Common Tread

Seven lessons learned from owning an exotic motorcycle

Dec 29, 2014

When my wife and I relocated to northern New Jersey from southern California, I decided a more nimble ride would better handle the potholes and changeable weather, so I started shopping for a dual-sport.

The big four Japanese manufacturers offered several reasonable options, but nothing exciting. I was in the wrong income bracket for BMW and Ducati, and nothing from Hinckley caught my eye. It was then that my attention turned to the “other motorcycles” tab, lurking quietly in the corner of my browser window.

We all know the “other” motorcycles: exotic machines with names like Gas-Gas, Moto Guzzi and Ural. Some are more mainstream than others, but most U.S. riders rarely see one. These bikes live on the outskirts of motorcycling, ridden by owners who are rich, crazy, or stupid (often a combination of the three). They are the bikes we imagine piloting on glorious moto-adventures, but until now, they had escaped my grasp.

This is an account of my experience as a first-time exotic bike owner, with some lessons learned along the way. No two owners’ experiences are the same, but if the siren song of a Husaberg or an MV Agusta has you considering one of the “other makes,” these lessons may serve you in your journey.

Husqvarna TR650 Strada
Day one, at the dealership, moments after signing the purchase papers. Photo by Ethan Knox.

Lesson #1: Do your homework, then some extra credit

I decided to buy a Husqvarna TR650 Strada for my first dance outside of the mainstream motorcycle ball. The supermoto Strada and dual-sport Terra were the lovechildren of Husqvarna and BMW, and seemingly combined the best of both brands. Both featured a tuned-up version of the BMW G 650 GS engine, bumping the GS’s 50 horsepower up to 58. The Strada’s 370-pound dry weight bested the GS by almost 60 pounds, making it a clear winner in the battle to navigate both New York City traffic and the hairpin turns of Bear Mountain. The Husky came dressed for a party, with Brembo ABS brakes, Sachs suspenders, and steel braided brake lines right from the get-go. An on-the-fly ABS kill switch made it crystal clear this bike was all about having fun. The price tag was $7,499, only slightly more scratch than the pedestrian Suzuki DR-Z400SM. What’s more, the Strada came with a two-year factory warranty, twice as long as any of the mainstream options. Given those facts, the decision to pick up a Strada seemed to make itself.

In hindsight, a little more skepticism would have gone a long way. The additional eight horsepower came from modified fuel injection, hotter cams and higher compression — all factors that chip away at reliability. The massive weight reduction was accomplished in part by trimming many of the BMW’s over-engineered components. The warranty coverage was not the ironclad protection I expected (more on that later). Had I done more homework, I probably would have still picked up my Strada, but I might have been better prepared for what was to come.

Husqvarna TR650 Strada
The Strada: It was beautiful while it lasted. Photo by Ethan Knox.

Lesson #2: Enjoy the wow factor

Five minutes into my first ride on the Strada, I was overcome with sheer joy. The bike was light and nimble, yet surprisingly planted, with a throttle that felt remarkably crisp, like nothing I had ever ridden. The handling was as delicate and precise as a scalpel and made my previous ride, a Honda VFR800, feel like a meat cleaver. Where other machines had fired like bullets of different calibers, this little Husky felt as sharp and silent as a poison dart.

Lesson #3: Join a support group

My inaugural weekend ride on the Strada was cut short by an overly active temperature gauge, culminating with a high temp warning and emergency shutdown at a small-town stoplight. With less than 200 miles on the clock, I limped home to call my dealer. The service manager agreed that the overheating was concerning, and suggested I bring the bike back to be checked out.

However, as it was busy season, they could not possibly fit me in for at least two months. The fact that I had purchased the bike from them less than 72 hours before made no difference (more on the importance of selecting a good dealer later on).

I scoured the internet and stumbled upon, a forum for Husqvarna motorcycles. It was there I learned that several other TR650 owners had experienced the same issues, and somewhere along the way it was determined that air bubbles were to blame. By running the bike for a few minutes with the radiator cap off (allowing the air to escape), my problem was solved.

Online forums are an essential part of owning an unconventional motorbike. Forums often fill the void of limited manufacturer support. In the barren wilderness of exotic motorcycle ownership, forums are the communal camp fires that protect us from the dark.

Lesson #4: Learn patience

An oil change can tell you a lot about a bike. For mass-produced machines, the ability of Joe Motorcyclist to throw a wrench on the drain plug will take precedence over performance and weight savings every time. Many exotics, on the other hand, are built exclusively to be ridden. Maintenance is an afterthought.

Those exotic dual exhausts have a useful purpose: glove warmers. Photo by Ethan Knox.
The highlights of a Husqvarna TR650 oil change include a floating “drain block” that sits unsecured between two lengths of hose (making torque specs pointless), and an oil filter that is recessed above the bottom of the case, making it impossible to remove it without pouring dirty oil into the crevices of the engine (unless, of course, you remove the engine and turn it sideways). The entire process took me several hours the first time, and left me longing for Japanese simplicity.

