Old's Cool: Guide to classic bikes

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Faux modern retro is one way to go, but if you want your old school metal to be authentic there's only one option: get the real deal and buy a classic. Let us show you how

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We all have a defining experience that got us into bikes. Perhaps a pillion ride with a parent or an older relative, the heroics of the racers of our youth or just the sight, sound and smell of a bike out on the road and the promises of excitement and freedom it represented. For those other than the most youthful of riders on the road today, the bikes that started us on our Damascene paths to the joys of two wheels are likely to be, like us, 'of a certain age'. And for those of us over 30, those machines will fall under the broader definition of 'classics'.

There are various definitions of a classic. Just as every old bike is not a classic (think Suzuki GSXs, early Honda V4s), so every classic is not an old bike. For example, only the most entrenched, wax-jacketed air-cooled pushrod twin fan could argue against the Ducati 916's claim to the classic title. Those are the same people who insist you shouldn't trust a bike that you can't put your fist through. And they might have a point. Naked classics tend to have far prettier engines than starkly utilitarian liquid-cooled lumps that hide behind acres of GRP and fibreglass on more modern faired machinery.

The insurance companies have a fairly cut and dried idea of what constitutes a classic. Most of them offer classic policies for bikes over 15 years old. This is the norm, but there are others that insist on the bike being at least 25 years old, while others still offer classic cover on bikes as young as 12. As classic premiums are considerably cheaper than modern policies, older bikes can look like a seriously financially attractive option. And as the 15-year limit is a sliding one, there's more and more decent machinery falling under the classic auspices that can be covered for premiums that would have the rider of a new GSX-R1000 reaching for his second-hand buyers guide. You could opt for the ballistic straightline performance of something like a 1990 or older Suzuki GSX-R1100 or an early Kawasaki ZZ-R1100. Other choice recent-ish bikes are early CBR600s and VFR750s. Hell, we're nearly at the point when the first Blades will qualify for classic insurance, and the Ducati 916 isn't that far off either.

If you want to opt for something more conventionally classic, you're spoilt for choice. There's a century's worth of motorcycles to choose from, so there's something to suit all tastes and budgets.However you define a classic - and it's an endless argument with no real rights or wrongs to it - the important thing is how your classic makes you feel. There's no such thing as an elixir of youth or a recipe for immortality. But as a means of transport to experience the sensations and excitement of how bikes made you feel when you first got into them, or even just as a way to enjoy motorcycling in the raw - as bikes were before technological refinement put the machine's performance way beyond the capabilities of most mortals - there's no better bet than a classic.

PRE-60S METAL

Most TWO readers, and indeed this writer, will remember nothing about the days before the dawn of the 60s. The first six or seven decades of motorcycling were an incredibly fecund period. These days we see evolution rather than revolution in bike development. Back at the start anyone who could strap an engine into a bicycle frame was a motorcycle manufacturer and innovation was rife. And many of them did a tolerably good job. Norton won the first twin-cylinder TT in 1907 with a Peugeot motor lashed into a bespoke frame.

Front brakes were less than desirable on the unmade roads of the time, for fear of a front end wash out, so puny front drums did their best to complement more efficient rear stoppers. Swingarm suspension became widely used only in the 50s. Manufacturers eventually went from side-valve and exhaust over inlet designs to overhead valve configurations. In the late 50s alternators became de rigeur so there was a shift from magnetos and dynamos to battery and coil systems.

Bob McIntyre lapped the TT Mountain Course at over 100mph in 1957, and a new standard was set. From the 50s biking just got faster and faster. By now the British motorcycle industry mainly ruled the roost. Most of the small manufacturers in the early years of the century had either disappeared or been absorbed by the bigger conglomerates.

1960-1970

Ah yes, the Swinging Sixties. Post-WWII austerity gave way to happier, more affluent times and the affordable car meant that motorcycles became much more leisure toys than the utilitarian transport they had been for the majority prior to that.

Certainly there were still plenty of people duffing around on side valve singles with huge sidecars lashed to the side, but demand from a voracious American market meant that sportier bikes just got better and better, while over on the other side of the planet the Japanese were gearing up to give the traditional motorcycle producing countries one almighty fright.

In the early part of the decade people like Triumph supremo Edward Turner were convincing themselves that the Japanese were only concerned with producing small capacity bikes and were no threat to the big bike market. So when Honda unveiled the CB750 in October 1968, the British industry - which had failed to make any significant investment in modern production methods - was sent into tailspin, inducing a slow suicide that would run on into the 70s.

