Which era was the best?

Everyone reckons their generation of biking was the best. From the 1960s when rockers ruled to the 1990s when Exups and Blades did battle on the roads, we ask the bikers who were there about the Golden Age

Rose-tinted spectacles have got a lot to answer for. Everything was great fifteen years ago and now it’s rubbish. This has undoubtedly got more to do with the fact we were all a decade younger ten years ago – more girls, less wrinkles, no worries – than any degradation of quality of life, but in some respects things really were better back then. You never hear it more than within motorcycling; every generation reckons their time was the best and that things ain’t what they used to be. So we decided to fi nd out.

Taking one character from each of the last four decades, we asked them why biking was best when they were 25 and in their prime. And somewhere in amongst all the misty-eyed memories there’s an answer.


The 1990s were the best!

Steve Collins, 38, rides a Kawasaki ZX-10R. He reckons the 1990s were superb; going fast was easy, Foggy ruled the world and there were no speed cameras...

Going fast was easier back then
“One night I was coming back from Worcester absolutely fl at-out at about 4am. I hadn’t seen a car for miles and was in top on a tuned Yamaha FZR1000 EXUP. I flashed underneath the Leamington underpass with the needle off the clock. As the road levelled out there were two police Senators blocking the carriageway. I swore, rolled the throttle and stopped. The coppers just started laughing at me. They told me another car had tried to get me with a speed gun but, because I was going too fast, the gun had come up with an error code. They wanted to prosecute but they had nothing; I got away with it. The nineties were naughty like the noughties will never be. We didn’t know what we were getting away with back then.”

We dreamt about RC30s
“At 25 I owned on a Yamaha Tenere and lived in Tenerife, riding mountain roads under the sun. The RC30 was the dream bike; completely unobtainable and utterly gorgeous. Closer to reality was the FireBlade – the bike of the decade and better for me than the 916 or R1. Before the Blade, bikes were fast but they didn’t turn. When the Blade hit the scene people became aware of what a bike should do when you leant one over. And in the 1990s if you didn’t have kneesliders you were inferior. If you had them but they weren’t scuff ed you were a pretender who hadn’t earned his stripes.”

Foggy the racer was a hero
“Foggy was my hero on-track but I didn’t really like who he was off the bike. Seeing him charge for the front and duke it out with the world’s best was always brilliant. Brands Hatch WSB in August was always the date on the calendar - they once got 120,000 people there to watch King Carl.”

Now we’re spoilt
“My ZX-10R is unbelievable. In standard trim it would have troubled Foggy and Slight in a World Superbike race in 1995. The flipside to that is the roads are virtually impossible now; Gatso cameras, unmarked bikes sending riders to jail for having fun, even helicopters. You can’t use bikes properly these days. They’re more for show. ”

The Japanese upped their game each year
“It was a time when the manufacturers took chances to better each other, year in and year out. The 916 taught the Japanese to make bikes more beautiful, the Blade made them realise how important light weight was then the R1 launched an outright horsepower war which went on for years.”

There was money in bikes then
“We had money to spend on bikes back then; I’ve spent over £40,000 on my habit, but these days I’m more conservative...”


Carl Fogarty Like him or loathe him you can’t deny back then the world’s podiums belonged to King Carl

Ducati 916 Still stunning but cheaper now. Three grand buys one worth owning

Alpinestars boots The industry standard in safety, style and general coolness for as long as anyone can remember

Suzuki Bandit 1200 Sales of Simpson Bandits picked up, as did sales of wanky black and white camo trousers. The bike was a cracker Sparky sliders Just add titanium for the ultimate in showing-off

Suzuki Hayabusa A cult high-speed hero; 195mph out of the crate and tyres that could barely hang on past 1500 miles

Gatso cameras The most universally hated thing to come out of the 1990s. Apart from the Backstreet Boys

Shellgrip A road traffic aid for the safety-conscious; a knee-down aid for the rest of us. Perfect for rolling stoppies, too

The trackday Donington Park GP circuit, all day, for less than a hundred quid? Form an orderly queue

Carbon fibre If you didn’t have lashings of this on everything, you were nobody...


No, the 1980s ruled!

