Buying Japanese Classic Bikes
Buying your first Japanese classic after a lifetime of Britbikes? There's a great selection to choose from, reckons Rowena Hoseason...
If you haven't owned any of the truly awesome Japanese bikes from three or four decades ago, then your motorcycling career has missed something amazing. You've missed the stomach-churning, chest-tightening thrill of being accelerated so hard that your eyes water and your blood thunders. You missed the howl and snarl of a fearsome four, desperate to be let off the leash. You've missed the chatter and clatter of mechanical intricacy, blurring into a turbine whine at your very command. Oh man, you've missed such a buzz.
On the other hand, there's legions of worthy but dull, low-capacity sloggers which may hold some quaint charm to collectors, but are No Great Shakes to ride (I will be pilloried no doubt by the legions of CD175 owners of this parish, but I don't care. At least my very slow old bikes are all British, and so have something resembling an excuse for their occasionally patchy performance!). Unless you're out to make a buck in the very long term, don't bother with any of the 1960s and early Seventies tiddlers. Grey porridge is always lumpen and somewhat hard to swallow, no matter if it comes from Kobe or Coventry. You'd be better off sticking to a Bantam!
Practicality - sorry to stoop to such mundane matters - may also play a part in your decision to look eastward for your wheels. The Japanese bikes we're talking about here come equipped with (mostly) reliable electric starts, just the ticket if years of battling that 500 single have exhausted your kicking capacity. They also tend to have other characteristics with which the traditional Brit rider may not be overly acquainted, like oil-tight seals and reliable electrics. Well, some of them do...
But while the end goal is to see you astride a fire-breathing multicylinder monster, let's not get too carried away just yet. The early Japanese superbikes could be exciting for exactly the wrong reasons. Horsepower wasn't a problem, but it took brakes and chassis development a decade or so to catch up with the ponies. If you are used to sweet-steering British lightweights, then the weight and wobbliness of Japan's performance pioneers might just land you in the hedge. Beware! Perhaps we'd better leave the Z1300 until later...
Don't be intimidated by all the technology. If us gurls can cope, then so can you hardened Britbike experts. Just remember that the first fours, like Honda's CB, were only two parallel twins which had gotten over-friendly and snuggled up together, and Edward Turner had worked out how to do that long ago! Japanese multis make different noises to traditional thumpers, but the same components are doing all the same work inside. It's just that there's more of them, and they get smaller every year. Oh, and zzz-zzz-zzz noises are perfectly normal. Honest.
OK, here's a bike which won't give you too much culture shock and should ease you gently into the Far Eastern culture. Try Yamaha's XS650, preferably the XS-2 or later versions, which arrived in and after 1972. That classically-derived twin, with its chain-driven overhead cam, high output oil pump, fifth gear and electric starter, was once described by Mark Williams as the bike which 'put right everything that was obsolete about the A65.' (Blue touch paper lit; should I retire now?).
The electric-hoof XS models were available right up until 1985, so there's plenty around - especially smart condition imports from warmer regions -- a good spares supply, trade specialists and sensible prices. Unlike many Japanese heroes, the XS is an immediately engaging bike, and one which you should find welcomes a touch of attention. Or in other words, it wasn't perfect from Day One and by now large parts will have worn out, so you'll be able to spend some time a-tinkering - just like an old Brit. The motor is essentially indestructible and should woofle along producing its effective - if underwhelming - 55bhp.
In the Japanese fashion, the XS chassis can resemble an understuffed sofa, so replacing rear shocks with stout Konis will help to support the soggy back end, adding thicker fork oil does the same at the front, and fitting roller bearings to the swinging arm will reduce the sensation of having a hinge flapping around somewhere underneath your bottom. You can pick up a clean, tidy, ready-to-roll XS for under two grand, and a right old nag for half that.
Next choice -- how about a Honda four? Rather than leap straight in with the 750, can we tempt the palate with the 400/4 instead? Unlike larger multis, this wee sweetie is nicely balanced, unintimidating and easy to work on. In terms of braking and weight the 400/4 will remind you of a Brit 500, but it'll out-perform almost all of them. What's more, it's always been appreciated as a Nice Bike (despite what FW and MG will tell you), and has almost managed the total transformation from working bike to creditable classic.
For the five years it was in production, the 400/4 was pretty well left alone, which means that sourcing spaces is relatively straightforward. Supplies of both bits and bikes remain good, thanks to the thriving import market, and there's nowt wrong in picking up an Italian Japanese machine, if you see what I mean. Just avoid versions with hideously noisy top ends (camchain problems should have been sorted by now, but you can't be too careful), and if you're going to go the whole Yoshimura overbored hog to 460cc then do the conversion yourself. Pay anything over £1000 to get a clean, taxed and tested machine.
And now for something completely different: a man with three cylinders. Never let it be said that the Japanese were hidebound by traditional design; a water-cooled 2-stroke triple was something completely out of the ordinary in 1972, and it's still a characterful bike today. The Suzuki GT750 comes with another great benefit, a thriving and boisterous owners' club which should be the envy of many full-marque groups.
Kettles provide an entirely unique experience, one full of amazing sound effects, a healthy blue haze and a rush of spending money through the petrol tank. High speed - and they could nudge 120mph - handling was always dubious, although the very last model in the series had a chunkier chassis to cope with its extra power (75 genuine horses live at around 6000rpm; get used to twisting the grip). The later Kettles were also blessed with twin discs so aim to buy the newest GT that you can, for upward of £2000.
These are just three of thousands you could choose from (oh, all right; hundreds. Well, dozens), but the general bike-buying advice remains the same. Check out the owners' club first, and definitely get someone who knows the bikes to come with you to look at a prospective purchase. Make sure that any rare parts - exhausts, mudguards - are accounted for as they can be hard to get. If you buy an import, make sure it's registered and MoT'd. And remember that multi-cylinder machines have three or four times as many parts to wear out - and because many developed more ooomph than the average Brit, you can find yourself chomping through the tyres and chains a bit quicker than on the old Ariel...
With all that accounted for, you can start to shop in earnest. What about a Kwacker triple - the thanatoid* H1 - or the unassuming four, the Z650? Air-cooled Yammie RDs offers cheap thrills, or maybe an early Wing takes your fancy - the unfaired GL1000 couldn't be more classic. Perhaps something later might suit, like the elegantly styled Yamaha SRs? Failing that, you could always look at the modern equivalents of those Britbikes of yore, like the BSA GoldSR or Kawasaki's W650 - but perhaps that's another story.
So which is your favourite Japanese Classic?
*Special RC prize to the first person who knows who coined this phrase, and sends TP@RealClassic.co.uk a mail to prove it...
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