Honda were the first to give the man in the street a package that included a disc brake, an overhead cam, horizontally split crankcases and an electric start. Britain's best riposte was the Triumph Trident/BSA Rocket 3; drum-braked pushrod triples with leak-prone, vertically-split crankcases. Okay, so the Brit offerings might have handled better and had more power, but they just didn't look as good on paper. Norton's best effort was the Commando, with its rubber-mounted engine to mask the vibes from an engine design that was really 20 years old. It was a great bike and plenty were sold, but it was only ever conceived as a stopgap.

1970-1980

After the colourful 60s, things started getting a tad monochrome on our shores. There was the three-day week, fuel crisis and, worst of all, prog rock was gaining in popularity. Against this miserable backdrop the British motorcycle industry continued its agonising decline, attempting to foist tired designs on an increasingly discriminating public. No number of 'Buy British, Buy Best' campaigns could stop the rot. The Yanks didn't help either, dictating that all new machines had to be left-side gearshift, the exact opposite of the traditional Brit pattern, because Americans apparently couldn't be trusted to brake and shift gear safely unless all bikes were the same. After loads of industrial strife, Triumph finally emerged as a workers' co-operative and Norton soldiered on until 1978.,br>Meanwhile the Japanese really were getting their shit together, although a perverse need to be different from the competition meant that the rest of the Big Four were reluctant to follow Honda's lead and make an ohc four-stroke four. So we got such diverse offerings as maniacal Kawasaki two-strokes and more refined Yamahas, Yam's XS650 four-stroke ohc parallel twins and Suzuki's thirsty RE5 rotary that arrived just in time for the 1974 oil crisis. By the end of the decade everyone had seen sense and ohc four-stroke multis were the order of the day. Kawasaki were first with 1972's 903cc Z1, aceing Honda by over a quarter litre in capacity, although it was the Honda that sold best. By the end of the 70s they'd given us the six-pot Z1300, again aceing Honda and their mighty six-cylinder CBX1000. The industry had gone cube crazy; handling was a distant second. While the Italians could still build a decent handler with bikes like Ducati's 900SS and to a lesser extent the Guzzi Le Mans, real men with funds bought the Laverda Jota.

Midway through the decade punk rock came along and we all felt a little better about things. Then in 1979 along came Margaret Thatcher to dismantle what was left of British industry and generally shaft this once great nation.

1980-1990

While mainstream popular music may have taken a downturn in the early days of the free market (Tears for Fears, OMD, Duran Duran), bikes were enjoying something of a technical revolution. Yamaha gave the big bike, power crazy brigade a big wet slap round the jowels with the RD LC range, while in 1984 Kawasaki delivered the first 150mph over-the-counter production bike in the form of the GPZ900R. Just when we thought things couldn't get crazier, along came the Suzuki GSX-R750, followed a year later by the GSX-R1100. Collectively, or even singly, they were enough to blow the cuffs off your flouncy New Romantic blouson.

But the big news in the 80s was more concern for handling. Big power was still the Holy Grail, but it wasn't all down to cubes. Clever combustion chambers and valve configurations abounded. Frames and suspension got plenty of attention from the big Japanese manufacturers, and certainly it was something the Italians had never forgotten about. Shame they couldn't pay the same attention to electrical and mechanical reliability.

The World Superbike series was launched, and at last we saw a race series that half-way (okay, part-way) reflected what was going on with road bikes. And so we were glad.

BUYING & RUNNING A CLASSIC

If you're coming round to the idea that a classic might be for you, it's perhaps best to make sure. Do a quick web search to find out the nearest meets of the owners club for the marque your interested in. Most clubs are very welcoming, and many owners so proud of their classic that you'll have every chance of a test ride on the type of bike you're thinking of buying.

The first thing to do before buying a classic is to immerse yourself in a few books and magazine articles on the bike you think you want. In other words, make yourself a marque expert, that way you've got less chance of being sold a pup. Many of the more desirable classics are relatively easy to fake, for example the only external identifier of a Laverda Jota being its sidepanel badges, exhausts and rearsets. Membership of an owners club is a good idea, and also a good potential source of the bike of your dreams and subsequent spares.

As with any secondhand bike, you want to carefully check out a prospective purchase's mechanical integrity, and that frame and engine numbers are as they should be and that they match those on the V5 logbook. You'll pay a premium if buying from a dealer, but in the UK they have to guarantee against defects for the first six months after purchase unless they can prove that the problem was down to you. Also it is illegal for them to misrepresent a bike. However they don't have to tell you about any faults, so give them a good grilling about the bike before parting with your cash.

Another important factor influencing your buying decision is what you intend to use the bike for. If you only want to potter down deserted country lanes on high days and holidays, then buy what you like. If commuting in today's traffic or a spot of touring are on the cards, then you will need something that can accelerate, cruise and stop adequately.

