Top 10 '80s and '90s two-stroke 125s

Bargain L-plate performance

WHETHER you’re hitting middle age and looking to relive your teenage dreams or trying to advise your own kids on making the most of their limited funds for an L-plate machine it’s hard to look past the attractions of 80s and 90s era of 125cc two-strokes.

These days a new 125 is virtually certain to be a four-stroke, thanks to emissions laws, and while some might manage to hit the 15bhp power limit that L-plates limit you to, few have any scope to beat that figure. Compare and contrast with the bikes you could have bought a quarter of a century ago, which thanks to screaming two-strokes could claim to manage twice that power – albeit for a limited time before the inevitable piston replacement…

These days those old 125cc strokers are sitting in a sort of semi-classic hinterland, starting to garner a following but still lagging way behind bigger bikes, particularly two-strokes, from the same era. And each year their numbers dwindle further, making some of the machines on this list surprisingly hard to find.

You’re bound to have your own thoughts on which of the old 125s was the best – after all, it was the subject of many an underage pub conversation back when they were new – but here’s our pick of the 125cc two-stroke machines that you might find for a bag of sand or so today.

10. Yamaha DT125

Built from the mid 70s right through to 2000s, the DT125 was something approaching the ultimate ‘achievable’ L-plate machine for whole generations of riders. There are several generations, each with styling to suit the era they’re from, but the basic recipe of simple, tube-frame off-roader with rugged, rattling two-stroke was never changed. For bonus points try to pick up the hard-to-find Tenere version which gave it convincing Paris-Dakar-style bodywork (and often politically-incorrect Chesterfield paintwork…). Derestriction works wonders for the performance, as you’d expect.

9. Kawasaki KMX125

Whether it was psychological or real, the DT125’s nearest rival, Kawasaki’s KMX125, always seemed like the more hardcore choice and as such it plucks the heartstrings a little harder now that they’re a rare sight on the road. In reality, there’s little to chose between the Yamaha and the Kawasaki, so a buying decision these days is more likely to come down to availability, condition and colour/brand preference rather than any particular foibles of either machine. But the Kawasaki is far rarer, with only around 500 left on the road compared to 2000-odd DT125s.

8. Honda MTX125

The period rival to our number 10 and 9 choices, Honda’s MTX was always rarer than either and time hasn’t been kind to the numbers remaining – official figures show that 20 years ago, when MTX production ended, there were nearly 3000 of them on the UK’s roads, but today there are fewer than 200 left in roadworthy form. That’s odd, because build quality was always reckoned to be Honda-good in its day. The hefty death toll may well instead be down to recklessness on the part of owners – or, indeed, non-owners, since these things (like so many off-road-style strokers) have always been popular with thieves.

7. Honda NSR125

Back when two strokes ruled the earth, Honda was still more interested in four strokes. And maybe that’s why most of its smokers somehow failed to hit quite the same chords as its rivals. Just as the NS400R has lagged behind the RD and RG500s in terms of desirability, the NSR125 has always looked a little tame when compared to its learner-legal rivals. Of course, it’s probably a more sensible buy than most of the competition – you’re more likely to reach your destination on an NSR125 than on a similarly-aged Gilera stroker, for instance.

6. Yamaha TDR125

The relatively recent explosion in wannabe ‘adventure’ bikes makes the old Yamaha TDR look surprisingly modern today. Its bigger brother, the TDR250, is already becoming collectable, with even rough bikes going for £2k-plus, and the 125 has some of the same appeal. The earlier version, with boxier styling and wire-spoked wheels, is more appealing than the later model, which aped the TDM850 in terms of appearance. However, the later bike is a little further removed from the DT125 which shares its engine, gaining a Deltabox frame, although all TDR125s have extra luxuries like electric starts when compared to more off-road-style machines.

5. Italjet Dragster 125

What’s this? A scooter?! Yeah, but not just any scooter. The Dragster (1998-2003) looks like a prop from a 1980s sci-fi movie set in the early 21st century – so today it’s as though it’s come from a parallel dimension where all bikes should have single-sided hub-centre steering. The familiar two-stroke buzz is therefore rather out of place. The 125 version is a learner-legal 15bhp, but there’s also the 180 for full licence holders (20bhp!). Even in its heyday there were fewer than a thousand sold in the UK, so finding them today is getting increasingly tough, with prices starting to rise to match.

4. Yamaha TZR125

The TZR is something of a conundrum. According to official figures, there are only a few dozen left in use these days, and yet eBay always has a fairly big selection of TZRs for sale. Perhaps the answer is in those eBay listings, which are predominantly ‘restoration projects’ rather than fully up-and-running bikes. However, get a TZR that actually works and for your money you’ll have something that runs rings around newer, four-stroke 125cc sports bikes that cost far more to buy. Derestricted, plenty of owners make claims of 30bhp and more, so as long as you’re not on an L-plate there’s a surprising amount of performance on tap here.

3. Gilera GFR125

We’re getting into hen’s teeth territory here but these stunning-looking Italian machines – perhaps thanks to well-justified fears over parts supplies and reliability – don’t tend to cost the earth when they do come up for sale. The limited lifespan might be something to do with the crazy power that these things claimed to have back when they were new; upward of 35bhp was touted for various Gileras, including the GFR, Crono and the mad-as-a-badger CX125 (which are rarer still, but tend to carry silly-money price tags whenever one comes up for sale.) 

2. Aprilia RS125        

If the Gilera makes the list due to its rarity, its compatriot – the RS125 – is here because it’s so easily attained. These things sold by the bucket-load, and for good reason. If you wanted a sharp-handling 125 stroker that you could de-restrict once you’d binned the L-plates, the RS125 ticked all the boxes and had that oh-so-important GP heritage to fall back on, too. Remember, this is what Rossi rode in the 90s.  These days prices range from a few hundred to about £1.5K for a minter. Similar money might also bag you one of the earlier, but higher-spec, AF-1 models from the early 90s, complete with single-sided swingarm, although they’re just as rare as the Gileras that they competed against when new.

1. Cagiva Mito 125

Where most of the bikes here fall into problems with being particularly rare or being common but a bit ugly, the Mito – whether it’s the first-gen machine, which had styling inspired by Cagiva’s old 500cc GP bikes, or the second-gen version with its Ducati 916-alike appearance – is both readily available and great to both look at and ride. Parts are cheap and available, too, which is handy since you’ll probably want to be putting a new piston and cylinder on as soon as possible. Derestricted, you should get more than 30bhp and there’s a seven-speed gearbox on some models (the ‘Evo 1’ which is the 916-style machine that you’re most likely to find. Later Evo2 models and the first-gen bikes both used six-speed transmissions). What’s not to like. Well, apart from the abysmal build quality, but since virtually ever bike of this age – regardless of brand – is either going to have had a rebuild or need one soon, that is arguably less of a concern than when they were new.

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