Motorcycles of the 70s and 80s

I don’t think there is a hardcore motorcyclist out there that hasn’t had his favourite ride. Most tend to exaggerate performance and most will lean towards the faster bikes. Like the tales of the fishermen bikes tend to become faster and faster and meaner and meaner as the beers flow but one thing will always be apparent, motorcyclists do favour certain manufacturers and perhaps not now so much but the early stalwarts would always take the Italian, British, American and German bikes over the Japanese. The World Superbike series and MotoGP will tell you which bikes take the flag now. What about then?

Honda CB900F
Honda CB900F

One thing is prevalent, each and every manufacturer has brought out a machine which in that year was a favourite. Definitely the 900cc Kwacker for those that wanted to live dangerously, then the Suzie 1100 for the speed freak, the Yamaha RD350 to show off the 750s and the six cylinder Honda for the show off.  Most non-bikers opted for the German technology just through hearsay, I was a Ducati fan because it had such a damned incredible reputation and the older riders would boast of their British rides. Harley Davidson was for the tourists. Nowadays the only older bikes I see on the road are Honda and Suzuki – testament to their robustness. Sure Honda boasted reliability and never an oil leak. I still see the first batches of CB900F’s on the road (Cape Town). I also see them parked on the highways without a rider. I don’t care, this was a fine motorcycle – its done it’s time, going over thirty years already. On a rally recently there were a few Kawasaki ex-traffic police machines – a good buy if anything because of their previous history. In the USA the 900 and 1000cc KZ or KZ-P series were very popular – actually, still are very popular.

Growing up the closest I ever got to buying a new machine was the Honda CB900 and then the awesome Ninja 900.  Prices skyrocketed due to the drop in local currency and only if you had no overheads and a dad with a fat bank balance could you afford any of the newer bikes. Still today, nothing beats the depreciation of a bike that has been ridden by a novice or drunken rider. If I look at modern bikes in comparison to those of the 70s and 80s it’s sad to see the amount of time (and passion) spent on producing replicas of racing machines. The old bikes had straight or upswept handle bars,  the daredevils would add clubman’s or clip-ons, fairings and all the mod-cons of that era. Straight handle bars on a bike made them look like bikes. Nothing like a large twin or 1000cc with straight handle bars – not for racing but to take you from point A to pint B. Not to pretend and not to exaggerate. There is after all very few riders on the road that like to maintain a steady crusing speed of Mach I on our highways. As we get older some of the newer superbikes actually look ridiculous ridden by a rider of 50+.

I rode a Honda-6 years back. It had straight handlebars. Nothing wrong with that. I didn’t go over 140Km/Hr and neither did I intend to. I think that bike would have ridden up a vertical cliff at 140Km/Hr. If I was 25 right now I would have been too ashamed to have ridden some of those old bikes – they just lacked that Rossi look. If you crash a modern bike the results are going to be the same as those vintage machines – a wreck. Bikes wreck easily. Your bones break just as easily too. Ducati and Yamaha still make awesome looking machines that don’t have to pack a fairing and handlebars that scrape the tarmac to look mean. There some ugly looking street racers out there. I’ll be honest and say upfront that I want an old bike. I want a bike that is reliable, can get the ton (mph) easily and be light on juice. Triumph springs to mind. The RD350 was beautiful. The Kwacker Z900 was orgasmic. All Ducatis are heartbreakers. The list goes on and on. Older bikes had a tendency to tank slap. Modern bikes don’t. Older bikes could also be ridden by real men and not crash.

If we reflect back on the older bikes there is one thing that we can be certain of – most bikers of the time had to be able to conduct their own running repairs, many of them had some very dodgy design quircks, they may have been quick off the mark even in today’s terms (2-stroke) but their handling could be dangerous. Let me rephrase that, their handling WAS dangerous to a novice rider and even some experienced riders.  For some obscure reason old motorcycles are sold for absurd prices, even those not running.  I’d love to pay 3000$ for a Honda 6 but I won’t unless it’s in mint condition. Many of them aren’t.  Coming from South Africa a vintage Harley sounds like a good bet but the prices are unbelieveable. Where are the bike scrapyards?

The 1980s metric – the Jap import. I stick to my 1970s and 1980s rule – buy an old bike.

