A strong-smelling exhaust odor can mean more than just turning off your fan club of onlookers.
Unconventional engine and exhaust smells can serve as a valuable warning sign that a problem is developing in the machine.
Catching a whiff of a strong engine odor can be synonymous with catching a problem while it’s still minuscule, but only if you know what to look for.
That’s why we’ve assembled this helpful list of 11 reasons your motorcycle might have a strong exhaust smell!
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Why Does My Motorcycle Smell Like It’s Burning?
While leaving behind the stench of burning is only embarrassing for some riders, it’s alarming for most of us.
It’s especially concerning when you can’t figure out where the stench is coming from.
Your motorcycle would smell like it’s burning if you had oil leaking from the cylinder head onto the exhaust system—oil dripping onto a hot surface burns quickly due to its high-fat content and low flash point.
If exploded or leaking oil is being burned on hot engine surfaces, it’s essential that you find and repair the leak before you ride. If it’s leaking oil onto the hot surfaces, there’s potential for the leak to spray oil onto your back tire, which can cause a collision.
If your bike’s burning smell is accompanied by burning rubber and plastic, you may have overworked your brakes and glazed your pads to your rotors.
On older motors, drum brake systems have return springs that can snap and cause brakes to drag on the discs, overheating and causing a burning smell to radiate from your motorcycle while riding.
Below are reasons your motorcycle has a strong exhaust smell:
1. Exhaust Leak
The exhaust system on your motorcycle has more to do than just look fly and sound tough–exhaust systems are a significant part of the combustion process that propels your motorcycle forward.
Pipes and headers wear out eventually due to corrosion from the elements, road grime, and salts.
That said, exhaust fumes are a gas; vapor leaks aren’t as visible as something like an oil leak making an exhaust leak hard to detect.
In addition to a strong exhaust smell, a motorcycle exhaust leak will be accompanied by popping sounds generated by the pipe headers. To locate the leak, hover a paper object above the exhaust while the bike runs until you see it flapping from airflow.
An exhaust leak is likely why your bike has a strong odor, as that’s the most common symptom.
To be clear, the strong exhaust odor we’re referring to is much more poignant than the usual light smoke scent that’s typical for moto riding due to the exposed engine.
If there’s a leak in your motorcycle’s exhaust system, the exhaust smell is strong, constant, excessive, and unwavering.
2. Worn Piston Rings
In addition to producing a solid exhaust order, a motorcycle with worn piston rings will produce an excessive cloud of dark exhaust smoke flowing from its rear pipes.
The smoke itself will smell like it’s burning, but the smoke’s smell and dark color are the results of oil leaking into your combustion chamber because of the worn piston rings’ failure to seal effectively.
Therefore, if worn piston rings are the reason your motorcycle makes a strong burning smoke odor, you’ll also notice an increase in your bike’s oil consumption that’s far above usual.
3. Short Exhaust Pipes or Tips
Motorcycle motors are engineered to run on a specific air ratio to fuel. The size of the exhaust pipes is based on the intake specs, as the exhaust system provides the final piece to the process of combustion that maintains a bike’s momentum and power supply.
The pipe length of a motorcycle affects fuel, oil, and air regulation.
While cutting your pipes down might be tempting for cosmetic or sound boosts, it affects the pipe’s ability to generate positive and negative pressure for combustion.
This allows the exhaust fumes to escape at a rate that’s ideal for engine cylinder performance.
If a motorcycle exhaust pipe is shortened, the resulting positive pressure raises the valve’s pressure, and the regulation of exhaust release is hindered. The back pressure can cause backfiring, misfiring, and a strong exhaust smell.
Please also read our article about reasons a motorcycle blows white or black smoke.
4. Incorrect Air-Fuel Ratio
The air-fuel ratio for ideal combustion and engine performance varies from bike to bike and even from engine to engine.
If adjustments are made either to the exhaust, air intake, or fuel systems, the air-fuel ratio needs to be adjusted.
- If the air combustion mixture has too much fuel, we say the engine is running rich.
- There’s only so much room in the combustion chamber, so if there’s excess fuel flow, it’s at the cost of air supply.
- Whether the bike isn’t tuned to deal with an excessive fuel supply or the bike is running rich because of a fuel system malfunction, the excess fuel will be too much to combust in the chamber.
