Last Updated on 18/01/2021
I was born in 1971, brought up in a motorcycling household, and as we grew older, bikes were just part of our life; Dad owned a very cool Bonnie, my eldest brother also owned a Bonnie, as did many of his friends, although fast Japanese stuff was just creeping in to the group – a GPZ1100R, Kawasaki Z1 900, and even the odd two-stroke.
So my teenage years were the 80s, which is why when the Ancient Hippy suggested a feature on 1980s motorcycles, I jumped at the chance.
You see, just thinking back to that time, I still remember all the sensations, desires, longing; to be associated with my brother’s friends, and the bikes they rode.
Going beyond that, I was old enough to start thinking about the sort of bikes that I liked, and what I could perhaps get when I passed my test. This is kind of written by a 15-year-old me (but without the attitude).
I’m a little too young to consider the 80s as my motorcycling decade of choice, although of course I had started riding then – a Kawasaki AR125, Yamaha DT125R, Kawasaki KH125 (the choice of my boss after offering to lend me some money to buy some transport). I didn’t pass my test until the early 90s, so small two-strokes were it.
With that said, motorcycles were in abundance at our household. My middle brother was working for a Kawasaki dealership, dad had the Bonnie, as did my elder brother, and then there were the friends of brothers: Suzuki 550 Katana (x2), Yamaha RD200, all manner of Triumphs (including an X75 Hurricane), Gypsy 1100, Kawasaki Z1, Suzuki GS850, there was even a Rickman Kawasaki … plenty of choice for a teenage lad to think about.
My first proper job was for a well-known motorcycle tuning company, that mainly specialised in drag racing bikes, but we did quite a lot of road stuff also, and I guess it was there that I learnt to love the power of the big Japanese four-cylinder bikes (although I have a huge hankering for an RD500LC).
In my career as an automotive engineer/journalist, I’ve driven all manner of super-fast cars – Porsche, Ferrari, AMG, TVR, Lamborghini, Spyker … you name it and there’s a chance I’ve driven it, but if it ever came to a choice for a performance vehicle for the rest of my life, I’d choose a fast bike every time.
As I’ve previously written though, I’m getting on a bit now … my knees are shot, my back is in pain every day, my reactions are slowing, and my eyesight isn’t what it was … my thoughts have turned to something a little slower, and an 80s bike could just be the ticket.
The list that I’ve put together isn’t a definitive list of ‘The Greatest Bikes of the 1980s’, but rather my personal list, either that I’d want now, or that I desperately fell in love with as a kid in the 1980s.
In no particular order:
Yamaha V-Max 1200
Not to be confused with the VMAX (the later 2009 onwards version), the original V-Max was introduced in 1985, as a sort of steroid-fuelled muscled cruiser. It had a reputation.
I’ve actually owned a full-horsepower V-Max (145bhp), not a namby-pamby UK spec with 100bhp, and it was an experience. The phrase ‘Widow Maker’ could have been invented for this bike.
Even in today’s power-hungry world, the V-Max would be considered as pretty powerful, which is great, but remember that you’re dealing with 35-year-old brakes, tyre technology, suspension and chassis. All of my “oh god, I’m going to die” moments have been delivered by that V4 70-degree bastard motorcycle.
The thing about the V-Max is that it was designed for the ‘Traffic Light Grand Prix’ – getting from one set of traffic lights to the next, in the shortest possible time.
In a sprint off the line, very little could live with the ‘Max’, thanks to the near 100lb/ft of torque and fat rear tyre. (Stopping it was a different matter though).
Yamaha even designed it with a shaft drive because a regular chain would have needed adjusting after every power run. This was built for drag racing.
With that said, it was no lightweight – 631lb (compare that with something like a new Triumph Bonneville at just over 500lb), and perhaps that’s an indicator as to why the brakes felt a bit lacking.
Long motorway journeys weren’t really its forte either, but that’s OK because the fuel tank was just big enough to get you to the next petrol station.
The Yamaha V-Max: it’ll pass everything (in a straight line) except a petrol station.