Barry Dalton, 47, is a Pan European rider from Eastbourne. Barry was 25 in the halcyon days of the eighties, when British bikes were in museums, the GSX-R was changing the world and Ducatis were awful

The death of the British bike industry was a really good thing
“My dad gave me a CB400/4 Honda. He embraced Japanese bikes from the beginning. All his mates used to laugh at him for riding silent, soulless Hondas when they were all still on Nortons and Triumphs. Then over the years the oil stains on the drive disappeared as each of his friends realised they were better off on a Japanese bike. The CB was amazing – it would do 100mph easily, which sounds like nothing now but was a real gauge of a bike’s performance back then.”

The RD was a generation-defining bike
“We used to race along the coast on ours; Allspeeds singing, jeans flapping in the wind. A few of the lads had Kawasaki Z650s but they were nothing compared to the Yams. I got a lift from a mate to pick mine up. I’d seen a few around and heard they were amazing so I bought it without even riding one. To be honest it scared the shit out of me. My mate was waiting outside; I finished signing for the HP, walked out and it was waiting for me. As I pulled away I gave it a whiff of throttle and wheelied away – I felt like a hero but probably looked like an out-of-control idiot.

“The RD defined the eighties, more so than the GSX-R. It was affordable and it went like the clappers. Its performance was infectious but the everyday rider could afford one.”

I feel like I may have missed out on the real golden era of biking...
“All I ever used to think about when I was younger was riding fast, but by the time I could afford anything decent I’d grown up, lost the bug for riding like a knob and become the person I never thought I’d be; a touring rider. Th e last properly fast bike I owned was a Kawasaki ZZR1100. I went out for a quick test ride on one and an hour later I was the proud owner of a motorbike I wasn’t sure I wanted. I rode it for a summer, made a huge loss when I sold it and bought a BMW. It was an overnight transformation from buzzy, lean-hungry idiot to calm and responsible touring rider.”

There were a lot of posers around back then
“People had just started caring about what they looked like on a bike rather than just riding them, especially on the coast. On the weekends bikers from London would come and pose down the seafront; Moto Guzzis, brand new leather jackets, smoking while they sat. I used to wait for them to leave and then chase them out on the A259.”

Nothing could stop me from riding
“I’ve lost a few friends along the way. It may sound harsh but none of them were guys I’d been riding with since I was a teenager. I lost two really close friends who used to ride bikes, stopped to have a family and then came back to it with loads of passion, plenty of money but no real bike sense.”


Yamaha FZR1000 170mph on very average tyres; perfect. EXUP valve controlled pressure in the exhausts, boosting power and sounding all cool and whirry when you flicked the ignition on

Niall Mackenzie Not just a plug for our very own road tester – Niall was the man to beat in the UK in the 1980s, while also chalking up the odd podium on the world scene

BKS leathers Started in a back room in the mid-eighties, BKS flourished into one of the most desirable and reliable one-piece leather manufacturers in the industry.

BMW R80G/S Before Charlie, before knobblies and before anyone knew where the road of bones went, BMW gave us the G/S, the original on/off-road motorcycle

Frank Thomas boots Back in the day if your Levis weren’t tucked into a pair of Frank Thomas race boots you were nothing

Suzuki GSX-R750 Regardless of what flavour your sportsbike is now, you have this, the original, to thank for its performance

The Bol d’Or Flat out to France, flat out on your back after too many too strong beers within an hour. Perfect.

Transatlantic Races The Brits against the Yanks – it didn’t matter who won, the racing was mega

Yamaha RD350 God bless the undisputed king of stinkwheels

Bike magazines Journalists were getting their knees down, half the mags were still printed in black and white, and there was an air of excitement in them every month


For me, it was the 1970s

Bill Mackay is a 58-year-old BSA rider. Cut Bill through the middle and you’ll fi nd a dyed-in-the-wool bike fan. Bill was 25 in 1975 when everyone wanted to be Barry Sheene, Japanese bikes were sneaking onto the market and racing your mates didn’t mean doing more than 100mph...

I swapped the engine in my first bike in a shed by candlelight
“I was 17, working as an apprentice upholsterer. A guy roared into the yard one day on a Norton cafe racer; he was after a piece of leather to recover his seat. After I cut him a piece of hide he showed me the bike and I talked him the block on it. I can still remember what it felt like when he opened it up. I got a 50cc two-stroke, blew the engine up and fitted a replacement by candlelight in the shed. It was about two in the morning by the time I was ready to test it out, so I started filling the tank. I slipped with the jug full of fuel and knocked the candle over, setting fi re to the shed in the process. My dad kicked the shed wall in to get me out; the rest of it burned down while my dad gave me a right beating.”

