Neil Murray celebrates bikes with well-proven staying power
Honda CG125 (1976-2008)
Initiates make The Sign Of Holy Pushrods (two index fingers pointed skywards and moved up and down) to each other. Honda’s previous OHC 125 single needed frequent oil changes, which in the Third World it didn’t get causing seized top ends. Honda redesigned the engine for pushrod-operated valves, ensuring the thing would run on olive oil if need be. The CG125 has proved indestructible. Over the years it lost its shrouded chain and forks, while gaining 12V electrics, an electric starter and electronic ignition. Production moved to Brazil in 1985, and the CG125 has been copied endlessly in China.
Worth buying? They’re actually nicer to ride than the older OHC singles because there’s more torque.
Honda C50/70/90 (1958-2001)
No question about this one. The Honda Cub was launched in 1958 and put the world on wheels. One of the development stipulations was that it had to be capable of being ridden with one hand while a tray of noodles was held in the other, so it would sell to Japan’s innumerable noodle bars. The solution was the Cub’s famous clutchless gearchange. Honda has made 90 million Cubs all over the world since production started, and though it’s discontinued in the West, copies are still made in China and elsewhere; some under licence, many more rip-offs. The advertising slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” was born with this bike in the US. In the UK, you can find 50cc, 70cc and 90cc versions. The earliest engines were pushrod, but they’ve been OHC for decades. They got electronic ignition in 1982 and a restyle in 1984. And they are hilarious fun to ride.
Worth buying? God yes, but the old round-headlight models are getting stupidly expensive.
Kawasaki Z750 (1979-2004)
Born from the Z650 air-cooled four in 1979, Kawasaki’s 738cc engine was still being sold in the 21st century as the ZR-7. An incredibly tough engine, it could be bought as a chain-drive naked, as a fat-tanked shaft-drive tourer beloved of despatch riders, a US Custom LTD, the sports GPz and even as the 145mph Turbo, the Zephyr and finally the ZR-7.
Worth buying? Absolutely. Best ones are the Z750L and the Zephyrs, especially the wire-wheeled Z1-lookalikes.
Yamaha SR500/400 (1978-current)
Launched in 1978 as a road version of the XT500 trailie, available as a 400 in markets like Japan and Germany, and just relaunched as a ‘retro’. The SR400 is now fuel injected, but still air cooled and kickstart-only. The original 500 is pokier than today’s 400, but still no fireball (85-90mph max). Oh, and no balancers either, so it vibrates, but not badly.
Worth buying? The new 400 is pricey – get a nice old SR500 for half the cost.
Kawasaki ZZR600 (1990-2007)
Launched in 1990 and finally discontinued in 2007. Of modern(ish) water-cooled Japanese fours, only the original GPZ900R had a longer life (1984-2003). Why? The ZZR600 goes like stink – some tests clocked it at 160mph – and is super-comfy even for two, very reliable and surprisingly economical. Suspension turns soggy, but that’s easily upgraded.
Worth buying? Oh yes. You can pick them up for as little as a grand. Bargain.
BMW K100RS (1983-1996)
Originally appeared when the Ks were first launched in 1983, and bowed out as an 1100 in 1996 (the K1200RS was really a different beast). Over the years it acquired ABS, new engine management and another 10bhp. Still a good choice as a two-up tourer, because of the excellent fairing. Engines run to 200,000 miles, and spares back-up is excellent. And yes, the fuel pump is supposed to whistle like that.
Worth buying? An acquired taste, but some acquire it for life.
Yamaha XJR1200/1300 (1995-current)
Started life as the FJ1100 more than 30 years ago. It was a sportsbike then, evolved into the FJ1200 sports-tourer which ruled the roost for a decade, and still survives as an air-cooled four. True, it’s shed a lot of horsepower over the years, but that engine is still epic. “They don’t build bikes like that any more…” But Yamaha does, and we should be thankful.
Worth buying? For performance pick the FJ, but the XJR is a lovely soft naked.