Establishing a Baseline
It has been said: “Opinions’ are like belly buttons…everyone has one”. I am inclined to believe that there are folks out there who have a pocket full of belly buttons! It’s great to have differing opinions. I always enjoy exchanging thoughts and opinions with those who have based their positions on FACT.
Just because we have differing opinions doesn’t infer that one is correct and the other incorrect. Unless of course, that opinion is based on conjecture, speculation, bias or even (yes I will say it) IGNORANCE. I say these things because what you are reading are MY OPINIONS of a motorcycle. And these opinions are based on more than feelings, affection, brand loyalty or speculation.
For clarity and intellectual honesty, I will take the time to address my background. And I do this because my background has a direct influence on my opinion, and the reader deserves complete transparency, honesty and TRUTH (as I see it).
I don’t own stock in Maico, nor do I own a Maico dealership (nor have I ever been in either position). I am not being compensated for this in any way, from any one. It is my hope to bring the enjoyment and freedom of riding a motorcycle (particularly the Maico 500) to anyone who cares to do so.
With the explosion of “information” available on the internet, the fact that this information is neither peer reviewed nor vetted by an editor, and virtually anyone with a computer and internet connection (is anyone not connected??) can post on virtually any subject, the reader MUST do these things for himself. Do you know the background of any of the “test riders” of the various magazines? Some are ex-pros. Yet we know very little about them.
We know even less about those who post on the internet. A sad testimony to the sport of motorcycling today is the lack of objective, unprejudiced testing. Anyone who thinks that advertising dollars do not play a significant role in the outcome of your standard motorcycle “shootout”, you are mistaken. I have lost count of how many different people have told me that very thing. Would these people say these things to the general public? Never. It comes off as arrogant, whiney and controversial. But that does not negate the truth that advertising dollars influence the outcome of tests.
There are many ways to better form your opinions other than magazine “shootouts” and internet articles (including what you are reading now). And that is to ride as many DIFFERENT bikes as you can, and base your choices on that. Do not use what I say as the canon (measurement) of truth. Ride, ride, RIDE.
Motorcycling, like any other field of endeavor, is filled with crooks, posers, blowhards and riff raff. They have their agenda, and most likely, it is to fill their pockets with YOUR money.
The easiest account of this is the modern four stroke dirt bike! It was going to save motocross, trail riding and the environment, all while causing you to be a better rider. Great marketing, but has this proven to be truth? Not in my book. It has escalated the cost of racing to NASA levels, reliability is in the toilet and the sound levels of these machines is causing riding areas to drop like the stock market. I’ll stop on the four stroke thing for now (or I won’t stop).
Probably the most interesting of the above noted group is the “posers”. They want to be in the “in” crowd. They read all the magazines (also known as “comic books”), know the entire “lingo”, but can’t tell a spark plug from a screwdriver. Sadly, this makes up the better part of dirt biking today. These people are quick to point out the blatantly obvious, quoting tired, worn out talking points from the media. They have virtually zero practical experience, but are sure they are correct.
I mention all these things because I am NOT a poser, a faceless drone hiding behind my computer screen. I have spent the better part of my entire life in and around the motorsports business, in various degrees. If you think politics is a dirty business (and I think it is), motorsports rivals the political arena in every aspect. I am a machinist by trade, and I have spent countless hours trying to coax every single bit of power from internal combustion engines.
Since 1980, most of that time was spent on multiple cylinder four stroke engines. That’s right, FOUR STROKES. This puts me in a unique position to be able to speak on the shortcomings of the “modern” four stroke. I have owned my own flow bench, spent countless hours “on the dyno” and more days and nights at the track than I care to remember. Again, my background is that of one who is in the day-to-day business of motorsports. I have access to industry “people” that the average person just can’t get to.
I remember being told the four stroke was making a comeback in dirt biking. I laughed. I had forgotten that derelicts are in charge of the AMA. It had slipped my mind how corrupt the “major” factories are. I completely lost my mind on the fact that motorcycle magazines exist for one reason and one reason ONLY: to sell YOU the products and services THEIR advertisers produce, whether or not you need them. Between them all, they re-wrote the rule book, re-designed the race tracks and sold the off-roading public a sham.
