Late-teens Lem was a lot of fun. I mean really fun.
Man, could I party. I’d spend a little too much money on beer and grass. Sometimes I’d miscalculate how many paychecks I had coming in a given month. Or, maybe I saw a guitar or a rifle or some other stupid knick-knack I just had to have, and then I’d be broke. But I was fun! At least, I seemed fun until riding season rolled around, when I wouldn't have two nickels to rub together, which made me decidedly not fun. I got really good at keeping a straight face when making people insulting offers on their motorcycle. You can’t offer much money for something when you have very little.
Now, I wrote an article explaining when is the best time to buy a bike. And Spurgeon put one together on great used motorcycles for under five grand. But let’s be honest, five gs for a bike is a pipe dream for many of us. So this spring, I decided to put together my own list of cheap street bikes that offer a lot of value for the money. This was an unscientific venture, so I merely picked a few of my favorite models that don’t cost a whole lot, and then found examples reasonably close to ZLA world headquarters to illustrate my points.
Before we start, I have one thing I would like to say, and Lance piled on, too. The item I wanted to hit home was that if you are looking for major value, you almost need to buy a Japanese bike. Forget American, forget Brit, forget Euro. For maximum riding and minimum expenditure, a bike from the Big Four is the only way to fly.
Lance’s point is a bit different, but also salient. "You want to buy any six-year-old motorcycle with high mileage that's been owned by a guy with a clean garage. It's really hard to sell a 60,000-mile bike in a world awash with used motorcycles that have only been ridden as weekend toys. Too many people think 'high mileage' with motorcycles when the same mileage wouldn't bother them in a car. I bought my BMW F650 from a guy who tried forever to sell it but couldn't because nobody would buy a single with 40,000 miles on it. The bike was nowhere near used up. The owner was a professional helicopter mechanic, for crying out loud.” Sage advice from a man who has ridden many happy miles on reasonably cheap-o machines.
Now on to the bikes I feel offer massive mileage for meager moola.
Yamaha Seca II
Worldwide, this bike was the Diversion. Here in America, though, it was the Seca II. It’s a completely basic, air-cooled, across-the-frame four-cylinder that replaced the XJ600. With 61 horsepower and a six-speed transmission, this bike has the right amount of oomph for its completely archaic suspension and bland single front disc brake. It’s completely forgettable, but also perfectly serviceable. It’s a basic machine that can handle a number of situations reasonably well.
I found a nice one nearby with an asking price of $1,800, which is probably high relative to book value. However, it’s pretty clean, apparently, and at least around here, a clean runner like this one will likely be snapped up in nice weather without a bundle of haggling on it.
The KZ440 is a close relative of the KZ400. They were both neat, fun little bikes — very lively and eager to please. The mighty little twins have experienced a bit of a resurgence as they’ve been snapped up and chopped into customs; the frames lend themselves well to a number of styles, much like the Yamaha XS650. The KZ440 was regarded as a bit more homely than the KZ400 by many; it was one of a parade of Japanese cruisers that simply employed buckhorn handlebars and a stepped seat to magically change it from a standard to a cruiser.
The LTD I found looks pretty good. It’s wearing its original paint and someone installed a sissy bar that looks comically tall. (The tubing diameter certainly is beefy.) Still, it’s probably very useful for road trippin’ and could certainly be pulled off easily enough. The tires on here are probably 6,000 years old (white-letter Yokohamas?!), but hey, asking price is $900. That’s a hard number to beat for a bike that the seller says is dependable and could be taken “anywhere.”
We’ll roll into another Yamhammer — the one that replaced the Seca II, actually. Six years after the Seca II hung it up, Yam introduced another half-faired, inline-four street brawler. Packing the previous-gen R6 engine, these motorcycles were always a little peakier than most bikes in this category. Though retuned to offer more midrange punch, the FZ was still a bike that was fond of revs and rewarded riders who used ’em.
These bikes have a lot going for them. They’re unbelievably cheap — three grand should buy you even the very newest one you can find, and they often can be had for considerably less. Fuel injection means a seller should be able to have you hear it run. (No worries of, “Oh, it just needs a carb clean!”) They have enough power on tap to have some fun, wear modern tire sizes, and the undertail exhaust makes it cake to use affordable generic throwover saddlebags if long-range missions are on the table.
Our example here looks like you could dine right from it and the bike comes with a top box and mount plate. The seller is over book price, but I imagine could be talked down under $2,500, which is where I would want to see it if I were buying it.
