Mad Max on Two Wheels

  • November 13, 2023

I am often asked what I think is the best kind of car to own if things get really bad. I think the best answer is a motorcycle.

In the first place, because almost anyone can afford to buy a used one – as opposed to what it costs to buy a good used car or truck these days. The latter has become almost an extravagance and those are tough to indulge before things get really bad. Many people are understandably reluctant  – out of necessity – about buying a “survival” car (or truck) they can’t really afford, especially without selling the car or truck they already have.

But you can readily find a good used motorcycle for $3,000 or less – which almost anyone can afford – if you focus on the kind of motorcycle that makes the most sense for the purposes of this discussion.

A minimalist bike.

One that’s light and very simple and that almost anyone can learn to ride that is legal to ride on road but that can also go off road. One that can take you 80 miles (or farther) on a gallon of gas – which could come in very handy if gas goes up to $10 per gallon. A bike that will cost you next-to-nothing to maintain and that almost anyone with some basic hand tools and patience can learn to competently maintain themselves. A bike that isn’t an extravagance, that’s fun to own even if things don’t get as bad as they might.

I have just described the dual sport motorcycle.

It is essentially a dirt bike with turn/brake signals and a headlight – qualifying it to wear license plates. Many people regularly ride this type of bike on road because it’s the best way short of mooching rides to reduce the cost of getting from A to B to next-to-nothing. And unlike the mopeds and scooters some people ride for the same reason, the dual sport will usually be capable of keeping up with traffic – even on the highway. The dual-sport is also capable of leaving the road, which could be a life-saver in an emergency.

You might remember a scene from another apocalyptic movie, Deep Impact. People are desperately trying to get away from the disaster that’s coming – but the only ones actually getting away are doing so on a dual-sport, which can thread through the endless conga line of stuck-in-situ traffic.

It makes the point, doesn’t it?

But even if you don’t ever need to put distance between yourself and an impending meteor strike, you may need something that can go the distance – as well as go just about anywhere – and that’s what a dual sport can do.

For purposes of this discussion, the ideal one is probably a small one – with an air-cooled single cylinder engine around 250 cc. There are dual-sports (such as the venerable Kawasaki KLR650) that have 650 cc (and even larger) engines and these bikes are for that reason more highway-and-long-distance capable. But they are also less off-road capable because they’re much heavier – which also makes them much harder to pick up by yourself if you drop one.

Almost anyone can pick up a 250 cc dual sport if they drop it – which is likely to happen if you do take it off-road.

The bigger-engined dual sports are also often water-cooled, which means a radiator, water pump, thermostat and hoses – just as car/truck engines have. Radiators and hoses can leak; thermostats can get stuck. Water pumps fail. All need to be maintained. A dual sport with an air-cooled usually single-cylinder engine needs you to keep its fins clean and to change out the typically 1.5 or so quarts of oil that cools it once a year or so.

One spark plug. That’s pretty much it.

The smaller cc dual sports are also more likely to not have fuel injection, which you don’t want if you don’t want expensive electronics that often require a dealer to service. Most dual sports made more than ten years ago will still have a carburetor – and won’t have a computer. The upside here is more than just simplicity and lower cost. The older mechanical fuel delivery systems can be easily modified by the owner to run on alcohol; it is chiefly a matter of changing jets and making sure the fuel hoses and tank are alcohol-compatible.

Having this fallback might be a godsend if gas becomes unavailable.

Almost anyone can distill alcohol. And you don’t need much to run a small engine. As opposed to finding 15 gallons of gasoline to fill the tank of a car or truck.

There are, of course, downsides.

A 250 cc dual sport is marginal for carrying a passenger (and no motorcycle can transport a family). You’ll be exposed to the wet – and the cold. You’ll have to winnow down the things you want to carry with you – and carry home (though a bike with side bags can carry a remarkable amount of stuff). You will probably not be going anywhere if it snows.

But, you’ll still be able to go when others will be stuck – or on foot – because they can’t afford to feed their car or truck anymore.

Or because there’s no gas available anymore.

. . .

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