Many classics are more maintenance intensive than modern bikes, but don't let that put you off. They're typically easier to work on than newer tackle, and the intimate relationship you'll forge with your classic's inner workings is a rewarding part of the classic ownership package. But until the oil has got firmly under your fingernails, it's probably best to buy a classic that has good parts availability (you can build a whole Norton Commando from parts, for example), so that means one of the more popular classics. There is a huge aftermarket for many classics, offering improved components that will make your bike run sweeter and more reliably.

The last buying decision is whether or not to go for a basketcase and restore it yourself, or buy the best example you can find. In the first case the cost of restoration usually far exceeds what it would have cost to buy a good one, especially if you have to source missing tinware (much Japanese stuff is scarce and pricey) - although you will be denied the pleasure of doing it all yourself. In the second case you need to be sure that the job was done properly by someone who knew what they were doing. Demand to see bills and receipts.

The last words ? Ride your classic. The more you use them the better they are and niggling problems will be ironed out. Allowing a bike to stand can be as mechanically detrimental as actually using the thing. Enjoy.

PRE-60S CLASSICS

1. BSA Gold Star

Engine 499cc air-cooled pushrod ohv single Power 37.8bhp@ 7000rpm Top speed 115mph Dry weight 383lb (174kg) Desirability 5 out of 5 Practicality 3 out of 5 Price now £4000-£10,000

Why you want one The Goldie is perhaps the most versatile sports bike ever, winning everything from scrambles to road races. Then people rode them to work on Monday morning

2. Ariel Square Four

Engine 997cc air-cooled, ohv square four Power 40bhp@5600rpm Top speed 105mph Dry weight 425lb (193kg) Desirability 3.5 out of 5 Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £2800-£4500

Why you want one A truly innovative design in its day, its creator Edward Turner would later find considerable fame at Triumph with his influential technical concepts

3. Triumph Thunderbird

Engine 649cc air-cooled, pushrod parallel twin Power 34bhp@ 6300rpm Top speed 105mph Wet weight 397lb (180kg) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £2000-£4500

Why you want one Marlon Brando. The Wild One. Er, that's it

Norton International

Engine air-cooled bevel drive cam single, 490ccPower 39bhp (est) Top speed 100mph Weight 300lb (136kg) Desirability 4 out of 5Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £3500-£7000

Why you want one BSA's Goldie may have enjoyed broader success, but Norton's were the real kings of the single. Years ahead of its time

Vincent Black Shadow

Engine air-cooled pushrod ohv V-twin, 998ccPower 55bhp @5700rpm Top speed 122mphWet weight 458lb (208kg) Desirability 5 out of 5 Practicality 4.5 out of 5 Price now £12,000-£28,000

Why you want one Proper hand-built class. Hellish quick for the time with handling and braking to match. A true icon

Ariel Square Four

Engine air-cooled, ohv square four, 997cc Power 40bhp @5600rpm Top speed 105mph Dry weight 425lb (193kg) Desirability 3.5 out of 5 Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £2800-£4500

Why you want one A truly innovative design in its day, its creator Edward Turner would find considerable fame at Triumph with his influential technical concepts

Pre-unit Triumph Bonneville

Engine air-cooled pushrod ohv parallel twin, 649ccPower 46bhp @ 6500rpm Top speed 110mphDry weight 404lb (183kg) Desirability 5 out of 5Practicality 4 out of 5 Price now £4000-£10,000

Why you want one Arguably the most celebrated name in biking, now sadly misapplied to a comedy retro bike. Buy the real thing

60S TO 70S CLASSICS

1. Norton 650SS

Engine 646cc air-cooled, pushrod parallel twin Power 49bhp@6800rpm Top speed 110mph Dry weight 398lb (181kg) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £2500-£4500

Why you want one To sample that superlative Featherbed frame handling, unsurpassed on big bikes until the 80s

2. Ducati Mach 1

Engine 248.5cc air-cooled, bevel driven ohc single Power 24bhp@8500rpm Top speed 105mph (claimed) Weight 256lb (116kg) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 3 out of 5 Price now £2000-£4000

Why you want one Just look at it, then ask again. Compare with British 250s of the time (then the learner bike capacity)

3. Triumph T120 Bonneville

Engine 649cc, air-cooled, pushrod, parallel twin Power 46bhp@6500rpm Top speed 115mph Dry weight 390lb (177kg) Desirability 5 out of 5 Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £3000-£6000

Why you want one Few bikes are cooler or more iconic. Think Steve McQueen in On Any Sunday and you're there

4. Honda CB750

Engine 736cc, air-cooled, sohc inline four Power 67bhp@8000rpm Top speed 125mph Dry weight 517lb (235kg) Desirability 3.5 out of 5 Practicality 4 out of 5 Price now £2000-£4500

Why you want one You can argue whether or not the CB was the first superbike, but it was the first inline four superbike