I’ll get heat for mentioning the much maligned Blast, but this is a fun motorcycle that can be had cheap. It’s a 500 cc thumper, which is kind of neat… road-going singles are odd birds in this country, especially big’uns with pushrods. The bikes are underpowered, rev out way too fast, and wear weird tire sizes, but they have some neat features. They use an un-splined shifter shaft that allows the shift lever to roll out of the way in a tipover, rather than breaking. They also are not painted — the body panels are made from Surlyn (the stuff on the outside of a golf ball), and the color is molded into the plastic. And they have hydraulic lifters (no valve checks) and an automatically tensioning belt. Easy-peasy.
At $800, this bike is pretty easy on the wallet. The seller says it won’t fire up on it’s own — I guarantee the pilot jet has some snot in it. You can have the bowl off that carb lickety-split. (Under half an hour, easy.) It’s been de-badged, and appears to have the wrong mirrors on it, but hell, it’s a running bike for comfortably under a grand. This bike, like Lance’s BMW, proves that “buy Japanese” should be more of a philosophy than a hard rule. [Ed.: Maybe singles are the exception to the Japanese-only rule?] Keep a few bucks in reserve for tires; these singles eat up rears faster than a fat kid goes through cake.
Kawasaki Ninja 500
This was a motorcycle I wanted to buy when I found it researching for this article. The Ninja 500 is a bike I’d still like to see come back. It made good power, it had easily adjusted screw-and-locknut valve adjusters and it was a peppy little twin that was light (though it got fatter over the years, inexplicably taking on 65 pounds over its lifespan). I’d try to scope out 1994 and later models. They have 17-inch wheels, allowing you to use modern sport rubber.
Our unit here, at $2,995, is the most expensive bike on the list. But that’s also being sold by a dealer, and this baby has just 3,000 miles on it. You can find similar machines with maybe a few more miles and maybe a bit more wear for half that cost. According to the ad, it’s also a “very very clean used older sport bike.” I’m not sure we agree on the meaning of “older” or “sport bike,” but it does look minty fresh.
The KZ305CSR was a bike that was fairly pedestrian, given its low displacement. It was basic in that it had a rear drum brake and points ignition, but this was a twin-carb, twin-cylinder machine with a six-speed transmission and some were offered with a belt drive, which was a rarity on a bike of its size. These features also make them pretty dang usable.
The example I found is one of the chain-driven models, which, to me, is actually a blessing. Any of the original belts are probably in need of replacement now, and they can be a bit difficult to find. Many 305 owners have swapped their belts for chains. This one has crazy-low mileage, looks to be in wonderful shape, and has mercifully escaped the hand of any potential “customizers.” At an asking price of $850, it seems pretty hard to beat.
Maybe you’re not keen on the idea of a little squirt. A commuter bike can leave one underwhelmed, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t big-bore options for short coin (though generally bigger bikes mean bigger money.) The Suzuki Bandit came in a few displacements, but the 1200 unit seen here was the biggest air-cooled model ever offered. The engine is a descendant of the venerable GS1000/GS1100/Katana engines, and is as bulletproof as it is exciting. Ringing in at just short of 100 horsepower, these bikes are plenty fun to ride even by today’s standards, though the low-tech steel chassis and right-side up fork are easy targets for improvement.
The Bandit I found is wearing a Holeshot exhaust from Bandit tuning guru Dale Walker, pod filters, and is said to have been tuned. It’s also sporting a Corbin saddle, and a few other modifications. It’s wearing a set of very appropriate Bridgestone BT-023 tires. I’d be curious to make sure no damage was hiding under the tank bra, and I’d also give the clutch a workout on the test ride, because the owner has used synthetic oil in the bike, and the Bandit’s clutch was notorious for slipping with synthetic. Other than that, it’s leaking fuel from the carbs, which is almost certainly some debris preventing one of the needles from seating.
For a thousand bucks firm and an afternoon’s worth of work, someone’s going to get a hell of a lot of exciting riding in return from this still relevant dinosaur.
And for those who are interested in rambling a bit farther from home, I found an old Honda Pacific Coast. This bike, though controversial in its styling, is a solid performer for many and definitely has a cult-like following. The bike was designed to be friendly and inviting and makes light touring a snap. The “saddlebags” on each side of the rear wheel are actually a pretty monstrous trunk, and the bike offers very good wind protection and a shaft drive! The 800 cc V-twin has enough piss and vinegar to tour at fairly high speed. Some of these bikes came with a radio, which is a pretty nice touring feature on a bike that’s definitely not hard on the bank account.
Our specimen here does not have a radio, but it has an impressive list of maintenance that’s been attended to, as well as spare parts, including a taller windshield. The bike has no rust, but the seller says there are scratches and defects on the bodywork, which is probably reasonable on a bike of this vintage. As long as none of the plastic is broken or cracked, I’d be game!
This article was meant to be a demonstration; a reminder that even with bike season right around the corner, motorcycling can be accessible to those who aren’t flush with cash. With a little know-how and some wrenching, it’s possible to take home a very nice bike for a modest price. Happy hunting!