I have been around the block, taken to the cleaners by customers and manufacturers alike. The sad fact of the matter is this: the industry won’t change unless it is through force (meaning the pocket book). Stop attending motocross and supercross races, don’t buy Dirt Bike, Dirt Rider, MXA et al. Don’t spend your money with those manufacturers who cater to the four stroke side of dirt biking. Speak with your wallet, and then email all those folks and tell them why you stopped blowing your cash to uphold their corrupt institutions. Now that all that is out of the way, lets discuss the mechanical aspects of Maico motorcycles.
Nuts and Bolts
The overwhelming complaint I have heard of the Maico is that it is “old school”. Most complain about the “dated” plastics and steel frame.
Let’s discuss the steel frame first, as it is entirely more relevant than “bold new graphics”. I had been away from dirt biking for the better part of 20 years. In 2002, I decided it was time for fun, as building racing engines (and dealing with all the associated garbage that goes with it) was becoming quite the hassle. I decided that a dirt bike was the answer for stress relief. Imagine my shock when I looked around and noticed an aluminum framed dirt bike!
To say I was stunned would be a gross understatement. For the life of me, I could not understand this strange anomaly. Yet today, it is taken for granted that an aluminum frame is requisite for a competitive dirt bike. I completely disagree. I asked anyone and everyone about this “new” frame. I didn’t get the full answer right away. It has taken literally years to piece together what actually happened. And, as I would have guessed, the switch to aluminum frames was not necessarily to benefit the end user (as it is with many “new” things).
Dirt Bike magazine published an article on a Japanese motorcycle show. I have forgotten some of the details, but the facts remain the same. In a 1 or 2 line blurb, Dirt Bike admitted to“knowledge” of a shortage of “quality” steel in Asia. So here is our first big clue! Market shortfalls are common, especially in times of war or other “artificial” factors. All of Asia was (and still is) experiencing a shortage of quality steel. This shortage does several things. It makes costs for materials to go up. It also makes the bean counters look for “alternative” materials and techniques to save money, and keep the cost of the product you are trying to market stay competitive.
The average consumer has only “so many” dollars he can spend on hobbies. If the manufacturer can’t keep costs in line, they lose market share. So we see that the first reason for aluminum frames was and is a steel shortage in Asia. Next comes the marketing department. They need to make the end user (that’s YOU) think that this “new” design or product is absolutely required for your success.
Can you imagine any of the “big” manufacturers telling you they made a design change because of materiel shortages or to make production go quicker, thereby reducing costs? They are going to use advertising to convince YOU that this was needed for your success. So the Asian manufactures switched to aluminum frames because resources REQUIRED them to do so, but told the public a different story. This is also a text book example of how and why advertising works. Let’s compare steel to aluminum as a structural materiel and see what we find.
Steel has a higher stiffness to weight ratio than does aluminum. To achieve the same structural rigidity, the cross section of aluminum MUST be greater. This should be obvious to even the most uninterested observer. Look at the overall size of the structure of your aluminum framed dirt bike. Where a 1 inch round tube (4130 chromoly steel) will be sufficient structurally, aluminum requires almost 3 times the cross section to achieve the same rigidity!
Just put a steel frame and an aluminum frame side by each. Stevie Wonder could see the difference. This greater cross section does nothing more than take up valuable space and makes it much more difficult to do maintenance on. Aluminum also has another not-so-desirable character. Aluminum work hardens at a much greater rate than steel. You may not know it, but dirt bike frames flex, twist and bend. During this process, everywhere these actions occur, the possibility of fracture greatly increases (think of bending a paper clip).
Aluminum does not hold threads as well as steel, so the possibility of stripped threads is much greater (especially if you are naturally ham fisted and use 1/2″ drive tools), and therefore the required repair.
As a general rule, aluminum welding is done using what is known as the TIG process. Steel can be readily welded using the MIG process. A MIG machine is more likely to be found in most home shops. MIG welding is a much faster process, is a simpler process and is done by most folks at home. The general public does not usually own a TIG welder. Most own a MIG machine. You CAN weld aluminum with a MIG welder, but it does not do as nice a job as a TIG machine does.
If we consider all things here, the only upshot to an aluminum framed dirt bike is the marketing department. Again, these are facts, and coupled with my opinions and life experiences, I still won’t own an aluminum framed dirt bike. Once again, the buying public has been duped into something they didn’t need. Market shortfalls and tricky advertising have the public fooled.
