Transport Solutions

This story follows on from a couple of previous posts about my BMW Funduro. and

If you have read some of the previous rants hereabouts, you will already know that my own personal transport solution is a motorcycle.  It makes sense to me, but I will jot down a few justifications here for a (hopefully) wider audience.

 Current transport - a 2003 Suzuki Burgman 400

I’ve used a couple of different bikes between the failure of my BMW Funduro which is documented in a few other posts on this blog.  The first short term solution was to put my old 1974 BMW R75 back into commuting service.  It is not ideal for this purpose.  Many bikers will immediately assume that this unsuitability stems from the cylinders of the horizontally opposed engine sticking out too far, making traffic filtering possible.  I don’t know how many times I have heard derisory comments about this, but they are just not true.  The widest part of pretty much any motorcycle, airhead BMW’s included, is the handlebars.  Also, if you are filtering and don’t have the kind of clearance required for an airhead BMW engine, then it’s time to stop filtering!

The old BM’s unsuitability stems from a number of factors.  Firstly, it is old, and security in 1974 is not up to today’s standards.  I was parking the bike in the centre of Belfast at a bike parking place outside a hotel.  Fortunately the bouncer there kept an eye on the bikes since a few of their staff travelled that way.  He chased some kids off when they discovered that the headlight flasher on my bike worked independently of the ignition switch, and were then trying to jam it on to flatten my battery.  Once I had thanked him for protecting the bike, I began to consider what else they could have messed with had they wanted to.  The fuel tank for instance does not lock, and sugar, fizzy drinks etc. added there would cause real problems.  There are other possible security problems, and since a largish capacity bike like this never even gets in its stride in traffic, and thus isn’t particularly economical to run, I looked for an alternative.  I wasn’t happy running the poor old BM in the winter salt either.  It has done its service, and deserves an easier life.

My thinking ran to a smaller bike since speed is not really an issue in traffic like that between my home in Bangor, and work in Belfast.  I’m getting old too, so wanted something with a bit of weather protection.  After the fiasco with the Funduro, I also wanted some good old Japanese reliability.  Memories of the complete indestructability of the old Honda 90 step-through led me think of their modern equivalent, the Honda Innova.  These are 125cc, have 3 speed semi-automatic gears, electric start, and disc brakes.  They look like a thoroughly updated version of the original.  What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, sensible transport bikes like this are quite rare on our roads, and even rarer on the second hand market.  Bikers seem to have been sold the myth that motorcycles are all about image and lifestyle.  Take your pick from a number of never to be confused niches, from American style cruisers from Harley Davidson and their Japanese clones, race style superbikes which barely operate below 70mph and let you pretend that you could actually win the TT, hugely tall off road oriented bikes to let you play at being a round the world traveller, or huge tourers that are out of place on any road much smaller than a motorway.  Each one of these has its own limitations.
When I did find an Innova for sale, I was quite prepared (as always) to accept something less than perfect and do some work on it.  The bike I bought had damaged plastics (a usual fault on an older bike I have found), and the throttle was sticking a bit, but otherwise it looked and started OK.  I made a bad mistake and bought it.

The bike had not smoked when I first looked at it in the sellers garage, but it didn’t take long before it was putting out steam train amounts of the stuff on start up.  The cracked plastics too had been very poorly repaired to the point where a few bits broke off and disappeared while I was riding it.  It would not have been difficult for the seller to have fixed the plastics properly.  I have always found that gluing a strengthening plate across the back of a crack with a strong epoxy glue like Araldite gives a permanent and very strong repair. The seller had obviously just tarted the bike up very quickly while waiting for a fool like me to come along. The bike also developed a hesitation when running, like there was something wrong in the ignition circuit.

Beyond these faults, a few design flaws soon became very apparent too.  The suspension was harsh to the point where I sometimes wondered if it was completely rigid.  Hitting any sort of pothole on the Innova was a jarring and very unpleasant experience.   In its defence, it did have some good points.  It was very narrow, very light, and very economical (I averaged 105.25mpg over the approximately 2000 miles that I endured on the Innova).  The capacity of the petrol tank was a real problem though.  It held only a few litres of petrol, in perfect conditions the little bike would cover 80 miles (just enough for 3 trips to work).  The petrol gauge dropped from full to empty at an alarming rate, and worse yet, any adverse influence, for example a headwind, would use slightly more petrol.  I ran out of juice 3 or 4 times when only 100 meters or so short of the filling station.  Very annoying stuff.  Between the design flaws and the fact that this bike was not a good example of the breed, I began to hate that bike.  The best thing to happen during my ownership of it was a meeting with a hardy soul from somewhere near Ballymena, who had toured the Alps on his Innova.  He, in my opinion was truly a brave man, and is a good example to all bikers that the manufacturer’s bull is not true.  You do not need 1300 or 1400cc’s to travel further than the corner shop.  Still, when the clutch on mine broke, I got rid of it and searched for something better.

