Trailblazers: Seven collectible motorcycles to watch

by Iain Macauley
2 October 2020 5 min read
Trailblazers: Seven collectible motorcycles to watch
Photo: Micou Meekoo

Trail bikes are hot property in the classic collectible motorcycles scene, with dealers and riders alike reporting that interest levels are running at full-throttle. That much is evident from just the briefest surf of social media, where bikers around the world can be found celebrating the spirit of adventure and escapism that trail bikes bring.

Born in Japan but bred in the USA, it didn’t take much to create the first trail bikes, in 1968. They were basically bikes fitted with knobblies – or “nobbies” as early brochures referred to them – and a high-level exhaust.

It was the era when the featherweight Honda 90 Trail, or CT90, based on the 90 Cub, could be paddled through challenging terrain by “outdoorsmen”, as the ads described users. These days, modern “adventure bikes” are able to conquer natural obstacles that would make an old CT rider retreat in defeat – yet the appeal of vintage trail bikes is catching on with today’s biking community.

To classic bikers, “trail bike” sparks images of early ’70s Yamahondukisakis on trials-style tyres, and a freedom to roam off-road that would today get you ASBO-ed. Many will have owned one in their teens, or dreamed of owning one while watching Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday documentary.

Because they’re becoming sought-after, classic DTs, TSs, XLs and KEs nowadays spend as much time on The Money Trail than the off-road trail, with bikes from 50cc to 600cc commanding increasing prices because of the importance of rare originality in bikes which were often modified and abused right out of the showroom.

What’s the attraction? “People turn up to look at a road bike, see a trail bike, smile, and say ‘I bet that’s a lot of fun’,” says Mark Redfern of Somerset Classic Motorcycles.

Mark Bryan of H&H auctioneers says it’s because 1974, ’75 and ’76 trail bikes “are simply cool”.

So which trail bikes are bikers looking for when it comes to good, clean, dirty fun? We reveal seven collectible motorcycles that are becoming increasingly sought-after.

Honda XL250

Seven trail bikes to collect_Honda XL250
Photo: Bring A Trailer

Imported and ready to restore or ride: £1500–£2500

On-the-road UK bike: £2500–£5000

“As a dealer I shouldn’t buy bikes I like, but as an enthusiast I’d say the Honda XL250, especially the earlier silver-only bikes, should be on someone’s radar if they’re thinking of a trail bike,” says Mark Redfern, of Somerset Classic Motorcycles.

“Four-strokes were naturally suited to off-road, and Hondas had legendary build quality and reliability.”

Mark Bryan of H&H concurs: “I have a ’74 XL250 K1. It’s fantastic fun, and attracts more attention than equivalent capacity road bikes. If you park up and there’s a biker nearby then you’re going to have a conversation – and often a cash offer on the spot. The only thing I covet more is the earlier 1973 250 K0 Motorsport.”

Suzuki TS185

Seven classic trail bikes to collect_Suzuki TS185
Photo: Mecum Auctions

Imported and ready to restore or ride: £1800–£3000

On-the-road UK bike: £3500–£5000

“I’m a Suzuki man,” says Nigel Hughes of Classic Bikes Northwest. “You just click with some bikes, and I clicked with Suzukis. The TS185 was it for me as a trail bike: not much more weight than a 125 and not much less power than a 250.”

Mark Redfern concurs. “The TS185 is very rare and desirable. We sell TS185s unseen as soon as people hear we have them. And people like patina – a bit of sun fade on the paint, or where the riders knees have been against the tank.”

Mark Bryan says demand creates problems of its own. “The TS185 is a great trail bike, but rare. Well worth rooting out a good one.”

Suzuki TS250

Classic trail bikes to buy_Suzuki TS250
Photo: Bikes Restored

Imported and ready to restore or ride: £1500–£2800

On-the-road UK bike: £3000–£5000

“I’d have a TS250. They take me back: the look and the sound. Iconic,” says Mark Redfern. “They were compromised as off-roaders, though, but made great on-roaders being tall and relatively light compared to, say, the Suzuki GT250 of the day.