Valentino Rossi is something else
“I watched MotoGP for the first time a couple of weeks ago. What the riders can do on modern machines is amazing and the racing was intense all the way down the fi eld. Back in the seventies people only cared what was going on at the front. Rossi is an unbelievable talent. People rarely used to re-mount and finish a race back then, let alone get on and claw their way back through the pack.”

I bought a Jap bike because they were light
“When I was 25 I rode a Yamaha RD200. I bought it because it was electric start and it went like a rocket. I was and always will be a big Brit bike fan but back then, seeing how heavy they looked when you parked one next to an RD, made choosing a Jap bike easy.

Back then everything was a race
“Going to the shops, grabbing a takeaway…every ride was competitive. And if we didn’t really have anywhere to go we just used to go out and chase each other. Biking put an exciting slant on everyday tasks, which gave me a real buzz. I’ll always need to be around bikes. If I got hurt and couldn’t ride any more I’d just drop all the oil out of my bikes and bring them into the house to look at.”

Modern Japanese bikes all look the same
“You can’t tell them apart, plus I can’t imagine getting one in the front room to work on it like I used to in the old days. A friend of mine went on holiday a few years back. He asked me to ride his brand new Honda Firestorm for him while he was away. I took it round the block and scared myself half to death; the thing was too fast. I can’t remember what gear I was when it started wheelying but I changed gear thinking it would come down and it just stayed on one wheel. I rode it for three or four minutes – my wrists were killing me and my brain was fried. Not for me, no thanks. Th e missus keeps telling me to sell one of the old bikes and buy a Jap thing that I can ride every day, but I don’t want to ride every day.”

Crashing back then was nothing
“You rarely heard of men being killed, even though crashing was a regular thing. I remember crashing twice in one day once.”

Bob Heath visors were completely useless
“Kit was usually Doc Martin boots, jeans, any leather jacket you could get your hands on and a pair of gauntlets. Full-face helmets were the things to get hold of. I had a Bob Heath Visor on mine, just a piece of plastic held on with poppers. They were really cool but completely useless. If you were riding in the dark and a car came towards you everything just blurred and distorted.

I’m not a man for speed now
“For me it’s just about being on a bike. I think young lads get a different kind of buzz now – modern bikes have so much power. I read the regional news a lot and there’s always a biker being killed. Modern bikes also seem to demolish themselves when they crash.”

My son has no interest in biking
“He hides up in his bedroom all day, one of his mates will send him a text and then he disappears in a car – none of his mates are on bikes. I don’t think they want to get wet or mess their hair up. I’m glad though – I’d have nightmares.”


Laverda Jota The prettiest thing to come out of the 1970s, no question

Kawasaki Z900 Some say the original bad boy; we say good but best left alone

Bob Heath visors Polish it with a potato and pop it on, then go blind and crash

Barry Sheene Smoking, chasing women, winning races and driving a Roller. The king of bikers

Premier helmets Metalflake paint and a lining made of cheese; couldn’t buy better back in the day – fact

Booby calendars Men that like bikes like boobs, it’s as simple as that

Lookwell leathers Original one-piece suits; zero protection, infinite cool

Jimmy Hendrix Crosstown traffic, on an iPod, across a town. Try it

Two-stroke Grand Prix 500s The four-stroke GP bike is dead, long live the raging 500

Paddock jackets Because everyone needed to know you owned a CB900. Everyone

Silver Dream Racer David Essex, a shit bike and a great movie. Kinda...


You’re all wrong!

Pete Claydon is a 68-year-old lifelong biker. He’s ridden over half a million miles on more than 20 bikes. He comes from a generation of riders who had the roads to themselves, could buy great bikes for less than a tenner and for whom the idea of wearing a helmet was alien

It isn’t nice getting old. Things stop working
“A few weeks ago I was riding along quite happily in France, my wife Joyce on the back of the BMW. One of the other bikes in our party noticed I was braking for bends, something I don’t normally do. I was also struggling to line corners up, so I went to a French hospital and it turned out I had a detached retina.”

