We live in a very “now” society; where many people (especially the young) have little thought of the future and no respect for the past. Amongst such people there is a desire – or a “need” almost – to have only the latest; yesterday’s product, they say, is out-dated and irrelevant. And when the product is a motorcycle, again, they must have the latest; because the latest is the best; old is old, out-dated and useless.
Well, I’m here to say that old bikes might be out-dated, but in certain cases especially, they can actually be a very practical choice!
Now, I suppose some people might expect this from an old bloke. We’re the generation that gets all misty-eyed and says things like, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!” Well, they don’t; and in many cases that’s a good thing! But in some cases maybe it’s a pity; because some old bikes can actually do the job just as well, and occasionally even better, than new bikes. And, of course, they’re much cheaper to buy. So if you can’t afford a new bike, buying an older bike can, if you buy the right thing, still provide you with a machine that will do a pretty good job. Yep, as we “oldies” know, oldies can be goldies!
In an edition of Motorcycle Trader, columnist Rob Smith and contributor Andy White (of Andy Strapz fame), both wrote stories of having done a trip to the Isle of Man races and some touring. For Andy it was a tour around Britain; for Rob it was a much more extensive tour of Britain and Europe that saw him notch up around 18,000km. Both had partners riding pillion. Both stories were written within the framework of an extended road-test; and especially as the stories appeared in the same edition, it was an interesting comparison. It was an interesting contrast too, because the bikes they rode were very different.
For Andy, Triumph UK supplied him with a new Triumph Sprint ST. For Rob, he bought a bike for his adventure. In what might be considered a brave move for someone contemplating a trip of that length, Rob decided to buy a cheap bike off eBay. What he bought was an early model Yamaha XJ900. In Australia, these stopped production in 1988, but in Britain the model was available for much longer. Rob’s bike was a 1993 model with around 50,000km on the clock. He paid just $1800 for it.
So, one brand new Triumph versus a 15-year old (they did their trip in 2008) Yamaha bought off eBay. You can guess how this will turn out, can’t you? Well maybe not; although the title, and what I’ve written so far, probably gives it away.
Let’s start with Andy. At first he struggled; mainly due to the riding-position placing too much weight on his wrists. Also, with a pillion sitting up high and a loaded top-box and panniers, it became quite top-heavy; and he said, “I felt I was wrestling the bike rather than riding it.”
At higher speeds he enjoyed it much better; and had praise for the powerful engine, handling and comfy seat. He covered 1600km in the week he had it. He summed it up in these words. “The emphasis here is on ‘sports’ at the expense of two-up ‘touring’”.
So how did Rob do with his 15-year old Yamaha from eBay? Well, first up, being an old bike he did a bit of servicing on it before setting out; like over-hauling / checking the brakes and so on. The front forks aren’t adjustable (as the Triumph’s are), so he fitted spacers in them to increase the preload to suit the two-up duties it had to perform. And then he hit the road.
In the context of the road-test he points out that, “This is a 1980s bike, and you have to modify your expectations accordingly.” That included handling that could develop a wobble if you weren’t expecting it, and engine performance which he reckoned didn’t feel as powerful as the claimed 73kw suggested. Although having said that, he went on to say that it was sufficient to propel the bike, it’s two riders and their luggage, at cruising speeds of 120kph – 130kph, with long stretches at 140kph – 150kph. He averaged an impressive 22 km / litre on the trip.
Rob did 18,000km on the trip, and said the bike met every requirement he had for it. He said, “I was more than impressed by the way it coped with everything from flat-strap on the Isle of Man, to wheezing up alpine passes, traversing terrible pot-holed roads in Albania and tackling crowded streets in Istanbul. Through desert heat, mountain snow and torrential rain it never missed a beat. Nothing broke, nothing went wrong.” In fact he was so impressed he kept it; leaving it with a relative so it would be there to use on his next visit to UK.
So one could say that, in this particular old-versus-new comparison, the Yamaha triumphed! (Sorry about that!). Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to say that a 15-year old XJ900 is a better bike than a brand-new Triumph Sprint! There’s no question here; the Triumph is a much better bike! It’s a superb sports-tourer, and would easily out-perform and out-handle the old Yammie; and it’s much better in most other respects as well. But what I am saying is that some old bikes, like the XJ900, can be remarkably capable, even when lined-up against more modern machines. It’s proof that, when it comes to bikes, oldies can indeed be goldies!
Part of the reason for this is that bikes like the XJ900 are the epitome of the old-style all-rounder. In fact, that early-model XJ900 is often mentioned, by those in the know, as one of the most practical all-round motorcycles ever built. A big call, perhaps, but Rob’s experience certainly seems to vindicate that call.
Bikes today have become very segment-focused. Every bike has to fit into a predefined category. We have sports-bikes, we have tourers, we have cruisers, we have sports-tourers, we have dual-purpose, but we don’t have many “Jack-of-all-trades” bikes. Yes, there are some, but not many.
