New Old Bikes

Lately I have been scoping out potential bike purchases for my brother. He’s no fan of wrenching, so new and simple are my primary criteria. I sent him photos of a Ninja 250 with a “for sale” sign parked on the sidewalk one Tuesday evening in front of the Tea Room. It was a 2006 model with less than 2,000 miles on the clock. The Ninjette looked brand new, for the economical asking price of $1,900. It was also 23 years old. Except for the trendy tribal decals, it could just as well have been a 1986 model.

Old bikes are great; simple, uncomplicated, and easy to work on. They are mostly unfettered with the efforts of modern engineering departments to satisfy modern regulations and their own marketing men. Their one drawback is, well, they’re old. Time can be especially unkind to motorcycles, whether the years since a bike’s birth were marked by abusive owners and ham-fisted “mechanics” or long periods of poorly prepped dormancy. How many times have you looked at a tired old bike and wished aloud to be able to buy a brand new example?

You can. These are not the same as the many retro-bikes being sold in 2009, which are newly engineered to look the part. New-old bikes are models some manufacturers keep in their line-up for decades after they were introduced, enabling you to buy a brand new (or 2-year-old) vintage motorcycle in 2009.

Kawasaki seems especially fond of this approach: The KLR650 remained virtually unchanged from 1987 through 2007 (Okay, they changed the cases around 1996, which made adding a kick starter impossible, but only a KLR freak would know that, or care). The Ninja 250 similarly lived from 1986 until a major facelift in 2008 with very minor tweaks along the way. And who can forget the Kawasaki Concours, a sport touring standard, also launched in 1986. Although the Connie received a few minor upgrades along the way, it was basically the same machine until the hyper-sports-touring Concours 14 was rolled out in late 2006.

Liquid-cooled, DOHC, four-valve-per-cylinder motorcycles don’t exactly scream “vintage,” and newly minted ’80s tech might not appeal to everyone. Yamaha introduced the SR500 air-cooled single to the US market in 1978, and the model lived on in Japan and Europe until 1999, selling well even in its final years, only killed by emissions regulations. A curious case of backwards engineering, the first models sold here had a front disc brake, while the last models sold in Europe wore the same drum brake that adorned the front end of Yamaha’s XS1 650, way back in 1970.

There are advantages to a long product life, and not just for the manufacturer, who made his money back on tooling years ago, and in the KLR’s case outsourced assembly to Thailand. Any design bugs are either resolved by the factory or addressed by the aftermarket (Google KLR and “doohickey” for a spectacular example of the latter), and aftermarket support for new-old bikes is usually massive. In contrast, try to find farkles for Honda’s 400cc four-cylinder CB1, which was sold in the U.S. for just two years.

A different take on the new-old bike is the Indian Enfield Bullet, a truly vintage machine that just never went out of production. Originally designed in the 1940s by British manufacturer Royal Enfield (derisively called “Royal Oilfield” by drip-pan-phobic owners), these pushrod singles are still being made in Chennai (formerly Madras), India and are now exported to the U.S. and England. They look pretty much as they did when they were made in England in the ’50s, with added modern features like turn signals, oil-tightness, 12-volt electrics, etc. Some of the “modernization” efforts are less appreciated. The monkey-motion linkage added to allow shifting on the left per U.S. custom introduces slop in shifting, and many owners plop down $300-$400 for a kit to change it back to right foot shifting, just like the factory intended a half-century ago.

Even in India the Bullets stand out. On a trip to Mumbai in 2007, I noticed that the Enfields were the Harley-Davidsons of India: rarer, bigger, more expensive and chromed-out than the sea of cheap Indian-made Hero Honda 100s and 125s that clogged the streets. The Chennai factory did not rest on its laurels, and contracted with Swiss engineer Fritz Egli to squeeze a little more performance out of the antiquated designs. Enfields make great-looking café racers, and the importer just happens to sell a bitchin’ café racer kit for the Bullet.

The Italians also have an Indian connection with new-old machines, but in their case it’s with scooters. The result is a two-stroke metal-bodied manual-shift scooter that looks and operates exactly like a 1970s Vespa P125X. Scenic City Scooters in Chattanooga can put your butt on a brand new 150cc Stella, imported from India by Genuine Scooter Company of Chicago. These bikes are the fruits of a 1983-1999 joint venture between Piaggio and India’s Lohia Machines Ltd. (LML), with upgrades suggested by Genuine to make them more palatable to American riders (better suspension, disc brake, etc.). For that faction of scooterists who turn up their noses at twist-n-go bikes, the Stella is the real deal.

My brother decided to pass on the little Ninja. After a weekend flogging dual sport bikes around southwest Virginia, he thinks he might need something a little more dirt-road-friendly. Perhaps something in a 22-year-old 2007 KLR?

Fred Sahms is a curmudgeonly Luddite who has been soiling his fingernails with old motorcycles for 25-plus years. His garage is located somewhere in North Knoxville. Drop him a line at fred@fredsgarage.net.

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