Split the Difference

Despite being brilliant to ride, to many riders bikes are little more than an efficient form of transport.

Traffic congestion, the financial burden of owning two cars, fuel prices, parking, the list of reasons why owning a bike makes sense is often so much more than simple enjoyment. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun with your moto, or indeed own a second that is a pure, self-indulgent, piece of two-wheeled pleasure. After all, bikes are about having fun and if you can’t tick the boxes with one, then why not have two?

The wonderful thing about bikes is that they are so diverse. You have street bikes, sportsbikes, customs, adventure, on roader, off-roader, classics, vintage, two-strokes, four strokes the list goes on. Whatever floats you boat, you can find it in your local dealer, or at the very worse online.

So we took our three case studies and armed them with £5,000 to find two bikes that would satisfy their biking needs. From the same starting point they managed to unearth a staggering array of machinery that is just a small section of the second hand market. From a full-on motocross bike to the epitome of commuting, Honda’s VFR800, via a future classic Suzuki GSX-R750 SRAD to a current classic Honda 400-Four with the divergence of a Kawasaki Z750 and the barking insanity of Aprilia’s two-stroke RS250, all of motorcycling is represented here, and all for just £5k.

Check out what we bought, start thinking and get shopping yourself!

Going out and trying to buy two bikes that I could get the least bit enthusiastic about for five grand at first seemed like it’d be a tall order. I decided to sit down and think about what I actually used bikes for, and then see what was available to tick the boxes within the budget. Not including the magazine work, most of my road riding is summer time general transport and local errands. If it’s not pissing down and I don’t have to carry anything too big the bike will get the nod over the car every time. I also do  a fair amount of instructing at track days around the country, so some sort of sportsbike would be good. The other two wheel past-time I still enjoy is a bit of off roading, so a dirt-bike would be welcome.

1998 GSX-R750 SRAD

I found a ‘98 GSX-R750 SRAD for three grand. It’s easy to get on a 10 year-old bike, and because that particular one is bent and worn out, you tar them all with the same brush and remember that model being shit. But in this case I knew this model was a good ’un because I had one when they were new, and as long as everything was working as it should it’d still be a capable bike. I’d also spent two full seasons in the WSB series aboard the factory racing bike version of this model, so I should know a bit about them.

This example had 11K miles and on the surface looked in reasonable order. When I was checking it over I wasn’t so bothered about the odd scratch in the paint or ding in the exhaust can, I was more concerned that the major mechanical parts were up to the job. I looked at the head bearings, the swing-arm and rear linkage bushes, wheel bearings, chain and sprocket condition, brakes and suspension at both ends. Everything checked out okay and I came to the conclusion that although not ‘mint’, this bike was unmolested. It was ‘honest.’

To ride it was pretty much how I remember them. It felt a solid, squat bike that you sit ‘in’ instead of on. They’re not the easiest bike to move around on. The motor felt like it had perhaps 120bhp to give and although not the gruntiest down low it had plenty of go from the middle revs upwards. The injected ones never were as good as the earlier carburetted model off the bottom. Still, if I couldn’t stay with everyone in a track day fast group on this, I’d best retire!

The steering isn’t the sharpest but I could feel what the (knackered) front tyre was doing which gave me confidence. At the rear it felt like it needed a bit more support to stop it sitting down, especially over the bumps, some more preload would’ve made it better As would have a bit of TLC in the brake department! All in all, a 10 year old 750 feels a bit like a five year old 600, only a bit chunkier, with a lot bigger seat.


Although keen, I’m at best an average rider when it comes to moto-cross, I’d most likely be able to go round an off-road course as fast on a good five year old bike as I could on a new bike.

So, as with the GSX-R, I was more concerned with the condition of my choice than I was about it being the latest thing. I found an ’06 KX125 Kawasaki for two grand that fitted the bill perfectly. It was a two stroke, so it’d be easier to maintain than a four stroke, and it was in good order, although worn in places, all the wear was in the right places. With a two stroke crosser you can tell a lot by the kick starter, if it’s dead slack as you swing it out, the bike has usually done a fair amount of work. This one was click perfect.

