The flagship or halo classic and modern-classic motorcycles that hog the headlines in the media and garner most of the attention at auctions – not to mention fill the daydreams of bikers around the UK – are wonderful, two-wheeled creations but for those in the know there are some fantastic motorbikes that live in their shadows and deserve a moment in the spotlight.
In fact, some experts in the bike trade believe the overlooked motorcycles hiding in the shadows could be a better buy than the usual suspects – namely breakthrough bikes, such as the early crop of Japanese or Italian sports mopeds which will always have a special meaning to older, typical classic bike buyers, or, for their era, eye-opening 250s, or big flagship machines they could not afford back in the day.
Mark Bryan of Silverstone Auctions believes there are great bikes out there waiting to be discovered by a wider audience. “Sometimes unfathomably and unpredictably, particular bikes become collectable or desirable, and that can draw attention away from actually very good or interesting machines which live in the shadow of their bigger siblings,” Bryan told Hagerty.
It’s an undercard of bikes which were seen as second-string contenders back in the day, and remained there for decades – but are now beginning to pique the interest of those in the know while classic heavyweight collector motorcycles slug it out at the top of the market.
They’re almost exclusively Japanese and Italian machines, their motorcycle engineering and marketing nous recognising the range-extension and revenue value of creating a race dominator, and then introducing smaller or more affordable versions that looked the part, and sometimes even proved to be better bikes.
Mark Redfern of Somerset Classic Motorcycles agrees. “There are some cracking bikes out there which have lived in the shadows of their more illustrious siblings but are now coming into their own.
“The Kawasaki Z650, for instance. This was always the Cinderella bike in the range after the Z900s and then the Z1000. Prices are still quite low for the bike you get – very low compared to their bigger brothers – and they look good and ride well. They are just starting to get the recognition they deserve so now would be a good time to get one.”
Bryan of Silverstone Auctions homes in on smaller versions of ’80s and ’90s race rockets. “The ultimate for me is the Ducati 748, the baby brother of the 916. Then there’s the Honda NC30, the 400cc version of the 750cc RC30. They exploited the success and desirability of their bigger, faster and far more expensive relatives, but are fantastic bikes in their own right.
“All the Japanese manufacturers produced 600cc versions of the bigger 750 or 900cc models, sometimes for marketing or licence restriction purposes, sometimes inadvertently producing machines which proved to be far more ride-able and usable than the range-toppers.”
Japanese home market bikes were quite often smaller versions of the bigger US or European models, Honda even producing the screaming near-20,000rpm CBR250RR, the “baby Fireblade”. Mark Redfern concludes: “Overall, I would say that middleweights are more popular now because they are often lighter on the road and lighter on the wallet. Back in the day a difference of 20bhp was a lot and people wanted all the power they could get. Now, as classics, that difference in power is marginal given the way they’re used.”
So what are the bikes the experts believe are living in the shadows of their brighter star siblings and deserve to have the dust sheet lifted, kick-stand raised and engine cranked into life for miles and smiles of riding? Here are their picks.
Price range: £2000 for restoration to £9000 for originals in excellent condition or fully restored.
The 50bhp GT550 (1972-1977) never really sold in the UK as people saved a little harder and bought the 70bhp GT750 instead. They lived in a bit of a no-man’s-land below the flagship and above the GT380 triple, yet these are great bikes and actually very rare – because nobody bought them back then. Values have already rocketed so they are no longer a bargain but they are now coming out of the shadows, and less pricey than the 750. Prices: £2000 for complete restoration to £9000 for originals in excellent condition, or fully restored.
Price range: £1250 for restoration; £2750 for fair examples; £5000 for originals in excellent condition or fully restored.
Case in point about smaller versions of flagships being subjectively better: the 64bhp Z650 (1976-1983) was far less of a handful to ride than the Z900 – its power not overwhelming its chassis – even though it was amongst the most powerful bhp per cc machines out there. It looked a bit like the bigger Z, and some versions could actually challenge Suzuki’s GS750 when it came to performance. Cinderella may be on her way to the collector’s ball…
Price range: £2500 for restoration; £4000 for fair examples; £10000 for originals in excellent condition or fully restored.
