Bikes Like They Used To Make ‘Em . . . Again!

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People get into bikes for many reasons, but probably two of the big ones are fun – and affordability. The fun is directly proportional to the affordability, too. A bike you can buy outright eases stress. Big payments for the next several years adds stress.2015-Yamaha-SR400b

And stress is the mortal enemy of fun.

As motorcycles have become more complex, more features-laden (ABS, programmable throttle tip-in, GPS) they’ve also become (just like cars) more expensive to buy and maintain. And thus, in a very significant way a lot less fun.

Even if they are quicker – and faster – than ever.

The antidote to all this Too Much is a return to Just Right – embodied by a small but growing cohort of new bikes that are a lot like the old bikes many of us owned back in the ’70s and ’80s – right down to kick-start only and a budget-friendly cost of acquisition. But these bikes are not beginner bikes – i.e., too small/too underpowered to hang onto once the basics of riding have been mastered – though they’d make good ones because of their approachability and easygoing natures.

Experienced riders will smile, too.

These are bikes anyone can ride anywhere. And feel great doing it.

Which sounds to me like a lot of fun!

* 2015 Yamaha SR400 (base price $5,990)

A big air-cooled single; spoked wheels, chrome grab rail, twin coil-over shocks in back, banana seat on top, kick-starter on your right side, no electric starter anywhere and – wait for it – fork gaiters.

It’s 1978 again!2015-Yamaha-SR400f 2

Well, almost. The SR400 (unlike its ancestor, the ’78 SR500) is fed by injection, not a carb – and there’s a cross-drilled disc brake, not a drum brake – up front now. But excepting these concessions to modernity, this bike is a time machine.

It simplicity is its essence. And, the source of its appeal.

The 400 CC single overhead cam/two-valve engine makes 31.5 hp at 6,500 RPM and 26.8 ft.-lbs. of torque at 5,500 – the “thumper’s” emphasis being plenty of pull in the low and mid-ranges, with guts enough on top  to make the bike anywhere-ridable.

In keeping with this ideal, the riding posture is relaxed, the bike itself is very light (348 lbs.) and the straightforward suspension (telescopic tubes up front, not inverted, with five-way adjustable coil over shocks out back) has 5.9 inches of travel, to soak up the bumps – so your posterior doesn’t have to. The wide-ratio five-speed transmission is another shout-out to a less hurried time. And with 60 MPG capability and a 3.7 gallon tank, it should be a good long time in between fill-ups, too.

The bike also screams out for the Cafe Racer treatment. Low bars, custom tank – clip ons, even. And with the money you didn’t spend on the bike, you’ll have the means to customize the bike. To make it uniquely special – and uniquely yours. That’s how it was, back in the day.

And now the day is today.

* 2014 Honda CB1100 (base price $10,399)2014_Honda_CB1100_left

Herewith the return of the UJM – the Universal Japanese Motorcycle. You remember the UJM? Maybe not – if you’re under 35 or so. So, here’s a quick refresher:

Back in ’69, Honda gave the masses the first mass-produced, large capacity, multi-cylinder/overhead camshaft motorcycle – the now-legendary CB750. The features it boasted (including disc brakes) outclassed everything short of high-dollar exotics and full-on race bikes – made available at an everyman price – with everday reliability thrown in.

Fast forward a couple years and everyone had jumped on the bandwagon, issuing their own version of the CB750. In ’73, Kaw rolled out the Z1900. Suzuki, the GS750. Yamaha, its XS750. Various permutations appeared – but the common layout remained well, common, for most of the ’70s and well into the ’80s, culminating in 1000 and even 1,100 CC bikes like the Eddie Lawson race-replica Z1R and the Honda CB1100F on the high-performance end, and standards like the Honda Nighthawk 750 on the other end.2015-Honda-CB1000a

And then, they almost all disappeared.

By the early 2000s, if you wanted a serious sport bike, it was a faired crotch rocket with a water-cooled engine hidden behind plastic covers. You rode tucked in – and hunched over – which was fun for 20 minutes at a time and no fun at all after that. The long ride-viable standards, meanwhile, were almost extinct, excepting little bikes – beginner bikes – like the Nighthawk 250.

There wasn’t much in between anymore.

Now, there is.

