After one of our recent motorcycle reviews, two readers asked for a little explanation of what we mean when we talk about “fit and finish” on a motorcycle we are evaluating.
To get started, I fired up the old googles and tried to get a good definition of that term. The best I could find was very car-centric, and to me, incomplete: “The evaluative standard of a vehicle's cosmetics. Good fit and finish means all the body panels and trim are evenly spaced, aligned, and secure. The paint is evenly applied with no bubbles or pit marks.”
I can sure as shootin’ tell you I’m looking for a little more than that. Before we get too deep here, first, understand this is totally subjective. Spurg and Lance look for different things than I do and a lot of this is by feel. We all three have our proclivities and eccentricities as humans and as riders. We’re not objective robots. We try to be fair, but hey, our reviews ultimately are just what some guy from the internet thought about a motorcycle, right?
Also, keep in mind I’m not an engineer. I am sure I ding fit items, and the poor engineer who spent months designing it was thinking of some condition or factor I never even gave a thought. I get things wrong.
So with that in mind, here's what I'm thinking about when I talk about fit and finish.
“Fit” is the way stuff is put together. This term is loaded. In the old days, for example, Brough Superior motorcycles were said to be assembled by hand by men wearing white gloves. In the days of hand-built parts, this was necessary, to be sure each part fit well. Sub-assemblies were built by hand by experts who performed the same task each day. Where I still pull out my manual to rebuild a wheel hub, the man in the factory who assembled a hundred per day could likely do the job completely by feel.
Nowadays, most parts are made by a machine or robot, perfectly and repeatably each time, and they might be assembled by a machine, as well. How tightly controlled are the tolerances, the permissible deviations from ideal? Perhaps the machine making a part can make it to a very tight tolerance, but the machine that assembles is loose and sloppy. Maybe the short answer is to enlarge some holes somewhere to permit some “play” in the design. It might work fine, but the variation in the design might be enough to draw your eye to a misaligned fuel filler or a bracket that doesn’t sit quite right.
Some little tell-tale things I look for are paint loss or transfer between two items that should be stationary. Any loss of finish is often indicative of items rubbing against one another, often due to poor fit. I also look at fasteners, too. Tool marks on fasteners are no good. Yes, the bike will acquire them eventually, but visible tool marks bum me out. Further, fastener selection is something I pay attention to. Yes, hex-head bolts work in a variety of areas and have their place, but an attempt to use “pretty” fasteners in visible areas is a nice touch and says a lot about the details the designers and engineers may have considered.
Another thing I am a stickler for is fit between parts that are supposed to move. For instance, switches in their housings should fit well, but not too tightly. If there is too much clearance between the housing and the switch, the result is often perceptible play. Generally speaking, the greater the play, the “cheaper” something feels, because it feels like it’s gonna break — and in some cases, it will. Too tight, and things won’t work correctly and smoothly. Too loose, and the device could be ineffective or a moving piece may break. Some clearance between parts is necessary. The very subjective question is, “How much feels good and works well?”
I feel the “throw” of a moving item also contributes a lot to my opinion of it. For instance, switches with short, crisp throws generally feel like items of higher quality than ones where the throw is long. Similarly, short lever and shifter throw often subtly urge the rider to perform the acts quickly, encouraging the idea that a machine may be more sporting in nature. Switches are binary, though. On progressive items, like, say, clutch lever travel, leverage points located to give a nice long sweep often yield what riders refer to as good “feel.” I learned about that when I was designing foot clutch pedals. You can have the best clutch in the world on a bike, but if you give the pedal/lever too much mechanical advantage, it’s gonna feel like a light switch — on or off.
Perceived feelings of quality can also be greatly affected by take-up, which is the amount an item moves before it begins actuating the thing it’s supposed to. Some items have adjustable take-up, like a clutch lever or throttle sleeve. You can generally adjust those to be real sloppy, razor-sharp, or anywhere in between. For those items, I feel it’s up to us as reviewers to set the bikes up how we like them to give them the best shot at making us happy, the same as a seasoned rider would do in the wild. Other items, like most brake pedals and switches, have no such adjustment.
Related to throw is the concept of spring pressure. This is highly subjective because people have different desires. Some folks, myself included, like springs on a bike that return snappily. Others feel that heavy spring weights are fatiguing. Obviously, this is a very personal matter, but I pay attention to things like how heavy the lever, pedal, and throttle return springs are. There is a fine line between a firm spring for its application and one that has enough resistance that it feels like it’s demanding noticeable needless effort on the part of the rider.
