Then and Now – The Retro Revolution

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By Jim Blackstock

Modern retro motorcycles are a booming sector of the market. And with good reason – modern bikes can be like modern cars – jelly-mould boring and too much connectivity, hill-hold braking and Euro4-compliant fuelling.

There is a genuine hankering for the golden age of motorcycling in much the same way that there is for classic cars. However, the motorcycle market has created a sector that doesn’t really exist in the four-wheeled world – the modern yet authentically retro-themed bike.

These are styled like those from the golden age – they have water-cooled engines, yet the cylinder bores have faux air-cooled fins formed into them. Fuel injection throttle bodies are designed to look like old-school carburettors. Dashboards are still a pair of large, chrome-rimmed dials but with subtle display panels built in. And the modern safety tech – ABS, traction control and weather-dependant riding modes – are all available, albeit hidden away.

So, what are the top five modern retros and how do they compare with their original counterparts?

5 Suzuki DR750/800 (1988-1997)

The 1988 DR750 – then two years later the DR800 – was a huge motorcycle, based on Suzuki’s revolutionary, though ultimately unsuccessful, Paris-Dakar bike, the DR-Z or ‘Doctor Big’. It was a monster – on the 1988 event, it used a whopping 800cc single-cylinder engine but it never managed to fulfil its potential.

The DR750 road bike came out in 1988 with a slightly smaller 727cc single motor but a distinctive off-road style front ‘beak’. In 1990, the engine size grew to 779cc where it would stay until the end of the bike’s run in 1997. It was replaced by the DR650S, a dual-sport largely off-road machine that still sells well in Australasia and America but not in Europe, due to its inability to meet emissions regulations.

In 2002, Suzuki launched the V-Strom or, to use its official name, the DL1000, as the 996cc V-twin was the first model. Two years later, a smaller and lighter 650cc version was launched, the V-Strom 650. These first-generation models were called ‘Adventure sport’ bikes but they were more tourer than either adventurer or sport though they were reasonably well received. It wasn’t until 2014 that the second generation and far more modern version was launched.

The familiar beak had returned with better-quality components. It still wasn’t a bike to set the world alight, though with a bit of careful suspension fine-tuning, it could be thrown around enough to bring a smile and carry a rider, pillion and some luggage a long way before boredom or numbness set it. Still not really off-road ready though.

However, it was the third-generation bike, launched in 2020, that would bring the V-Strom up to date – and on par with its competitors and remind the world of the monstrous Dr Big. The V-Strom 1050 XT was based on the outgoing model so it kept the adventure-style beak but got much better electronics – now with ride-by-wire throttle for smoother action but also, cruise control and lean-sensitive ABS and traction control.

It also comes in striking yellow colour scheme, reminiscent of the yellow paint that was worn by the bike ridden in 1988 by former Paris-Dakar winner, Gaston Rahier. But unlike that version, this one is definitely for the road.

 

4 BMW R90S (1973-1976)

Apparently, the BMW R nineT model was launched in 2013 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the R32 from 1923. While that may be the case, in our eyes, the R nineT Racer looks far more like the R90S of the early/mid 1970s so let’s apply a little editorial licence, shall we?

The BMW R90S was a sports model from the German marque, using the air/oil-cooled flat twin, or Boxer, engine. It had a short, café-racer style fairing for a bit of wind protection and helped to move the brand’s image from boring tourer to exciting sportster, buoyed by racing success in America and at the Isle of Man TT.

The R nineT Racer is another café-racer styled modern retro, forming part of the R nineT range which also includes a scrambler, a quasi-off-road G/S and a roadster. It too features a short, wraparound screen and an arms-forward, feet-back riding position, with a rear seat hump highlighting it as a one-rider bike. It too uses the air/oil-cooled flat twin, increased in size to 1170cc but producing 110bhp instead of the older R90S’s 65bhp.

The modern bike uses a pair of round, analogue gauges for engine and road speed but each includes an LCD panel for additional information and, of course, the R nineT comes with ABS and optional traction control. Of the retro R NineT range, it’s the Racer that sets the heart racing the most and the mind back to bygone eras.

 

3 Kawasaki Z1 (1972-1976)

Back in the early 1970s, if you were remotely interested in motorbikes, you either had a poster or a model of a Kawasaki Z1 (I had both), you longed for one or, if you were lucky, you owned one. If the latter, then you were, without doubt, a god among men…

It was one of the first bikes to put a four-cylinder motor across the chassis. Its was 903cc and it took the fight to Honda’s CB750, featuring a traditional roadster riding position – sitting upright with low and wide handlebars. Twin dials sat ahead of the rider and there was no wind protection, making high-speed use… ‘interactive’. It was a heavy beast and wide too and its road presence meant it was a huge hit across the pond, as well as in the UK.

