I picked myself up a beater the other day — a Honda Hornet 900, also known as a Honda CB900F or a Honda 919. (Here’s my buyer’s guide to the Honda Hornet 900.)
For its condition, it was a good buy. Prices vary depending on location, but let’s just say that as well-maintained naked bikes go, this one was a decent deal. The seller even dropped it off at my place. Tops guy!
Now, it’s not perfect. It has some surface rust that I’m going to have at with sandpaper and rust sealant to make sure it doesn’t go deeper. There’s a tiny dent in the tank. And the whole thing needs a spruce up.
But the mechanics are sound, it has a wonderful purtle at idle and a roar when it revs, and it’s a joy to ride.
What I love about this bike is that it does everything I want – slow manoeuvring, fast riding, lane splitting – and with ease. I wrote previously about the CB900 and why I love it.
But there are many bikes that can do that. More broadly, I love this bike because it’s a beater – a utilitarian machine that I’m not afraid to work on, scratch up, maybe drop, or even crash occasionally.
That’s what I want to talk about here:
- The joy of riding a beater bike
- What makes a bike a “beater”, and
- Some contextual considerations
Are you obsessed with motorcycles?
Well, I am. That’s why I created this site — as an outlet. I love learning and sharing what others might find useful. If you like what you read here, and you’re a fraction as obsessed as I am, you might like to know when I’ve published more. (Check the latest for an idea of what you’ll see.)
What is a “Beater”?
Not everyone knows what the word “beater” means. It’s a word that collectors (not that I collect motorcycles… but I do own more than one) use to describe one that they’re not afraid to beat on.
I’ve heard the word the word used more in hobbies where it’s easy to collect lots of things: watches, knives, bicycles, sunglasses, sneakers, and so on. These are hobbies in which the unit cost is a lot lower. Sometimes the word “beater is interchangeable with “EDC” or used generally to describe something of everyday use.
But many motorcyclists tend not to have more than one or two motorcycles. And because motorcycles are more expensive to buy and own, they tend to be bikes we’ve lusted after for a while and which we want to baby. This applies whether it’s a vintage bike or a new one.
So generally, the “beater” is the opposite of the “halo bike” or the “goal bike”.
Generally, I think of a beater bike as one that is fully functional and able to entertain you, but that also is:
- Cheap enough that if you write it off, it won’t mean you can’t buy another bike for a while
- Easy and affordable to repair if it’s dropped
- Maybe already cosmetically not perfect — e.g. some minor scratches or rust
The important part is that a beater isn’t a bike that’s necessarily low-powered or learner-legal (where applicable). You have to enjoy riding the snot out of it!
What’s Great About a Beater Bike?
Let me list the reasons I think beater bikes are great.
1. Accelerating the learning curve
Firstly, when you’re riding an affordable, easy-to-repair bike, you’re less afraid to make mistakes when riding. Mistakes are the cornerstone of learning. It’s hard to improve without being at risk of making them and occasionally doing so!
Everyday beaters are often easy to ride, often because they’re cheaper, simpler, lighter, and/or less powerful. Overall, this makes them less intimidating.
Being less intimidating means that you feel less self-conscious about making mistakes when riding. You might pick the wrong line, brake early or late, or not have great skill cornering… And you’ll have a margin for error and room to improve.
Plus, lighter bikes are easier to lean, and cheaper bikes don’t worry you as much when you think of the risk of crashing them.
Of course, nobody wants to crash. It hurts! But it’s less of a disaster with a cheaper bike. A low-speed crash usually means a bent handlebar and a broken mirror or turn signal, with more damage to your ego than anything else.
2. Easier to work on, and to learn to work on
Secondly, working on a cheap beater bike is much easier.
If you consider maintenance and modifications an integral part of the motorcycle experience (I do, but some just want to ride), then learning to wrench on a cheap bike is easier.
You are much less worried about doing something wrong, accidentally scratching a part, or whatever.
On top of that, parts are usually much cheaper. Spark plugs and oil filters are generic and easily obtainable. And the oil is never some unusual spec.