The 2014 CB1100 is, first of all, a liter bike. 1140 CCs, to be precise. That it is also an air-cooled liter bike (unlike my beloved but water-cooled ’03 ZRX1200R, which tried to resurrect the spirit of the ’81 Eddie Lawson repli-racer Z1R) means that for the first time in a long time you can buy a brand-new bike that’s almost exactly like the king of the hill superbikes of the late ’70s.

Dual downtube steel frame. Dual shocks. Four-into-one (or – optionally, four-into-two) pipes. Chromed pipes.

Chromed fenders, too.

Mag wheels. Big round headlight. Non-inverted fork tubes.

And then there’s the stuff you can’t see that brings the ’70s into the 21st century – such as the standard six-speed transmission – and the optionally available large-capacity fuel tank.

This bike – like the Zeds and CBs of the ’70s – begs to be modded out.  Maybe start with pod air filters. And like the big air-cooled fours of the ’70s, you can get at this engine with basic hand tools. It practically begs to be wrenched on.

And that, friends, is what makes it so much fun!

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. I had a Suzuki (2014) Savage//s40 for two years. rode the hell out of it. Never failed me once in 13,500 miles. All over the state of Kentucky. Tank like reliability and very user serviceable. Adjusting valves was like on my old 69 Datsun.

    650 CC air cooled thumper with a carb and 4 valve single overhead cam. This is a modern classic bike. 380 pounds, would run all day long at highway speeds with out breathing hard. I jetted the carb and ditched the restrictive exhaust and it would scoot – topped out above 90. Not only was it more “classic” than the SR400, it would eat its lunch – a very muscular bike. And so easy to ride and sling around. It was everything my old BSA should have been. I know of riders doing thousand mile trips on them.

    Sadly, my garage has room for only one bike and two cars. A few months ago a deal on a 2017 Indian Scout Sixty came my way that was too good to pass up. It was tough letting the thumper go, but I’ve wanted a Scout for some time, never really expected “the deal” to come along. But honestly, that Savage was probably one of the best bikes made today. Simple and serviceable is not bad and over featured is not necessarily better.

    I get a little teary eyed talking about it.

    • Hi Greg,

      Amen. I have owned easily 20 bikes over the years and I have to say that some of my best memories were astride the simple/elemental bikes such as you’ve described. My old Honda XL500 was one; then there was the Kawasaki KL250 – and then my CB550 Honda.

      I need to get a bike like that again. If I ever have spare cash again!

  2. Eric,

    I LOVE the Yamaha SR400! I would like to get me one. It has everything you need and none of what you don’t. Plus, being a thumper, it’s like and flickable when the road gets twisty… 🙂

  3. speaking of new old bikes…check out ural sidecar motorcycles based on the bmw R71 of the ’30s. They have bee made since then and only now in 2014 have the switched to all disc brakes and fuel injection. Before this year, they had 1 disc and 2 drum and carbs; before 2003, they were drums all around. Still all steel with a kick start and all are hand made at the factory.

    • A guy in my area has one of those – they look pretty cool!

      But I’ve always been leery of sidecars, for all the obvious reasons.

  4. Aprilia Scarabeo 500ie Scooter with GoPro Hero2 on I-280 south of San Fran

    Scarabeo 500 Superlight Dyno

    Peel P50 – $330 total price (1963) – 38 mph top speed

    Peel Trident & Peel P50

    Peel P50

    Brütsch Mopetta

    Brütsch Mopetta 1956

    • A better bet for city work would be scooters like the Honda Helix, Honda Reflex, or the new Honda Spazio (an updated Reflex). These are 250cc to 300cc machines. They’re more than light enough for the city, but have enough legs for hitting the arterials or the highways; they can even hop on the freeway for a short stretch in a pinch, i.e. from one exit to the next.

  5. I remember my best bike value purchase. I picked up a 1980 Kawasaki KZ750 for a song and a dance. My friend who had owned the bike previously, was Asian. His grandmother was as well (go figure). She cooked the family meals with a wok out in the garage where the bike was parked.

    When I purchased the bike, it was a mess cosmetically. But a little scrubbing with a bristle brush and Tide detergent removed the years of airborne chicken fat from the cooking and was rewarded with an absolutely pristine bike underneath. Chicken fat! Poor-mans cosmoline! Who knew?

