Are Motorcycles Damaged When Oil Runs Low? (Explained)

The biker is the heart of a motorcycle, but its soul is undoubtedly its engine.

Without a motor, a bike is just a bicycle you can’t pedal—just how essential is the engine oil to the soul of your motorcycle?

Most understand oil as a functional engine coolant or lubricant, but are motorcycles damaged when the oil runs low?

Find out in this article.

Here’s the short answer to are motorcycles damaged when oil runs low:

When a motorcycle’s engine oil runs down, its cooling and lubricating properties dwindle, causing friction between key components like pistons and cylinders. If the oil level is left low to the point of running out, overheating can fuse these essential motor parts. 

Understanding the importance of oil to a bike engine is pivotal for appreciating how critical it is to keep up with your oil levels. But regular service means more than a quick top off.

Read on to find out how bad it can get for a motorcycle with low oil levels.

What Happens if a Motorcycle Is Low on Oil?

If a motorcycle is running low on oil, the engine will start to overheat as its components lack lubrication without a sufficient amount of oil. The oil acts as an engine coolant; riding with less than the OEM’s spec causes friction, overheating, and, if left unchecked, even engine seizing.

If your motorcycle is low on oil, it’s already parched for lubrication, meaning that a little bit of oil left will be soaked in, guzzled, and run through in no time.

Your bike starts to overheat once you lose ample oil and therefore cooling and lubrication.

  • If there’s less oil than required in your motorcycle engine, your pistons will get hotter due to the friction produced when they run against the sides of the cylinder without a lubricating oil buffer.
  • If you fail to check the oil level soon, this rubbing can continue. The friction increases and generates heat.
  • The lack of oil allows the friction to create enough heat to fuse to the cylinder walls.
  • If the pistons and the cylinders fuse, your motorcycle engine will seize.  

In time, the seizing pistons put enough of a strain on your crankshaft, valves, and connecting rods to break them all. On many bikes, the oil isn’t just responsible for cooling and lubricating the motor parts; it also cools the gearbox components.

Riding a motorcycle with low oil can damage your transmission components, clutch plates, and engine.

As we said upfront, understanding what happens when a bike runs on low oil requires understanding how oil lubrication works:

  • A motorcycle’s oil process starts in the oil pan at the bottom of the bike’s engine.
  • From the second you fire her up, a part called the oil pump does its thing, pumping your engine’s oil through the filter.
  • The oil travels through the motor via various pathways, with oil spraying up onto the bottom of the pistons, which lubricates their functioning and cools them. 
  • The pathways take a portion of the oil to the valves at the top of the motor.
  • The engine oil system is also what treats your timing chain and clutch on plenty of motorcycles from various eras.

You’d be surprised how many riders assume their oil levels are good for months after changing it.

Not only is changing the oil per the owner’s manual specified intervals a crucial part of bike ownership, but painting the amount of oil in the bike between oil changes is also necessary upkeep. 

Some folks forget to check the levels before they ride, myself included.

Others assume that since bikes are lower maintenance than cars that checking their oil levels before rides isn’t something they feel the need to do. We’re here to tell you that oil is just as essential in a bike motor as a car.

Modern cars all have radiators, while there are still plenty of modern bikes that are air-cooled only; painting oil levels on a bike could be considered more important than on a car.

How Long Can a Motorcycle Run Without Oil?

A motorcycle without oil won’t last more than 40 or 50 miles before friction between the cylinders and pistons seizes your motor. Your clutch plates can also bind on a bike that uses its motor oil system to lubricate and cool its transmission.

It’s only a matter of miles, and very few, before running a motorcycle without oil seizes all motor functions.

While the exact distance your bike will go without oil depends on its engine design and cooling system(s), going 40 to 50 miles is undoubtedly pushing certain engine death.

And to be clear, that doesn’t mean we’re suggesting you jump in the saddle of a bike without oil and let it rip for 20 miles before you top it off. Even if the engine doesn’t seize, you’re damaging, wearing out, and tearing up almost all of your motor parts.

Related: Is Motorcycle Engine Braking Good or Bad? (Explained)

How Do I Know if My Motorcycle Is Burning Oil?

The first sign that your motorcycle is burning motor oil is if you notice more exhaust smoke than usual, particularly if you notice the presence of blue smoke. 

Excessive blue exhaust smoke at start-up indicates an oil leak in your valve stem seal as the cause of the burning oil.

If you’re experiencing unusually thick and immense blasts of exhaust fumes during acceleration, especially at high RPMs, a leaky piston ring is probably the site of your oil burning.

The smell of burning oil likely means oil leaks onto the hot motor and burns up. We recommend you don’t ride the bike until the leak is repaired. 

