Top 10s

Top 10 BEST Retro Classics Motorcycles of 2020

Going retro has never been so current judging by sales of modern classic bikes... but which are the Top 10 BEST Retro Classic Motorcycles of 2020?

If there’s one category of motorcycle that’s been booming more than any other in recent years – more so even that of adventure bikes – it’s that of the classically styled ‘retro’.

It was 20 years ago when Triumph brought out its first modern Bonneville – an all-new roadster but with its styling and spirit taken from the classic Triumphs for the 1950s and ‘60s. And that bike has proved so successful it spawned. not just the whole family of variants, ranging from the Street Twin, to the Scrambler, Thruxton and Bobber, which dominate Triumph’s range today, but innumerable alternatives from rival manufacturers. 

Today Ducati, BMW, Moto Guzzi and even most of the Japanese giants offer a range of retros with their own take on the classic theme. So what’s currently available and which is best? Here’s our current Top 10, in ascending order….

Kawasaki Z900 RS Custom | Tokyo Motorcycle Show 2019

10. Benelli Imperiale 400 (from £3499)

To kick off with, here’s one you may not be aware of wearing a badge not seen all too often on British roads. Moreover, with a fairly tiddly 400 single producing just 21bhp, the scope of the Benelli Imperiale 400 is limited. 

However, what it loses in grunt it makes up for in charisma with looks that re-interpret classic Benelli motorcycles from the 1950s and a price tag that chimes in under £3,500, while you can bask in the knowledge of doing something just a little different with a discerning choice.

Yes, it’s Chinese-built and pretty rudimentary to say the least. And, no, we don’t want to go anywhere near a dual carriageway on it. But as a ‘classic’ to trundle round with on sunny summer Sundays, with its ‘peashooter’ pipe, chrome wire wheels, twin analogue dials, twin seat and more it ticks an awful lot of ‘retro classic’ boxes. 

Like we say, at that price it makes even Royal Enfield’s hugely popular 650 Interceptor, at over £2K more, seems expensive…

9. Kawasaki W800 (from £8499)

People tend to assume it was reborn Triumph, first with the Thunderbird 900 in 1995, then with its hugely successful new Bonneville from 2000, that started the whole ‘retro’ thang. But actually, Japanese giant Kawasaki, first with its Z1-alike Zephyrs from 1990 then its original W650, from 1999, beat the Brit to the punch. 

The W650 was a jewel-like re-imagining of Kawa’s original, 1960s W1: an air-cooled, bevel-drive twin in a twin-loop, twin shock roadster chassis with gorgeous authentic detailing (metal switchgear anyone?) and build quality that meant that, although its fairly pedestrian 49bhp performance couldn’t quite match that of the Bonneville that soon followed it compensated for it with bags of charm. 

Performance was improved slightly with the bigger W800 in 2007 then was reintroduced in Euro5-friendly form in 2019, albeit in not quite as authentic, blacked-out roadster Street and Café forms. 

That’s been rectified for 2020 with the addition of a standard, chrome and alloy W800 version which is as cute as ever, although, at £8499, isn’t exactly cheap.

8. Fantic Caballero 500 Scrambler (from £6399)

Historic trail and tiddlers Italian brand Fantic Motor in the 1970s and ‘80s for its stylish and successful lightweights, trials and enduro machines then was relaunched in 2014 with a new range of mostly retro-styled single-cylinder roadsters and scramblers that use quality modern mechanicals – the engine, for example, is a liquid-cooled, four-valver built by Chinese giant Zongshen. 

But, somehow, that blend of European heritage, Chinese affordability, mostly quality cycle parts and old/new style works brilliantly. Currently three different versions of their Caballero retro are available – the Rally, Scrambler and Flat Track – the latter two in 125, 250 and 500 capacities but the range-topper is the 500. And with 39 perky bhp, sweet handling and lots of nice touches is a fun bike par excellence. 

On the downside, dealer and spares back-up can’t match the big boys like Triumph, BMW and Kawasaki, its scrambler style complete with semi-knobblies won’t suit everyone, pillions need to be, er, friendly and it’s no bike for long hauls. The rest of the time, though, it’s fab.

7. Honda CB1100 EX (from £9799)

Honda’s recreation of its iconic, CB750-alike air-cooled four was a long time coming (it was first touted as a concept machine at shows as far back as 2007 and didn’t finally go on sale in the UK until 2013) and although it failed to set the world alight, mostly due to disappointingly soft performance, is still a wonder of engineering and certainly the most authentic four-cylinder retro around. 