I know lots of people who buy expensive new bikes and get the service centre to do all the oil changes and even chain maintenance. Sometimes, the warranty requires it.
Me, I do everything with what’s in my tool roll. Oil changes cost me $20. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
3. Everything’s cheaper
If you want to add bits to a cheap bike, things are cheaper in a few ways. Firstly, there are usually far more parts for older bikes. Secondly, you might feel less precious about adding non-OEM components. Even a windscreen from a “nice” brand, like Puig, costs around $100 for most bikes. A Harley-branded windscreen costs around five times that.
Actually, everything’s cheaper on a budget bike. Fuel is cheaper. Replacement bulbs are cheaper. Insurance is cheaper. In fact, you might not even get insurance. Save up what you’d spend on premiums, and after two years, you may be able to afford another bike (this depends heavily on where you live and what bike you consider a beater).
4. You Can Afford to Write it Off… or See it Stolen
If your beater bike is cheap enough — or if your budget is high enough — you can afford to completely wreck it without totally freaking out, and without having to resort to insurance.
I have a love/hate relationship with insurance. I’ve never made a claim, but I’ve paid enough into it to buy two other motorcycles so far. But I still get it for my expensive bikes because I couldn’t afford to lose them.
Things get more complicated when I take a bike to the track. Insurance doesn’t cover racing or track days. So if I crash a bike there, I have to repair it or say goodbye to it. (That’s why so many track day bikes look like patchwork quilts.)
This is why I only take bikes to the track that I can afford to crash. But the same logic extends to seeing a bike stolen. If I have a very cheap motorcycle stolen out of my driveway then well… I’ll write it off to bad luck and move on.
Even if nobody can really afford even a $1,000 loss, at least the emotional toll would be lower.
5. You’ll Actually ride it
Finally, the beater, everyday bike is the one you actually ride all the time. To me, this is the killer feature. You find excuses to get out and use it.
Many riders say that a cheap, light, and/or small bike is what helped them rediscover the joy of riding. I’m the same. It’s more fun to rip around with wild abandon than delicately potter about at gentle speeds and angles. Spiderman seems to enjoy himself more than The Incredible Hulk.
Some Bikes I’ve Considered as Beaters
For me, my “beater bike” budget was under $5,000 AUD (about US$3,000). I really wanted a motorcycle to leave near where my family lives — I visit them for about 1-2 months a year, and need transport (and fun) while I’m there.
Generally, I look at motorcycles around 15-20 years old that have fuel injection, no plastics (naked bikes), Japanese reliability, and cheap parts.
I ended up with the Hornet 900 (Honda 919), but some others I considered were
- A Suzuki SV650 (2nd or 3rd gen) (See the SV650 buyer’s guide)
- A Suzuki DRZ-400SM — Not fuel-injected, but a dead-easy bike to work on
- A Yamaha MT-07 — an old one
- A Triumph Street Triple — Pre-2012 to fit within the budget. (See the buyer’s guide)
These are all very cool bikes. I like them all! But they’re obviously cheaper than most people’s dream bikes in every way. That’s what makes them excellent candidates as beaters.
Wrap up, and What About “Halo” or “Dream” Bikes?
None of this is to say you shouldn’t get your dream bike. We all have them — bikes that we’ve lusted after since we were kids, or since we saw them on some movie. I’ve also had them, and I’ve loved them, and will have them again.
I still browse Iconic Motorbikes, Bring A Trailer (some bargains on there!), and just the regular ol’ classifieds looking at bikes I dream about.
But I also know that if I were to pick on of them up, I’d be very circumspect about riding it hard. A paint chip would be annoying, a dent in the tank would be very frustrating, and a crash would be catastrophic.
Eough people write into me to tell me they own three bikes, something like a Harley tourer, a supersport liter bike, and a Honda CT110… and guess which one gets ridden the most. I suppose this is to say that a beater bike may be your second one.
But still, if there’s one you ride and that you enjoy riding, it may be worth considering whether you need the others.
If you have a beater bike, an everyday rider that you love, let me know what it is!