This is due, in part, to one thing: development. As bikes have developed, they have done so predominantly in specific directions. Bikes like the old XJ900 were capable of everything, but not outstandingly good at anything. So when the manufacturers developed bikes like these, when they improved the bike for each successive new model, they looked at developing certain particular aspects of the bike. This is only natural; after all, you can’t really take a bike and develop it in a dozen different directions at once! You take the bike and develop particular areas. But making it better at one thing will usually end up compromising it at another. As an example, consider the issue of ride and handling. If a bike has reasonable abilities at both, what do you do to “make it better”? Well, it is possible to improve both, but in practice what mostly happens is that you make it better at one of those things. If you improve the handling, you usually compromise the ride. Improve the ride and you compromise the handling.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; up to a point. If your riding preferences fall into a particular category, then you’ll want a bike that excels in the role determined by that category. For example, if touring is your thing, you’ll want a bike that is good at touring. If sports riding is what you’re into, you’ll want a bike that’s good at that. If cruising is your style, you’ll look at something in that category; and so on. The problem comes when our needs spread beyond just one category. And that’s probably most of us. Because most of us probably only have one bike, and often we’ll want that bike to be a commuter during the week, a sports-bike for a quick afternoon blast, a cruiser for that lazy afternoon ride, and a tourer for the trip away. And bikes that are too segment-focused aren’t so capable of handling that wide a diversity of roles. For that you need an all-rounder. I’ve addressed this issue before, in articles like “Sense And Sensibility”, and  “The Search For The Perfect Bike”, but the point is, as I've mentioned above, certain old bikes actually fulfill this all-rounder role pretty well. As I said, it’s where “oldies” really can be “goldies”!
I’ll mention a few bikes in particular. The first one, obviously because it was the bike in the story above, would be the Yamaha XJ900. The photo at the top of the page is of a very early model, and belonged to a guy in Canada, Bob Martin. His son now owns it. You can read more about the bike, as well as some interesting trips he did with it, on his page here. (Thanks to Bob for his permission to use the photo).
Slightly later models, such as Rob’s, and the one pictured below, had a larger frame-mounted half-fairing.
This bike belongs to Simon, from Tasmania. He still has the bike and still likes it. He says, “You can sit on it until you need to refuel and still be able to walk. I have ridden to Hobart and back (350-400km each way) with one stop and without any problems like my arms falling off or not being able to stand up for three days. In fact, I have often stopped to find the pillion asleep, so the back part of the seat must be okay too.” He says that he has ridden other bikes for short periods, but the XJ is the most comfortable he’s ridden.
A regular reader, Jens, owns one of these too. He says he didn’t exactly choose this bike, but, as he puts it, “had it thrust upon him” from his son. At first he found it very heavy, but the more he rode it, the more he liked it. He did some rider-training and became more confident. He says that now he loves it every time he gets on it, and intends keeping it for a long time. A “love affair for life” is how he puts it.
The later XJ900 Diversion, which was produced from the mid 1990s until about 2003, isn’t as highly regarded in this “ultimate all-rounder” sense as the earlier one, but is still a good all-round bike. They saw service with many Ulysses Club members. According to the specs, the engine develops a bit less power, and the bike is actually a few kg heavier, than the previous model; so it isn’t a quick bike, but it’s performance is still pretty good. And they do look better. I like them!
A guy I know recently bought this 1998 model. The chrome on the exhaust headers was flaking a bit, but other than that it was in great condition and looked really good. It had about 75,000km on the clock, but the engine was sound and didn’t blow smoke etc. Those engines are pretty bullet-proof anyway (another advantage of some of these older bikes), so there’s plenty of life left in it yet. He said, “It’s a bit heavy and doesn’t handle quite as well as a modern bike, but it’s comfortable and goes well.” It cost him just $5,000. I reckon that’s a bargain!
And while we’re talking Yamahas, if we look at mid-size bikes, there’s the XJ900’s little brother, the XJ600 Seca. It was actually produced before the 900 Diversion and ran from 1993 until about 1998. I reckon these were a great bike! I had one for over 5 years; and still had it when I began this web-site. Comfort, smoothness, a good riding-position, and ease of riding were strong points.
This is my bike, (bought 2nd-hand) taken not long after I bought it. The power was entirely adequate, and it cruised effortlessly at highway speeds. I rode quite a few road-test bikes for this web-site that I wouldn’t have swapped the XJ for! For example, one of my criticisms of today’s mid-size 4-cylinder bikes is that they are under-geared; they don’t feel as relaxed at highway cruising speeds as the old XJ600.
And adding to all that, from my experience I can say that they are superbly reliable!