    • Hi Dale,

      Have you still got the Kz? The 750s are pretty rare. IIRC, they were home market (Japan) versions of the 900/1000, which were downsized to 750 CCs to keep within the laws limiting displacement (over there).

      I haven’t seen a 750 Kaw in years!

      Still have my 900, by the way….

      • Eric – I have a friend with KZ750, but I’m not sure of the year (early ’80’s). It’s been sitting in his shed for years since he had back surgery. Just the other day I asked him if he’d like to sell it and he not only said he would, but he’d let it go cheap since it’s been sitting so long. You’ve got me thinking that bike would be a nice addition to my stable. I’m going to go look it over and if it’s not too rusty (especially inside the tank) I may just buy it.

        • Hey Boothe,

          Go for it – seriously.

          Those bikes are great fun. Sport bike power, but “standard” ergos. Very easy to customize and parts are no problem.

          If you get it, let me know and I’ll hip you to some of the parts (new and used and NOS) sources I’ve got.

      • Hi Eric,

        No, the KZ went many years ago. It was an amazing bike in that it did everything well. Many of today’s bikes do not have a mistake fuse. What I mean by that is that today’s bikes are really excellent at HP, handling and brakes (I’m talking sportbikes now). Incredible lean angles, braking performance and warp-speed acceleration. If you ride near the edge, which is not recommended on the street, going over the edge comes very quickly without the benefit of tailwagging when the frame loads up with stress. The KZ was a very forgiving bike because it would slowly begin to complain when ridden hard. Lot’s of time to give consideration to whether you really wanted to be going fast today.

        On the other hand, if you can learn to ride today’s bike quickly, you will have a great time “On Any Trackday” (new Bruce Brown movie?). I look at pictures of M/C roadracing today and marvel at the lean angles. In my heyday (70’s-80’s), one could expect to see these lean angles on the way down to the ground with no hope of return to upright position! The level of skill exhibited by current racers is amazing!

        My current bike is a 1987 Kawasaki EX500 in white, owned since 5K miles. IMHO, one of the best looking bikes ever. Because I raced bikes under 400 pounds, I tend to gravitate towards them in the real world. And I’ve kept it through many other bikes was well.

        All the best, Eric. Keep writing your great articles. I use many of them in my college instruction (with proper credit, one can always use more readers) as you tell the other side of our current dilemma regarding alternative fuel vehicles. Lately, been going over the disposable nature of the next generation of very short fused cars. 250 hp from 1 liter? 14.0:1 compression? Really expect these cars to be repairable for cheap? My! Is the motoring public going to get a wake-up call…

        Found you on AS and life has been good since!

        • Ditto on the lean angles/capabilities of modern bikes – and also, the virtues of the old bikes. I’m fortunate in that I still have the old Kz900 – which provides instant perspective vs. a modern sport bike (I’ve got one of those, too).

          In some respects, the old Kaw feels extremely modern – which shows just how advanced it was back in ’73, when the series was introduced. The engine is smooth, torquey and powerful. Also as unbreakable as an anvil. Kaw over-engineered the big DOHC fours to such an extent that the only way to hurt one is by deliberate abuse. And even then, they are hard to kill.

          But the downside – if you’re forgetful – of that modern engine is the not-so-modern suspension and brakes. Perfectly ok for ordinary knocking around, but not matched to the capabilities of the engine.

          At around 125, my bike will start to head shake. I’ve been meaning to replace the original steering bearings with modern roller type, which I am certain would help.

          On the “short fuse” modern stuff – definitely. I don’t expect to see many, if any, of today’s cars still operational 20 years from now.

          But my old Kaw will still be rolling!

          • Hi Eric,

            Don’t overlook the fact that built in trail in tires can cause an instability. Some tires steer faster and sacrifice a bit of stability for quick turn-in capability. For instance, the old Dunlops were really stable when compared to a Metzler. Tire shape (trigononic vs. a more rounded profile will be quick steering. Complicated by the fact that proper tires for a 18/19/21 inch rim are difficult to find now that pretty much everything has gone to wide 17″.

            Head bearings are a good place to start, but don’t overlook a damper. Use just enough to stop the head shake or heavy steering will result.