It also had an after-market pipe and trick fuel filler cap. You got the impression that this bike had been pampered. And with off-roaders that’s usually a good thing. You really don’t want some stolen/recovered gypsy wagon, it’ll be a nightmare.
Out in the dirt this little thing rode like a new machine. The best thing about 125cc MX bikes is that you have to work to make ’em go. They don’t have the grunt for you to be lazy. Even before you’ve got into a turn you have the gas fully open and your index finger hovering over the clutch lever to keep the motor buzzing. These bikes need to be treated with respect but they will teach you so much about riding. As long as you keep ’em screaming, you’d be amazed how these things will go.
Apart from that all I can really tell you about the KX was that it’s better than I am. Did what it said on the tin. For me, the perfect weekend toy.

Living with a: KX125

These bikes get a hard life and service intervals are in hours not miles. The engines are designed to be re-built often, so if the seller doesn’t have receipts for a recent re-build, factor that into the price. Chassis get a hard time so check all bearings and the rear linkage for play. Check suspension for leaks and a lack of damping. Like any bike with no V5, be wary of stolen machines. Give the engine and frame numbers  a very good check over.

Living with a: SRAD
The major update in 1998 saw carbs changed to fuel injection, but it also got a higher screen and other tweaks. It’s a reliable model. There were a few teething problems with a handful of early 1996 bikes – small end bearing issues and base gasket failure but these were extremely rare. Cam chain tensioners can fail – listen for a clatter as the revs fall past 4,000rpm. It’s a cheap problem to fix. Most problems will come from abuse, neglect or theft.

When TWO explained that I had £5,000 to spend at DK I got excited. Then they told me that I needed to buy not one, but two bikes before ruining the whole thing by telling me that the five grand was hypothetical and that I wouldn’t get to keep either of my chosen bikes.

But it did get me thinking. What can you get for five grand these days? Quite a lot actually. But with such a range of bikes to choose from, I was losing my way a little. Sportsbikes now only appeal if I’m likely to race them, so I ruled them out,. Leaving me to do a bit of soul searching to find two bikes to make me happy.

1977 HONDA 400-FOUR

The first bike that caught my eye was the little Honda 400-Four. Anybody over 45 will have a special memory of this one. It’s now a classic which means, on the one hand, very cool and cheap to insure and on the other, a 30-year-old motorcycle and potential world of pain. It may have been the most reliable little bike on the road once, but that was when Gary Glitter was still Top Of The Pops...

It was unique as a smalll-bore four with a six-speed gearbox. It had single overhead cams (Honda wasn’t quite there with DOHC in 1975) and could crack the ton easily enough. With its funky side-swept header pipes it was instantly recognisable; even more so if it had a howling Dunstall or Piper four-into-one (de rigeur). It had a reputation for neat handling, was incredibly reliable and quick for the day. It was the refined choice over dull twin-cylinder four-strokes like the Yamaha XS400 or Honda Dream.

After an hour riding the little Honda I easily fell for its vintage charms and found myself delighting in its somewhat asthmatic performance as the tiny pistons thrash up and down with the crank. There’s a real sense of engineering from a day gone by as you buzz along and although the speedo isn’t likely to bother much over the 70mph mark, it’s an entertaining and character-packed ride.

Physically the Honda is small, even by today’s standards, making it incredibly easy to ride, but meaning bigger riders do look a bit of a plum. And the suspension doesn’t care too much for larger riders. The forks and shock  are under-damped, under-sprung and underwhelming. In fact the chassis is even more olde worlde than the motor, especially the brakes which need all four fingers if you want to stop. But this is a classic, and you can’t expect everything to be razor sharp.


I spotted the battered Kawasaki Z750S at the back of the showroom. With a price of £2,700 and an odometer showing 27,000 miles, I knew there was room for negotiation. This bike was perfect for my needs – a little bit of protection from the elements for motorway work, decent handling for a bit of fun, plenty of scope for fitting luggage and above all, it was so tatty that I wouldn’t be left heartbroken because some scooter-riding chav had used it as a berm to negotiate the rush-hour traffic.

A couple of hours in the saddle proved that it was only cosmetically challenged and rode fine. So the rattling plastics were a bit annoying, but a few hours spent going over the bike replacing missing fasteners and straightening bent brackets would doubtless leave me with a bike more than fit for purpose for just £2,150. Yep, that’s what I managed to get them down to, meaning that for a grand total of just £4,950, I’d managed to scoop both bikes within my £5K budget. Okay, so both need a little bit of time spent on them, but it’s nothing that I can’t do myself and besides, isn’t that the fun of secondhand bikes?