There are still some manufacturers who build steel framed dirt bikes. Maico, Husky, Gas Gas and KTM come to mind. A steel framed dirt bike will corner, jump, ride and stop as good as, or better than its aluminum framed counterpart (providing frame and steering geometry are equal). So, when weighing your options for a new dirt bike, rise above the marketing department, ignore the experts at the various magazines and base your decision on YOUR riding experience.
So what about all the raves over aluminum framed dirt bikes? Pay very close attention to who is telling you about it. Chances are they just jumped off their clapped out, never maintained, ridden hard and put away wet bike. I’ve seen bikes with bent foot pegs, original oil in the forks and shock, never serviced the rear suspension linkage etc and this is the guy who raves the loudest about his “new” aluminum framed bike. And we all wonder how this is. I have witnessed this exact scenario so many times I’ve lost count.
Also, some of the raving can be attributed to better geometry. Let’s face it. A 1980 anything won’t have the same frame and steering geometry as a 2008 bike. You are comparing apples to cabbage. So it’s a package deal. Improvements in suspension allow for changes in geometry. As tires improve, chassis design can be modified to exploit the improvements.
As for the plastics…I personally have a hard time getting my mind around what the complaint really is. I can get plastics in virtually in color I want, from a variety of sources. It amazes me that grown men complain of such a petty issue as this. Reminds me of a woman who can’t buy something because it doesn’t match her purse. But there is a whole industry based on graphics to make your bike “look” like a factory bike. I would rather spend my money on something that actually improves performance or reliability. Or use that money to ride more. But that’s just me. Now let’s move on to things of greater concern.
Let’s talk about suspension. Prior to 2005, all Maico’s came with WP 50mm Xtreme conventional forks. Again, these fall under the heading of “old school”. But I did my homework. If you can find an honest suspension guy (I have a great one) he will tell you the benefit of upside down forks are little if any over conventional forks. 2005 and later model bikes are getting USD forks. Other than being slightly heavier (5-7 pounds), the Xtreme will do 99% of what any rider can want or need.
Some of the bikes come with an older WP shock, and some come with a Reiger unit. I’ve never seen the Reiger (except in pictures) but they are said to be a great piece. If I had my say, I’d get the Reiger. The WP can be made to work with regular suspension tuning. I have never seen a bike come off the showroom floor with the proper spring rates and valving for everyone. It’s not a one size fits all proposition. Bad suspension breeds bad riding habits. Again…graphics or suspension work? For me it’s a no brainer.
That’s why race teams employ full time suspension tuners. That’s how critical it is. Sadly, most guys don’t even adjust the clickers (and many don’t know how to do it or understand what they are doing). The marketing department says “our bikes are suspended for mid level 160 pound riders”. I don’t ride with anyone who fits those criteria. Regardless of what you ride, if you haven’t had your suspension customized for your weight, ability and type of riding you are leaving performance on the table.
You will find those who proudly tell you they have never adjusted the clickers and the bike is perfect for them. They are either stupid or lying. I always pay close attention to those guys when I ride with them. They have poor form (sit down way too much, feet off the pegs, rarely or never use the front brake), or as they ride the bike beats them to a pulp. Ignore these types. Unless you enjoy watching your friends (or enemies) spend their day picking themselves up off the ground (yes, I enjoy watching Spodes fight their bike all day then tell you how good a ride they had).
Another complaint I have heard of the Maico is the swing arm. It’s too heavy…too bulky. They speak from ignorance. If anything, it’s too light. There is a brace running from side to side, between the shock and the swing arm mounts. It WILL develop a fracture.
For one thing, the brace is cut too short. Second, they slobber weld on it to fill it in. To fix this, you have only two options. Your first is to slobber more weld in there and hope you handle it. The second is the correct way to fix it, but it is much more labor intensive. If mine fractures again, this is how I will do it: you cut out the existing piece. Then you bore holes THROUGH both sides of the swing arm. Using heavy wall tubing, slide the piece through the swing arm and weld both inside and outside. This will stiffen the swing arm and prevent future fractures. Come on Maico, this is just bad workmanship. I wouldn’t put my name on that. I apologize for the poor quality photos, but it’s the best I have.
