Remember “Humpty Dumpty” – a children’s nursery rhyme – from when you were a kid?
In case you’ve forgotten, here’s how it goes:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again
I’ve always taken this to mean “some things cannot be fixed,” but there’s probably more than one way to interpret the song or rhyme.
When I worked at a dirt bike shop, we had this kid drop off a 5-6 year old Kawasaki KX450F (hi-zoot motocross racing bike) wanting a quote to repair it. The bike had been sitting outside for some time. The swingarm was seized against the frame. The engine was locked up. The wheels were shot. The chain had more stuck links than free links. Sprocket teeth looking more like fangs than teeth.
The owner of that shop took one look at it, laughed, and told the kid “I might be able to do something with this for $6-7000. Maybe. Could be $10k+ depending!”
Kid said “I can buy another one for that!” and the shop owner replied “That’s what I suggest you do“.
In this case, a KX450F sat outside for a long time AFTER getting beaten like a red-headed stepchild and maintained as though it were a hammer.
It had a “great fall” in the process, going from a bike to a collection of seized parts.
And guess what? All of the king’s horses (parts bikes, parts, supplies) and all of the king’s men (his technicians) couldn’t put it back together again for even remotely less than what the bike would be worth in running condition.
Some bikes turn into “Humpty Dumpty bikes” faster or more frequently than others. Here’s a short list and some thoughts on why that happens.
4-Stroke Motocross Bikes
About 20 years ago, Yamaha came out with a “revolutionary” 4-stroke motocross bike that was as fast or faster than the 2-strokes of the era. It was called the YZ400F. The YZ426F followed. And then the YZ450F. Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki followed suit with 4-stroke motocross bikes of their own.
These bikes required A LOT of maintenance to keep running properly. You know how some aircraft require hours of maintenance for every hour they’re in the air? Oh you didn’t know that? Well some of them do. For example, according to someone on Quora, an F35A requires 22 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time. Other fighter jets and helicopters require more than that, on the order of 50+ hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time. Fighter jets and attack helicopters are extremely high performance aircraft, just like motocross bikes are extremely high performance motorcycles.
The difference is it’s easy to finance a new motocross bike without understanding what it costs to actually operate the thing, let alone perform the maintenance it needs to keep it in good running condition. If someone skimps on maintenance or flat out doesn’t do it, fortunately for them motorcycles don’t fall out of the sky and kill their operators like aircraft do when they’re poorly maintained.
When someone fails to keep up on the maintenance on their 4-stroke motocross bike, it will turn into “Humpty Dumpty” and be impossible to fix for a “reasonable” amount of money sooner or later. Even when these bikes are properly maintained, important parts have a service life, and everything will eventually wear out. Parts like engine cases and cylinders become difficult or impossible to source as bikes get older and older.
I’m VERY leery about working on these kinds of bikes. It’s difficult or impossible to do a good job on a bike someone has neglected for years and years because they simply didn’t understand the maintenance involved in operating it. Most of the people who successfully run and race them know how to do their own maintenance and don’t need my help. Also, most of the people riding them in the mountains would be better served by aircooled, lower performance trail bikes than by play-riding on shit-hot motocross bikes.
I’ve already written quite a bit about Chinese scooters, and it’s no big secret that I think they’re total pieces of shit. I’ve seen all manner of crazy stuff “happen” with Chinese scooters and motorbikes, and some of it has been truly mind blowing. Brake lines that catch on sharp parts and leak everywhere. Broken welds on frames. Broken crankshafts. Bikes with 0 miles that just came out of the crate that don’t work properly or are dangerously slow. Massive variation among the same types of bikes. Malformed parts that require me to “engineer” (I am NOT an engineer…) other parts just to make the bikes work halfway decently. “ABS” brakes that are anything but.
There are so many bad things about Chinese scooters that it’s hard to list them all. Quality control is generally poor from the factories that make them. They’re extremely cheap, so people think they’ll be cheap to repair. People also tend to neglect things that they didn’t pay much money for, so there’s that. People often try to attempt their own repairs before they end up calling me, so I have to figure out what the heck they did before I can even start doing my thing to their bikes.
These bikes turn into “Humpty Dumpty” after 3-5000 miles on a good day. Some of them before that. When left outside, body work oxidizes, becomes brittle, and breaks. Plastic parts oxidize, turn rock hard, and become extremely difficult to remove without breaking something. All of the steel starts to rust, even in our dry Colorado climate. Electrical connectors that fall apart in my hands, that I have to spend time replacing properly. It gets worse when people cut into their wiring harnesses. It gets worse when the factory wiring develops problems that become difficult, time consuming, and/or impossible to identify. Sometimes people leave the cooling shrouds off of the engine because they can’t figure out how to get them back on, the engine overheats, and cooks itself from the inside out.
At $115/hour, it’s easy to rack up the 5-7 hours necessary to attempt to repair a beat-to-hell Chinese scooter. At that point you can buy a new one, but I don’t recommend that either. An older Japanese scooter is a MUCH BETTER bet 100% of the time. Don’t be afraid of buying a 20-30 year old Japanese scooter that presents well and was stored indoors for most of its life. They often present better than 3-5 year old Chinese scooters, too.
It’s gotten to where I take one look at a Chinese scooter, and if it looks like it’s old and been sitting outside forever, I decline to work on it and move on from there. If I think a Chinese scooter is still within its “useful service life” I’ll go ahead and get it back on the road again but ONLY AFTER I explain the “realities of Chinese scooter ownership” to the unfortunate owner. That conversation ends with “Please sell it ASAP and buy a used Japanese scooter”.
Ancient to me is anything from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s.
Most shops won’t work on bikes past a certain age. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but probably the biggest one is the fact that parts become extremely difficult or even downright impossible to find as certain bikes age.
Tracking down parts for old bikes becomes a hobby in and of itself. You can’t just go to the local motorcycle shop and ask for this kind of stuff. You have to know a guy who knows a guy who’s into those particular bikes. You may have to make parts yourself or find a machine shop willing to work with your “cave drawings”. You may have to get on the phone with some crotchety old guy in New Jersey who would rather be doing anything else but talking on the phone with you about motorcycle parts. When you do find them, these parts are often extremely expensive. This game requires patience, knowledge, fortitude, money, and connections. There’s nothing “fast and easy” about mechanical or cosmetic restorations for many old bikes.
If a bike is popular enough, there may be a “local guru” around who knows everything about them, has a huge stash of parts, and is willing to help you get your bike going. Also if a bike is popular enough, there may be a specialty type business that focuses on them somewhere in the world and has parts available, either NOS (“new old stock”) or new-manufactured aftermarket.
The “moral of this story” is that some things absolutely cannot be fixed for a reasonable amount of money, or for less than it would cost to replace the machine with a better example. No matter how easy you think it should be, or how cheap, the reality of it is that the machine sitting in front of you may not be worth fixing at all. As always, you’re more than welcome to seek a second opinion, but if I’m not willing to work on something, it’s a pretty good bet that nobody else will be willing to work on it either.