Top 10s

Top 10 unicorn bikes

Classic motorcycles we’d love to own – if we could find one

SOMETIMES the fact that a motorcycle is unattainable can only fuel the desire to get one. Regardless of its objective merits or even its subjective beauty, the very fact that you can’t have one – and may never even see one – will inevitably make you want it all the more.

And there are plenty of bikes that fall into that category. We’re not talking about dream machines that are unavailable simply due to particularly limited production or sky-high prices, but bikes that, for one reason or another, are rare and attractive enough to fire the curiosity once you know they exist. Ownership, or even a brief ride, might dispel the illusion, but while they’re so hard to find these machines slot into our ‘unicorn’ category.

Of course, everyone will have different opinions on what makes a unicorn. Your own age plays a big part; bikes that you might have seen in magazines when you were a kid, but never in the metal. Models that were offered only in other countries, perhaps, but never made it to these shores.

Here’s our list of 10 unicorn bikes. They’re completely subjective choices, of course, so please add your own opinions and thoughts in the comments.

10: Honda MXV250F

Remember the MXV250F? No? It’s no surprise, since it was only made for a year and had no predecessor or direct successor. Built only in 1983-4, it was a 250cc, two-stroke V3, which also makes it one of the strangest engine configurations you’re likely to stumble across. It was actually Honda’s first two-stroke road bike, designed to cash in on the success of the firm’s three-cylinder NS500 that took Freddie Spencer to the 1983 title. The later NS400R was a more successful reflection of that machine, and no doubt a better bike than the MXV, but it’s not rare enough for unicorn status.

A direct rival to the Honda MXV, Kawasaki’s KR250 had a longer life, appearing in 1983 and running until 1987, but it was never sold in the UK so remains almost unknown over here. The engine gives it the ‘tandem twin’ moniker, as it placed its two cylinders in line, each with its own crankshaft. It manages to combine that classic early-to-mid-80s Kawasaki style with the appeal of a two-stroke engine and a good dose of weirdness; you’ve got to love the flip-open door in the right hand fairing that gives access to the coolant cap, complete with its bold ‘radiator fluid’ sticker. Liquid-cooled was still a big deal back then. 

Is the Suzuki Stinger a real unicorn? We’re split on this. After all, there are four available on eBay at the time of writing, even if the prices are eye-wateringly high for a 1970s 125. What makes it so appealing, though, is the styling. It’s simply got to be one of the best-looking motorcycles ever created, from the set-back headlight to the twin, mid-height exhausts. Why did this thing not spawn dozens of copycats? It’s technically interesting, too, thanks largely to its engine – a two-stroke parallel twin of just 124cc.

The Honda AX-1 is basically identical to the NX250 Dominator of the same era (1988), but with just enough tweaks to transform it from ‘meh’ to ‘wow’. Strike one comes from the dual headlight nose, which gives it a Paris-Dakar feel that the Dominator’s single rectangular headlight couldn’t match. Then there are the fabulous-looking alloy wheels, replacing the Domi’s wire spokes, and the white-painted frame and forks, with their contrasting yellow gaiters. And finally the AX-1 display’s that long-lost Japanese tradition of spelling out its own specifications on the fairing – ‘250cc 4-cycle DOHC four-valve liquid cooled’ – as well as having some not-quite-English slogan: “Sports Traverse”. We miss all that.

Another Japan-only Honda creation, the Motra was only made for one year (1983) and looks like it should carry ‘JCB’ logos rather than Honda badges. In the modern era, when people have rediscovered the joys of small-scale bikes, particularly Honda’s MSX125/Grom, we could imagine that a rugged little machine like this could go down pretty well. And given that the only one we’ve seen for sale recently sparked strong bidding and a £2,662 hammer price on eBay last month, we’re not the only ones to find this little 50cc Tonka toy strangely attractive.

Of all the bikes here, the Yamaha SDR200 is probably the easiest to get your hands on. There are usually a couple for sale, and prices aren’t too crazy. But it remains rare enough that most of us have probably never seen one in the metal. If we did, would this late-80s single live up to expectations? Maybe. That glorious trellis frame and swingarm and the fact it's a two-stroke make it an interesting proposition. Plus it had neo-retro café racer styling years before anyone had ever said 'neo-retro café racer styling'. It's said to share many parts with the TZR125. 

If ever there was a bike with ‘Marmite’ styling, it’s the 1986 Kawasaki GPZ250R. We love it, but it’s easy to see why some people wouldn’t. That weird, jacked-up rear end is a bold statement, stylistically mirroring the angles of the side fairings and nose but giving the bike an unconventional stance. Spec-wise, it’s hard to argue against the 45hp, 250cc twin or the 138kg dry weight. Just try to find one, though.

On researching this, we spotted that (at the time of writing) there was actually a GSX400X Impulse for sale on eBay at a reasonable-sounding £2k and looking very sharp.  It’s unusual, because these things don’t appear often. Powered by the same engine as the period’s GSX-R400, the GSX400X made 59hp from its 400cc four-cylinder. Not bad, but it’s the startling red-on-black styling that makes it stand out from the crowd. If that eBay bike isn’t there anymore when you search, maybe it’ll be in Visordown's garage.

If you’re the right age you probably either remember a Raleigh Chopper as your most prized childhood possession, or still feel the pang of pain from never having had one. Now imagine the reaction if you’d told that childhood version of yourself that Yamaha once made what was effectively a motorized version of the same thing. That’s the Zippy. From 1973, this mini chopper hits all the right notes, from the big wire wheel on the front to the small, wide rear rim. Even the colours were the perfect snapshot of the 70s. Metallic browns and blues with yellow flashes. There were 50cc and 80cc versions, with both semi-auto and manual clutches, but you’ll rarely see any of them hit the market.

Katanas are surefire classics, but the GSX750S iteration from 1984-5 is the real unicorn of the bunch. Not because it’s the best, but simply because it’s the ultimate evolution of the Katana styling theme. And that means one thing – it’s got a pop-up headlight. No, we can’t imagine that any aerodynamic benefit is not outweighed by the mass and complexity of it. But it’s still a pop-up headlight. On a bike. If you grew up in the 1980s, that’s about as cool as anything can possibly be. Yes, we know the Honda Spacy 125 scooter had one too (and that alone was nearly enough to get it onto this list!)

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