One the two arguments advanced by fans of old-school Japanese thumpers is that they are easier to repair in the field, especially in less developed countries with few dedicated motorcycle repair shops. This idea is represented by a comment made on this website. “Have you traveled beyond the USA and Europe on a Husqvarna? It’s a lot less reliable and difficult to fix in primitive conditions. It pretty much has to be dealer serviced. It’s also a lot less robust off-road than a deathproof XR.”
It is an interesting argument. Are Japanese bikes truly easier to get repaired in less developed countries than Euro motorcycles? Or do they only seem that way since riders are presumably more comfortable and familiar with older,unchanged technology found on Japanese motorcycles?
Let’s analyze this in detail and see what we come up with.
First, it seems to me that there is no real difference in the reliability of the wheels, forks, shocks, handlebars, levers, grips, seats, foot pegs, brakes, brake lines, master cylinders, fenders, tail lights, blinkers, headlights, etc. of any of the major motorcycling brands. All of these common items are basically on par in every brand. Some of the mentioned items aren’t even manufactured by the motorcycle OEMs – they are bought from third party vendor who sell them to multiple motorcycle manufacturers. It would be hard to argue that there is a difference in reliability for any of these type of items. Is the Renthal handlebar mounted on a Honda motorcycle more reliable than the exact same bar mounted on a KTM? See my point?
Which leaves us with this – the only major differences in reliability between the brands would have to be found in the engine, fueling system, and electrical system.
If you have a major engine problem in a third world country, is it easier to fix if you are on a Japanese motorcycle? Let’s say the main bearing goes out or you drop a valve and ruin your piston. How difficult would something like this be to solve on a Japanese bike versus a Euro bike? My guess is that something like this would take weeks to solve, no matter what brand you are riding. Things like valves, bearings, & pistons will be very specific to any make/model of motorcycle and it would be unlikely that you would find these items on the shelf in the far reaches of a second or third world county. Which would mean you would have to order them and wait however long to receive the parts, after which you would hopefully be able to locate a mechanic competent enough to make the necessary repairs. All of which means engine problems likely can’t be solved roadside, especially in less developed countries.
What about electrical issues? Are they somehow harder to fix on modern Euro dual sports than on Japanese bikes? One can rightly argue that modern bikes have more electronics than old-school thumpers – at a minimum, modern bikes have fuel injection, which is powered by electricity, while all the Japanese bikes are fueled by gravity fed carburetors – which would at least mean more potential for electrical issues on the Euro bikes. But that’s an issue of reliability, not ease of repair. My guess is that there really isn’t a difference in the reliability of electrical systems on any of the bikes. The batteries, alternators, regulators, rectifiers, wiring, fuses, and so on are all of similar reliability. And, as noted above, third party vendors manufacture many of the components used in motorcycle electrical systems and sell them to more than one motorcycle OEM, with zero difference in reliability when they are used in brand X versus brand Y.
Bringing us to ease of repair. My belief is that any electrical issues that you can easily solve roadside on a Japanese bike could also be easily solved on a Euro bike. There is nothing inherently more difficult about diagnosing and repairing a blow fuse, broken wire, or an electrical short on a Euro bike versus a Japanese bike.
For more difficult electrical issues, such as a fried rectifier, I don’t think there is a difference in ease of repair or the amount of time it takes to get replacement parts. Would you really argue that it is easier to do a roadside repair of a rectifier on a Kawasaki versus a KTM? I suggest that you can’t fix either because you a) don’t have the specialized tools with you to do so and b) probably don’t have the expertise. Again, you would likely be forced to order replacement parts, however long that may take.
Lastly, we come to fuel systems. This is the one area that always gets mentioned by fans of old school Japanese thumpers. The belief is that carburetors generally don’t break and, on the rare occasions when they do have problems, those problems are easily solved roadside or by any reasonably competent mechanic.
Look at all the different pieces that combine to make the carburetor on the Honda XR650L. There are a ton of potential failure points. How easy do you really think it is to diagnose and effect a roadside repair on a typical carburetor like this?
One anecdote to emphasize this point – I once had a friend who spent almost two full days getting the carburetor on his DRZ fixed in down in Mexico. The carb was continuously leaking gas into the engine, filling the cylinder with gas and preventing the bike from even cranking over. My friend worked on it for a day. Then took it to a local repair shop where the mechanic took another day trying to diagnose the problem. The fix was new O-rings, which proved to be a challenge to find in the correct size.
The truth is that aside from cleaning dirt out of the carb (a most common problem) there likely isn’t a lot of you can do roadside. Luckily, carburetors are actually quite reliable and don’t usually require roadside repairs – aside from cleaning dirt out of the jets every so often.
What about those new-fangled fuel injectors? Those mysterious things surely must be complicated and hard to repair roadside.
This is the KTM 690 fuel injector. The first thing we note is that it has a lot fewer parts than a carburetor, which automatically means less things to go wrong. Also like a carburetor about the only you can do roadside with a fuel injector is clean out debris or dirt. Finally, fuel injectors have proven over the last 70 years to be both robust and reliable – at least as reliable as carburetors, if not more so.
In summary, are Japanese bikes generally easier to repair roadside, in some far away country? I believe the answer is clear – any roadside repair you can make on a Japanese dual sport is the same roadside repair you could have made on a Euro bike.