By the second oil change, I had borrowed a few techniques found on Cafe Husky, and had concocted an array of specialized tools for the job. Armed with my wire hanger, funnel and plastic soda bottle shield apparatus, I was able to make short work of the job.

The author, left, and his riding buddy, Ben Herman, who tried unsuccessfully to talk him into buying a Kawasaki Versys instead of the Strada. Photo by Ethan Knox.

Lesson #5: Cross-reference when possible

My second season with the Strada commenced with a rough start. During a particularly enjoyable ride through Harriman State Park, I noticed my rear brake felt weak. When I stopped, I found that the rear brake reservoir cap had worked itself off, spilling nearly all of its fluid and leaving me without any rear stopping power. Once again I limped home, disappointed by another beautiful ride cut short by my finicky exotic.

The naive mainstream motorcyclist in me assumed the dealer would have the cap in stock, or could get it in a few days. Instead, my request at the parts counter was met with a brick wall.

“Sir, we are no longer a Husqvarna dealer and we cannot help you.”

I protested that I had bought the bike at this no-longer-a-Husqvarna dealer less than one year prior. The salesperson merely turned to help the next customer, as if to emphasize his point.

Once home, I called every Husqvarna dealer in the tri-state area. Amazingly, not one dealer was willing or able supply this seemingly simple part. When I finally found a dealer 200 miles away who was willing to order the cap, I discovered the item was backordered for more than two months. My week of downtime stretched into the heart of summer.

Once again, members of Cafe Husky came to the rescue. The same reservoir cap had tripped up a few TR650 riders, and the online minds were able to produce a Brembo part number that would replace the cap. A quick E-bay search returned an abundance of replacement parts, and for $9.99 my problems were solved. Lesson learned: With an exotic machine, parts are often sourced elsewhere.

Lesson #6: Expect the unexpected

As the days grew cooler, the Strada continued to thrash the mountain roads and scenic passes without faltering. I decided to embrace the East Coast weather and add heated gear to the equation. I opted for a heated gear controller that would permanently mount on the handlebars, and on a warm Saturday morning in October, I set out to install my new farkle. The Strada was due for an oil change and a good once-over anyway, so I planned to make a day of it.

Routing the heated gear wiring required me to remove much of the bodywork. To my amazement, several bolts had worked themselves loose and all but one of the headlight mounting bolts had fallen out. I replaced the missing fasteners and torqued every bolt to spec, adding Loctite as I went.

battery meter
The glowing green light suggests all is well electrically. Moments later, the Strada committed suicide. Photo by Ethan Knox.
The remainder of the controller install went without a hitch. I fired up the Strada and the newly installed battery meter burned green, indicating a happy and healthy charging system. Satisfied with my work, I left my mount idling in the driveway.

As I cleaned my work bench, I suddenly heard the Strada let out a horrific cry. A distinct metal-on-metal sound turned my stomach. I rushed outside as the engine made several more gut-wrenching rotations, a distinct “crunch” emanating from inside the engine. The machine shuddered with a violent belch from the exhaust, and then fell silent.

Lesson #7: Choose a great dealer and read paperwork carefully

With only 6,000 miles on it, my motorcycle had suffered catastrophic engine failure right in my driveway.

Add to my frustration the nearly $1,000 in heated gear I had just purchased and would not get to use. A couple of Californication reruns and a few cold IPAs later, I calmed down and took stock of my situation. I decided it was not all that bad. The Strada was still in the two-year factory warranty. It would be a hassle, but this would get fixed. I simply had to bring my crippled machine to an authorized dealer.

Of course the place I purchased the bike was no longer a dealer, so I asked around and found another one with a good reputation, though more than 100 miles away. I talked to one of the service reps, who was genuinely sympathetic, but said it would be another three weeks before we could book an appointment for me to bring the bike in. I supplied my machine’s VIN.

The service rep called me back with news. While there were two sets of paperwork in the system, one showing a 12-month warranty and another showing a 24-month warranty, Husqvarna was adamant that machines sold in the United States only had a 12-month warranty. I was told I’d have to go back to the original dealer for support.

I will never forget the experience that followed: the fact I bought the motorcycle there, the fact that Husqvarna sent me there, none of it mattered. I was shouted down: “We do not work on Husqvarnas. Period.”

A manager I spoke to was at least more reasonable. But nobody could find an actual warranty term for the TR650, and my own paperwork merely stated that the bike was protected under a manufacturer’s warranty. No term was mentioned anywhere.

I have always been careful to read over dealer contracts, finance agreements, etc. What I never considered was the importance of looking for the things that might be absent.

The lesson I learned? If you are going to invest in an exotic motorcycle, forget about finding the lowest price. Find a dealer who is invested in you and your machine.

Meanwhile, I recently purchased a colleague’s Yamaha XJ550 to ride around until things are sorted out with the Strada. Deciding to pick up the old workhorse was no adventure. I found myself once again wrapped in the warm blanket of mainstream motorcycling, and it was a welcome feeling.