The strongest motorcycles the world has ever seen. Spannerman names the models that time could not stop.
All the bikes in this list have two major things in common: they’re available new in showrooms somewhere in the world and they’re essentially unchanged from when they were first released. That’s right – there was a fanfare when they first exploded onto the scene and sales have been so consistently good that the manufacturer has never felt the need to turn the switch off.
The bike company accountants must love it. The pricing of bikes is an illogical minefield but it usually factors in the need to retrieve the development costs of the model. It makes no money in the four year development period from drawing board to the end of the production line but the overheads are still there. If the bike is a success, it eventually pays off its development costs and starts to make money. When it eventually falls out of fashion, it can be quietly retired and replaced by the Next Big Thing. Thus nature balances.
Occasionally, though, a particular model becomes so firmly entrenched in the marketplace that demand stays consistent. We’ve identified seven of the longest runners and they share some noticeable characteristics.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
All these bikes were modestly priced when they were introduced. They lived in the lower to mid-range of bike prices relative to everything else available at the time. Right from the beginning, their price made them attractive. As the years rolled by, their prices went up in material terms but, relative to inflation, they became cheaper and cheaper.
Suzuki’s 650 single (Savage, S40, Boulevard) was released in 1986 at $5499 and is available today for $8290 ride-away. That’s around a 45 per cent increase over 32 years. Over the same period, Sydney house prices have gone up 1200 per cent.
The Seven Wonders paid off all the investment in them many, many years ago so the manufacturers have plenty of room to move in terms of setting a current retail price. They were cheap when they were new and, in real terms, they’ve become cheaper over time.
Motorcycle riders tend to be conservative by nature. They accept new technology and marvel at what it does but they prefer to buy bikes they understand. In 2020, you can’t avoid the myriad technical innovations brought on by both legislation (anti-lock brakes are now mandatory in many countries) and competition (three ride modes aren’t enough if the competition has five).
The Seven Wonders are about as low-tech as you can get. Yamaha’s SR400 doesn’t even have an electric starter. What technological changes the bikes have was forced on them. Electronic fuel injection (EFI) replaced carburetors not to improve performance but to meet increasingly demanding emission standards.
Low-tech is attractive to riders who just see technical innovation as more things to go wrong. Suzuki’s DR650 almost made our list as it’s been largely unchanged since 1990. It’s still hugely popular for adventure riders because of its mechanical simplicity. Its engine has a single cylinder, a single overhead camshaft, is air (okay, and oil) cooled and still runs a carburetor. There’s nothing flash about bike and it doesn’t even have a tachometer. If it’s not necessary, it’s not on the bike. Despite this, it’s still a huge seller. It remains New Zealand’s most stolen motorcycle.
FIT FOR PURPOSE
The clincher is all these bikes are pretty good at what they’re supposed to do. Word-of-mouth overtook paid advertising long ago and, if you own a Kawasaki KLR650 for example, you’re likely to recommend it to your mates.
The Ulysses Club is full of Yamaha XV650s because of the bike’s combination of a low seat height, maintenance-friendly shaft drive, useful power and unkillable engine. The sales reports from the FCAI had the XV650 as the top selling cruiser for years on end. In fact, in the top ten list, it was usually followed by nine Harley-Davidson models. It lost its ranking recently with the introduction of the H-D 500 but its legend will live on.
Yamaha’s SR500/400 model has always done what it says on the box and is the preferred host bike for hundreds of custom bike builders. ‘The Big Single’ has iconic status and, despite the SR500 only being officially available in Australia between 1978 and 1982, the SR500 Club of Australia is one of the healthiest clubs around.
THE SMALL PRINT
To be included in this list, we set a few loose rules. None of the bikes have remained completely unchanged since their introduction. We’ve allowed for changes in the paint scheme, minor bodywork changes and unavoidables like the switch from carbs to EFI.
We’ve also allowed for minor mechanical changes as long as the finished product hasn’t moved too far from the original concept. To qualify as a Seven Wonder, the bike has to be available now in some world market. Suzuki’s GS500 was deleted from the Australian market a few years ago but is still being sold in South America. Yamaha’s SR400 just sneaks in as production was discontinued in 2018 but is set to return in Euro 5 form when Yamaha’s engineers can work out how to meet emission targets. Pour yourself a drink, sit back and enjoy the show…
STRONGEST MOTORCYCLES: HONDA SUPER CUB
Whatever happens to motorcycles with internal combustion engines in the future will never take away the significance of the Honda Super Cub. The ‘Super’ name was used from 1958 to differentiate this model from the original Cub which was an engine in a bicycle frame first released in 1952.