The star, of course, is the engine: a proper, air-cooled, DOHC four of the old school that somehow manages to get through the latest emissions regs. That’s Honda genius for you. The price for that is slightly soft and bland performance. But get your head around that and its 88bhp is more than ample, it’s as smooth and slick as can be and as a lump of metal is a work of art in its one right. 

The rest of the CB, today at least, matches that admirably (early versions had slabby tanks and, urgh, cast wheels). 18-inch wheels and generous proportions make this a man-sized retro where many seem too dinky. It’s a breeze to ride, beautifully finished and even pretty good value. 

With an updated tank, seat and more in 2017, the EX is the most authentic retro, but if you want a tad more ‘80s-style handling, the RS, from £9999, with 17-inch alloys and uprated brakes and suspension, is the brisker ride, albeit with a less convincing look.

6. Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled (from £9995)

Italian legends Ducati jumped whole-heartedly onto the retro bandwagon in 2015 with its all-new Scrambler family of heritage-styled, novice-friendly V-twins as inspired by its popular Scrambler singles of the 1960s and ‘70s. 

Initially four variants were offered, the base Icon, flat track Full Throttle, wire-wheeled Classic and trail style Urban Enduro, with an A2-lqualifying, 400cc Sixty2 and full trail style Desert Sled, with longer suspension and Yamaha XT500-alike styling, arriving the following year. All have been updated and modified since. 

For our money, though, the Desert Sled, last updated in 2019 with new LED lights, cornering ABS and other detail improvements, is the best. It’s styling is the most alluring, it’s taller proportions more grown up and, with the same, effective 75bhp as all the other 800s offers as good a ride as any. 

Yes, you’ve got to love the scrambler style, but its blend of old and new works well and it’s both an entreating Sunday toy and a reasonably long-legged all-rounder. Best of all, it’s a relevant retro with a Ducati badge on the tank.

5. Moto Guzzi V7 III Special (from £7699)

While Brit retro market leaders Triumph seem to have been banging on about its latest Bonnevilles for donkeys years and apparently coming out with a new model variant every month or so, Italian rivals Moto Guzzi have quietly just been getting on with it. 

The Italian legend came up with its own Bonneville rival, the first V7 Classic, back in 2008. It proved a winner from the outset, mostly due to its authentic engineering (using a reworked 48bhp version of the classic, air-cooled, ‘small-block’ transverse V-twin from the Nevada) and simple, classic twin shock lines inspired by Guzzi’s V7 Sport from the early ‘70s. In fact, it proved such a success numerous variants and updates, most recently into V7 III form to get through Euro5, have followed such that today it remains the backbone of Guzzi’s range. 

Like the smaller Bonnies and Ducati Scramblers, the V7 is fairly soft and novice friendly, with dinky proportions that make larger riders look daft. And nor can the V7, like most Guzzis, match the latest technology and electronics of many rivals. But, as a retro, that barely matters. 

The V7 is, in every respect, classic Guzzi with an authenticity and charming style few can match. And, with the latest round of price cuts – Guzzi UK have recently slashed £1000 off its price – it’s one of the most affordable, too.

4. Kawasaki Z900RS (from £10,399) 

Of all the Japanese ‘Big Four’ manufacturers, Kawasaki have shown more ‘sass’ than most when it comes to the fashion for retro bikes. Its W650 showed even Triumph the way back in 1999 while its Z900RS, as launched in 2017, although based fully on modern mechanicals, is a mouth-watering reinterpretation of, or homage to, Kawasaki’s legendary Z1 of the early ‘70s.

Its brilliance is two-fold: first, as mentioned, it’s wholly based on the modern Z900 roadster, a brilliant roadster in its own right with a 123bhp four-cylinder motor, fine-handling monoshock chassis and more – so dynamically and performance-wise, the retro RS had it nailed from the outset. 

While second, the RS’s retro re-style, goes further and performs far better than you might expect, too. This is no simple re-paint with a few retro goodies bolted on. The bodywork, comprising tank, side panels and duck bill tail section are all new and bespoke; the engine cases are restyled to mimic the old air-cooled unit; the cast alloy wheels cleverly look like wires; there’s a proper, ‘70s-style ribbed dual seat and headlight and clocks are the correct chrome-rimmed round and dual dials type. 