Suzuki GSX1100S Katana
The big Kat was a radical departure from the usual 80s stuff, it looked like it was doing 100mph just standing still, and there was an air of menace behind it.
Given the looks, you’d have thought it had been designed by violent psychopath with a hunger for fighter jets and WMDs. The reality is a little different though – Hans Muth (the designer) was the ex-chief of styling for … BMW. Yes, really.
Everything about the Katana was to convey the message of SPEED; the sculpted seat, the shark-like fairing, the angled screen, and right in front, centre of attention was that shiny 16-valve, 1100cc engine. On its release, Suzuki claimed to have the fastest production motorcycle in the world. On looks alone, there was no doubting it.
With around 100bhp, top speed was a little over 140mph, if you compare that to the competition (around 120mph or so), you can see why every performance-nut and their cousin wanted to ride a Kat.
It’s not surprising that most of the engine work we were doing (at the aforementioned bike tuning company) was based on the Katana – it was the drag-racers choice of bike.
Even today, you’d have to say that although it was a product of its time, and looks like an early superbike, it still looks fast and capable of being a bit of a handful. The big Kat is definitely on my list for when the lottery gods sort me out.
Up until 1981, learner riders were allowed to ride bikes up to a maximum capacity of 250cc, and it was a thriving market: every manufacturer had a 250cc bike in their line-up (although some were better than others – CB250N anyone?), but the 250LC (Elsie) changed the game entirely.
Although the RD250 had been around since 1973, Yamaha introduced the liquid cooled models in 1980, and despite the UK government’s best attempt at killing the 250 market, they survived until 1987. (Probably helped by the ultra-successful 350 Pro-Am race series).
My first taste of an Elsie was courtesy of my brother, and like him, I fell in love with them instantly. That unique ‘spanny’ noise, the looks, and the way it delivered all of its 30-odd horsepower was enthralling, so very different from the four-strokes that I’d been used to.
It had a reputation too; the 250 & 350 Elsies were pure hooligan, and the only real pre-requisite to owning one was the investment in a Simpson Bandit helmet, and scruffy paddock jacket (teamed with blue jeans and trainers if you wanted to look like a seasoned pro).
They embodied the whole ‘youth of today’ movement – these weren’t owned by older riders, or purely as a commuter, they were all about noise, smoke, wheelies and bullshit. And there was an abundance of all four.
Kawasaki GPZ900R ‘Ninja’
I recently came across a beautifully kept (not restored) Ninja. Along with all the feelings and memories I had as a snot-nosed youth seeing one for the first time, I was shocked at just how … vintage … it looked. Yes, it’s 36 years old now, but I remember them as almost space age, with performance to match.
The 900R was the first ever, standard production motorcycle to break the 150mph barrier, and not with the old Smith’s speedo trick of just painting 150 on the speedo, this was real performance. Talk of power-wheelies was commonplace, and who can forget that scene in Top Gun?
This was Kawasaki at their finest, and the theme of monster speed has carried on ever since. Kawasaki seem to have a thing for producing superfast bikes, and they do it so well.
(Thinking back, all of my ‘prison speed’ speeding has been on a fast Kwack; let’s just say it all happened in Germany, but I’ve pinned everything from a ZX9R, through to the (then new) ZZR1100, modified ZX12R, and slightly modified ZZR1400. I really need to stay away from Kawasaki).
Kawasaki have used the ‘Ninja’ label on a few bikes now, but for me, it belongs to the GPZ900R – its not a Gypsy 900, it’s just a Ninja.
Kawasaki ZXR750 H1
Yes, I have a thing for Kawasakis.
Looking back through the decades, I was surprised to see one of my favourites listed in the 80s (1989) – in my mind, the ZXR was an early 90s bike, but I’ve checked and it squeaks in to the 80s.
Again, to me, this was another game changer from Kawasaki. It looked super sporty, pin sharp, and fast, probably aided by the ‘hoover’ pipes running through the fuel tank, feeding cooler air to the engine. The theory being that cooler air equals a better charge, therefore more horsepower.
As an automotive performance engineer, I can confirm that it’s true, however … this was purely a marketing gimmick employed by Kawasaki to fool teenage nerks like me into believing that they were rocketship fast.