I never wore a crash helmet. Ever
“I hated them and I grew up without them. My dad made me swear I’d wear one but I never did. The only people who used to wear lids were the police. I found that whenever I went down the road without one on I knew where I was. You young men have been educated all wrong. When I crashed I could wrap my hands around my head to protect it in a flash. Crashing with a helmet on is a weird feeling, I just don’t like it. I’ve been into the sides of cars without a helmet. The way I see it is the weight of a helmet is what pulls your head into the road. I’ve written off three bikes in my time without a helmet on and I’m fine. I used to cruise at 100mph without a helmet and never thought about coming off .”

I clipped a copper once years ago racing my brother to a coffee bar
“I was on the Scott and my brother was on his Vincent Rapide. We walloped up a hill in the dark and, as we crested the rise, a dark shape leapt into our path like Batman. It was a copper! My brother and I passed him on either side and I clipped his arm with my bars as I rode under his cape. He tried to tell me off but I’d only stopped because I was so angry – I thought I’d killed him. I told him where to get off and rode on.”

The TT was big thing for my generation
“The Isle of Man is totally different – you can sit in a nice atmosphere and watch bikes coming to your environment. There are track racers and there are road racers; the two don’t mix. I could never understand Joey Dunlop – he always looked half-cut but he flew.”

Geoff Duke was my hero
“I used to listen to the racing on the radio – it was so much more descriptive when you could only hear it. Duke was marvellous, as was John Surtees. I saw Surtees riding at Brands not long ago; what a natural, not hanging-off the inside of the bike.”

My older brother taught me to ride
“He was taught in the forces and at weekends he would come home and bark orders at me while I wobbled round on his Matchless. I took my test on a pushbike with a motor that you dropped onto the back wheel when you’d been peddling for a bit. It was quite quick; 40mph. Coppers used to walk everywhere back then and getting away was easy. Policemen are all so serious nowadays.”

I had to have a bike
“They provided freedom. Nobody really owned a car; biking was the best way to get around.”

There is nothing wrong with speed
“People are normally concentrating when they ride fast. The love of speed will never leave me. I used to ride really fast with my brother but we don’t ride together so much anymore and it’s knocked the edges off my judgement. My BMW R1150RT goes all right but it decks out too much.”

Electronics put an end to being able to understand how your bike worked
“If I want to change the brake fluid on my BMW I have to take it to a dealer to have the diagnostic system reset. Dealers want hundreds of pounds to do stuff that we should be doing at home. We used to be able work on our bikes on the side of the road.”


Coffee bars The jukeboxes appeared and so did the girls... the bikers weren’t far behind

Matchless G50 A race bike everyone wanted back then. Even now they’re drop-dead gorgeous

Motorways London to Lancashire with no speed limits. Imagine that today!

Police cars They had Ford Anglias, top speed 80mph. We had a Vincent Black Shadow, top speed 140mph

Belstaff jackets The trialmaster was a piece of shit, but it looked cool and that was all that mattered

John Surtees 350 and 500 titles on the trot? Pah, too easy. John buggered off to cars and promptly won an F1 title too

Elvis Presley If you haven’t sung ‘in the Ghetto’ while you ride you haven’t lived

Lewis leathers The Alpinestars of the black and white era; terrible now, great then

Ace Café The original ton-up meeting point and still great today

Crash helmet law Like it or not, it gave us the Lawson-rep Shoei

The Golden Age...


Picking a best decade all depends on what your priorities are, from machine performance to the seriousness of the law, road congestion to the price of running a motorcycle. But we’ll take a punt.

And all things considered, we’re going for the 1980s. Key to its appeal is the huge variety of machines on sale back then. Mainstream motorcycling had begun to splinter into the myriad niches it comprises today and you really could scratch any itch, with two-strokes, sportsbikes, Ducati twins like the 851, turbocharged monsters, hugely powerful in-line fours and even adventure bikes like the BMW R80GS all available. Compared to today you had some pretty empty roads to play on, too.

Then there was the racing. Barely touched on here, Grand Prix racing in the 1980s was epic, marking as it did a marked escalation in power and speed as the two-stroke 500 of the 1970s evolved into the raging animals of the 1980s. Lucky then that the likes of Freddie Spencer, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Kenny Roberts and Niall Mackenzie were around to ride them.