In 1991 a Honda NC30 would have set its original buyer back by £6600, now it’s anything between £2500 for a messed-with ex-trackday weapon to £10k for a mint example. You’ll find good usable examples for around £4000. What’s the appeal? It’s a smaller version of the legendary 750 RC30, one that looks the part, sounds the part with a 14,500rpm 59bhp V4, and goes the part too. However, it does mean a good number of NC30s have seen tracks whether in competitive racing or for trackdays. Dealers and owners caution that some parts like the exhaust are almost extinct, but there’s a hardcore of collectors who recognise the future value of these bikes. Now might be the moment to snap one up.
Price range: £500 for restoration; £2000 for fair examples; £4000 for originals in excellent condition or restored.
In a range of Suzuki GS bikes that spawned 600, 750 and 1000cc sports bikes and race winners, as well as landmark regular road bikes, the 49bhp, GS550 (1977-1984) has been comparatively anonymous. Never really noted for its looks, and last into the 550 market, these bikes have not yet taken off in price as much as the GT550s but they are seen by in-the-know classic-heads as a great middleweight bike that represents good value for money.
Price range: £3500 for restoration; £5000 for fair examples; £8000 for originals in excellent condition or restored.
Sometime less is more and in the case of Italy’s Ducati, it has a history of building 900-ish-cc machines and then making even better 750cc spin-offs. While the Ducati 916 was the basis for a race machine that conquered the competition on track, the 90bhp 748 (1995-2002) was considered by road riders who’d experienced both to be the better bike, feeling smaller and more sporty because of its freer-revving engine. But here’s the kicker: it currently tends to sell today for way less than its original £10,350 retail price. Maintenance history is crucial, though.
Price range: £500 for restoration; £1200 for fair examples; £2500 for originals in excellent condition or restored.
Whoa. Where did that one come from? Honda’s seemingly indestructible and timeless CG125 (1975-2004) has always been, well, just there, existing. But the collector market switches on to practical and unexceptional machines often when somebody spots that there’s actually fewer around, in this case because CG125s have become a customisers’ favourite. Sitting in the shadow of the CB125 “sport” version, ’70s and ’80s CGs are increasing in value, use-ables at around £1,200, exceptional originals sneaking towards £2,500.
Price range: £800 for restoration; £2500 for fair examples; £4500 for originals in excellent condition or restored.
After a few engine improvements in early life, the BMW R65 (1978-1992) evolved into a great bike – following the trend, here, of smaller machines actually being more satisfying. BMW 750, 800, 900 and 1000cc machines of the ’80s shared very similar chassis, but the 45bhp R65 and its unfortunately insipid R45 spinoff, had a smaller frame. But the R65 always lived in the shadow of its “bahnstormer” touring and “sports touring” bike relatives. R65s are getting scarce because they too are customisers’ favourites, delivering a light and agile ride that really involves the rider.
Price range: £4000 for restoration; £6000 for fair examples; £10,000 for originals in excellent condition or restored.
Sitting in the shadow of perhaps the most desirable Japanese classic, the Honda CB750-4, the significance of the CB500-4 (1971-74) is sometimes lost, not because it’s a bad bike, but because the 75bhp 750 is so comparatively immense in stature. Equal condition CB500s – once basket cases have been eliminated – are generally around two-thirds the price of CB750s. But the 50bhp CB500, generally 20% less mass part-for-part than the 750, is a better ride. In our view and the eyes of the experts, that makes it an intelligent acquisition.
Kawasaki GPz 550
Price range: £500 for restoration; £2500 for fair examples; £5000 for originals in excellent condition or restored.
The GPz 750 was the fastest accelerating production 750 back in 1982. Follow that. The 54bhp GPz 550 (1981-1985) had its work cut out. Like many 1980s bikes, its looks, today, are less than elegant. But elegance is relative, and we all see beauty differently, and ugly-beautiful classics have their place. The 550 was lauded as being a great all-rounder on twisty roads or motorways, but isn’t out there in huge numbers. But if you cared for bikes back in the ’80s, you may have noticed how many couriers chose to smoke around on these. That’s the indication of a good bike. A bit of an investment sleeper.
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