Living with a: 400-4

As classic bikes go, this is a durable one. Some have covered 100,000+ miles with few issues.
There are two models – the F1 and F2. They’re similar, both are good and you can tell them apart by where the pillion pegs mount. Original is best – particularly the exhaust but it’s a rare and expensive part.  Kickstarts, rear mudguards and chain guards are also hard to come by – but you can get replica fibreglass mudguards.

Living with a: Z750S

It’s a pretty durable machine. The finish isn’t as robust as some so have a look round for corrosion.
Suspension is often criticised so quality upgrades are worth having. Be wary of DIY ones though such as other shocks grafted in and eBay linkages etc. These are cheaper machines which appeal to newbies / commuters / dispatch riders so check for evidence of low speed spills and make sure the mileage is genuine. Some fasteners are prone to coming loose, particularly the side stand mounts and the gear linkage – the latter can make the gearbox feel terrible but is a five minute fix.

I average about 25,000 two-wheeled miles a year, so I need reliability, comfort and something that will churn out the distance without missing a beat. It’s a no brainer, Honda’s VFR800. But for me biking has to be fun, so to break the monotony I decided to get something totally stupid, focused and utterly useless at anything apart from going fast. An Aprilia RS250, the panicle of road-going two-strokes and the polar opposite of a VFR. VFR stands for Very Flipping Reliable, RS stands for Rampant Screamer. Or Rebuild in Seconds…

With the RS there’s no point buying one that’s knackered, it’ll be more hassle than it’s worth and what’s the point in a weekend toy that doesn’t run? The one I found was fairly tidy, a few scratches here and there, but basically solid. The problem is two-strokes are currently undergoing a massive resurgence in popularity. Try buying an RGV on eBay, you won’t get much change from £1,500 for a total shonker. And RS250s are even more sought after, so for £2,300 you have to expect to get the bare bones of a good bike. Which is exactly what I got, meaning I only had  £2,700 to spend on the VFR, so it would have to be a tired one with a fair few miles on the clock. Visually I knew the VFR would be a shocker, which it turned out to be, but underneath the scratched bodywork and various dents it was still a Honda. Albeit one that had covered over 24,000 miles and looked like it had been dipped in shit!

With the two bikes in front of me the choice of which to ride first wasn’t hard. I’m not afraid to admit it, before I got on the RS I was actually shaking with anticipation. It’s tragic I know but this bike means so much to me. I’ve been wanting to ride one for years, but never got the chance. So, with the lightest of touches I pushed my foot down on the kick-start.

1998 APRILIA RS250

Riinnng-a-diiinnng. The exhaust crackles as the RS instantly fires into life, before dying again. A bit of choke and riiinnng, riiiiinng, I blip the throttle like a GP mechanic until the temperature gauge shows a value rather than just displaying ‘low.’

A hefty clunk selects first and we’re away. Almost. I’ll be honest, we didn’t really move. Not enough revs and 14-stone of Urry only made the RS’s engine note reduce slightly, rather than provide any forward motion. Time to be brutal. I dial in about 7,000rpm and burn the hell out of the clutch, which gets us rolling. Just.

I’m used to two-strokes, so I know you have to go looking for power, but when the rev counter is at 8,000rpm and the motor is still bogging down I thought the RS’s engine might be ill. Then at 8,200rpm all hell broke loose.
No other two-stroke I have ridden kicks like the RS when it hits its powerband. From ‘burr, burr’ the engine note changes instantly to ‘waaaaaa!’ and the rev-counter slams into the 12,000 redline in about half a second. That’s 4,000rpm of useable power.Selecting second with another clunk and the rev needle dips slightly but stays in the sweet spot for another brief moment before once again slamming into the red. And it’s a similar story all through the gears.

Every gear ratio is perfectly calculated so that when you hit the redline and change it drops the revs back into the sweet spot. Great if you’re on the power, but miss a gear and the RS is flatter than a witch’s tit.

There is absolutely no point in trying to ride the RS outside this miniscule power band. It doesn’t move. And you can’t hold the throttle open and wait for it to get into the area, no, you have to change down and force it. It’s a no-compromise GP bike on the road.The handling is the same. I imagined I would be able to hop on the RS and corner like Max Biaggi. Unfortunately apart from the obvious gulf in talent Max and myself have one other difference, he is five foot nothing, I’m six two. He fits an RS, I don’t.