  • Suzuki had some very suspect electrical wiring especially in the charging circuit. When buying an old Suzie make sure you have enough cash to do the upgrade, if you’re an electrical type guy you’ll quickly pick up the pitfall in the charger, especially when you lose ground.
  • Honda manuals aways boggled my mind with the special tools to use.
  • Kawasaki and Yamaha – well, possibly a favourite of many. I’m a fan of all Jap bikes so won’t be biased except to say do the read beforehand. All bikes have their quircks. To me Kawaski would be first choice, especially if you can get your hands on an old police bike. A friend mentions workshop bikes as well.  The engines have normally been looked after or at least you should not have smoke or lack of compression. Police auctions are a good hunting ground.
  • Try to veer away from anything that has a microprocessor – the engine control unit is not something you can discard.  Stay away from engines with cooling fins broken off (don’t ask me). If the engine idles without the tacho jumping all over the place is a good place to start. Older bikes rarely have a service record.
  • BMWs and Harleys can easily clock up high mileage. It means nothing unless it smokes like Uncle Billy Bob.
  • I love big twins. Yamaha and Kawasaki both made twin 750cc bikes.  I don’t love bikes producing HP at over 10 000 RPM, especially if you need to do maintenance.  Honda Hawks are usually very nice buys.
  • Please comment and give me your favourite scrapyard. In South Africa the main bike dealerships that may not be prone to ripping one off are usually up north in the Gauteng region. (Johannesburg).
  • Always have a motorcycling buddy that is an engine fanatic – they pick up chassis problems as well.
  • Most 80s metric bikes have lots of gizmos which can be fitted without having to make major changes.
  • A rusted frame is a no-no unless you have a spare.
  • Know what you are looking for before parting with your money.
  • There are lots of very informative websites out there – read them and take heed.

Please add your comments and let us know of your favourite scrapyard or supplier. Motorcycles are becoming more and more popular – Chinese imports are hugely popular but building your own bike is good for the soul. They also have more power 🙂



Best Motorcycle Engines ever Built


As an add on to the article which was more rage than prose, the Nissan QR25 series motors with their set of complicated problems, it would be pertinent to cover motorcycle engines which made history, some famous, some infamous. Motorcycle engines are not supposed to outlast motor car engines, they are high revving, power comes in at the top end with most of the Japanese machines and to a larger degree motorcycles just get thrashed. There are some engines that just lasted forever or were the best engines to nitro, turbo or just plain race tune. The 500cc triples by Kawasaki is a case in point, phenomenally fast, the widowmaker 750cc MachIV H2 designed for robot to robot straightline dragging and the the ever popular RD350cc were the rage in my day. Two strokes are simple beasts to work on, light and simple. They weren’t as reliable as four strokes but if you were the fastest kid on the block who really gave a damn. The Kawasaki bikes were notoriously poor handlers and cornering was never part of the equation.

Ducati 851

The website Visor Down has a very good article on the top ten motorcycle engines ever developed. There are complaints about not seeing certain engines, the BMW boxer Twins being just one of them but I think from a popularity point of view they are spot on. The fact that they added the NSR500 is a case in point. I don’t know of anyone driving these animals today but one thing has to be said – nothing could beat them.  Looking back I’d say if anyone has not ridden a two-stroke hasn’t ridden a bike, full-stop. I drove many small capacity two strokes in my younger years and the only big one was the 750cc “waterbus” from Suzuki and boy could this bike accelerate. Sadly, I never rode the RD350 although it was rumoured to be the best out there when it came onto the tracks and street racing. It was rumoured to chew big 4s for breakfast – it wasn’t cheap but still a lot cheaper than the 750s of the day. The RD350 used torque induction – I rode an RD125cc and it definitely outperformed any other bike of it’s class.  Getting onto Honda twins, every heard of the Honda 450cc – an interesting aspect to the 450cc was the use of torsion bars to close the overhead valves instead of springs. This allowed the Honda to run over 6000 RPM, something which ‘bigger’ twins could just not do in the 60s.  This made it a very interesting bike to race with, especially against bigger British twins. As kids, we had one in the house. It had done it’s time (rather aged compared to the bikes of the era – late 70s/early 80s) but the engine was still rock solid, didn’t leak, didn’t smoke and pulled like crazy. I don’t know what happened to it.  My first big bike was the Z750 Kwacker, a very nice twin. Easy to work on but heavy as a Mac truck. At the time it was possibly the slowest 750cc out there but then again it wasn’t designed for performance, Kawasaki had enough of those floating around.

If I had to put money on the best bikes around in the 70s and early 80s it could only have been the Honda 750 fours, the Kawasaki 900cc, the Katana and the oft mentioned RD350. All based on the awesomeness of the engine, nothing compared to now but that which could be fixed at home. Putting money on the MOST awesome machine between mid 70s until early 80s could only have been the six cylinder Honda CBX 1000cc. There were no worst bikes although enthusiasts are bound to disagree.  The best looking bike was the Katana. My favourite manufacturer has always been Ducati – Visor Down is spot on when they slot the 851 in at #1. They are also spot on to list the Kawasaki 500cc H1. I never rode one, I never wanted to ride one – just too many bad rumours. Read about a new ride here on the H1.

If I was going to buy a bike now from the classics of yesteryear it would be a CBX or the Suzuki GS1100, preferably a very good nick CBX. Second hand prices are ridiculous of course so if you need to get one make sure it’s never fallen and has a full service history. If you don’t know bikes, this one is going to cost you an arm and a leg to fix.

I saw a workshop bike, 851 ten years back going for U$7 000. If only I had the money. I wouldn’t have driven it – it would be in the lounge instead of my plasma screen.