“They’re rare: riders who started out on a 125 wanted something that looked bigger, and the GT250 was big for a 250, so TS250s were not a natural progression, so there’s not many around.”

Nigel Hughes says experience suggest they’re almost unbreakable. “I had a ’72 TS250. It was indestructible. Customer of mine used one for work in Saudi Arabia. He’d hammer it to a construction site every day across all sorts of terrain, and it just wouldn’t break.”

Suzuki TC125 and TS125

Suzuki TS125 is a classic trail bike that's collectible
Photo: Mecum Auctions

Imported and ready to restore or ride: £1000–£2500

On-the-road UK bike: £3000–£5500

This is where trailbiking is confirmed as a USA-centric activity, explains Mark Redfern. “The UK had the TS models, really cool-looking bikes which were actually a bit compromised off road. But in the US they did a lot more off-roading, and had the TC versions; the smaller bikes had dual high-low ratio gearboxes in an attempt to get screaming two-strokes to do what torquey four-strokes could do.

“The TCs are more desirable than the TSs in the UK, despite being more plentiful because they were for the bigger US market.

“I’d suggest buying a UK TS125. They looked bigger than 125 road bikes of their day, which gave them a bit of an edge on the image front.”

Yamaha DT250

Seven collectible bikes_Yamaha DT250
Photo: Bike Urious

Imported and ready to restore or ride: £1500–£2500

On-the-road UK bike: £3000–£5000

Arguably the first “proper” trail bike back in 1968, the Yamaha DT-1 250 brought some Californian feeling of freedom to biking. Its significance as a game-changer was in the Japanese Society of Automotive Engineers’ proclamation of it being a “Landmark of Japanese Automotive Technology”.

“Early ones are really rare,” says Mark Redfern. “Most haven’t survived; they’ve been chopped and messed about with, and many are too far gone as a consequence to be sensible to acquire.

“But DTs of all sizes were reliable, simple, and if something did go wrong it was easily sorted. Feed them Shell V Power – you’ll notice the difference. But make sure you use your DT: two-strokes like to be under load.”

Yamaha DT175

Seven collectible motorcycles_Yamaha DT175
Photo: Micou Meekoo

Imported and ready to restore or ride: £1200–£2350

On-the-road UK bike: £2,500–£4,000

The 175 was considered to be one of those just-right bikes. Mark Bryan is a fan. “You don’t see many of them because they were cheap in their day and so just got trashed. Same with the DT250 to an extent.

“Early 70s genuine UK bikes are extremely rare because they weren’t officially imported for a few years after they went on sale in the USA.”

Nigel Hughes adds: “A lot of people disconnect the Autolube, and go pre-mix. I’d say leave the Autolube as it is if it’s working correctly, and maintain it. The manufacturer wouldn’t have put it there if it didn’t have faith.”

Kawasaki KEs

Seven collectible motorcycles_Kawasaki KE125
Photo: Laceys Motorcycles

Imported and ready to restore or ride: £1000–£3000

On-the-road UK bike: £2,500–£5,500

Kawasaki is not noted for its trail bikes, more the mad three-cylinder two-strokes, or sophisticated first-generation superbikes like the 900 Z1.

“I’ve just bought a Kawasaki KE175,” enthuses Mark Bryan. “They were quite good bikes, but Kawasaki wasn’t known for trail bikes, so they’re scarce. But that makes it interesting.

“It’s important that they’re as original as possible. Mine has been lightly restored, and there’s a lot of attention to detail to go with it, things like two original keys, a handbook and complete toolkit in a pouch.”

Mark Bryan summarises: “Early Japanese trail bikes were light, nimble, easy to own, ride and fix, and are genuinely good day-to-day riding options today. My mantra is don’t just own a classic bike, use it.

“You’ll love a trailie.”