5. Triumph T150 Trident

Engine 740cc, air-cooled, pushrod 120 triple Power 58bhp@7250rpm Top speed 128mph Dry weight 468lb (212kg) Desirability 3.5 out of 5 Practicality 4 out of 5 Price now £2000-£3800

Why you want one The spine-tingling yowl from the three-cylinder mill as it comes on cam

6. BSA A65 Spitfire

Engine 654cc, air-cooled, pushrod parallel twin Power 56.5bhp@7250rpm Top speed 115mph Dry weight 390lb (177kg) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £3000-£4800

Why you want one A viable Bonnie alternative, and the sidepanel crossed-flag logo is one of the coolest ever

70S TO 80S CLASSICS

1. Laverda Jota

Engine 920cc air-cooled dohc triple Power 90bhp@8000rpm Top speed 139mph Weight 520lb (236kg) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £2500 to £6000

Why you want one Master the heavy clutch and shit-or-bust cornering technique and you'll be a true man. Or woman

2. Kawasaki Z1

Engine 903cc air-cooled dohc inline four-cylinder Power 82bhp@8500rpm Top speed 131mph Weight 506lb (229.5kg) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 4.5 out of 5 Price now £1800-£4000

Why you want one Because you're man (or woman) enough

3. Norton Commando

Engine 745/749/829cc (depending on model and year) air-cooled pushrod parallel twin Power 56-65bhp@6200 to 6800 rpmTop speed about 125mph Dry weight 398-430lb (181-195kg) Desirability 4.5 out of 5 Practicality 5 out of 5 Price now £2500-£4000

Why you want one Born in the 60s but became a 70s legend. The Norton logo is cool beyond designer type-setting. Recommended

4. Moto Guzzi Le Mans

Engine 844cc air-cooled transverse OHV V-twin Power 71bhp@ 7300rpm Top speed 132mph Weight 476lb (216kg) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 4 out of 5 Price now £1800-£3500

Why you want one It's unburstable. The Italians call it 'Gambalunga', which means 'long legs' or 'prawns', we gather

5. Ducati 900SS

Engine 863.9cc, air-cooled, bevel drive ohc 90 L-twin, Power 80bhp @ 7000rpm Top speed 129mph Wet weight 455lb (206kg) Desirability 4.5 out of 5 Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £3000-£5000

Why you want one It may be a fragile beast, but it's hellaciously fast and the machine that sealed the Ducati legend, foibles and all

6. Honda CBX1000

Engine 1047cc air-cooled, dohc six-cylinder Power 105bhp @ 9000rpm Top speed 135mph (est) Wet weight 580lb (263kg) Desirability 3.5 out of 5 Practicality 4 out of 5 Price now £1800-£3500

Why you want one A big part of Honda's race legend was built on four-stroke sixes. It's the ultimate expression of their vision

80S TO 90S CLASSICS

1. Honda RC30

Engine 749cc liquid-cooled V4 Power 86.3bhp@11,500rpm Top speed 166mph Dry weight 192kg (423lb) Desirability 5 out of 5 Practicality 3.5 out of 5 Price now £6000-£15,000

Why you want one Always much more than the sum of its parts. A racer with lights and a true homologation special

2. Kawasaki GPz900R

Engine 908cc liquid-cooled dohc four Power 112bhp Top speed 156mph Wet weight 532lb (242kg) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 4.5 out of 5 Price now £1000-£2800

Why you want one The first true, over-the-counter 150mph superbike. Tolerably good handling for its day too

3. Yamaha RD350 YPVS

Engine 347cc liquid-cooled two-stroke parallel twin Power 59bhp@9000rpm Top speed 115mph Dry weight 145kg (319lb) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 4 out of 5 Price now £750-£2000

Why you want one A yowling stroker. How could you not want one?

4. Suzuki GSX-R1100

Engine 1052cc air/oil-cooled inline four Power 130bhp Top speed 163mph Dry weight 199kg (438 lbs) Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 4 out of 5 Price now £1000-£2500

Why you want one A proper headbangers tool. The big Gixer's not overly keen on corners though

5. Kawasaki ZZ-R1100

Engine 1052.5cc liquid-cooled inline four Power 125bhp @ 9500rpm Top speed 165mph Dry weight around 200kg Desirability 4 out of 5 Practicality 4 out of 5 Price now £1000-£3000

Why you want one A cult classic for less mentalist headbangers

THE UNCERTAIN MODERNIST

I'm not a fan of old bikes. And by 'old', I mean those noisy pre-historic clunkers that beardy men take out on Sunday afternoons when they want to get away from the wife for a couple of hours.

Personally, I can't see the attraction in riding a machine that's made out of bakelite and harks back to the days of ration books and powdered egg. And then there's the reliability issue. Even if some of these old bikes look good, you're never going to get further than a couple of miles before the old shed starts pissing oil and petrol all over the road. Or have I completely missed the point?