One of my brothers had a ZXR, I was forever hearing tales of 150+ mph antics (you must remember that I was still very young, and even more impressionable), so for me, they were the daddy.
I suspect that I was rather influenced by the fact that up until then, my main point of reference for big bikes was either the Bonnies (spindly tyres, spoked wheels, relaxed riding style), or something like a Suzuki GS850 – heavy, relaxed style, but relatively fast.
The H1 sounded like nothing else also, in fact even today, I’d be able to pick out a ZXR just from listening to it.
Around ten years ago, I decided to do the whole ‘mid-life remembering the bikes of my youth’ thing and buy a ZXR for myself. The only ones that I could find had been ridden to within an inch of their life, felt slow, and worse still, so damn uncomfortable. My plan for a ZZR1100 and ZXR750 was halved.
Yamaha RD500 YPVS
Yamaha Power Valve System, four words that have tugged at my heart strings for so very long. Of course I knew of the YPVS as a young teenager, and one of my first bikes had a powervalve, albeit closed and unused … until I worked out that opening it up was simply a case of screwing the end cap off and twisting the valve.
The first highly tuned two-stroke that I rode, I thought there was a problem … it ran like a bag of spanners until it hit the powerband, and then screamed like a banshee.
I was convinced that there was a problem, to the point that I got my older brother to ride it to ‘diagnose’ the problem. He came back laughing; whether that was aimed at me for being naïve, or the ride that he’d had, I don’t truly know.
And so to the big RD …
Introduced in 1984, Yamaha were in a battle of the crazy strokers with Suzuki, who also introduced the RG500 Gamma at the same time. Both were touted as 150mph super two strokes, and they were every hooligan’s dream.
It’s also worth remembering that at that time, bike insurance was based on engine capacity, not horsepower or ‘thieve-ability’, so you could have a 150mph, 90 horsepower 500 Powervalve, for the same price as something like a Yamaha XS400, or Honda CB400N Superdream. Yikes.
It was made as a celebration of their dominance in GP racing, inspired by the YZR500 ridden by Wayne Rainey, and it featured a V4 engine with a rather clever dual-crank setup.
It was complicated and needed some proper TLC, but of course the type of buyer back then was interested in only one thing … hitting that powerband as often, and as hard as possible. TLC was sadly lacking.
That’s perhaps the reason why that today, RD500s are rare, and of course that means expensive. New price was £2,999, today you’d be lucky to find one for less than £7-8,000. (And believe me, I keep looking).
Honda VFR750R RC30
I mentioned that the GPZ900R that I saw recently had aged somewhat … it looked like a product of its time; spindly forks, simple-ish design, relatively small rear tyre, but what would you expect … it’s 30+ years old.
However, even today, 33 years after its launch, the Honda VFR750R RC30 looks racy, and would no doubt give many a sportbike a run for the money. This wasn’t just cutting edge, it was space-age.
Everything about the RC30 was made for one purpose – going fast.
Essentially, the RC30 was built for homologation purposes for Honda’s entry in the World Superbike Championship, which means that just 3,000 were built, and the attention to detail was incredible – this was 99% race bike for the road, and Honda treated it as such.
For the purpose of research, I’ve fallen down a YouTube rabbit-hole watching videos of the RC30, and one of them shows the build process; immaculate white coats and t-shirts, white gloves (unblemished) and white trousers, completely unmarked. And here’s the thing … you know for a fact that they aren’t just dressed like that for the video, this is how they were made.
(Incidentally, back in the early 2000s, I was working in the IndyCar championship in the United States, and some of the teams we worked with had recently come out of Honda contracts – the same philosophy applied – immaculately turned out, with a passion for proper engineering).
Looking at the specs today, you’d say that it isn’t exactly blessed with power – around 118 horsepower, and 52 lb/ft of torque, but that would be missing the point. Its closest competitor (the ZXR750 H1) made just over 100hp, and was nearly 50lb heavier, so was already at a disadvantage, and then of course there’s the chassis/suspension/handling difference.