While we are here at the swing arm, let me complain about another pet peeve I have. Any second year engineering student will tell you not to put needle bearings on a reciprocating shaft. Maico has followed the industry in this error. Needle bearings need to rotate. They don’t like to be beaten on. And they really don’t like to be hammered on while they are reciprocating.
If you look closely at the photos, you will see I have machined BUSHINGS to replace these idiotic bearings. Again, it’s cheaper to manufacture needle bearings than bushings. They both require the same amount of maintenance. Bushings have much more bearing area than needle bearings. So whenever the opportunity brings itself to me, I swap out bearings for bushings. Thankfully, Maico still uses bushings in the shock linkage. Bearings have an even shorter life span in the linkage than they do in the swing arm itself.
One of the great aspects of Maico motorcycles is in their SIMPLICITY. Complication equals frustration. It’s just about a sure thing that when you make something more complicated, you have increased cost, decreased reliability and added weight and gave form over function.
All Maico’s come with Magura hydraulic clutches. Once you ride a bike with a hydraulic clutch, you will see the foolishness of cable operated clutches. I know, the pros complain they can’t adjust the clutch on the fly for “feel”. Anyone racing a KTM has a hydraulic clutch, and I’ve never heard any complaints about it (once they get used to it). This adjusting for “feel” is nothing more than compensating for clutch wear and heat. Nothing trick here. This is one of those exceptions where complicated is BETTER.
But when you look closely, you will see it’s actually no more complicated than a cable operated clutch. The cable is replaced by a hose. The arm on the case is replaced by a slave cylinder. You have a master cylinder on the clutch lever. The only excuse to NOT have a hydraulic clutch is that the bean counters won’t cough up for it. They will give you dual mufflers (Honda 250F) but not a hydraulic clutch. It’s not flashy, and it’s hard to market. To spend the money for a new bike and not get a hydraulic clutch (in my OPINION) is senseless.
There is one hang up though. Maico designed their own slave cylinder, instead of using the Magura unit. I’ll tell you straight up…the Magura slave cylinder is good, but the Maico piece is better. I know this because my 2004 came with a Magura slave cylinder, and my brothers 2003 has a Maico piece.
I emailed the factory, and to their credit, they gave me the straight poop. Maico is a small manufacturer. Sometimes a casting comes out of the mold without the boss for Maico slave cylinder. Sometimes, while machining the case, the boss gets machined off. Instead of throwing away the case, it is machined flat for the Magura slave cylinder. I was told this only happens with 500’s, and not with other displacements. The Maico and Magura slave cylinders are not interchangeable. So to save the case, Maico will machine the case to take a Magura slave cylinder. This is the same unit that came on 125 and 200 KTM’s. There is little difference in function between the Magura and Maico slave cylinders. The Maico is easier to maintain, doesn’t require gaskets and is slightly smoother.
As far as internal pieces go, most pieces interchange with earlier Maico models. The crank halves are 500 Maico, and the crank pin, the piston, wrist pin, wrist pin bearing and rod are 490. The crank pin is slightly outboard from a 490 to make up the 10 cc difference in displacement. Even the reeds are early Maico and can be easily purchased. The clutch is the same as 1986 and later models. Why update? It’s simple, doesn’t slip and works.
One of the updates that comes on 1999 and later models is a removable inspection cover for the clutch. Maico lowered the engine in the chassis and you would not be able to service the clutch with the engine in the bike. Again, here is an update you can’t really see (lowering the engine in the chassis) but is an important one no doubt. Maico’s come with a compression release. Once you get the hang of the left side kicker and using the compression release, starting the Maico is a snap. Maico uses a power valve in the exhaust (KX 500’s have one, CR 500’s do not). This simple device broadens the power curve. Why not have one?
If you get an enduro, model you get lights, S.E.M. ignition, an 18 inch rear wheel and Bing carburetor. If you get the MX version, you don’t get lights (I can’t understand the riding a dirt bike at night thing) but you do get a PVL ignition, 19 inch rear wheel and Mikuni TMX carburetor. There are NO OTHER DIFFERENCES. So let’s discuss the differences you do get.
The difference between the 18 and 19 inch wheels for 99.9% of us is basically nothing. The only problem I see with 19 inch wheels is getting a wide enough tire. Other than that, I don’t care. The S.E.M. ignition is a great piece. Reliable, simple and it will run lights. That’s all I can say about it. One of the reasons I hate 4 strokes is they rev very slow. The S.E.M. ignition is of the external rotor type. Being external rotor, you have an incredible flywheel effect. I don’t like that.