Early Super Cubs (1958 – ’64) used a pushrod overhead valve engine which was replaced in ’64 by an overhead cam engine. This engine with some minor alterations is still in production in around 20 countries and its claimed 3.6kW has carried the weight of the world not just in developing countries but in major markets including the US and Europe.
The profile of the underbone chassis has remained very similar across all the versions of the Super Cub, particularly the step-thrus. Australians are most familiar with the C50, the C70 and the C90 models which sold in vast numbers. The number (50, 70, 90) is roughly the capacity of the engine but the design is the same.
Variations on the basic theme go down myriad tracks but the 50cc version has always been produced either by Honda itself in Japan or under licence elsewhere. The prized bikes are the made-in-Japan models and Honda occasionally dusts off the old production line and produces limited runs to celebrate milestones in the company’s history. These tend to be snapped up by Asian collectors (of which there are increasing numbers). This year will be 62 years of production and, wait for it, a combined total of well over 100,000,000 sales. Yes, one hundred million.
An electric-start variation (C102) was introduced in 1960 but attracted little interest as it was so easy to use the kick-starter. If you find a ‘60s C50, chances are the teeth on the kick-starter spline will be worn away but nobody cared as the way to start the bike all over Asia is to turn the ignition key on, put the bike in second gear and push it to walking pace. From 1982, the engine got capacitor discharge ignition (CDI) to replace contact points ignition, making starting even easier.
New Chinese-made C50s are available across Asia for around AU$500. Copies of the ‘70s C70 made in Thailand are available new for $700 and Honda-branded C110s (usually called ‘Dreams’ will set you back $1200.
If ever there was a bike that changed the world, this was it – and we haven’t seen the end of it yet.
Honda C50 1958 —
Price then: $380
Price now: N/A
Engine: Single cylinder four-stroke
Transmission: Three-speed semi-automatic
Final drive: Chain
Top speed: 70km/h (downhill)
Why it survived: Who doesn’t want cheap, reliable and versatile transport, particularly in crowded cities or if you have to transport a live cow?
STRONGEST MOTORCYCLES: YAMAHA 535/XV650
It was inevitable that Japanese manufacturers would eventually want a bigger slice of the giant US market which was, in the early ‘80s, dominated by Harley-Davidson. Early attempts at Japanese-built cruisers almost started a race war and Japan-built bikes are still commonly called metric cruisers.
Yamaha got in early with its Virago range which was popular due largely to the credibility of Japanese engineering but which had styling which didn’t resonate with cruiser buyers.
The introduction of the XV535 in 1987 had more to do with tariffs on bikes over 700cc in America than anything else but it morphed quickly into the DragStar 650. The 535 engine was bored an extra 5mm and stroked 4mm to achieve a displacement of 649cc.
It was an entry level machine but looked more like an American cruiser than earlier Virago attempts. It’s not clear what Yamaha expected from the bike in terms of sales but it really resonated with the buying public. A list price of $6500 got the ball rolling but shaft-drive, a low seat height and unintimidating power added to its appeal and it became a steady seller.
It got a boost with the introduction of the Learner Approved Motorcycle Scheme (LAMS) where it suddenly became the hero of the available cruisers and Yamaha has continued to produce it in a largely unchanged state.
Its scene is the city and it’s faster from one set of lights to the next than just about any car currently sold in Australia. The giant rear tyre won’t break traction and a 1610mm wheelbase keeps the front wheel on the ground even under extreme provocation. You can be quick on it without having to know how to control power slides or wheelstands.
The fact that it runs out of puff from 120km/h up to its practical top speed of 140km/h doesn’t bother its owners in the slightest and its biggest marketing now is word-of-mouth.
New starters and returning riders love it. While LAMS continues, it will be a very long time until the sun sets on its production.
Yamaha XV650 1987 —
Price then: $6499
Price now: from $10,599 ride-away
Engine: 649cc V-twin, four-stroke with liquid cooling
Final drive: Shaft
Top speed: 140km/h
Why it survived: Beginners and returners want the looks without being intimidated by the seat height and performance. Who knew?
STRONGEST MOTORCYCLES: SUZUKI GS500
Suzuki produced a number of smaller-capacity twins as entry-level bikes before the 1988 introduction of the GS500. Its direct ancestor was the GS450 which broke traditional ‘GS’ rules by incorporating a one-piece, 180 degree crankshaft running on plain bearings. It was eventually bored out to 487cc before it found itself in the brand new frame and running gear of the GS500.
