Are ~400cc Motorbikes Back in the Big Time?

Here's why we’re entering a new ‘golden era’ of 400s and what that means for us…

Aprilia RS457 - rear

Remember the ‘golden era’ of 400cc bikes? No, not Honda’s 1975-1977 CB400F which was largely a flop in most markets but at least sowed the seed of ‘mini-superbike’ fours. 

No, I’m talking about the grey-import fuelled glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when exquisite junior sports bikes such as the VFR400R/NC30 (from VFR750R/RC30), ZXR400, FZR400, GSX-R400 and more became such a hot ticket on road and track some even officially made it to the UK – the VFR and ZXR being the obvious examples.

Nor were supersports the only 400s of the era. Born out of then-Japanese domestic licencing laws which restricted novices to 250cc two-strokes or 400cc four-strokes, roadster wonders such as Yamaha’s 250 R1-Z, Kawasaki’s Xanthus and even Suzuki’s single-cylinder Goose 400 also made their grey import way into the UK.

Well, forgive me, but going by the raft of new c.400cc machines currently being launched – Kawasaki’s new ZX-4RR Ninja, Aprilia’s imminent RS457 and Triumph’s just-launched Speed and Scrambler 400 duo being among the most prominent – not to mention many others in the wings, 2024 is already shaping up to be the start of a NEW golden age of 400s. 

Aprilia looks certain to spin other models off its 457 engine (Aprilia staff hinted as much at a UK reveal event for the RS457 Visordown recently attended), as it has done with its 660, as likely are Kawasaki and Triumph. Royal Enfield keeps coming up with 350s, has its Scram 411, looks set to be producing a HNTR 450 and would be remiss if it didn’t exploit its new liquid-cooled Himalayan 450 fully. Ambitious Chinese brands Zontes and CFMoto have a range of 350-450cc bikes with more on the way, including the recently revealed 450SR S for the latter. And even Harley-Davidson, with its new, India-only X440 single, has joined BMW (with its G310 series) and Indian-owned Jawa, by producing Indian-built c.400cc bikes.

The key words there are ‘India’ and ‘c.400cc’ – for, yes, this 400 revival is different. Where the ‘80s/’90s 400 ‘golden era’ was fuelled by a Japanese licencing quirk which made 400s hugely popular and sophisticated but, at the same time, prohibitive MOT regulations made older examples dirt cheap and thus affordable to grey import into the UK (in turn fuelling a Supersport 400 racing class which, for a few years, both at the TT and mainland circuits was simply epic), this time round there’s a different catalyst. And that catalyst is India.

The South Asian giant is now not only the world’s most populated nation with a tradition of motorcycle transport, increasing living standards and industrialisation are fuelling both growing motorcycle sales and a shift towards bigger bikes. 

2023 saw Indian motorcycle registrations up for the 14th year in a row, this time by 8.5 per cent to a whopping 17.5 million units. (Compare that to the UK’s 109,000 in 2023, which was actually 0.4 per cent down.) while at the same time, there’s a developing shift up from traditional 350cc singles such as Royal Enfield’s classic Bullet 350 to slightly larger machines. So, we’re also not talking exactly 400cc bikes, per se, but c.400cc ones, as evidenced by the Harley 440.

At the same time, Indian manufacturers such as Royal Enfield, Mahindra and TVS (which builds the G310 for BMW) have growing global ambitions, too. Royal Enfield famously opened its UK Technology Centre at Bruntingthorpe in 2016 and manned it with ex-Triumph personnel leading to the creation of its biggest bike yet – its 650 twin. Mahindra, which already owns Jawa, bought the dormant BSA brand the same year leading to last year’s Gold Star 650, while TVS bought Norton in 2020.

OK, we’re not predicting a BSA or Norton 400 any time soon and it’s also unlikely many ZX-4RRs and RS457s will find their way to India, but a combination of all these factors is at the heart of why 350-500cc bikes are now globally so important once again.

I for one can’t wait to see what they come up with next.