As the un-combusted fuel has nowhere else to go, it forces its way into the exhaust system. The heat in the exhaust will combust the fuel inside the headers, causing a popping noise and the strong scent of burning fuel comes from your exhaust.
5. Oil Leaking into the Bike Motor
Suppose oil is leaking into your bike’s motor. In that case, the situation will be virtually identical to the events described in the worn piston rings section, resulting in a strong burnt exhaust odor coming from your motorcycle while riding.
Since bad rings aren’t the only way oil can get into your bike’s motor and cause this strong smell, we figured we’d dedicate an additional section to troubleshooting the presence of oil in your engine.
The most common reason oil leaks into a motorcycle engine is a worn oil filter seal or a cracked seal between the oil pan and the bike’s engine block. Another possible culprit is a faulty drain plug of the filler cap.
Regardless of the cause, oil leaking into places in your engine where it doesn’t belong causes burning, overheating, and some strong motor scents.
6. Water in the Exhaust System
The presence of water in your motorcycle’s exhaust system can produce some concerning and unconventional smells.
This can happen due to washing your motorcycle with pressurized water, riding through flooded roads, or storing your bike in an area that’s prone to flooding.
If your motorcycle was submerged up to its engine in water, the smell is the least of your concern; your bearings will need replacement, and your suspension and electrical components and chains will all be compromised.
However, suppose the bike was only submerged or sprayed enough for water to enter your exhaust. In that case, it’s likely just moisture, mud, and dirty water sediment in your pipes that’s burning while you’re riding and producing that pungent exhaust stench.
Remove the exhaust, drain any sitting water, and detail clean it up to the headers. If the water penetrated the headers, too, you might want to remove the exhaust at the headers and have your whole exhaust system cleaned.
7. Bad Exhaust Packing Replacement
Some bikes use a silencer box filled with what’s referred to as exhaust packing.
Of the percentage of the exhaust, pipe soundwaves are absorbed into the packing fibers.
The packing fibers are vaporized in the process and blown out of the pipes.
If the replacement pacing is installed incorrectly or inadequate for the silencer box in use, the bad reaction can produce an odor sometimes described as a strong exhaust smell.
That said, failing to replace the box packing can also produce excessive exhaust fumes and negatively impact your engine’s horsepower and torque.
8. Overfilling Oil Levels
Overfilling the oil in your motorcycle’s engine can lead to oil leaking into the engine and burning, which we’ve covered elsewhere in the article.
That said, the excess oil can also clog your air filter, accumulate crankshaft pressure, and blow some oil seals. Not only that, your exhaust smoke will be thick and smell strong with burning oil.
9. Foreign Item Stuck in Exhaust System
While the image of a banana shooting out of an exhaust pipe is familiar and comical, riders whose children put plastic toys into the exhaust pipe may be up for a different type of surprise.
If a plastic foreign object clogs your exhaust system and isn’t shot out at startup, it may melt down inside your exhaust. Other objects can cause a rupture in your exhaust line.
Regardless of the type of object, a foreign object lodged into your exhaust pipe can cause strong exhaust fumes to escape from your pipe headers.
10. Fuel Leak
If the burning exhaust smell is actually burnt fuel, or if your bike smells like gas, your bike may be leaking fuel.
Motorcycle fuel leaks can develop from the fuel tank, the fuel lines, or your bike’s carburetor, if applicable.
It’s also possible that you overfilled your motorcycle’s fuel, as the excess fuel will squirt out of your bike’s overflow hose onto the ground.
Fuel leaks can also develop under the tank, where the valves and hoses connect.
Regardless, motorcycle fuel is obviously combustible; if you suspect the strong exhaust smell is actually burnt fuel due to a fuel leak, the leaking components need to be replaced immediately before starting the motorcycle.
Related: Motorcycle Smells Like Gas
11. Blown Head Gasket
If your motorcycle’s strong exhaust smell is accompanied by white steam, you might have a blown head gasket.
A blown head gasket isn’t a common occurrence on a well-kept motorcycle.
Typically, it’s the result of the cylinder head and engine block metal expanding at different rates, causing a widening gap the head gasket struggles to seal until finally it’s overworked and blows out.
If a blown head gasket is the reason your motorcycle has a strong exhaust smell, the white steam in your exhaust smoke will be accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Power and performance loss
- Engine overheating
- External oil and coolant leaks
- Oil contaminated with milky sludge due to the presence of coolant (on liquid-cooled bikes).