The GS500 was immediately popular with learners and while small changes were made over the years, it remained essentially the same bike. The biggest changes came in 2001 with new bodywork and a bigger fuel tank (20 litres).
Pulsed secondary air injection was introduced around the same time as a response to tightening emission laws but the GS500 soldiered on in less sensitive markets (including Australia) and stayed the same basically because it did all the things its owners wanted without breaking the bank.
A faired version of the GS500, the GS500F, extended the model’s life with the addition of an oil cooler and, for some markets, a catalytic converter.
As is often the case with bikes like this, it wasn’t highly regarded by enthusiasts, purists and the motorcycle media but sales remained steady. It was slower and less civilized than most of its competitors and emission control equipment dragged further on its performance. Judged on its own, though, it had fine handling, good brakes and enough power to get it to a top speed of around 170km/h.
The GS500 makes our list as it’s still being produced by Suzuki Motor de Columbia (South America) for local and South American export markets.
Suzuki GS500 1988 —
Price then: $5000
Price now: N/A
Engine: Twin cylinder, four stroke, two-valves-per-cylinder
Final drive: Chain
Top speed: 170km/h (approx)
Why it survived: Priced right and served its market faithfully.
STRONGEST MOTORCYCLES: YAMAHA SR500
It’s hard to know where to start with the Yamaha 500. The rest of the world had been begging a Japanese manufacturer to make a traditional 500cc Single after the Brit motorcycle industry dropped the ball. What everyone had in mind was a reliable, vibration-free Manx Norton which didn’t leak oil. Instead, they got a slightly odd-looking bike that only had kick-start and ran out of energy at 140km/h.
It was based on the now-legendary Yamaha XT500 which had been a huge sales success for Yamaha. The SR500 created a mild flutter in showrooms in Australia but demand died so quickly that it was deleted from Yamaha Australia’s imports just four years after it first appeared.
Meanwhile, the Germans loved it and it hovered in the top three best-selling bike lists for many years. The Japanese loved it as well but the country’s registration and licencing regulations meant it had to be a 400 rather than a 500. Because the 400 revved a little harder, there wasn’t much difference in the performance but the 500 always had more relaxed torque.
The changes to the SR500 from 1978 until it ceased production in 1999 were minor with an 18” front wheel replacing the original 19” in ’85 and various carburetor and electrical component changes to allow for supply issues and constant headlight usage.
The SR400 continued in production and many made it to Australia as ‘grey’ imports to be used as host bikes for café racer projects. They were the original blank canvas for imaginative amateur designers who wanted a simple bike on which to impose their art.
The environment police got to the SR400 in 2010 when it lost its carb to EFI although, in this case, there was a slight improvement in performance. Secret Yamaha engineering documents have detailed how hard it was to introduce EFI while still retaining a kick-starter. In its 50 year history, the SR500/400 never had an electric start. One engineer, full of pride, wrote that the EFI bike was almost as hard to start as the carburetor model – a significant achievement.
As is the way of the eccentric, SR500/400 owners love their bikes. Deus in Sydney did the pricing of older models no favours by making them hugely fashionable. Deus made specials out of them and sold them to international celebrities for upwards of $20,000.
Yamaha Australia has sold its existing stock of SR400s so you can’t buy one new at the moment. Production has ceased in Japan until Yamaha can work out how to get an air-cooled, single-cylinder engine to comply with Euro 5 and beyond. Pleasingly, Yamaha is actually working on it.
Yamaha SR500/400 1978 —
Price then: $1699
Price now: $8099 (discontinued Australian price for SR400)
Engine: Single cylinder four-stroke
Final drive: Chain
Top speed: 140km/h
Why it survived: It was originally the bike for those lamenting the demise of the Brit Single but not wanting the oil leaks. Over time it became the favourite host bike for custom builders.
STRONGEST MOTORCYCLES: SUZUKI LS650
This model is know in various locations as the Savage, Boulevard or S40 and is possibly the weirdest bike ever to have survived the passage of time. It appeared first in 1986 and was a drug-induced attempt to make a Japanese chopper. Choppers were, at the time, all V-Twins so a single-cylinder chopper was out of left field.
Australia hated it but NZ thought it was okay and it’s been available in that market almost since its introduction. It’s only been recently available again in Aussie.
Australia and NZ never saw it but there was a road-going version of this bike in a 400cc form for the Japanese market. Ignoring everything else, the engine was a thing of beauty. It’s been used in specials and custom frames almost since its inception.