I did think of staying with 125cc bikes in the form of something like a Honda Varadero but when a 400cc Suzuki Burgman scooter came up locally on Gumtree, the extra weather protection provided by its screen and bodywork sounded tempting, so I went for a look. It was a 2003 bike, with only 23,000 miles on it.  There were a few scrapes here and there on the plastic bodywork from minor tarmac contact at some point, and the handbrake didn’t work, which frankly I wasn’t worried about.  It is only a cable to rear brake caliper adjustment.  The only real problem was a slight reluctance to start (it took 2 or 3 presses of the starter), but since the engine didn’t smoke and the bike drove well, I assumed that a service would solve this (it did).  Of minor concern was the rear tyre, which wasn’t providing much grip during my short test ride in damp and sleety weather.  It was difficult to tell if the weather or the tyre was to blame.  The bike was described as ‘ready for the summer’, but this proved to be very optimistic.

Not so wide that you cannot filter through traffic, but still gives great weather protection.

In the first few hundred miles of my ownership of the Burgman I had, as mentioned, to service it properly.  At different times, both of the brake switches failed and were replaced, but pattern ones are only £2.50 each, so this is not much of a problem.  The gas strut to hold the seat open was missing when I bought the bike.  On cars, these struts are used to open the boot door on hatchbacks, and it is very cheap to buy a new pair.  I was astounded then when I priced the single one that the Suzuki uses.  As a genuine part from Suzuki, one strut costs £85!  Needless to say, I spent a little time going through on line catalogues until I found matching sized ones with similar mounts.  These cost £24 for a pair.  Extortion on Suzuki’s part or what?  Other genuine parts show similar excessive mark up prices against good quality generic replacements.  One expense that I had not counted on was replacing the drive belt.  When I checked it during the bikes service, it was very close to its wear limit.  A new non Suzuki belt for this bike (manufactured by Gates) was £66, and I had to make a tool to lock the engine to enable me to fit the belt.  A genuine Suzuki belt is £167.66.  To provide a little comfort for my aging body, I have fitted heated grips and the small windscreen extension that can be seen in the pictures.  I would have preferred the seller to be more honest about the bikes condition rather than just giving it a cosmetically job to make a quick buck, but such is life, and as can be seen in my earlier story about the Funduro, things could have been worse.

 A simple tool to lock the engine when replacing the drive belt.  Turned over, it can be used to lock the clutch if maintenance is required there.

So, the Burgman has been reasonably reliable since its teething problems.  It uses a little oil, which I am not particularly happy about, but since it was cheap, and I intend to run it into the ground, I will just have to keep an eye on it.  There is no smell of burning oil from the exhaust, nor does it smoke or leak.  The only real problem has been the failure of the frame mounts for the backrest/ topbox.  Someone has welded these very badly in the past.  Judging by the rust in the fractures, the weld used to repair the mounts did not penetrate the metal so the brittle weld eventually failed.  A fix would mean stripping all the bodywork off the back of the bike to get at the broken brackets, and since this bike is my daily transport, I currently don’t have time for this.  As a temporary measure, I have fabricated plates to replace the brackets, and clamped these in place.  A permanent solution will have to be done at some point.

So, what’s it like to ride?  As someone used to ‘proper’ bikes, the Burgman is not a very exciting bike to ride.  It isn’t fast, and the long wheelbase and tiny wheels make for occasionally ‘interesting’ handling.  The ground clearance can be a bit limited too.  As transport though it is really pretty good.  Even in traffic, it has averaged just over 68 miles per gallon during my ownership, and during the wet and cold winter months, the weather protection has been a real boon.  It’s comfortable too, a work colleague accurately described it as an armchair on wheels.  Under the plush seat is a cavernous storage space; all of which is very useful and commuter/ message friendly.   Because the engine, petrol tank and other heavy parts of the bike are mounted so low, I found that after the aging back tyre was changed, that the bike was reasonably manageable in icy conditions.  Between our house and the main road is a steep hill.  It can be something of a challenge to get up and down this using any form of transport when there is ice.  Since losing back rather than front wheel traction in these conditions is much less likely to lead to an off bike experience, the left handlebar lever which activates both the rear brake, and a small set of pads on the front brake is a real boon, as is the riders ability to keep both feet on the ground until a treated road is reached. Could this be the perfect winter bike?