Regardless of where in your motor the oil leak is developing, an oil leak needs to be repaired asap—especially one that results in burning oil.

How Do You Know When to Change Oil?

Depending on the make and year model motorcycle, you should change your oil between 2,500 and 5,000 miles; consult your bike’s owner’s manual for the service interval schedule. You should change the oil more often than the spec after riding through harsh weather or road conditions.

The easiest way to know if you need more oil or the condition of your oil is to check your bike’s dipstick.

A few of the more modern bikes have sensors that tell the rider their oil levels via a gauge display, often digital.

Most of the bikes on the market these days at least have an oil pressure light that will light up when it gets low, indicating it’s time to change it or top it off.

But what about those times your levels are good but your oil is in poor condition?

This is when the gauges fail, as your pressure or level might be good, but only because your bike is full of debris-soaked, heat-tinted old oil.

  • If your motorcycle is air-cooled, you’ll know it’s time for an oil change if your bike’s motor starts running hotter than usual, as the dirty oil is insufficient for cooling it down. This increase in heat is most apparent when you’re stuck in traffic, and the bike is idling between legs.
  • Another sign there’s nasty old oil coursing through your moto engine’s veins is metal clunking noises, as the singed fats are failing to lubricate the metal on metal contact points the way they should be.
  • Another way you’ll know your steel horse is due for a trip to the stable is if you smell hot, burning metal while you’re riding. It might be the burned and contaminated oil itself that’s stinking up your travel plans, but it could also be the metallic friction, a sign the oil is no longer providing ample lubrication.

Related: 5 Reasons Motorcycles Make Whining Noise (Explained)

What Are the Symptoms That the Oil Level Is Low?

Most modern motos have an oil pressure warning light, making its illumination the most common symptom of low oil. Burning smells, dips in engine performance, new motor sounds, and overheating are the other symptoms of low oil on your motorcycle. 

Understanding the basics behind each symptom will help outline the importance of maintaining your motorcycle’s oil level.

Here are the 5 Most Common Signs your Motorcycle is Low on Oil

  1. Oil Pressure Light Illuminated. The simplest way to tell your bike is low on oil is when the oil pressure light kicks on. The light’s system can sense when the bike’s oil level gets too low via your oil pressure sensor, lighting up the oil pressure icon to alert you it’s time to change your oil.
  2. The Scent of Burning Oil While Riding. If you smell burning oil or fat stench while ripping roads, it’s always good to pull her over and let her rest and check for oil drips after the bike cools down. The smell could signify a leak spilling oil onto your hot engine. See the above section for tips on figuring out where.
  3. Decrease in Engine Performance. The slickening and lubricating effect of motor oil on your engine components increases and maintains your bike’s performance and efficiency. When you’re low on oil, you’ll feel a dip in power and notice a drop in your field mpg simultaneously.
  4. Weird Engine Noises. If you’re hearing metal knocking or rattling noises coming from between your legs, your bikes are overworking due to the friction we talked about at the hands of a low oil level.
  5. The Motorcycle Engine Is Overheating. This is the big one you want to avoid at all costs; the engineers built your bike to use oil to stop the engine from overheating, both from friction and from the force of operation. If your machine is overheating, the oil needs to be added asap before you continue riding to prevent your motor parts from fusing.

Related: 5 Reasons Motorcycles Misfire When Hot Or Cold (Explained)

Can You Cause Serious Damage to the Engine?

Running a motorcycle with low oil, no oil, or contaminated or expired oil will cause severe damage to your engine, including overheating, engine seizure, singed clutch plates, and, in extreme cases, total engine failure. 

Here are the common damages that running a motorcycle with low oil can cause:

  1. Worn Piston Rings: Overheating wears your piston rings early. That said, if you catch it at this point, you are in luck; repair time and costs are minimized.
  2. Damaged Pistons: If you catch it early enough, you might be able to repair and salvage the rubbed-up piston. However, after a certain wear point, a damaged piston will need to be replaced.
  3. Worn Cylinder Walls: A lack of lubrication causes friction between the piston and your inner cylinder wall.
  4. Incapacitated Engine Valves: Running a bike with less oil hinders your valve operation, eventually causing them damage.
  5. Difficulty Shifting Gears: Since a plethora of motorcycles use their engine oil systems to cool and lubricate the gearbox transmission, using your bike with insufficient oil can hinder the smoothness and efficiency of shifting.
  6. Scorched Clutch Plates: If you continue to ride your bike with low, contaminated, expired, or no oil, your clutch plates won’t have the adequate lubrication required to function. Eventually, the friction causes the plates to fuse, and they seize.
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