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  • Kozmik says:

    When I was young things like Yamaha DT 125. 2 strokes were all the rage and frantic 50s that did 60 mph

  • Terry Lenehan says:

    I owned a Honda 250 k 1 in the early seventies, my brother bought it new . Getting married saw me take over the payments .
    The only problem the bike had was going through water or wet mud would see the bike stall and would have to wait an age for it to dry out. I fitted a make shift mud flap to the front mud gaurd to get around the problem.
    All my mates had Suzuki and yams no problems with them.
    I had the bike for 5 years before a car took me out one late afternoon and the bike was written off. I was out of action for a while. Build like a tank robust and easy to ride. The bike was a good looker for the seventies at the time when triumphs were still around,scooters were big in lancashire at this time but the bike attracted plenty of comments and I was always asked for a lift or can I have a go, have to say always had my share of a female on the back.

  • Ashley says:

    I owed a Harley SX 250. Paid £40 for it some 20 years ago. Just needed a carb overhaul & a new chain & sprockets. Not many were imported to the U.K. just another bike I wish I had hung onto.

  • James Liskutin says:

    I had a suzuki TS ER. It was brilliant. Shame it was left out. I had a few friends who rode them.

  • Tim Bigger says:

    My first proper bike was a DT 175 and I paid £320 for it after selling my FS1E. I really loved that bike and spent a lot of my time as an 18 year old exploring the lanes of West Sussex. I went on to own another a few years later and then a DT400 which I can’t say I had the same love for, the 175 was always the perfect bike for me…

  • Pete says:

    I had the DT175 in the early 80s, it was a fantastic bike on and off road but because the mpg on it was so bad I had to sell it to buy a bike that could get me to work without having to fill the tank every couple of days. Gutted.

  • Keith Watkins says:

    I had the 1979 TS250 ERN …loved it, even when I progressed to bigger bikes. I kept it for 3 years undercover/unused. Eventually swapping it for a bandit 600. Started first time to ride it to the dealers!!! Wishing I hadn’t made the deal 😕

  • Steve says:

    Had TS125 as my first new bike at 17, it was stolen six months later, then upgraded to the TS185 great bikes. Still riding 44 years on

  • Larry tucker says:

    Ok baillie is a name I would like to see in big letters please.god Bess u larry tucker x

  • Michael Wayne Plant says:

    I own a Yamaha XT250G from 1982 fully restored and in perfect condition, I even have a new original factory monoshock for it, anyone have an idea of what it might be worth!
    It is so much fun to ride and the one with the classic black and white styling.

  • Michael Wayne Plant says:

    I feel your pain of selling of selling something that was just right for you!

  • Chris Hardman says:

    Bought a 1979 TS185 two years back to restore. It always put a big small on my face when i take it off road.Takes me back to my teen’s when I had a 1976 Ts185 & RM125A.Just love two strokes

  • Graham Pattimore says:

    DT175 had one way back and loved it, great little bike wished i had kept it.

  • Bernard Knight says:

    Makes me feel old! These are all Japanese bikes from ‘recent times’ – when I was a student, I had a 175cc James, a 1928 BSA 500 side-valve,, a Douglass fore-and-aft twin, a BSA Bantam, and a 1939 Triumph Tiger 100, all with girder forks!

  • Phippsy says:

    Just picked up 1971 Triumph Trail Blazer what a hoot, great fun on the tracks and good handling on the road. Can see why vintage trail bikes are popular.

  • alan chachapoya says:

    In 1968 I bought a Triumph Tiger Cub 200cc for £40 from a speedway champion called Larry Laserlyth who had a shop in Glasgow and delivered it to the Rowardennan Hotel Loch Lomond. I managed to drive the bike half way up Ben Lomond but it was very difficult coming back down.

  • James Cross says:

    Those were the days 1976 I got yam FS1E oh did I love that bike 50cc went like a rocket. I had the metallic purple it was brilliant progressed to a yam 185.v

  • Tim sample says:

    I started with a TY50 moved up to a XT250 before trading for a DT175 in the early 80s the bike was awesome loved it changed the jets in the carb , put a fresco pipe on it and toured all the lanes in Devon , I still have a bike MT10 and am looking for a WR250 can t wait to get back in the lanes , happy days !

