Classic Motorcycle Build

Kick-Starting An Old Motorcycle

Article by Mark Trotta

Up until the early 1970s, most motorcycles were kick-start only, but as more people began riding, electric-start became increasingly requested by newer riders. Eventually, an electric starter became standard equipment on most street machines.

kick starting an old motorcycle

Part of owning a classic motorcycle is learning to start it with as few kicks as possible.

For an engine to start, it must have compression, spark, and fuel. Engine timing (when the valves open and close in relation to piston travel) needs to be correct, and of course, nothing damaged or broken in the motor.

Although the techniques for kick-starting an old motorcycle are basically the same, every bike is a little different - even the same makes and models can be slightly different.

Know Where The Compression Stroke Is

The four phases of a four-stroke gas engine are intake, compression, power, and exhaust. Top Dead Center is when the intake and exhaust valves are closed, and the #1 piston is coming up to compress the air/fuel mixture.

To start a kick-start bike as easily as possible, learn where Top Dead Center (TDC) is on the kick-pedal. This is the compression stroke. Before turning on the ignition switch or opening the fuel valve, slowly kick on the kick-lever, and when you feel resistance, you're on the compression stroke.


With a little experience, you'll be able to feel the compression stroke quickly, it's at the top of the kicking arc. Simply put, if you're not on the compression stroke, the bike's not gonna start.

Cold-Start Kicking

Before turning on the fuel and ignition switch, kick the bike over two or three times. This is to get the engine primed with oil. Then turn on the fuel valve, and the choke (or enrichener device), and finally, the ignition switch. Twist the throttle once or twice, find the compression stroke and kick. A motor in good tune should start in several kicks.

Warm-Start Kicking

Motorcycles start easier once they're warmed up. Starting procedure would be fuel on, one or two twists on the throttle, ignition on and kick. No choke or enrichener should be needed. A well-tuned motor should start in a kick or two.

Elvis Presley kick-starting his Harley-Davidson Model K
Elvis Presley kick-starting his Harley K Model

Standing Over Or Next To The Bike

A common position to kick start a motorcycle is standing next to it, but they can also be started while being straddled. To do this, put the bike on the kickstand, balance yourself with your left foot on the left foot-peg, and kick with your right foot. This kicking angle usually requires less effort.

For high-compression, big-displacement engines, you'll need to get more power into the kick. Try standing to the right of the bike using your left foot to kick. If you don't weigh much, it gives you better leverage to kick down with. When I was a teenager, this was the technique that helped me kick-start bikes that were bigger than I was!

You can also try resting your left knee up on the seat while kicking the bike over. This places all the weight from your left side "above the action", and if the engine were to kick back, you'd be more likely to be shoved upward instead of hyper-extending your right knee.


Keep The Bike In Tune

It's true - kick-only motorcycles are more finicky to start than an electric-start motorcycles. If your bike has ignition points, check the gap every few thousand miles. Take out the spark plugs, clean them and check the gap - perhaps try a wider gap.

Non-Stock Engines

If your motor is modified, it's very important to find a carburetor that works well on your bike. Back when I was riding my 1972 XLCH Sportster, other Harley riders used to mock my 40mm Mikuni carburetor because it was Japanese, but it worked well. To my delight and their surprise, the bike started consistently on the 1st or 2nd kick.

Kick-start Harley-Davidson Sportster

Kick-start-only bikes are lighter and less complicated than electric-start bikes.

If the Bike Still Doesn't Start

If the engine "spits" out the exhaust pipes while you're kicking, you're getting closer. but you may have flooded the motor by twisting the throttle too much. If you think you did, try holding the throttle all the way open when you kick.

To make sure you're getting gas, remove a spark plug and see if it looks wet or smells like gas.

kick starting an old motorcycle

Check Your Battery

Since kickstart bikes don't rely on a battery for starting, it can be in pretty bad shape without you knowing. Check the battery cable connections, and also the fluid level. Top off with water if necessary, and allow to stand awhile before charging. Recharge it with a small amperage trickle charger overnight.


How To Fix A 'Migrating' Kick Lever

Sometimes with age, the upper part of the kick lever pedal, after being closed, will "wander" out and be in the way of the right foot.

how to fix a migrating kick lever

The simple hack here is to add either a nylon washer or spring washer under the top nut.


Which Grade Oil?

Chances are you won't be riding your classic bike for hours in hot weather, so a 60w or 50w grade of oil won't hurt the motor and will make the bike easier to kick. In winter months, you can run 20/50 oil to make starting easier

I have run 70w oil in my electric-only 1976 Sportster, and have run 50w oil in both my kick-only 1974 Triumph Trident and kick-only 1972 Sportster.


Starting a Motorcycle with Manual Advance

Many pre-1960's motorcycles did not have automatic timing advance. Usually it was controlled manually by a cable from the left-hand grip to the distributor.

To start a bike with a manual advance, such as an old Linkert-equipped Harley, try the following. With ignition off, turn the gas on, full choke, and retard the timer (twist left-hand grip). Give two full kicks, one click off on choke, then turn on the ignition switch. One good kick may start it. If it does, advance the distributor. Open the choke as soon as it warms up.

kick starting an old motorcycle

If it takes more than a dozen kicks to start your bike, look for another problem. Start at the spark plugs - if the plugs are wet, the motor is getting gas. To check for spark, you can either take off your points cover and see if the points are sparking, or remove one spark plug and ground it to the frame or engine. Then kick the bike slowly with the ignition switch on to see if you're getting spark.

Kick-starting an old motorcycle is part of classic bike culture. Hopefully some of these tips and techniques will help newer riders with older machines. Once starting procedures are learned, they become second-nature to you. And wear a good pair of boots - you should be anyway.

kick start old motorcycle


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