In order to get some insight into the allure of old motorcycles, I journey to the Kempton Park Autojumble in south west London, an important date in the classic biking calendar. And, on first impressions, my prejudices remain intact. Today's event seems to consist solely of many piles of crap, laid out as far as the eye can see. Rusty old frames, boxes full of ancient sprockets and cylinder heads, decaying fuel tanks, manky leather jackets. Add an assortment of unkempt beards and the odd mangy dog into the equation and you'll get a nice musky flavour of the day. Why, in God's name, would anyone spend a nice sunny afternoon here?

And here's my answer. John Talbot, a businessman from nearby Twickenham, excitedly waves a sturdy piece of metal in my face. "Look what I've found! An original folding kickstart for my BSA Road Rocket," he exclaims. "These are almost impossible to find." Smiling from ear to ear, he scurries off home. In the adjoining covered market, specialist restorer Kevin Ward uncovers an original plunger for a 1953 BSA A10. His excitement is palpable. Like those people who spend hours trawling through reams of old vinyl in dusty record shops, the Autojumble is a place to find hidden treasures. But you've got to dig through the chaff to find the wheat. The chase for that elusive part is the main attraction of restoring an old bike. And if you can't find the original stuff, there's a whole cottage industry making repro gear for your vintage ride. Jeff Hunter is the 'repro rubber man', specialising in producing rubber goods for vintage Ariels, BSAs and Triumphs. "If I don't have the rubbers for your bike, they don't exist," says Jeff. Next to his stall is a specialist trader who deals exclusively in period clocks and dials. Across the room there's a repro fuel tank stall. Any part for any classic bike - you'll probably find it here. All of a sudden, the piles of crap start to make sense. Any one of those rusty bits of tin could be someone's Holy Grail. I'm starting to see the attraction. If you're even slightly obsessive about stuff, I would advise you to buy an old bike immediately.

But before you swing a tweedy leg over the slim flanks of an oldy-worldy Vincent Black Shadow or Norton International, make the Kempton Park Autojumble (or any similar event) your first port of call. A whole dusty new world awaits you.

We all have a defining experience that got us into bikes. Perhaps a pillion ride with a parent or an older relative, the heroics of the racers of our youth or just the sight, sound and smell of a bike out on the road and the promises of excitement and freedom it represented. For those other than the most youthful of riders on the road today, the bikes that started us on our Damascene paths to the joys of two wheels are likely to be, like us, 'of a certain age'. And for those of us over 30, those machines will fall under the broader definition of 'classics'.

There are various definitions of a classic. Just as every old bike is not a classic (think Suzuki GSXs, early Honda V4s), so every classic is not an old bike. For example, only the most entrenched, wax-jacketed air-cooled pushrod twin fan could argue against the Ducati 916's claim to the classic title. Those are the same people who insist you shouldn't trust a bike that you can't put your fist through. And they might have a point. Naked classics tend to have far prettier engines than starkly utilitarian liquid-cooled lumps that hide behind acres of GRP and fibreglass on more modern faired machinery.

The insurance companies have a fairly cut and dried idea of what constitutes a classic. Most of them offer classic policies for bikes over 15 years old. This is the norm, but there are others that insist on the bike being at least 25 years old, while others still offer classic cover on bikes as young as 12. As classic premiums are considerably cheaper than modern policies, older bikes can look like a seriously financially attractive option.

And as the 15-year limit is a sliding one, there's more and more decent machinery falling under the classic auspices that can be covered for premiums that would have the rider of a new GSX-R1000 reaching for his second-hand buyers guide. You could opt for the ballistic straightline performance of something like a 1990 or older Suzuki GSX-R1100 or an early Kawasaki ZZ-R1100. Other choice recent-ish bikes are early CBR600s and VFR750s.

If you want to opt for something more conventionally classic, you're spoilt for choice. There's a century's worth of motorcycles to choose from, so there's something to suit all tastes and budgets.

However you define a classic - and it's an endless argument with no real rights or wrongs to it - the important thing is how your classic makes you feel. There's no such thing as an elixir of youth or a recipe for immortality. But as a means of transport to experience the sensations and excitement of how bikes made you feel when you first got into them, or even just as a way to enjoy motorcycling in the raw - as bikes were before technological refinement put the machine's performance way beyond the capabilities of most mortals - there's no better bet than a classic.

Pre-60s Metal

PRE-60S METAL

Most Visordown readers, and indeed this writer, will remember nothing about the days before the dawn of the 60s. The first six or seven decades of motorcycling were an incredibly fecund period. These days we see evolution rather than revolution in bike development.

