Here at MCN we have a secret – we all love the VanVan. It’s our guilty pleasure and to be honest no-one can really put a finger on what it is about this bike that makes it so appealing. On paper the Suzuki is an outdated bike with ridiculous tyres, retro styling and a weedy motor that despite growing in capacity this year, would still lose a tug of war contest with an eight-year-old. But if any bike is guaranteed to make you smile, it’s the VanVan. Which begs the question: why?
In an effort to discover what lies behind our love affair with this retro-styled oddball, we rode the VanVan through a series of environments to see just what makes it so appealing. In town, out of town and even off-road; would any of our tests extinguish our passion for this quirky machine?
It’s a blast in town
The inner city is the VanVan’s natural territory and it is a brilliant bike for dealing with congested streets. As well as being really light and nimble thanks to its air-cooled engine and lack of clutter helping it to a featherweight 128kg, a very odd consequence of the balloon tyres is that they help balance the bike. At low speed the VanVan is remarkably stable and it is one of the easiest bikes to balance when stationary without putting your feet down, making slow-speed control effortless. Add to this a turning circle that means you can easily perform a 180-degree turn in a single lane road, a virtually subterranean seat height of just 770mm, narrow bars for skipping through gaps, a comfortable seat and a clutch action that is so light it’s almost unnoticeable and in town the VanVan is hard to fault. Those of a nervous disposition may want ABS, but in truth the single front caliper struggles to overwhelm the huge tyre’s grip at low speeds anyway.
Forget enduro bikes, the VanVan is hysterical!
The VanVan’s massive balloon tyres were designed for riding on the beaches of California back in the 1970s, and while taking to the sand in the UK tends to result in a serious telling off, you can always find a quiet field to play around in. Do this and the VanVan is absolutely hysterical. It’s no serious off-roader, but the combination of the Suzuki’s light weight, soft suspension and lack of power make it an absolute hoot to skid, drift, and generally mess about on. The ideal situation is a nice flat and level field after a bit of rain to make the surface slick. Find one of these and you can easily drift the VanVan at about 10mph, looking like a flat track rider but at a fraction of the speed!
It has that 1970s cool vibe
There are few vehicles that manage to encapsulate all that was cool about the 1970s in their body shape alone. The VW Beetle and camper van, the Fiat 500, the Mini and when it comes to bikes, it’s the VanVan. The first VanVan, or RV125 as it was called, appeared in 1972 and was aimed at cool Californian riders who wanted a vehicle to cruise up and down the beach on, hence the oversized balloon tyres. Nowadays, like the re-imagined Beetle, Fiat and Mini, the VanVan has grown in size to meet modern requirements but lost none of its retro charm. The big-arsed seat, balloon tyres, high level exhaust, single front light and peanut petrol tank all remain and Suzuki have managed to keep the 1970s vibe alive with a retro blue paint scheme offset by a white mudguard. Very hip, dude.
It handles far better than you would expect
You would imagine that the combination of an 18in front wheel with a massive 138/80 tyre and a 14in rear with a ludicrous 180/80-section tyre would do some strange things to the VanVan’s handling. But it doesn’t, and despite the balloon tyres’ semi-off-road tread pattern, you can really hustle a VanVan through the bends. The tyres are so wide it is virtually impossible to ride off their edges and the bike’s soft suspension and light weight mean you can really crank it over. Adopt a kind of flat track stance where you push the bike down while keeping your body more upright and it’s amazing how fast a VanVan will corner, to the point where its rubber pegs start scraping the ground. It may look a little silly, but it is brilliant fun.
Its small-capacity rivals are all so dull
So you have £3799 to spend, which is what a VanVan 200 retails at. You could also opt for the Suzuki Inazuma 250Z (£3699), but even the funky paint fails to really hide the ugliness of this bike. Add the 250F’s fairing (£3999) and it is even drabber, but to be fair the parallel twin motor is stronger than the VanVan’s air-cooled single. Kawasaki have their single-cylinder Z250SL (£3649) or the parallel-twin Z300 (£4349), but they are modern and a bit plastic fantastic. The KTM 125 Duke (£4049) or 390 Duke (£4549) singles are fresh-faced but pricey, while the Yamaha MT-03 (£4499) and MT-125’s (£4099) neo Japanese look may well prove a passing fashion. Honda’s MSX125 (£2899) has a certain quirky charm but is very impractical due to its size while the CB125F (£2699) fails to set the world alight with either its style or performance. If you want retro then Herald’s custom 250 range is a real option, but they retail at £3500 and are fairly crude in their performance. Alternatively you could plump for a Sinnis Retrostar at £2395 – which really does start to look like great value. But it’s fair to say the VanVan 200 is something of a one-off, and by far the coolest bike in class.
But it’s not all good news…
As much as we love the VanVan, we can’t let this cloud our judgment entirely as it does have some glaring faults. You simply can’t sugarcoat the fact the VanVan’s air-cooled engine, even in 200 form, is a slug. Struggling to hit 65mph flat out, it virtually rules out dual carriageway work where other A2-legal bikes are happy to cruise at 70mph. The retro tank looks cool, but even with the VanVan delivering around 60mpg it is only good for about 100 miles thanks to its 6.5-litre tank capacity. The lack of ABS is a bit annoying and the suspension is pretty squishy, although these aren’t huge issues, and with an RRP of £3799 the VanVan should be a bit cheaper when you look at the spec of some of its rivals.
So should you?
On paper there is no real reason to fall for the charms of this underpowered oddball. But the VanVan is a bike that gets under your skin and is just so much fun to ride you simply can’t help but love it. It’s so good they named it twice. It’s cool looking, charming, easygoing and above all fun. Massive fun.
VanVan v the world
There’s plenty of more sensible competition in the A2 market including the KTM Duke 390 and the Kawasaki Z300. But if you fancy the VanVan look for less there’s the 125 which was first launched in 2003. Prices on MCN Bikes for Sale start at £1000 with really good ones under £2000 from dealers. A 2016 VanVan 125 is £3199.
Photos: Joe Dick
More from MCN