Another bike that gets mentioned as one of the great all-round bikes is the Suzuki GS1000G. One of our regular readers, Aussie, owns one of these; and has done since he bought it back in 1981.
The photo on the left was taken just after he bought it. He says of the bike, “Its seat is one of the most comfortable in motorcycledom. Adding a handlebar fairing, rack sack and, when needed, removable panniers will, to me, give you the perfect motorcycle!”
Adding to that he says he gets 17,000 kms from a rear tyre and about 30,000 kms from a front. And at highway speeds he gets 5.5 litres per 100 kilometres. So, a good bike and cheap to run! As he said, “I kept my old GS1000G Suzuki because nothing better came along.”
Aussie also mentions the impracticalities of some of today’s more purpose-focused bikes. He says, “We have purpose built sportsters, their performance which can never be fully exploited by the average rider and are absolute torture to tour on. Today's no bullshit basic long distance tar-burners would have to be the retro nakeds like Yamaha's XJR1300 and Suzuki's GSX1400, but they have chains! Once you've owned a shaft drive, you never want to return to a high maintenance, expensive chain.” (The GS1000G is shaft-drive, of course).
Looking at mid-range Suzukis, the GS500 is a standout. First released back in the 1980s, it was so good they’re still making it! There have been a couple of developments, like the option of a fairing, but it’s basically the same bike. And a great mid-size all-rounder. Buy an old one in good condition and you’ve got a bargain!
Hondas have an enviable reputation for quality, (with a couple of notable exceptions!), so you’re pretty safe with almost any old one that’s been looked after. There are lots of older model Hondas that are great, but one standout has to be the legendary CB750. Early ones are among the classic category now, but later ones can be affordable and good all-round bikes. A riding friend had an early 1990s model and it was a very impressive bike. One of our regular readers has one of these too. In the smaller class, the CB250 has become an institution; and for good reason, they are an excellent little bike. One in good nick is a good proposition in that capacity range.
You want a big tourer? Well, the Kawasaki GTR1000 delivers the goods! I’ve heard some owners say they even prefer it to the current 1400GTR.
A mention should probably be made here of Yamaha’s FJ series too. I’ve seen an old FJ1200 that was repaired after a bingle. It cost the guy about $4,000 including the repair and provided him with a remarkably capable bike. It even looked great. A bargain, I reckon! The FJR1300 is hardly an “old bike”, being first released in 2001 (well, it depends what year it is when you’re reading this I suppose!). But it’s a superb big-bore sports-tourer; and very popular. The later models have some worthwhile improvements, but are bigger and heavier. The only down-side to the FJR is heat; they get hot inside that full fairing.
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When it comes to all-round bikes with comfort and touring as a priority, BMW is pretty much the standard by which others are judged. The BMW R100RT on the left is owned by a riding friend who has owned it since new. (It's lined up here with a group I organised, ready for a day-ride).
Owners talk about the idiosyncrasies of the Bing carbies, but these bikes are a quality ride, and legendary for their longevity. And older models probably even more so than the later ones.
And the good thing is you can buy an older model like this for a fraction of the price of a new Beemer. 
Okay, these are just a few examples. There are many more I could’ve mentioned; although these are stand-out examples of what I’m talking about.
Old bikes run old technology, of course; so there’s no fuel-injection, or computer-chip electronics to manage the engine. And no liquid-cooling. But that’s not totally a bad thing. Simple they may be, but that makes them easier and cheaper to work on; and in many cases, provides them with longevity and bullet-proof reliability. An example is liquid cooling. Aussie says that most of his problems with cars have been with cooling-system faults; and the position of radiators on bikes can often make them vulnerable to stone-damage. So, while liquid cooling does allow finer tolerances in the engine, which results in better efficiency and greater power, it does give the bike more that can go wrong!
There are some down-sides to owning an older bike though. It is inevitable that an older bike will require more maintenance and repairs. For example, carburetors require regular cleaning and balancing. And things are more likely to break, or just wear out, on an older bike. As Jens says, “An older bike requires lots of things to be repaired regularly. I have replaced the starter motor, the diff, some of the electronic items, etc. Even the front forks have had work done to them.”
It’s what I call the “light-globe” concept. When a light-globe blows and you replace it with a new one, you get a good feeling about the globe. It’s the newest part on the bike. Other things may be old and fail, but the light globe is brand new! When you buy a new bike, (or a very low-mileage one) you get that “light-globe” feeling about the whole bike – everything is new! But when you buy, for example, a 10-year old bike it’s like buying a 10-year old light-globe; you know that what you’ve bought is likely to break and need bits replacing; and that this will happen sooner rather than later. Yes, oldies might be goldies, but that gold can get a bit tarnished!
But that’s just the way it is. And if you can accept that, and live with the occasional little glitch that might occur, buying an older bike can be a very practical thing to do; and can, in many cases, give you a bike that will suit your all-round needs even better than more modern machines.