I also like to eye up welds and the engine castings. Sloppy welds, super-visible welds, and visible casting porosities are things I look for. On a new bike, I’m pretty brutal. Metallurgy has improved greatly and almost all casting work is farmed out to foundries at this point in time, so there’s little excuse for cases or frame castings to look shoddy. I’ll be a little more lenient with welds. On, say, a $7,000 bike, I am far more likely to be tolerant of a sloppy but precise MIG bead dragged over a joint. On a top-line motorbike, I'm gonna come off the rails if I don't see little stacks of dimes. (That's a fairly common fabrication term for a good-looking weld. Imagine a stack of dimes that's been pushed over; it's a nice neat weld.)
There are other fit items we check out, too, but those are some of the big ones I think about. A manufacturer doing something like designing lovely switches rather than buying some off-the-shelf solution from a third party can, to me, justify a higher price for the bike.
Finish is often a bike’s “first impression.” The color grabs you from 20 feet away, and as you slide onto the machine, a bunch of things hit you all at once: the glossiness of the paint, the depth of the chrome (and thus the polish job beneath it), the feel of the grips, how the saddle slides against your pants.
This is a big deal. For instance, here’s a general description of some of the things Harley-Davidson looks for and how to look for them, complete with supplemental reading. Obviously, the manufacturers should and do put lots of emphasis on the bike’s appearance. Effectively, “finish” includes not just the actual material coating of the bike’s various parts, but also how it’s been applied, and how the bike is presented.
Paint is probably the most obvious item to check. It should be deep and glossy, with no defects like orange peel, fisheye, or haze. Pinstripes are probably an exception to this. They have natural thickness variations, because if painted, they’re almost always applied by hand. (If you’ve never seen someone stripe, check it out. The process is super-cool.) This extends beyond the sheet metal. Painted frames should be done nicely, too. How many old bikes have you seen with yellowing clearcoat on the fork legs? That stinks. Coverage is important to some degree or another, too. If coverage gets spotty or thin in areas that are less obvious, I’ll generally note it. Saving money on protective coatings is generally a raw deal for a customer.
Other finishes count, too. Powder coat should lay thicker than paint, but it should be evenly applied and significantly tougher. Chromed items should be polished to a high luster, then evenly coated with the plating. I shouldn’t see imperfections in either the polish job or the plating. I can’t speak for every reviewer, but chromed plastic is a faux finish in my book. Trying to make a part appear more costly than it is is a big sin by my way of judgin’. I rode around on a Moto Guzzi this summer, and was pleased to find that all the carbon fiber on it (and there was a lot!) was real. Anodizing (usually found on the fork) should be uniform, thinly applied, and even.
Hardware is easy to examine. Does visible hardware have a special finish, like chrome, cadmium plating, or paint? Are the heads smaller or more attractive than a standard hex bolt? Are there tool marks on it from when the fasteners were installed?
How items are constructed matters to me, too. One we see from time to time is a cast piece made to look like billet, a much more expensive proposition construction-wise. The cast piece will be made such that it looks beefy, then the external pieces polished. This is particularly flagrant when the part is a structural one. Some of you may remember 1980s Honda motorcycles that had fork braces made in this fashion. Nowadays, if you look ‘em up on Ebay, you’ll see many that have cracked.
Most seats these days are covered in vinyl. I’m mostly looking for nice and taut material with no wrinkles. Upholstering with vinyl can get tricky with a seat that is heavily stepped or has complex shapes and curves. I also take note of the vinyl’s texture. Grained or pebbled patterns change not just the look, but can also affect the rider's movement on the bike. Textured vinyl can sometimes grab onto leathers and keep a rider locked into the saddle. Whether that is good depends on the kind of motorcycle, its intended usage and the rider's preferences.
Even on factory bikes, I sometimes see the most common home bike builder mistake: shitty wiring. Exposed, poorly routed, ugly connectors, improperly fastened and gathered. It's not easy to get wiring right, but it's pretty evident when an effort has been made. A bike can be ruined with poor wiring, whether the parts or the procedure. Ugh.
Detail stuff is important, too. Harley spark plugs have a little logo right on the porcelain. Indian’s key for the Scout was fashioned into a tiny Indian chief’s head; it lent a really classy feel to the bike. The Yamaha XSR has a fork stem bolt that had concentric rings turned into it; presumably done on a lathe. These are not the items that break a bike, but they do help make one. If a bike is a quality machine, and a part of the bike is embellished in such a way that only an owner is likely to know it is there, it’s likely to make the rider feel special, which is important for many people.
These are some of the things I think about and have noticed. As I mentioned, this is an incomplete list. I’m sure you, our readers, have dozens of pictures and examples that are as good as (or, more likely, better than) my own. (I included a few of mine in the photo gallery. Sometimes a picture is the best way to illustrate a point.) Let us know what details affect your opinion of a motorcycle's quality and maybe we'll include them in our future reviews.