Chain Drive VS Shaft Drive Motorcycles

We all enjoy the fun of riding motorcycles, but, do you know how the power produced by the motorcycle engine is transmitted to the rear wheel and makes the motorcycle move?

There are three types of drives, chain drive, shaft drive, and belt drive for transmitting the power from the engine to the rear wheel. In this article, we will discuss the differences between a chain drive and a shaft drive.

Chain drive is the most common design for transmitting power from the engine to the rear wheel, but a few high-end motorcycles use shaft drive.

BMW has many motorcycle models with shaft drives. Some examples of other manufacturers include the Suzuki Boulevard C50T and the Honda Gold Wing.

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Motorcycle Chain Drive vs Shaft Drive

Let’s check out the differences between a chain drive and a shaft drive.

Both drive systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

The major advantage of a chain drive system is its simple design, high transmission efficiency, ease of maintenance, and affordable replacement cost. The disadvantage is it needs regular day-to-day maintenance.

The major advantages of a shaft drive system are its smooth operation, no need for day-to-day maintenance, and lasts for a longer period. The disadvantage is its higher cost.

How They Work

The chain drive system has two sprockets: a drive sprocket on the output shaft of the gearbox and a driven sprocket mounted on the rear wheel axle. A closed chain moves over the sprockets to transmit power to the rear wheel.

The teeth on the sprockets are continuously in mesh with the links of the chain and when the drive sprocket rotates it pulls the chain along and makes the rear sprocket rotate.

The transmission loss of a chain drive ranges from 1 to 4%.

Chain drive can be used for any motorcycle regardless of its engine capacity.

The shaft drive system has a shaft that is connected to the gearbox through a universal joint and the other end of the shaft is connected to the rear wheel by a spiral bevel pinion.

The universal joint allows the flexibility of transmitting the drive at any angle.

The output gear of the gearbox drives the shaft. The bevel pinion on the other end of the shaft meshes with the bevel gear on the wheel hub at 90° and transmits the drive to the wheel (90° differential).

The shaft drive system works in a completely sealed enclosure filled with lubricating oil. Dirt or debris cannot enter the shaft drive system.

The transmission loss of a shaft drive is 20 to 25%.

The shaft drive system is heavy and requires more torque for efficient working, and it is suitable for motorcycles with an engine capacity of 600 ccs or more.

Maintenance and Repair

Chain drives are normally safe, but in rare cases, chain snapping can happen and cause serious injury to the rider or an accident if the chain wraps around the sprocket.

However, chain snapping may happen in extreme cases where the rider has completely neglected to take care of it.

A shaft drive is generally safer and will not cause an accident or injury to the rider.

Chain drive needs day-to-day inspection and maintenance like cleaning, lubrication, ensuring the alignment of the driver and driven sprockets, and correcting chain tension, etc. These can be done by the rider fairly easily.

Chain drives typically have a life of up to 20,000 miles and after that need replacement.

A shaft drive is sturdier than a chain drive, runs very smooth, and requires less maintenance.

A properly maintained (adhering to scheduled servicing and oil change) shaft drive system can last for the entire life of the motorcycle.

Most of the maintenance of a chain drive can be done by an experienced rider on a DIY basis or you can get it done by your local mechanic. The replacement parts will are readily available and the cost of labor and spare parts will be reasonable.

The maintenance of the shaft drive motorcycles usually has to be done at an authorized service center. Your local mechanic may not always be equipped to service motorcycles with shaft drives. The cost of labor and spare parts is considerably more than a chain-driven motorcycle.

Motorcycle Chain Drive

The chain drive system has two sprockets, a driver sprocket on the output shaft of the gearbox and a driven sprocket on the rear wheel axle and a closed chain moves over the sprockets to transmit the drive. The size of the sprockets depends on the individual design of the motorcycles and the capacity of the engine.

The teeth on the sprockets are continuously in mesh with the links of the chain and when the driver sprocket rotates it pulls the chain along and makes the driven sprocket rotate. The chain is more susceptible to wear and tear in off-road riding conditions.

The chain drive is simple and cheaper than a shaft drive, and can work in dry and wet weather. If taken care properly of by doing the day-to-day inspection and small maintenance like lubricating the chain, ensuring the alignment of the driver and driven sprockets, and correcting chain tension, the chain drive will last a long time.

Chain drives cost you less for replacement and repair. The front and rear sprockets should have perfect alignment to decrease power losses.

There are two main types of chains. The first is the standard roller chain that does not have a seal and the second is the sealed chain (also called an O-ring chain).

You may find unsealed chains on older motorcycles or low-end motorcycles. Unsealed chains require more frequent lubrication, and other periodic inspection and maintenance.

Sealed chains have rubber seals between the inner plate and an outer plate of the chain link (the roller is sandwiched between the two inner plates of the link) and the rubber seal seals the grease sucked around the roller pin during the manufacture of the chain (the grease is sucked under vacuum).

The rubber seal does not allow water or dust particles into the roller pin and this ensures the lubrication of the pin. A sealed chain needs comparatively less lubrication than an unsealed chain.

Shaft Drive Motorcycles

A shaft drive is sturdier than a chain drive, runs very smooth, and requires less maintenance. A properly maintained (adhering to scheduled servicing and oil change) shaft drive system can last for the life of the motorcycle.

A shaft drive consists of a shaft that is connected to the gearbox through a universal joint and the other end of the shaft is connected to the rear wheel by a spiral bevel pinion. The universal joint allows the flexibility of transmitting the drive at any angle.

The output gear of the gearbox drives the shaft. The bevel pinion on the other end of the shaft meshes with the bevel gear on the wheel hub at 90° and transmits the drive to the wheel (90° differential).

The shaft drive system works in a completely sealed enclosure filled with lubricating oil. Dirt or debris cannot enter the shaft drive system.

Shaft drives are heavy, expensive, and more suitable for higher capacity/ torque motorcycles (600 cc engine and above). They are not suitable for low-capacity or low-torque motorcycles.

However, shaft drives are not as efficient as chain drives and the transmission loss is as high as 20 to 25% versus 1 to 4% of the chain drive.

Shaft drives are preferable for motorcycles that run long distances continuously and with possible rough patches in between. This is why many high-end touring motorcycles often have shaft drives.

Both chain drive and shaft drive have their advantages and disadvantages, but they both transmit the power you need to move the motorcycle. Hope this article has given some insight to you on the final drive on your motorcycle. Happy riding!