10 Unreliable Motorcycles We All Still Love


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May 26, 2023

10 Unreliable Motorcycles We All Still Love

Flawed, maybe, but that doesn’t stop us wanting them! Who knows how it happens, but motorcycle manufacturers, despite huge advances in technology and manufacturing, manage every now and then to launch

Flawed, maybe, but that doesn’t stop us wanting them!

Who knows how it happens, but motorcycle manufacturers, despite huge advances in technology and manufacturing, manage every now and then to launch a motorcycle that has too many flaws. Some of which are merely annoying, others completely frustrating and still others that prevent us riding the bike completely because of unreliability. But here’s the thing: none of the flaws - serious or otherwise - prevent us wanting one of the motorcycles in question in the garage, cleaned and fueled, ready to ride, even if we might not get that far...! Here are ten of the worst offenders that we would still love to ride.

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Bimota made its name building bespoke frames into which they mounted engines from established manufacturers, at a time when those same manufacturers couldn’t make a frame to save their lives, at least one that could contain the power of the engine. The next step was for Bimota to build their own engine, which they did: a two-stroke V-Twin of 500cc, producing 105 horsepower and 66 foot pounds of torque. Then they saddled it with an in-house fuel injection system that simply didn’t work, despite years of development work that drained finances and left the company facing bankruptcy. The chassis was excellent, and it was beautiful, so everyone wanted one, but being stranded miles from nowhere would test the love affair!

As tempting as it is to tar every Harley-Davidson with the unreliability brush, it would be unfair… as long as we ignore the AMF years! You’d think that, being such simple and under stressed motorcycles, that unreliability wouldn’t rear its ugly head too much but there are exceptions. The 883 Sportster from 2001 is a point in question: there was a cam chain tensioner that might as well have been made from putty, so hard wearing was it and the worst news was that there was no real cure, so you’d replace it and wait for it to happen again. If that wasn’t bad enough, this was three years before Harley introduced rubber engine mounts, so the whole bike shook as if it was in the middle of an earthquake.

To be fair, the Suzuki TL1000S was not an unreliable motorcycle - no Suzuki has ever been that. Beautiful, brutal, with a 996cc V-Twin engine pushing out 125 horsepower and 75 foot pounds of torque and very capable, the big problem was the rotary rear damper. Because a V-Twin engine is longer than an inline twin or four, Suzuki needed to find a solution to keep the wheelbase within acceptable limits, so they separated the rear spring from the shock absorber for compactness and used a rotary shock absorber, similar to those found on racing cars. The only problem was that the oil in the shock would overheat and seize the damper, causing any number of really bad crashes. Happily, conversion kits to a conventional coil-over-shock are readily available.

Forget the Cold War, the Russians could have done for the Western World by flooding the market with Ural sidecar outfits, then sat back laughing as every country ground to a halt, leaving them open to invasion. The Ural has been built the same way since the end of the Second World War and, boy does it show. Owners have reported failed brakes, final drives (a shaft, just like BMW. Actually, the engine is also copied from BMW), broken frames, transmissions, burnt pistons, dodgy electrics and so on ad infinitum. If you are looking for unreliability then this is it, although there is so much character and charm that you can’t help but want one!

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Again, not unreliable in the strict sense of the word but Suzuki’s attempt to make the Wankel rotary engine into a viable power unit for motorcycles was doomed to failure. Metallurgy at the time was not up to the task of making internal rotor seals that wouldn’t wear out within a few thousand miles of use. It was also complex: for example, the throttle twist grip pulled no less than five cables for the various systems and there were three separate oil reservoirs, as well as a huge radiator and double-skin exhaust mufflers to combat the heat problem. The warranty that came with the bike promised that, in the event of an engine issue in the first year, the engine would be replaced rather than repaired, which didn’t bode well for the home mechanic once the warranty ran out.

Quite how Norton, by the 1980s a shadow of its former self and constantly struggling for money, though that it could tame the Wankel rotary engine when the likes of Suzuki had tried and failed is a mystery that no-one has been able to unravel. It’s not even as if Norton tried once and moved on to something else: they tried again and again and even went racing, famously winning the 1992 Senior TT at the Isle of Man, despite incessant problems. That bike, the RCW588, was developed into the road-going F1 and F1 Sport models, neither of which could boast a very good reliability record but, when they looked that good, who really cared? Don’t forget, this was before Triumph had been resurrected, so the future of the British motorcycle industry was in Norton’s hands.

All Erik Buell wanted to do was build America’s best (only?) sports bike: he tried hard and eventually got it almost right, but Harley pulled the plug before the company could capitalise on it. What didn’t help the reputation of Buell was the X1 Lightning of the early 1990s. Owners complained of failing weld seams, rocker box gaskets on the Harley Sportster-sourced engine leaked, the fuel tank leaked and there were a host of other problems relating to both the engine and the chassis. All of which is a shame because the Buell was always a distinctive motorcycle design, with a lot of clever thinking going into it and, despite its weight, there is something alluring about the Harley Sportster engine in a sports bike chassis.

Is it fair to criticize what is essentially a road-going version of a highly tuned and fragile race bike for unreliability? Race bike engines are designed to run at full chat for perhaps an hour before being rebuilt so expecting the same engine to behave itself in ordinary road riding conditions, with its stop-and-go nature, for a few thousand miles before any attention, was a bit unfair. At full speed, the coming system could keep control of the heat build-up but, any slower or any interruption to the air-flow played merry hell with the temperature and therefore internal stresses, leading to breakages and repair bills that would make your eyes water. But the fact that here was a near-identical replica of the World Superbike championship-winning Aprilia was enough to make customers want them. Us too!

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The poster-bike for a whole generation of motorcyclists, the F4 not only signaled the reintroduction of the most revered name in motorcycling to the showrooms of the world but was beautiful in a way that very few motorcycles had ever been. The problem was that MV Agusta was perennially in financial dire straits and the in-house-designed inline four-cylinder engine was a beauty, but reliability was as questionable as you would expect from a company with limited resources for testing and development. Reliability was an issue not only for the inconvenience of being stranded by the roadside, but you could find yourself waiting months for spare parts to arrive from Italy. At least you could park it in your house and look at it while you were waiting! Motorcycle art at its best.

As an avid Triumph fan, it pains us to include one on this list, but it is justified. By the end of the 1960s, British motorcycles were being outperformed by smaller displacement Japanese bikes and that situation became even worse when the Honda CB750 arrived. In desperation Triumph stretched its parallel twin to 750cc but failed to beef up certain other parts in the engine, causing frequent breakages. Then there was the problem of the chronic vibration, which anyone who had ridden a beautifully balanced 500cc Triumph twin would hardly recognize. There were also problems with seizing rear brake calipers (a disc brake was fitted to the rear from 1973-onwards) and properly unreliable electrics. However, as the last of what was arguably the most famous British motorcycle, it will never be anything other than desirable.

Harry has been writing and talking about motorcycles for 15 years, although he's been riding them for 45 years! After a long career in music, he turned his hand to writing and television work, concentrating on his passion for all things petrol-powered. Harry has written for all major publications in South Africa, both print and digital and produced and presented his own TV show called, imaginatively, The Bike Show, for seven years. He held the position of editor of South Africa's largest circulation motorcycling magazine before devoting his time to freelance writing on motoring and motorcycling. Born and raised in England, he has lived in South Africa with his family since 2002. Harry has owned examples of Triumph, Norton, BSA, MV Agusta, Honda, BMW, Ducati, Harley Davidson, Kawasaki and Moto Morini motorcycles. He regrets selling all of them.