The Venerable KLR
If you read RideApart with any regularity, you know I own and love a Kawasaki KLR650. I make no claims that it is a spectacular motorcycle. These bikes are heavy, cheap in every sense of the word, outdated, and underpowered. They also manage to be way more than the sum of their parts, and are a total hoot to ride. They also happen to be really, really easy to wrench on.
Sure, the redesign in 2008 introduced some plastic body pieces that, as they age, tend to break really easily. The KLR was never a beauty queen. Some of the metal casting on the bike is seriously cheap. But the single-cylinder, single-carburetor motor combined with the really leggy design of the bike means there’s loads of room to work on it (you can literally pull the carburetor out the side of the bike without removing anything else). As a whole, the bike is fairly bulletproof and will put up with a lot of ham-fisted repair work. Most of the pieces, even on the newest versions, haven’t been changed since 1987, so aftermarket support is deep and thorough. Parts are available on eBay all day long and twice on Tuesday. It’s super easy to find KLR-specific forums on the internet stuffed full of knowledgeable, friendly folks who are happy to help you when you get stuck.
An Old BMW Boxer
Talk about parts availability! BMW still carries parts for pretty much everything they ever made. One of these bikes won’t be as budget-friendly as a KLR, but they’re solid motorcycles and will keep their resale value. When I say “old” I’m not talking a /2 or anything (and that would be a very expensive bike to learn on), but instead, a boxer-engined bike from the late 80s to the early 00s, either an airhead (air cooled) or an oilhead (air- and oil-cooled). You’ll want to make sure it does not have servo brakes or a CANbus electrical system, and the less bodywork it has the better (this takes the RT off the table). While each model has its own quirks, if you can find one that’s been well cared for, the maintenance on these bikes is very straightforward and they’re fantastic motorcycles to learn to wrench on. The downside is, parts can be expensive; also people who own these tend to ride them a lot, so finding one with lower mileage can be a little bit of a trick. They have their own fan base and dedicated forum dwellers, though, as well as regional clubs where you’re sure to find someone willing to help you when you need a hand.
The Kawasaki Ninja EX500
If you’re new to riding, too, consider picking up an old 500cc Kawasaki Ninja. The parallel twin, liquid-cooled engine is legendarily reliable. These bikes are easy to ride and easy to keep maintained. They have a dedicated track-day contingent, and can be had for nearly pennies. Counter to the BMW, they’re popular beginner bikes and fairly easy to locate with low mileage. Even though the bikes have a bit of plastic fairing, they’re not complicated to dismantle. They will teach you to line everything up before reassembly so that you don’t cross-thread any fasteners. Aftermarket support for the EX500 is waning since they have been out of production for a few years now, but the hunt might be part of the fun. If you find an example in good running condition and plan to keep it that way, you could do much worse than one of these. The EX500 is something of a parts-bin bike and was built to a budget, which means they’re simple.
The Honda CBR
If you want your tutelage on the sportier side, and you can locate an older 600 or 900cc Honda CBR that has not been wrapped around a tree, you will find these bikes surprisingly compliant in the workshop. Yes, it’s an inline-four-cylinder motorcycle, but even a carbureted version (up to the late 90s) isn’t a bear to dismantle. Honda made these bikes specifically to be rack-side tuneable, so there’s no squeezing a bank of carburetors out from between the engine and the frame like on an 80s UJM. A few fasteners hold the tank on, then the airbox pops off, then the carburetors are all sitting right there, like eggs in a nest. Loosen the clamps and they pop right out.
Honda also made the bodywork easy to remove and reinstall, and a lot of owners also converted the original bolts to quarter-turn dzus fasteners making a tear-down and rebuild a serious snap. Decent Honda quality means everything lines up well, too, so there’s very little struggling to make all the pieces fit back together.
You can find early to mid-00s examples with fuel injection, so if you have no interest in learning to tune a carburetor, those might be your aim. Steer clear of the newer ones with fancy electronics lest you need to plug your laptop into them.
A Moto Guzzi V11 Sport
Some Guzzi owners might say “the jokes write themselves” here, because Moto Guzzi motorcycles have been, shall we say, less than reliable, at points in their history. This piece is not about reliability, though: it is about learning to fix motorcycles. Perhaps you have a Gold Wing in your garage, and it is reliable to the point of boredom. Are you looking for something with a little more character, that will demand your attention? Do you have trouble sitting still, and need something to “fiddle with” in your garage? A Moto Guzzi V11 Sport, especially a later production model, might be your prize. These lovely transverse v-twin bikes have excellent build quality and helped polish up the company’s image. They’re fairly reliable, but lack modern electronics, and parts availability can be a challenge. One of these will benefit greatly from your dedicated and regular attention. These classic Italian beauties have no plastic to pull even when it’s time to check the valve clearances, and if you want a conversation piece and instant social lubricant along with your motorcycle maintenance education, you could do worse than a 20-something-year-old Guzzi.
Bonus Round: Any Single-Cylinder Four-Stroke Dirtbike
Dirt bikes, as a class, are last but not least, since all of these bikes are made to be easy to take apart and put back together. They’re designed to be ridden hard and put away wet. They’re overbuilt and simple. Any cheap, used, small dirt bike will put tools in your hand and have you on every website that sells bike parts within moments; that is, if you have a place to ride it, and the skills to do so. Since not all of us have access to dirt trails or a park to ride a dirt bike, and the simplest, easiest of the little dirt bikes are not road legal, this one is specific to those of us lucky enough to be able to have a dedicated dirt bike in our lives.
Manufacturers expect dirt bikes to crash a lot, so they’re rugged, don’t have a ton of plastic in the way, and have great aftermarket support. Lots of bikes from the same manufacturer share parts, too, so that helps with the supply chain and the parts cost. They don’t have things like headlights or blinkers, which means they have the simplest electrical system ever. If you want to learn to roll your own wiring harness, a dirt bike is not for you. If, however, you want to start small, simple, and very cheap, get yourself a cheap used dirt bike and you’ll be swapping tire tubes and replacing chains and sprockets before you can say “Kawasaki.”