The fast Kwak was no slouch, but the RC was on another level.
And we still haven’t really got to the talking point of the day – the single side swingarm. Yes, we’ve seen quite a few bikes with it designed in now, but back then, there was nothing like it. Even some of the attempts afterwards have been a miss; chassis flexing was difficult to conquer.
I knew a guy that had an RC30, everyone was jealous, and no one apart from him got to ride it, not even his more experienced brother. For those of you thinking that you still quite fancy an RC30, as do I, then you’ll need deep pockets – an average price for a used one is now around £50,000. Yes, FIFTY THOUSAND POUNDS.
This is a slight tangent.
I was never truly in love with the Gixer1100, yes they were fast and handled well (for the day), they had around 150 horsepower, which was immense at the time, but the one memory I have of the big Suzuki comes from personal experience.
I worked for a bike tuning company, well known in the drag race circles, and we had some amazing bikes coming through the doors at one time or another – a turbocharged Honda CBX1000, a few road legal drag bikes, including the boss’ road legal funny bike, but there was one that stood out in particular.
A GSX-R1100, in black Dream Machine paintwork, and enough modifications to keep us in business for a while. And they weren’t poorly thought out mods either – Wiseco big bore, turbo, twin-stage nitrous injection … this was all about the power and the posing.
The nitrous worked on two micro-switches – one fitted about quarter throttle, with the second coming in on full throttle. The owner had spent a great deal of time to make the whole thing … right, even going so far as to fit a warning light next to the speedo, in the exact same style as the official Suzuki lights, that illuminated when he hit full throttle.
The label for the warning light? “OH SHIT”
The bikes listed above are really just from my own perspective, although in most people’s eyes, they hold something special, as being part of the era that really changed motorcycling.
Up until the mid-eighties, most bikes were fairly relaxed riding style, although of course there were the café racers and specials like the Norvins. Even the big Japanese bikes weren’t what we’d call sportsbikes now – they maybe have some flat bars fitted, and some rearsets, but that would be it.
Think of the big Suzuki GS1000, Kawasaki Z1000, Honda CBX1000 … not exactly lowriders, or custom, but they certainly weren’t ‘head down, arse up’ styled.
We should also remember that this was the time when the popular British bikes were losing the fight also, either with the consumer, or the business itself. Rumour has it that at one stage, the likes of Triumph felt that they were so far ahead of the Japanese stuff, that they weren’t worried about losing sales to them – they’d become complacent.
Once the likes of Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki got their collective arses in to gear though, they blew the British manufacturers away and never looked back. Even today, you’d have to argue that the Brits struggle to compete on the same ground as the Japanese, at least when it comes to superbikes.
The Final Pick
So, with the thought of getting something a bit more suited to being a fatman, rather than a featherweight supersport bike, which of the motorcycles listed would I choose for the final, last ever choice I get to have?
I’ve done the V-Max, and quite frankly, I really don’t want the heart-thumping, brown-trouser moments that it is happy to deliver again. The RC30 would be an obvious pick, aside from the fact that I don’t have a spare £50,000 tucked in the back of the sofa, and there’s no way that I could squeeze my svelte 18 stone on to it either.
Similarly, while I can just about bend my left knee enough for a ZXR, I suspect that it would be less than a month before I’d need a trip to the chemist to get some special cream to be applied internally, and that leaves me with the RD, the big Kat, or the Ninja.
The Ninja is a no; it’s too much like a modern bike without being modern, I’d rather have a modern take of an old classic.
The RD? Hmmm my heart says yes yes yes, my head says not on your life – big money, big engine bills, big balls … I once owned a sportscar that revved hard, handled perfectly and sounded incredible, I thrashed it everywhere, each and every time I drove it, I just couldn’t help it. I fear the RD would be the same …”That the best you’ve got you pussy?”
And we’re down to the Suzuki Katana.
I think with some sensible mods – suspension and tyres mainly, I’d be happy with the Katana. It’s fast enough to be fun, docile enough to not scare me, large enough for a fatman, and still has a style that’s unique and never replicated.
What would be your motorcycle of the 80’s be?