Back at the start anyone who could strap an engine into a bicycle frame was a motorcycle manufacturer and innovation was rife. And many of them did a tolerably good job. Norton won the first twin-cylinder TT in 1907 with a Peugeot motor lashed into a bespoke frame.

Front brakes were less than desirable on the unmade roads of the time, for fear of a front end wash out, so puny front drums did their best to complement more efficient rear stoppers. Swingarm suspension became widely used only in the 50s. Manufacturers eventually went from side-valve and exhaust over inlet designs to overhead valve configurations. In the late 50s alternators became de rigeur so there was a shift from magnetos and dynamos to battery and coil systems.

Bob McIntyre lapped the TT Mountain Course at over 100mph in 1957, and a new standard was set. From the 50s biking just got faster and faster. By now the British motorcycle industry mainly ruled the roost.

Most of the small manufacturers in the early years of the century had either disappeared or been absorbed by the bigger conglomerates.

PRE-60S CLASSICS

  • BSA Gold Star

Engine: 499cc air-cooled pushrod ohv single
Power:
37.8bhp@ 7000rpm Top speed: 115mph
Dry weight:
383lb (174kg) Desirability 5 out of 5
Practicality:
3 out of 5 Price now: £4000-£10,000
Why you want one: The Goldie is perhaps the most versatile sports bike ever, winning everything from scrambles to road races. Then people rode them to work on Monday morning

  • Ariel Square Four

Engine: 997cc air-cooled, ohv square four Power: 40bhp@5600rpm
Top speed: 105mph Dry weight: 425lb (193kg)
Desirability: 3.5 out of 5 Practicality: 3.5 out of 5
Price now: £2800-£4500
Why you want one: A truly innovative design in its day, its creator Edward Turner would later find considerable fame at Triumph with his influential technical concepts

  • Triumph Thunderbird

Engine: 649cc air-cooled, pushrod parallel twin
Power:
34bhp@ 6300rpm Top speed: 105mph
Wet weight:
397lb (180kg) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality:
3.5 out of 5 Price now: £2000-£4500
Why you want one: Marlon Brando. The Wild One. Er, that's it

  • Norton International

Engine: air-cooled bevel drive cam single, 490cc
Power: 39bhp (est) Top speed: 100mph
Weight: 300lb (136kg) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 3.5 out of 5 Price now: £3500-£7000
Why you want one: BSA's Goldie may have enjoyed broader success, but Norton's were the real kings of the single. Years ahead of its time

  • Vincent Black Shadow

Engine: air-cooled pushrod ohv V-twin, 998cc
Power: 55bhp @5700rpm Top speed: 122mph
Wet weight: 458lb (208kg) Desirability: 5 out of 5
Practicality: 4.5 out of 5 Price now: £12,000-£28,000
Why you want one: Proper hand-built class. Hellish quick for the time with handling and braking to match. A true icon

  • Ariel Square Four

Engine: air-cooled, ohv square four, 997cc
Power:
40bhp @5600rpm Top speed: 105mph
Dry weight: 425lb (193kg) Desirability: 3.5 out of 5
Practicality: 3.5 out of 5 Price now: £2800-£4500
Why you want one: A truly innovative design in its day, its creator Edward Turner would find considerable fame at Triumph with his influential technical concepts

  • Pre-unit Triumph Bonneville

Engine: air-cooled pushrod ohv parallel twin, 649cc
Power: 46bhp @ 6500rpm Top speed: 110mph
Dry weight: 404lb (183kg) Desirability: 5 out of 5
Practicality: 4 out of 5 Price now: £4000-£10,000
Why you want one: Arguably the most celebrated name in biking, now sadly misapplied to a comedy retro bike. Buy the real thing

1960-1970

1960-1970

Ah yes, the Swinging Sixties. Post-WWII austerity gave way to happier, more affluent times and the affordable car meant that motorcycles became much more leisure toys than the utilitarian transport they had been for the majority prior to that.

Certainly there were still plenty of people duffing around on side valve singles with huge sidecars lashed to the side, but demand from a voracious American market meant that sportier bikes just got better and better, while over on the other side of the planet the Japanese were gearing up to give the traditional motorcycle producing countries one almighty fright.

In the early part of the decade people like Triumph supremo Edward Turner were convincing themselves that the Japanese were only concerned with producing small capacity bikes and were no threat to the big bike market. So when Honda unveiled the CB750 in October 1968, the British industry - which had failed to make any significant investment in modern production methods - was sent into tailspin, inducing a slow suicide that would run on into the 70s.

Honda were the first to give the man in the street a package that included a disc brake, an overhead cam,
horizontally split crankcases and an electric start. Britain's best riposte was the Triumph Trident/BSA Rocket 3; drum-braked pushrod triples with leak-prone, vertically-split crankcases. Okay, so the Brit offerings might have handled better and had more power, but they just didn't look as good on paper. Norton's best effort was the Commando, with its rubber-mounted engine to mask the vibes from an engine design that was really 20 years old. It was a great bike and plenty were sold, but it was only ever conceived as a stopgap.