The styling was perfect – simple and effective, there was lashings of chrome, twin upswept exhaust cans on each side and the option of stunning green and yellow paint on the 1973 Z1-A.

The Kawasaki Z900RS, based on the Z900 launched in 2017, is visually a very similar bike – think an artificially de-aged de Niro in The Irishman – you know what it is but it’s younger and fresher. It still has the exposed engine with no bodywork – though now, it’s encased in black covers, rather than chrome. It still has the exposed riding position with no wind protection (there is a café racer version but it’s literally just a bikini fairing) and it still has the – exposed – twin analogue dials. And it still has the four-cylinder, dohc motor layout that the original had. However, the modern version has 109bhp against the original’s 82 (not bad for 1972) and the later bike keeps the flat seat and tank layout, like the original.

The twin dials surround an LCD display panel with a host of essential information and of course, it comes with ABS, traction control and a slip-assist clutch, that helps prevent the rear wheel trying to lock-up on quick downshifts.

For a bit of ’70s Japanese motorcycling brought bang up to date, you can’t go far wrong with a Z900RS.

2 Honda ‘Z’ Monkey (1964-2017)

Talking of the 1970s, the other end of the cool spectrum was the Honda Monkey, or the Z-series to give it its proper name. Originally created as a kid’s ride in a Japanese theme park, it was brought to the road as a small 50cc ‘moped’ that was christened the Monkey bike as the diminutive size made the rider look like a small monkey hunched up. The Z series was ultimately phased out as it could no longer meet emissions standards but in 2018, Honda announced a new ‘Monkey’ for the 2019 model year, based on its MSX125 ‘Grom’.

Some might argue it’s a cynical cashing-in exercise but the spirit of the original is alive and well in the new version. It is physically larger, though still by no means a big bike but the modern 125cc motor means it is far more at-home on modern roads than its predecessor. It will tackle dual carriageways but, as is often said, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It’s best swinging around in the urban jungle using its efficient motor (Honda quotes 189mpg!)

While still out-and-put retro and fun, it’s stacked full of modern tech; ABS running off an Inertial Measurement Unit and a single, chrome-rimmed dial that encloses an LCD display with all the necessary information. Everyone who has ridden one – as well as Honda itself – uses the same word repeatedly; smile. It’s a bike that made flare-wearing trendies grin in the 1970s and in the 2020s, it’s doing the same thing again. Just without the flares…

1 Triumph Bonneville (1959-1988)

Perhaps the most evocative name in motorcycling, the Triumph Bonneville’s place in folk-lore has spanned some eight decades, since it was introduced at the very end of the 1950s. Black-and-white images of leather and jeans-clad bikers, quiffs at the ready and fags on the go, cruising around post-war Britain looking for some mods to have a tear-up with are as iconic as bank holiday fish and chips or kiss-me-quick hats.

The original Bonnie was launched in 1959 with a 650cc parallel-twin engine. This was later upgraded to 750cc in the 1970s. Production notionally ended in 1983 but the company was bought by John Bloor who re-introduced the name for three years in 1985.

It was then re-born in 2001, coming from the brand’s Hinkley factory and re-invigorated the retro market. It featured a 790cc air-cooled parallel twin, like the original and was a cool and laid-back cruiser – not especially powerful, not especially fast but great fun to ride and guaranteed an enjoyable blast.

However, an all-new, bang up-to-date version was introduced in 2017 and the range-topping T120 maintains the parallel-twin powerplant though now, it’s water-cooled and capacity is up to 1200cc. It dishes out a throbbing 78lb·ft of torque – plenty of hustle it along in a fog of nostalgia while generating forces many sportsbikes would be proud of.

Its simplistic styling belies the technology going on under the skin; water cooling despite those air-cooled-style fins; Euro4 compliant fuel injection made to look like carburettors and pea-shooter exhausts; twin chrome-rimmed analogue dials that include LCD panels with key information. Under the skin, there’s ABS and traction control, riding modes to soften power delivery in wet conditions, a slip-assist clutch, heated grips, ride-by-wire throttle action and LED lights front and rear.

There’s currently a Bud Eakins limited edition also available, celebrating the American legend who raced Triumphs in the 1960s, was a friend of fellow Triumph aficionado Steve McQueen and who rode the – disguised – Triumph TR6 Trophy for the famous jump scene in the Great Escape.

If it’s a modern retro you’re after, then the Triumph Bonneville really has to be the one.

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