Last Updated on 08/04/2021
It was 2001 when the Triumph Hinckley factory released what in my opinion was the first retro motorcycle – A thoroughly modern Bonneville that took it’s styling straight from the original Meriden design.
19 years later and the retro motorcycle scene goes from strength to strength. In this article Jamie picks out 8 retro motorcycles for 2020 including a couple that
should could tempt him towards the light……
There was a time, and not that long ago, that motorcycles (for me) were all about speed, acceleration, sharp handling and performance. I revelled in the fact that I could carry some decent speed through the twisties, and when the conditions allowed, pin the throttle wide open and really rack up those numbers.
This is what motorcycles were for, not bumbling about on a sunny Sunday being at peace with the world. It wasn’t just bikes – I was a performance car engineer for most of my working life, so pretty much all of my vehicles were fast, and I used them for what they were intended.
I feel a little sheepish saying that now, for I’m older, wiser and … less stupid. I’d like to add that the big numbers only really happened with thought, and where (I believed) to be appropriate, but nevertheless, it was pretty reckless.
Why am I telling you this? Because since writing for Timeless2Wheels, I’ve had an epiphany; motorcycles don’t need 180+bhp performance to be fun, and you don’t need the ability to outrun 99.9% of performance cars to prove your manhood.
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Retro Motorcycle Coolness
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not quite ready for a Suzuki Burgman, but I’m definitely ready for a change to something less frantic. It still needs to have relatively good performance, but I’m definitely digging the retro scene, man.
Of course, it’s helped by the fact that I’ve been around motorcycles since a small child, the first solid memories I have of bikes were from when I was around six or seven years old, so for over 40 years. So anything ‘retro’ takes me back to the days of seeing these machines through the eyes of a child, longing to have a ride on one, and thinking just how damn cool they are.
Today, I can own something that invokes those memories, but without the hassle of buying a classic, repairing it, maintaining it, or worrying whether it will get me from A to B without something falling off.
These are just some of my choices for the coolest retro motorcycles.
Honda Monkey £3,699
C’mon, who doesn’t love a Honda Monkey? Even at that price.
Yes, my knees wouldn’t allow me to ride it, and I’d look like I had some sort of weird wedgie going on, but the Monkey has been an icon for so long, and this definitely is one of those bikes that takes me right back to my childhood.
The new-for-2018 Monkey is essentially a Honda Grom in disguise, but styled very similarly to the original Z50 Monkey Bike, only it has a 125cc engine and a tree-stump pulling 9.3hp. For nearly £3,700 it’s an expensive toy, but those mini USD forks, chunky tyres and stumpy petrol tank just really do it for me.
Kawasaki Z900RS from £10,199
When I was a teenager, my eldest brother and his friends were all into the legend that was the Bonnie, there must have been six or seven floating around between them, and they were achingly cool. That all changed on the day that ‘Sneaky Pete’ turned up on his Z1, the pre-cursor to the Z900. I’ve loved them ever since.
These were muscle bikes before muscle bikes were a thing; introduced in 1972, it knocked spots off the competition – over 80hp and a top speed of just over 130mph, there was nothing British that could live with them performance-wise, or even dare I say, for reliability either.
Kawasaki have tapped right into that market, giving us something that could easily be just an updated version of the original, and it works well. My choice would be with the new 2020MY in Metallic Green with Yellow detailing, and perhaps a set of spoked wheels, but aside from that, I’m happy.
BMW R nineT from £12,745
I was never a fan of BMW, even when they brought out the sporty versions, but the R nineT just ticks every box for me, providing it’s the right colours, or if it’s the Racer version.
Of course, it features the twin-cylinder Boxer engine, making 110hp, comes with the option for a single seat, or removable seat hump, beefy USD forks, and a world of customisation, straight from BMW. You can clearly see the BMW heritage, but this is no regular BMW; it’s brave.
As you might expect, there’s a premium pricetag attached, even more so when you consider it a ‘retro’, but for me, that can be forgiven on account of the fact that some of the finer engineering details look to be exquisite. Another big tick in the ‘plus’ column.
Royal Enfield Continental GT from £5,899
47hp of pure retro loveliness. Looking at the pictures, the ‘Conti’ could well have been lifted straight from the ‘60s, this is retro retro, no pretence here.
At the heart of the bike is a 650cc twin-cylinder, but with four-valves, fuel injection and digital ignition, all dressed up in hand polished aluminium cases and enough fins to make a shoal of fish jealous.
Of course, when something is quite as retro as this, there are going to be niggles for the modern-day rider; some pictures show that the fit & finish isn’t quite modern-day, 47hp will always feel a little ‘wanting’, and the handling has been described as authentic 1960s.
For those people that are put off by such things, then I’d say they’re choosing wrongly – the Conti isn’t about being all things to all men, or living with modern bikes, it’s all about a Sunday blast with your mates, reliving your glory days as a ‘Greaser’.
Moto Guzzi V7 Limited from £7,250
Another name that featured big in my youth, probably best remembered to me by hearing it called a ‘Gutsy’, which I kinda liked: “Oh yes, I ride a Gutsy”. Today unfortunately, that would have to be “I am gutsy”. No matter.