I grew up riding MX bikes in the woods, so I learned to live without flywheel weight and learned the art of throttle control. You can’t add or remove weight from the S.E.M. The PVL is an INTERNAL rotor ignition. The difference between the flywheel effect of the two ignitions is substantial. The real difference is that with the PVL you can get several bolt-on flywheel weights, and use them at your discretion. So if you are riding in slimy, sloppy conditions, you can put on 16 ounces of weight and slow the ability of the engine to rev, thus increasing available traction. Then remove it when the conditions are more favorable. Or maybe you are going to ride some tight single track. Add 12 ounces of weight and it will help keep the engine from stalling in corners. It just gives you options for tuning.
If you MUST have lights, then you need the S.E.M. Some of the bikes are coming with single stage, fiberglass reeds, and some are getting dual stage fiberglass reeds (Boyesen). I have spent more time than I care to remember dinking with reeds, single stage, dual stage, stainless petals, carbon fiber and many different combination’s of some of these components. I learned a lot. First, I am not nearly as smart as Mr. Boyesen. I have talked with him on the phone, at length, and he is intelligent beyond words. He explained things to me in a manner that I can understand.
Second, when all is said and done, the dual stage, fiberglass reed system is far and away the best set up for all around two stroke performance you can get. I hate to endorse a product without compensation but, I have tried it all and came back to this. I also learned that as you get larger in displacement, the disparity is greater. The 500 is entirely more sensitive to reed materiel and design then a 250. So, when you get your bike, pop the carb off and see what you have. If they are not Boyesen style fiberglass reeds, drop the dime and get them.
I could write a book (and maybe I will) about tuning two stroke performance engines, and the TMX Mikuni is the biggest piece of garbage I have seen. Maico should be ashamed for selling a bike with this untuneable piece of junk on it. The Bing is far superior (here come the arguments) to the TMX if you come at it with an open mind. The Bing responds to tuning changes better and is just manufactured better.
The TMX has pressed together parts in it, and the circuitry is flawed. But the media has had a problem with the Bing for years and so does anyone who has not tried one. Funny thing is, I can tune a Bing, but all the gurus at the different magazines can’t. Follow the money here. Ultimately, I prefer the Keihin carburetor. It is the simplest to tune, and is more sensitive to adjustments. If Maico wants to improve things, lose the TMX and put a Keihin on it. Ultimately, the do-all, be-all, end-all would be a three circuit carburetor. They are available, but they are expensive. I own one. I would NEVER go back. If people understood how to tune 2 stroke carburetors, you wouldn’t need direct injection (in my opinion).
As far as other parts and pieces go (like sprockets etc.) they are readily available. Brakes are Brembo, so KTM, Husky, Gas Gas, Husaberg, and even VOR pads fit. Levers are Brembo (front brake) and Magura (clutch) and available at the same places. The front sprocket is KTM and the rear is the same as 86 and later Maico’s. They are available through PBS, Sprocket Specialties and about any other manufacturer. My bike has Akront rims and they are every bit as good as Excel.
While I’m on this point I want to hit on parts availability. Yes, you are correct. Maico dealers are not on every corner. But this is the NEW world, a “global” society. Guys now buy parts all day (and night) ON LINE!!! In a few days the brown truck (and others) pull up and bring the parts to your door. I can’t tell you how many times I needed parts for a Japanese bike and had to ORDER them!! Even though the dealer was within walking distance I STILL had to wait. In my life I have owned many different European bikes and I never EVER had a problem getting parts. It’s 100% MEDIA driven. Shame on them for being so underhanded. But that’s a different story for another time.
So there you have it. A simple run down of a Maico motorcycle. They are so simple that it’s funny. Liquid cooled, reed valved and having a power valve in the exhaust what more could you ask? They come with HGS exhaust, and the pipe is dimensionally similar to an FMF fatty. It’s nickel plated, so it looks nice too. Seat covers and graphics are available from the factory, but they are a bit pricey. And if the General gives me the space, I’ll do part 3…what it’s like to RIDE a 500 Maico! And with any luck (and a Mac computer) I’ll include video.
Never forget…REAL MEN PRE-MIX. Always have, always will.