There are things that I don’t like about the Burgman, mostly related to access to components to carry out maintenance.  For example, when fitting the heated grips, I had to dismantle large sections of the front of the bike to get access.  Yet, the black panel under the windscreen is held on by just three screws and would give relatively easy access to the electrics, were it not for two of those screws coming up under the panel through the speedometer console!  This means that to take that panel off all the front fairing panels have to be removed first.  Would it really have made a difference had these screws been designed to go downwards rather than up?  I had bought fork gaiters for the Burgman, and when the fairing panels were off provided the perfect opportunity to fit these.  Every bike that is used should have this type of protection for those easily damaged, legs.  Perhaps the single worst piece of design on the bike is the exhaust and the massive bracket behind it.  This prevents the rear wheel being removed without taking the exhaust off first.  Since scooters like this essentially have a single sided swinging arm, why then would anyone design the bike in such a way that even punctures would be difficult to fix?

Under the screen is this black panel, and under it are most of the bikes electrics.  There is one screw at the front of the panel, but the two others cannot be accessed without removing the fairing.  Thanks Suzuki!

The exhaust.  with great concern for anyone who gets a puncture, Suzuki have designed it so that the wheel cannot be removed without first taking off the exhaust! A bottle of tyre sealant may be the only choice.

Anyway, this was meant to be a justification for using a bike like the Burgman for transport.  My commute is perhaps the best comparison to public transport possible, since a direct train substitution would be possible.  I did ask Translink, the train operators for a quote for an annual train ticket, but they haven’t replied, so the best cost comparison I can use is their monthly ticket price from home in Bangor to Belfast.  This ticket costs £130.50.  That is about £6.02 per journey based on 260 work days per year, or £6.80 if you allow for 30 days holidays, spread out so that the monthly ticket is still the cheapest option.

I’ve worked out rough costs for commuting on a brand new 400cc Burgman (cost £6399).  It could never pay unless your journey was not well served by public transport.  The figures would be even worse if you bought a few accessories for it like the heated grips that would be needed to make it usable in the winter are similarly expensive (about £300 excluding fitting from Suzuki, against about £60 for good aftermarket ones).  And the cost of dealer servicing is truly extortionate.  An on line site states that the 4000 mile dealer service takes 4 hours!  Yet, this service does not consist of much more than changing the oil and cleaning a few filters.  I cannot see where the 4 hours would be spent, but at £50 an hour or so plus materials, VAT etc, this must be very profitable for the dealers.  If a decent local bike mechanic was used, this cost could be very much less.  It shames me to have to say this, but Suzuki have priced this competent bike right out of the market.  If you wanted to commute on a brand new bike with scooter like weather protection, then the 200cc bike is the first one that makes economic sense.  It costs £4199, and is claimed to do 88 miles per gallon.  Given that and dealer servicing, approximate costs for the 200 are below.  I have assumed that the bike is changed after 5 years, is then worth half of its new price and 260 days of work.  The costs are per journey.

Costs of running a new 200cc Burgman on a 25 mile per day commute
1.54       Petrol
1.62       bike
0.77       Insurance
0.15       Tax
1.15       Maintenance
0.43       Bike Gear
5.66       Total

Of course many factors will affect this, my insurance cost is less than half the above figure, and maintenance is a fraction of the above figure because I do it for myself.
There is a 2012 Burgman currently for sale locally on Gumtree.  Assuming cheaper, non dealer servicing, the costs for it look approximately like this:

Costs of running a 2012 400cc Burgman on a 25 mile per day commute
1.99       Petrol
 1.10      bike
 0.77      Insurance
 0.15      Tax
 1.15      Maintenance
 0.43      Bike Gear           
 5.59      Total

A rough estimate of the cost of my commute is £4.08.  This cost is inflated because I have allocated all the cost of things like my bike gear and insurance to commuting, whereas in real life, I would have a bike and the gear to go with it whether I was commuting or not.

So there you have it, commute on a bike, save money and avoid the aggravation of being stuffed in a standing position with hundreds of others.  Gain the freedom to drive door to door when you want and to park for free in the centre of town.  Half your journey time, and have the ability to run errands if need be.  You never know, you might even start to enjoy your commute and develop an interest in bikes.  What’s not to like?


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