selling off the unwanted parts is a good way to recoup some of the initial money you've paid, which can help pay for needed parts.

reasons to buy a basket case motorcycle

After purchasing my Servi-car project, I sorted through all the extra parts, and was able to sell enough of them to get back what I had initially laid out.

Disassembled Motor

If you start with a disassembled motor you'll be building the motor twice. This is because engine clearances (such as connecting rod play, cam shims, and others) need to be measured before teardown. But when you start with a completely disassembled motor, you don't have that opportunity. So you'll have the additional steps of assembling the engine to get the "before" measurements, then disassembling, repairing, and re-assembling.

motorcycle engine build

If you want to look on the 'plus' side of a disassembled engine, it's easier to check for engine case cracks, worn parts, and damaged threads. This will allow you to make a more accurate repair estimate.

Basket Case Failure Rate

Project completion is not always achieved when starting with a disassembled, non-running motorcycle. I would estimate that less than 25% of basket case projects ever get done, with a large majority changing hands several times, or becoming relegated to a parts bike. Sometimes, intentionally or not, they're brought to the next level, then change hands again.

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Learning New Skills

I didn't always have the skills and tools and equipment needed to build basket case motorcycles - they were picked up along the way as I got deeper into projects. Turning boxes of parts back into a running machine is not only fun, it will make you a better mechanic.

Reasons to Buy a Basket Case Motorcycle

When you complete a basket case project, you will likely become an expert on that make and model.

How Long Will It Take To Finish?

Building a basket case bike will take an unknown amount of time and an untold amount of steps. It will surprise you with unseen challenges. I've rebuilt half a dozen project motorcycles over the years, and I never accurately predicted when they would be completed. My original time and price estimates always fell short of their intended goals.

Take Your Time

Remember that when you're working on a vintage machine, time is on your side. Classic and vintage bike prices are going up all the time, so the longer it takes you to finish yours, the more valuable it will be when done!

There's a great satisfaction from keeping another old motorcycle from becoming a parts donor, or worse (scrap metal). Bringing a dead machine back to life is a feeling like no other.

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