            Another trick I’ve used was to construct a simple set of dividers out of sheet metal. Take the rear axle and swing-arm pivot bolt out and use a lathe to place a center mark in the center of the bolts, both sides. When reassembled, use the dividers to absolutely set the rear axle parallel to the swing-arm. Chain adjustments marks should be called suggestions as they can be off a bit.

            If you still have head shake, let me know as I have other suggestions too, but they start getting into checking wheel spacing and front/rear wheel alignment, more like race prep, but it can really help if you have a concern you haven’t id’ed yet.

  6. These bikes look good.

    I am curious to amount of maintenance required compared to a more modern water-cooled designed motorcycle. (more or less, easier/harder for DIY maintenance )

    I am guessing that since there are less systems on these air-cooled bikes there will be less maintenance required (though not necessarily easier maintenance).

    • IMHO there is really no difference. Once every year or so drain the coolant & replace with less than 1 gallon 50/50 regular long life antifreeze (about $10.00 at Wal*Mart) just like your car. I have never had a water-cooled related failure on a bike that has been normally maintained. Every problem I have ever seen came from years of neglect before the failure.

      • Garysco wrote, “IMHO there is really no difference.”…


        I mean, the swing-arm on a sport bike (this bike, these bikes) is the same as an enduro regarding maintenance schedules?

        Perhaps I’m misreading you?

        When Mithrandir says, “I am guessing that since there are less systems on these air-cooled bikes there will be less maintenance required”

        What I gather from that is, maintenance times are extended.
        I would hope.

        [Is it true?]

        Maybe not the, “Once every year or so drain the coolant & replace with….” stuff, but the other stuff, like the swing-arm, and shit like that. The not-so-easy-to-do-stuff.

        Anyway, who has time or inclination to, “Once every year or so drain the coolant & replace with less than 1 gallon 50/50…” Crap, it’s hard enough just checking the air pressure every season. Let alone every month! Not everyone can be on top of things like you guys. Ya know.

        Ride it hard, and put it away wet.

      • Hi Gary,

        Ah, but that’s the catch!

        An air-cooled bike is much less vulnerable to the kind of damage that results from “just sitting” than is a water-cooled bike.

        I’ve dealt with oil-cooled bikes that had literally been parked in a garage under a cover for 10-plus years. Getting them back into service usually involved not much more than a thorough cleaning of the tank/carbs, some light oil shot into into cylinders (then rotate it by hand) followed by fresh oil and filter… etc.

        But leave a water-cooled bike parked for 10-plus years and you are often looking at serious – and expensive – problems.

        Example: My friend Graves’ early ’80s Honda GL500 is water cooled and these bikes (transverse twin) require splitting the engine cases to service the water pump. If you’re not someone with almost professional mechanic skill (and tools) this is a job that will have to be farmed out to the dealer. The bill will be in the neighborhood of $1,000.

        A few years back, my ’03 ZRX – also water cooled – suddenly began to vent steam while I was out riding. Turned out some little bit of road debris had been kicked up and into the radiator, piercing it. A new radiator cost me $400.

        If the bike sits a long while, water jackets can corrode – and that can be a debacle to deal with.

        With air-cooled bikes, so long as the engine is sealed (and had reasonably fresh oil in it when it was last run), it is much less likely you’ll have to deal with significant or expensive issues to get it back into service.

        And there is much less to service.

        The chief downside – as I see it – is that hp/performance are limited by the ability of the engine to deal with the heat generated. Water-cooled liter class sport bikes routinely produce 140-plus hp and are completely reliable, even on very hot days. But getting to 140 hp with an air-cooled bikes and not having to worry about the thing overheating itself to death… that’s no easy trick!

      • @Helot – Every bike I have ever owned had its own maintenance schedule, and none were exactly alike. Like valve adjustment every 7, 12, 15,000 miles, or not at all for older Nighthawk’s. My Honda ST has no recommendations for swing arm maintenance or a lube fitting, my KLR did,. I can also usually go 12- 18,000 on a set of tires on the ST but never got more than 6,000 on the KLR.

        For a nightmare look at the maintenance bad dream (labor hours & $$$) on Can-Ams, and another big Jap cruiser I can’t remember right now. If I were to look at a brand new machine I would take those factory recommendations into consideration as a cost of ownership.

