Whatever happened to The 250 generation?

Published: 24 May 2016

They were the biggest class of all – then they vanished. Here’s why… 

hirty-four years ago, Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha each offered five very different quarter-litre machines, with Suzuki just behind with four. These varied in every conceivable way, from air-cooled, ‘thumper’ trailies to liquid-cooled, stroker sports twins.  Now, however, biking is very different. Yamaha currently sells no road 250s. Suzuki has just the rather uninspiring Inazuma with Honda its CRF250. Kawasaki, meanwhile, has the Ninja 250 and its naked brother, the Z. So whatever happened to 250s?

Fact file

First recognized as a racing class 1922
Heyday Mid to late 1970s
Replaced as learner bikes October 1983

There used to be loads of 250cc machines then?

Not half. In 1982 Honda had the XL250S, CB250RS, CL250S, CB250N and CM250T. Kawasaki had the KL250, Z250, KH250, Z250C and Z250LTD. Suzuki offered the TS250ER, GSX250, GS250T and GT250X7 while Yamaha the XS250, XS250SE, XT250, SR250, RD250LC. In addition, Benelli had its 250 and 254; Cagiva its SST and SX and there were also 250s from CZ, Morini and MZ. Simply: 250s were everywhere.

We get the message. So where did it all start?

Hard to be certain but 250cc is a natural classification (along with 500cc, 750cc and 1000cc) that was probably popularised through its adoption as a racing category. In 1911 the TT first ran the Junior (350cc) and Senior (500cc) classes with the Lightweight (250cc) class starting in 1922. Later it became popular, especially with the Japanese and Italians, for both lightweight learners and off-roaders. 

Examples please…

There are plenty. The first Yamahas sold in the US were 250 YD1s. Honda won its first TT in 1961 with a 250, dominated in the mid-60s with its RC164-6 and revolutionised motocross with its CR250 ‘Elsinore’ in 1972. And that’s just for starters.

So 250s became popular through bikesport?

Partly. But UK road rider legislation was a big factor as well.

How’s that then?

Learner laws. In 1960 the UK government introduced the first motorcycle learner legislation limiting new riders to sub-250cc machines fitted with L-plates. One of the upshots of this, naturally enough, was to create a significant demand for cool and desirable 250s.

So sexy 250s date back to the 1960s then?

The earliest ones, yes, the best example being the Royal Enfield Continental GT which famously became Britain’s fastest 250 during a publicity stunt road trip in 1964 and inspired the current GT 535. But the best 250s were undoubtedly in the late ’70s and early ’80s. 

Such as?

How long have you got? There’s the classic coffin-tank RD250, Kawasaki’s KH250 triple and Suzuki’s lightweight X7, widely regarded as the first 250 to hit 100mph. Or, for four-stroke fans, the Z250 Scorpion, Suzuki’s GSX250 and most popular of all, Honda’s Superdream, the CB250N.

So what went wrong?

Arguably the introduction of the sexiest and fastest of them all – Yamaha’s RD250LC in 1980 and the headlines of ‘100mph learners’ it provoked. Within two years a new two-part test had been introduced and, within three, learners were restricted to 125s, killing off the UK 250 market overnight.

But 250s lived on in sport, right?

For a while. The Supersport 400 class for 250 two-strokes and 400cc four-strokes remained popular in Japan, prompting the arrival of bikes like Suzuki’s RG and later RGV 250, Kawasaki’s KR-1 and KR-1S plus Yamaha’s TZR250. In GPs, the 250cc class remained until being replaced by Moto2 in 2010. Today, there’s no designated 250cc class anywhere.

And that’s true on the road, too?

Sadly, yes. ‘250’ just doesn’t mean anything anymore. In fact, the new A2-licence compliant 300cc class, including bikes like Yamaha’s MT-03, Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 and Honda’s CBR300R is more dynamic. But what memories, eh?

What are you thinking of?

Some of the most classic, purest and most sophisticated and fun lightweights of all time. Machines like the LC, KH, RD, RGV and more may be gone but some are the most rapidly appreciating classics of our era.

Words: Phil West Photos: Bauer Archive