In short, the RS rides, fully, like a modern bike (although its delivery has been detuned slightly to 109bhp) yet looks, brilliantly, like a ‘70s one. Even the badging and ‘70s-style colour schemes are spot on.

3. BMW RnineT Pure (from £10,510)

German giant BMW made its own waves on the retro scene when it launched its first R nineT in 2014 – although it hadn’t been planned that way. Initially launched as a restyled, retro version of the then R1200R boxer roadster, the first R nineT was intended as limited edition homage to the firm’s historic boxers to mark the 90th anniversary (hence the name) of BMW motorcycles. 

However, it proved so popular that BMW quickly made it a mainstream production model and followed it up with a range of variants such that the R nineT is now a whole family of heritage machines in BM’s line-up. And that popularity isn’t difficult to understand. 

With 110bhp from the (old) boxer 1200 plus a modern chassis and dynamics, the R nineT is a perfectly practical, entertaining and characterful roadster in its own right. Yet, with the addition of retro styling (alloy tank, twin dials, wire wheels, smart seat and pipe etc) it’s also great looking and ultra-fashionable as well – and all with the reassurance and class of the BMW badge and back up. 

The original, high spec version with alloy tank, twin clocks, quality suspension etc, lives on at £12,745 and is difficult to resist. Plus there’s now the R80G/S homage Urban G/S and high piped/barred Scrambler version (both from £11,060). 

But, for our money, the R nineT Pure, launched 2017, a more basic version with steel tank, alloys, cheaper suspension and single clock, fits the fashion just as well yet costs over £2K less. Adds the optional wires (just £395) and you’re laughing all the way to the bank…

2. Royal Enfield 650 Interceptor (from £5699)

Indian-owned Royal Enfield (it grew out of an Indian ‘branch’ of the British firm in the ‘50s, then assumed its mantle after the original firm floundered in 1971) may have spent most of the last 50 years churning out obsolete, post-war, air-cooled singles, primarily for its utilitarian home market, but in recent years it’s assumed more global ambitions and even set up an R&D base back in the UK. 

The first major fruits of that is its all-new but retro-style 650 twin, which comes in roadster Interceptor and café racer Continental GT forms – and they’re both brilliant, too. The masterstroke was going retro-style – despite its resources, Royal Enfield hasn’t the technological nous or track record to take on the leading manufacturers’ high tech performance bikes just yet.

The result is a worthy, class competitive, novice-friendly Sunday runabout in the Triumph Bonneville style – but for budget money. Starting at around £5600 makes both 650s a full £2500 cheaper than the closest Triumph equivalent. In truth, it does show: the spec isn’t as high, quality as good, its 47bhp performance not quite a match for, say, the Street Twin’s 65bhp. But for a retro-style roadster that arguably matters little. 

The Enfield 650 ticks all the retro boxes: is stylish, has twin dials, wire wheels, lashings of chrome and a heritage name on the tank; it’s easy to ride, accessible to an A2 licence and decently entertaining, too. And, at that price, it’s an absolute steal. No wonder they’re been selling so well.

1. Triumph Bonneville T100 (from £8900) 

There’s now so many classic-style retros around – and so many good ones – that picking a No. 1 was a hard call indeed. The Enfield nearly nicked it, but ultimately is a little basic. The R nineT is brilliant, but ultimately too modern. So, in the end, we had to go with Triumph who, with its massive range of ‘modern classics’ is the deserved market leader. 

But which to go for? The entry-level Street Twin 900 is a great introduction to retros. While at the other extreme, the 100bhp Thruxton 1200 is a brilliantly entertaining café racer, particularly in its latest, high spec, RS form. But, for our money, the best compromise, best all-rounder, best value and definitively best retro of them all is the classic Bonneville which is available in 900cc T100 form and larger, slightly better equipped, 1200cc T120 trim (from £10,600). 

On balance, and perhaps surprisingly, we actually prefer the smaller, cheaper version. It’s style is almost identical and is the benchmark for the class with the best name on the tank; it’s a doddle, nay, a joy to ride for everyone; it oozes class (and has an extensive, mouth-watering accessories catalogue with which to personalise your own) and, in all honesty, considering the type of riding you’re likely to do, you barely notice its lesser performance (54bhp compared to the T120’s 79), and reduced braking power (single not twin disc). 

All that for nearly two grand less than the T120. We’d take the saving and spend some of it on accessories instead!
 

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