        @Eric – 10 years? How many vehicles can sit out back for that long? 🙂 Not really a factor I am going to consider at purchase time. Like I said “Every problem I have ever seen came from years of neglect before the failure.”

        Ya, rocks, nails, valve stem blowouts (Mr. Toad’s wild tank-slapping freeway ride that day), birds – all hazards that make riding fun.

        • I’ve rescued probably a dozen old bikes that had been sitting for years before I got to them! The most recent was the ’75 S1 – which last ran (before I restored it) circa 1987. But the engine still turned freely – which was of course a Huge Big Deal insofar as salvaging it.

          Had it been a water-cooled bike, I doubt the engine would have been rebuildable – at least not without some serious work (and money).

    • Hi Mith,

      Definitely (objectively) less.

      The air-cooled engines will only need periodic oil/filter changes and occasional valve lash adjustment – the latter being easier to do on an air-cooled bike because the engine is easier to get at/work on.

      At minimum with the water-cooled bike you will need to do regular (once every other year) coolant changes, as well as (eventually) replace the thermostat, hoses, water pump – just as you’d be dealing with if you owned a water-cooled car engine.

      The coolant change issue is also something you really want to keep up with if the bike is lightly used/”just sits” for periods of time.

      Air-cooled bikes are much more able to “just sit” without developing problems.

      And, bottom line, you’ll pay less up front. Because you’re not paying for a radiator, etc.

      • Eric,

        Re: restarting of aircooled bikes after long time of inactivity
        That sounds reasonable.

        Not exactly related, but I wonder how Honda can offer a CB500F for about $500 less than the Yamaha SR400.

        It is possible that one bike uses a lesser quality of materials or that the labor costs of one are higher than the other.

        I realize that a $500 difference is not significant, especially if the total cost of ownership (maintenance, repairs, etc,) of the Yamaha is less.

        Still at the end of the day, a motorcycle similar to the SR400 looks like it would be fun to ride. Assuming that it can use most of the accessories made since it (SR400/SR500) was introduced in the 1970s, this motorcycle will be easy to customize to individual tastes.

        • Just a guess here, but Honda makes the same 500 in 3 flavors. Maybe a single world wide production of the engine/ frame is cheaper? Or are they just getting aggressive? Don’t know.

          • It’s both!

            It is less expensive to sell a given engine/frame in multiple markets as opposed to selling one type “here” and another “there.”

            But there is also resurgent interest in more – what I’ll call manageable – bikes. Meaning, simpler (and middleweight) and more modestly priced.

            In the US, for a long while now, there hasn’t been much in between little beginner bikes like the 250 Rebel and dual sports in that same engine size range – and pretty aggressive (and pretty big) bikes.

            Back in the ’70s and ’80s, there were lots of 350-650-ish CC bikes around. They were more than beginner bikes, but still very affordable and in many cases a lot of fun. (One of the best bikes I have ever owned was an ’83 Honda CB550.)

            I’m glad to see bikes of this general type making a comeback!

          • @Eric- My favorite salesman at the big powersports dealership (Can-Am, Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha, Victory, Harley) is a very long time rider, Victory owner and overall savvy guy. When i was in the other day I asked him about the Yamaha. He said they were not out yet, and he has not seen it. He said he just bought a CB500X for local riding and that he was very happy with it.

            • Yup – it’s a 2015… should be available soon, though.

              The CB is a bike I’d like to get some seat time on… it looks like it’d be a fun ride!

        • Hi Mith,

          This is just an opinion, but I would put the difference in price down to the fact that the SR has more chrome/polished metal than the CB.

          Plastic is inexpensive – but these days, metal plating isn’t.

          That said, the CB is still a pretty great deal. It looks like a very fun bike, too.

          (I am working on getting test rides, so I can do some comprehensive reviews of the new bikes.)

      • Hi Clay,

        Scooters are cool – especially some of the latest stuff. I particularly like the Honda Silverwing because it’s go-anywhere (including the highway/long trips) but some of the smaller in-city stuff also has a lot of appeal. 100-plus MPG for about $3,500 or so is the ticket.

      • Clay,

        I have a Suzuki Burgman 400; it’s a GREAT bike! I can put 3-4 bags of groceries under the seat. It’s small enough to use in the city (though not optimal like a 250cc scooter would be), while having enough legs for the highway too. I love it!


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