  • Dave H says:

    started with a Yam FS1E, then had a Honda CB250 Superdream, which I rode to Paris and back. Mate had a Honda XL250 (in silver) which I used to borrow, I loved it, but never got to own one. Had a TY175, and Honda SLR650, (plus loads of different road bikes`) currently running an Aprilia Pegaso 650, but would love one of those old trail lies

  • jonathan crone says:

    would love to find an old Kawasaki ke 175 ,Honda,yamaha DT 175 Suzuki TC 125 ANY ONE OF THROUGH WOULD SUIT ME AS LONG AS THE ENGINE IS WORKING.?.

  • Graham John Wilson says:

    Started with a FS1E and then got a Yamaha RD250 then progressed onto a Suzuki GT750 two stroke triple water cooled, I think people used to cool it the water buffalo it had digital gear display which went haywire in the rain. Happy days.

  • ROY WILLIAMS says:

    I first saw a DT175 round my mates Tony Parpworths house, it was sitting in his dad’s garage waiting for Tony to turn 17 in May,,,I loved it at first sight and so i went and bought one the same colour, and was riding mine a whole month before Tony as my 17th birthday was in April…lol…when he finally turned 17 and started riding his, all our mates called us chips, after that American police motorcycle program that was on the telly at the time, chips stood for Californian highway patrol, and had those two police officers on the same bikes.
    I loved that bike, but sadly it was set on fire one night, as my area was having trouble with a local area, and some coward set it alight one night. I bought a TS185 after that but it was never as good as the DT175 for fun..
    Now I am an old git I ride a BMW GS1250….and love it.

  • john kidd says:

    the past we c100 1966 bought for £20 left home lived at my 1/2 brothers house for year. he strip the engine. 16 years old on the road with my mams scarf around my head. it a black ice.down i went. bought a helmet for 10/shillings it sat on my head.i tuck the filling out of it. i had a friend he had the honda xl250 brand new.he would call at the pub after work.he would let me ride it . all over the city. i bought a yamaha dt250 for £15, never got to ride it. had it for 25 years then sold it for £250 .i sold the paper from yamaha to them for £29. insted of the money i took home a yam fzr400 w1 jap inport.took 8years to find a ignition box. still have it. in tresting site i ride a gsx1400 a cagiva navigator tl1000 trials. it carry’s the Suzuki VT engine, a brut of a bike. i would love to knock 20 years of me, thank from john in carlisle uk

  • Willy says:

    I had a yamaha kt250 and it was super fast. Having 250 horse power engine was brilliant. I got it just before they limited the power to 125 horse power. I wish I still had it now.

  • Ian Elliott says:

    I had a KS125 Kawasaki and a DT250 bikes. I had a lot of fun even now I still have some 1979 and 1980 enduro bikes as well as modern Ktm’s. The only problem is the continued closure of the green lane network that is occurring due to the lobbying of the ramblers and NIMBYS and a certain antisocial element of people riding illegally. Great article just wish there were more places to ride them!

  • Mick Newton Nottm England says:

    I have owned many 1970s 2 stroke Trail/Trials bikes over past 40 years, Tried 4 stroke too slow. Have owned DT 175 Twin Shock, 175 MX x 4, TS 125 1973, DT 250 MX 1981, TY 175 Speed Block, KDX 200 1992, CRM 250 AR, I am 66 Years of age now and just bought my self a New toy an American Honda MT 250 Elsinore 1974 Road Registered it is a very Torquey Bike and love it to bits and keeps a smile on my face and gets a lot of admirers and buyers but not parting with it

  • Mick Newton Nottm England says:

    Always found TS 125 Under Powered in its day, My mates TS 100 Disc Valve would eat my TS 125 for Breakfast, Always wanted a TS 250 M or TS 185 M 1975 , But had not passed my bike Test till later in time, also rode a Suzuki GT 250 Ram Air which put my TS 125 to shame,

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