Despite the RS feeling lighter than a 125 to ride and unbelievably sharp to turn I could barely ride it. My knees were up somewhere near my ears and I couldn’t move around the bike without getting caught up in myself. Whitham said I looked like a circus monkey riding a tiny bicycle.

1999 HONDA VFR800

No such problems with the VFR, as you would expect. Despite the mileage and visual appearance the VFR800 ran as sweet as a nut. When it comes to VFRs the pre-VTEC 800 is the best of the bunch. As much power as the VTEC but with out the jerky system fitted, just super-smooth, V4 power and torque all through the rev-range.

Riding the VFR I could imagine myself knocking off a gentle 200 miles before breakfast with all my clobber hooked to the pillion seat. Or even with a set of soft luggage fitted heading south with a pillion for a weekend away. Is it comfortable? Of course it is. And you know what, I could probably corner quicker on the Honda than the RS250, because I fit it. Stick a new set of tyres on the Honda and it’s no slouch on the backroads.

The suspension was soggy and would have benefited from a refresh and the brakes were slightly beyond their best. But throw £300 at it and you’d have a bike that riding-wise isn’t a million miles away from when it left the factory. Yes it looks a heap, but I don’t care about that. What thief would steal knackered VFR? And as long as the bodywork stays attached I can live with a few scratches, I’m pretty likely to add to them anyway.

So am I please with my choices? Yes and no. The RS is a fantastically focused bike that is immensely rewarding to ride when it is on the boil, as long as you are under six-foot, which I am not. Consequently I couldn’t ride it and if I had bought this bike it would sit in the corner of my garage gathering dust. Right bike, wrong person. If you fit then I can’t recommend owning one enough, it’s a hell of a tool. And the VFR, well it’s a VFR, isn’t it? It’s the bike that does it all, and does it all with out a batting an eyelid. Perfect.

Living with a: RS250

An improved model was introduced in February 1998. It’s faster and better handling but some fans prefer the looks of the original. Tuned two strokes are not durable. The top ends need stripping and rebuilding at least every 5,000 miles, often much more frequently. Running costs are high with fuel consumption 30mpg and the bike guzzling £10-a-litre fully synthetic two stroke oil. Spares can take months to arrive.

Living with a: VFR800

The key thing to check with this model is which year bike you’re looking at. It got a significant update for  the F-Y model (September 1999) which isn’t that obvious. The update included more robust electrics, stainless steel downpipes, refined fuel injection and clutch plus more. These bikes are most easily identified as they have Honda’s HISS key based immobiliser. The VFR’s reliable but its Achilles’ heel is the charging system, especially on ’98-’99 bikes.


With this second hand test there is no winner, and no right and wrong choices, it’s all down to the individual. We aimed to show that while a new commuter bike may sound like the best way of spending £5,000, dig a bit deeper and a whole world of possibilities opens up. But as with anything in life you have to do your research, or know what your limitations are.

Just because it’s your dream bike doesn’t necessarily make it a great buy, as Jon found out. That’s not to say the RS250 isn’t a perfect summer toy for someone else, it’s just that he happened to be the wrong shape for it. Spending £2,300 on the Aprilia would been an expensive mistake. Try before you buy.

James is in the enviable position of having access to a van, which makes owning a motocross bike far easier. If you don’t have this option collapsible trailers are a great solution if you are short on space or, as John Cantlie found out, after turning up at a few rounds it’s easy to find a ’motocross buddy’ to share transport costs. With this problem overcome motocross is a fantastic, and cheap, sport that will help you lose that gut.

For those who need to justify spending that extra few quid then Rob’s classic route is a great option. There is nothing better than cruising around on a classic come the summer months. They attract huge amounts of attention at you local meet and the beauty is that the choice is so diverse. Buying a classic isn’t the money pit that a modern bike is, buy smart, keep it clean and you won’t lose money. In fact the chances are you will make a few quid.

Not ready for pipe and slippers yet? Well so what if a sportsbike is a few years old? Suzuki’s GSX-R750 is still a cracking machine. Stick on new tyres, uprate the suspension and watch it fly.

Okay, the Z750S and VFR800 will never hit the status of classics. But now they have been out a few years they both provide a hell of a bike for their price tags. For around the £2,500 mark you get one of the most tried and tested workhorses out there, or a damn good commuter that is only a few years old. Both will run hassle free for many years to come.

Hopefully this test had provided some food for thought. The list of possibilities is endless. Are you prepared to take the plunge and double your fun?