Kick-Starting A Classic Motorcycle
Up until the mid-Seventies, most motorcycles were kick-start only, but electric starters became increasingly more requested by riders, eventually becoming standard equipment on most street machines.
Kick-starting a motorcycle is a grand tradition that should be proudly continued. Starting procedures are learned, and every bike is a little different - even the same makes and models are slightly different.
To help newer riders with older machines, consider these tips and techniques on how to kick-start an old motorcycle. And wear a good pair of boots - you should be anyway.
Before the 'step-starter' foot lever was ever used, early motorcycles were started by either by pedaling it 'bicycle-style' while the rear wheel was raised off the ground, or by running alongside it and popping it into gear.
The first use of the kick-starter for Harley-Davidson was 1914. As motorcycle engines got larger, manual compression releases helped make starting easier.
For an engine to start, it must have compression, spark, and fuel. Engine timing (when the valves open and close in relation to piston travel) needs to be correct, and of course, nothing damaged or broken in the motor.
Know Where The Compression Stroke Is
Before turning on the ignition switch or opening the fuel valve, slowly kick on the kick-lever until you "feel" the compression stroke. This would be Top Dead Center - when the intake and exhaust valves are closed, and the #1 piston is coming up to compress the air/fuel mixture. Remember the phases of a four-stroke internal combustion engine - intake, compression, power, exhaust. With experience, you will feel it in the kick lever, it's at the top of the kicking arc. If you're not on the compression stroke, the bike's not gonna start.
Kick the bike over two or three times with the fuel and ignition switch off. This is to get the engine primed with oil. Then turn on the fuel valve, the choke or enrichener device, and ignition switch. Twist the throttle once or twice, find the compression stroke and kick. A well-tuned motor should start in several kicks.
Fuel on, one or two twists on the throttle, ignition on and kick. No choke or enrichener should be needed.
Try Standing Over Or Next To The Bike
Motorcycles can be started while being straddled, but that takes experience. Put the bike on the stand, balance yourself with your left foot on the left foot-peg, and kick with your right foot. This kicking angle requires less effort. For high-compression, big-displacement engines, you'll need to get more power into the kick. Try standing to the right of the bike using your left foot to kick. I've been using the latter method for decades. When I was a teenager, this technique helped me to kick-start bikes that were bigger than I was. If you don't weigh much, it gives you better leverage to kick down with.
Gerard from Rolling Thunder Cycles suggests resting your left knee up on the seat while kicking the bike over. He explains that this places all the weight from your left side "above the action", and if the engine were to kick back you'd be more likely to be shoved upward instead of hyper-extending your right knee.
Keep The Bike In Tune
It's true, a kick-only engine is more finicky than an electric-start engine. If your bike has ignition points, check the gap frequently. Check the gap and look at/clean the spark plugs. Also, if your motor is modified, it's very important to find a carburetor that works well on your bike. When I was riding my 1972 XLCH Sportster , other Harley riders used to make fun of my 40mm Mikuni (Japanese) carb, but it worked well with my non-stock motor. To my delight and other's amazement, that bike started consistently on the 1st or 2nd kick.
Use A Lighter Grade Oil
Chances are you won't be riding your classic bike for hours in hot weather, so a 60w or 50w grade of oil won't hurt the motor and will make the bike easier to kick. I presently use 70w in my electric-start XLH, but I used 50w oil in both my kick-only 1974 Triumph Trident and 1972 Sportster.
If the Bike Still Doesn't Start
If the engine spits out the exhaust-pipes while you're kicking, you're getting closer. Try holding the throttle all the way open when you kick. You may have flooded the motor. Pull out a plug and see if it looks wet or smells like gas. If it takes more than a dozen kicks then look for another problem. If the spark plug is wet the motor is getting gas. To check for spark, you can either take off your points cover and see if the points are sparking, or remove one spark plug and ground it to the frame or engine. Then kick the bike slowly with the ignition switch on to see if you're getting spark.