60S TO 70S CLASSICS

  • Norton 650SS

Engine: 646cc air-cooled, pushrod parallel twin
Power: 49bhp@6800rpm Top speed: 110mph
Dry weight: 398lb (181kg) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 3.5 out of 5 Price now: £2500-£4500
Why you want one: To sample that superlative Featherbed frame handling, unsurpassed on big bikes until the 80s

  • Ducati Mach 1

Engine: 248.5cc air-cooled, bevel driven ohc single
Power: 24bhp@8500rpm Top speed: 105mph (claimed)
Weight:
256lb (116kg) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 3 out of 5 Price now: £2000-£4000
Why you want one: Just look at it, then ask again. Compare with British 250s of the time (then the learner bike capacity)

  • Triumph T120 Bonneville

Engine: 649cc, air-cooled, pushrod, parallel twin
Power: 46bhp@6500rpm Top speed: 115mph
Dry weight: 390lb (177kg) Desirability: 5 out of 5
Practicality: 3.5 out of 5 Price now: £3000-£6000
Why you want one: Few bikes are cooler or more iconic. Think Steve McQueen in On Any Sunday and you're there

  • Honda CB750

Engine: 736cc, air-cooled, sohc inline four
Power: 67bhp@8000rpm Top speed: 125mph
Dry weight: 517lb (235kg) Desirability: 3.5 out of 5
Practicality: 4 out of 5 Price now: £2000-£4500
Why you want one: You can argue whether or not the CB was the first superbike, but it was the first inline four superbike

  • Triumph T150 Trident

Engine: 740cc, air-cooled, pushrod 120° triple
Power: 58bhp@7250rpm Top speed: 128mph
Dry weight: 468lb (212kg) Desirability: 3.5 out of 5
Practicality: 4 out of 5 Price now: £2000-£3800
Why you want one: The spine-tingling yowl from the three-cylinder mill as it comes on cam

  • BSA A65 Spitfire

Engine: 654cc, air-cooled, pushrod parallel twin
Power: 56.5bhp@7250rpm Top speed: 115mph
Dry weight: 390lb (177kg) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 3.5 out of 5 Price now: £3000-£4800
Why you want one: A viable Bonnie alternative, and the sidepanel crossed-flag logo is one of the coolest ever

1970-1980

1970-1980

After the colourful 60s, things started getting a tad monochrome on our shores. There was the three-day week, fuel crisis and, worst of all, prog rock was gaining in popularity. Against this miserable backdrop the British motorcycle industry continued its agonising decline, attempting to foist tired designs on an increasingly discriminating public.

No number of 'Buy British, Buy Best' campaigns could stop the rot. The Yanks didn't help either, dictating that all new machines had to be left-side gearshift, the exact opposite of the traditional Brit pattern, because Americans apparently couldn't be trusted to brake and shift gear safely unless all bikes were the same. After loads of industrial strife, Triumph finally emerged as a workers' co-operative and Norton soldiered on until 1978.

Meanwhile the Japanese really were getting their shit together, although a perverse need to be different from the competition meant that the rest of the Big Four were reluctant to follow Honda's lead and make an ohc four-stroke four. So we got such diverse offerings as maniacal Kawasaki two-strokes and more refined Yamahas, Yam's XS650 four-stroke ohc parallel twins and Suzuki's thirsty RE5 rotary that arrived just in time for the 1974 oil crisis.

By the end of the decade everyone had seen sense and ohc four-stroke multis were the order of the day. Kawasaki were first with 1972's 903cc Z1, aceing Honda by over a quarter litre in capacity, although it was the Honda that sold best. By the end of the 70s they'd given us the six-pot Z1300, again aceing Honda and their mighty six-cylinder CBX1000. The industry had gone cube crazy; handling was a distant second. While the Italians could still build a decent handler with bikes like Ducati's 900SS and to a lesser extent the Guzzi Le Mans, real men with funds bought the Laverda Jota.

Midway through the decade punk rock came along and we all felt a little better about things. Then in 1979 along came Margaret Thatcher to dismantle what was left of British industry and generally shaft this once great nation.