I love how the V-twin motor sits across the frame, rather than inline, and it gives the Guzzi quite a unique look (off the top of my head, I can’t think of another that does it this way), it just displays the engine as a prominent feature, and as an engine performance engineer, that appeals to me.
OK, so it has just 49hp from the 749cc engine, but similar to the Enfield, I wouldn’t be buying this as my only bike, to live with on a day to day basis, this is purely for certain days that require a relaxed pootle about, not scraping ‘pegs and redlines.
Triumph from £8,100
I’ve left the model blank, because quite honestly, I love most of the ‘Modern Classics’ range from Triumph, although if I had to choose just one, it would be the Thruxton RS. No, the Speed Twin. No, the Street Twin … you see my dilemma.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been brought up with Triumph, my father was an original Meriden employee, Bonnie’s have been part of my life since before I could walk, and even now, I still know a few people with original Triumphs, including a Hurricane. But …
A classic Bonnie needs too much fettling for everyday use, and the last time I road tested a Hinckley Bonnie, I was left underwhelmed to be honest. However, that wasn’t a fair comparison – I dropped off my modified ZX12R (167 RWHP) at the dealer and jumped on the Bonnie, it was always going to feel slow & steady after my Kwak.
I was younger and stupider then. Much stupider.
These new Hinckley Triumph’s have around 100hp, they’re reliable, they go, stop & handle as you’d expect of a modern bike, they look oh so cool, and despite not really being anything to do with the originals, there is the heritage that’s associated with the Triumph name.
The closer I’m getting to buying my next bike, the more I’m looking towards Hinckley.
Suzuki Katana from £10,399
This is difficult for me. I’m torn.
I’ve included this purely because of my love for the original Katana. It would most definitely find a spot in my dream garage. I spent a number of years working in the drag racing world, and at that time, the big Suzuki’s were THE bike to have – the Kat was popular, as was the 1100 EFE.
These were just … radically different. You kind of sat inside the bike, rather than atop it, and it bristled with raw power, these were a monster. Of course, today they’d be slow, hefty and ill-handling, with lazy throttle response, woolly gear changes and brakes that need more force than necessary, but still … it’s a Katana.
The new version is just a pretender – they’ve taken some styling cues from the original so you’re in no doubt as to what it is, but then failed with pretty much everything else. Think of it as a ‘replica’ (aka, fake) Rolex … you can see what it’s meant to be, but in every detail, there’s something wrong.
Yamaha XSR900 from £9,345
Some years ago, I built a hybrid Yamaha, a Gammaha/YammaGamma thing, using an Elsie as the base model, adding the RGV250 USD front end, banana swingarm, wheels, etc. When I look at the XSR900, that’s pretty much what I see before me.
Even the font on the side panel is the same as the old Elsie, the petrol tank has faint lines of similar styling, and of course, we have the ‘Mars Bar’ colour scheme. Love it.
Alright, it’s not a stink-wheeler, and it’s one of those oddities that uses three cylinders, but with near 115hp performance, it’s powerful enough, and of course the chassis and suspension aren’t quite going to be ‘80s, so handling should be well sorted. Is that enough?
For me it is. I genuinely love the look of the XSR, and (without riding it) I’d guess that being a smaller bike, it won’t feel all bloated and soggy either. I’d own one, but it would have to be the Mars Bar colour (80 Black), not the Dynamic White, or Garage Metal.
Which Retro Motorcycle for All Time?
All these bikes would make it into my ‘Lottery win’ garage, even the Katana, but none of them really satisfy every single need for me. I’ve said in the past that if the Thruxton R had 150hp, that would most likely get my vote, but it doesn’t.
The Royal Enfield is just too retro for me, and anything with less than 50hp is never going to scratch that itch, so the Guzzi and the Monkey would be discounted also, and that leaves the Katana (nope), the XSR, Z900RS and the R nineT.
I genuinely like the R nineT, but I have no emotional connection to it, not like the XSR or Z900RS; despite being new and not really related at all to my emotions, it’s the feelings and emotions that they bring back … as a young kid staring in disbelief at the big Kwak, or smelling the two-stroke fumes and listening to the ring-a-ding-ding of the spannies on an LC.
There’s nigh on 40 years’ worth of memories right there, which I’d relive every time I sat on them, rode them or just stared at them. They’d remind me each and every day just why I got into bikes, and just why even after all this time, they still hold a fascination for me, and perhaps bring out the devilish side of me.
When I was younger, owning a bike was partly about the freedom & exhilaration, partly about the ‘bad boy’ image that went hand in hand with being a ‘biker’; I still remember the days of ‘No Motorcyclists Allowed’ signs outside pubs, of being taunted by ignorant shop assistants that thought we were obviously there to rob them blind, or asking if I could afford the latest technology that I happened to be looking at to purchase, all because I rode a bike.
Today, motorcycles are much more accepted, there isn’t the stigma associated with riding a bike as there once was (although of course there are still elements of society that are ‘bikers’, clad in cut-offs and colours), but I’m not a biker now, I just happen to ride a bike.
Times have changed, and yet retro motorcycles have never been more popular. But is that so surprising? All the style of yesteryear, without all the faff!