70S TO 80S CLASSICS

  • Laverda Jota

Engine: 920cc air-cooled dohc triple
Power: 90bhp@8000rpm Top speed: 139mph
Weight: 520lb (236kg) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 3.5 out of 5 Price now: £2500 to £6000
Why you want one: Master the heavy clutch and shit-or-bust cornering technique and you'll be a true man. Or woman

  • Kawasaki Z1

Engine: 903cc air-cooled dohc inline four-cylinder
Power: 82bhp@8500rpm Top speed: 131mph
Weight: 506lb (229.5kg) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 4.5 out of 5 Price now: £1800-£4000
Why you want one: Because you're man (or woman) enough

  • Norton Commando

Engine: 745/749/829cc (depending on model and year) air-cooled pushrod parallel twin
Power: 56-65bhp@6200 to 6800 rpm Top speed: 125mph
Dry weight: 398-430lb (181-195kg) Desirability: 4.5 out of 5
Practicality: 5 out of 5 Price now: £2500-£4000
Why you want one: Born in the 60s but became a 70s legend. The Norton logo is cool beyond designer type-setting. Recommended

  • Moto Guzzi Le Mans

Engine: 844cc air-cooled transverse OHV V-twin
Power: 71bhp@ 7300rpm Top speed: 132mph
Weight: 476lb (216kg) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 4 out of 5 Price now: £1800-£3500
Why you want one: It's unburstable. The Italians call it 'Gambalunga', which means 'long legs' or 'prawns', we gather

  • Ducati 900SS

Engine: 863.9cc, air-cooled, bevel drive ohc 90° L-twin,
Power: 80bhp @ 7000rpm Top speed: 129mph
Wet weight: 455lb (206kg) Desirability: 4.5 out of 5
Practicality: 3.5 out of 5 Price now: £3000-£5000
Why you want one: It may be a fragile beast, but it's hellaciously fast and the machine that sealed the Ducati legend, foibles and all

  • Honda CBX1000

Engine: 1047cc air-cooled, dohc six-cylinder
Power: 105bhp @ 9000rpm Top speed: 135mph (est)
Wet weight: 580lb (263kg) Desirability: 3.5 out of 5
Practicality: 4 out of 5 Price now: £1800-£3500
Why you want one: A big part of Honda's race legend was built on four-stroke sixes. It's the ultimate expression of their vision

1980-1990

1980-1990

While mainstream popular music may have taken a downturn in the early days of the free market (Tears for Fears, OMD, Duran Duran), bikes were enjoying something of a technical revolution. Yamaha gave the big bike, power crazy brigade a big wet slap round the jowels with the RD LC range, while in 1984 Kawasaki delivered the first 150mph over-the-counter production bike in the form of the GPZ900R.

Just when we thought things couldn't get crazier, along came the Suzuki GSX-R750, followed a year later by the GSX-R1100. Collectively, or even singly, they were enough to blow the cuffs off your flouncy New Romantic blouson.

But the big news in the 80s was more concern for handling. Big power was still the Holy Grail, but it wasn't all down to cubes. Clever combustion chambers and valve configurations abounded. Frames and suspension got plenty of attention from the big Japanese manufacturers, and certainly it was something the Italians had never forgotten about. Shame they couldn't pay the same attention to electrical and mechanical reliability.

The World Superbike series was launched, and at last we saw a race series that half-way (okay, part-way) reflected what was going on with road bikes. And so we were glad.

Click here for the advice to buying and running a classic bike

80S TO 90S CLASSICS

  • Honda RC30

Engine: 749cc liquid-cooled V4
Power: 86.3bhp@11,500rpm Top speed: 166mph
Dry weight: 192kg (423lb) Desirability: 5 out of 5
Practicality: 3.5 out of 5 Price now: £6000-£15,000
Why you want one: Always much more than the sum of its parts. A racer with lights and a true homologation special

  • Kawasaki GPz900R  

Engine: 908cc liquid-cooled dohc four
Power: 112bhp Top speed: 156mph
Wet weight: 532lb (242kg) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 4.5 out of 5 Price now: £1000-£2800
Why you want one: The first true, over-the-counter 150mph superbike. Tolerably good handling for its day too

  • Yamaha RD350 YPVS

Engine: 347cc liquid-cooled two-stroke parallel twin
Power: 59bhp@9000rpm Top speed: 115mph
Dry weight: 145kg (319lb) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 4 out of 5 Price now: £750-£2000
Why you want one: A yowling stroker. How could you not want one?

  • Suzuki GSX-R1100

Engine: 1052cc air/oil-cooled inline four
Power: 130bhp Top speed: 163mph
Dry weight: 199kg (438 lbs) Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 4 out of 5 Price now: £1000-£2500
Why you want one: A proper headbangers tool. The big Gixer's not overly keen on corners though

  • Kawasaki ZZ-R1100

Engine: 1052.5cc liquid-cooled inline four
Power: 125bhp @ 9500rpm Top speed: 165mph
Dry weight: around 200kg Desirability: 4 out of 5
Practicality: 4 out of 5 Price now: £1000-£3000
Why you want one: A cult classic for less mentalist headbangers

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