Like all choppers, it had a low seat height (700mm) and a sit-up-and-beg riding position. When you consider the deficiencies of the Yamaha SR500, it seems a shame Suzuki never made a proper café racer version using this engine. It met fierce competition at its launch from V-twin and parallel twin models from Kawasaki, Honda and Yamaha but it’s the only bike from the bunch still available.
One reason is its displacement. It’s a proper 650 and it has the admired features of single cylinder engines including a single overhead cam and air cooling. It’s simple and sweet but has the potential of a 15 second quarter-mile time. That’s admirable from 31hp as is its top speed of 140km/h.
It’s hard to understand why Suzuki has persevered with the S40 but it’s an easy bike to ride, is LAMS compatible and provides a unique riding experience. It’s a city bike, for sure, and still clearly fills a market niche. Not bad, is it, when you can make a bike in 1986 which is still available virtually unchanged in 2018.
Suzuki Boulevard S40 1986 —
Price then: $5699
Price now: $8290 ride-away
Engine: Single cylinder four-stroke, 652cc. four valves
Transmission: Four-speed (until 1993) then five-speed
Final drive: Chain
Top speed: 140km/h
Why it survived: It’s never been a big seller but it appeals to those who want to be different. There’s absolutely nothing else like it in the current marketplace.
STRONGEST MOTORCYCLES: YAMAHA XV250 VIRAGO
We’re not even sure where this quote comes from but it reflects the consumer view of a bike that’s been around forever and is still introducing new riders to motorcycling.
“The bike offers excellent comfort for a machine of its size with a lightweight build and a low, reassuring seat. The 249cc air-cooled V-twin provides great punch which makes two-up riding a breeze. Add in saddlebags and a windscreen and you’re also good to ride that extra mile on overnight trips and highway hauls.”
The seat height is actually 686mm which is, indeed, low, and would suit shorter learners. For Australian riders, the idea that it’s a two-up tourer is laughable but that hasn’t stopped the XV250 Virago from establishing itself as a learner bike of choice almost since its inception. It’s undoubtably easy to ride and it’s obviously attractive to parents who are guiding their kids on to road bikes for the first time.
Apart from graphics, the bike has barely changed since its inception and it’s unlikely to do so in the near future. Chances are that new buyers will stick with it but eventually move on to bigger cruisers. Yamaha has plenty on offer.
The ride experience on the 250 will depend on if you’ve ridden before. It’s a shock to experienced riders but, clearly, new entrants bond to it easily and if you want proof, check the used prices of the model – they keep their value.
This model has survived because it’s arguably the easiest way into riding and it will remain so unless its competitors commit to a similar strategy. We won’t be surprised if the same XV250 is still available in 2030.
Yamaha XV250 Virago 1988 —
Price then: $4389
Price now: $8349 ride-away
Engine: V-twin 249cc four-stroke
Final drive: Chain
Top speed: 125km/h
Why it survived: It presented a H-D cruiser image for a sector of the market that couldn’t or wouldn’t take the serious step. It was also an easy entry point for learners.
STRONGEST MOTORCYCLES: KAWASAKI KLR650
The KLR650 sneaks into the Seven Wonders list despite an upgrade in 2008 which makes it a different bike to the one available from 1987. Anyone who doesn’t know the bike wouldn’t have noticed, though, so it’s still a survivor in the Seven Wonders class.
Based on the KLR600 which was released in 1984, the KLR 650 was advanced for its time with liquid cooling. The market was spooked by this at the time with BIKE Australia magazine reporting on a comparo test that the coolant developed a leak which was impossible with the competition which included the Yamaha XT600. At the time, air-cooling was as complicated as anyone wanted to get.
The KLR survived the embarrassment and developed a niche in the public mind as a strong, comfortable and reliable mixed-terrain tourer. In fact, it’s never looked back.
It’s a little hard to keep track of the KLR650 as it was, for a time, called the Tengai which is Japanese for ‘the end of the sky’. The C model had better suspension for off-road riding and the E model had some engine revisions to increase power. The E had a frame-mounted mini-fairing as well which enhanced its touring capabilities.
The KLR has always been compare with the Suzuki DR650 and adventure travelers have had to decide between the two. The DR was often preferred because of its simple specifications and robust construction but improvements to the KLR over time have made it a better bike for endurance riding. It still trails the DR in the sales race but both occupy the lower price end of the market and both are excellent value for money.
INFO MOTO has compared the bikes on a number of occasions and the Kawasaki has always come out as being the most comfortable. The DR, however, has always been a bit cheaper and has the trust of consumers for its durability.
The fact remains that the KLR650, after 33 years, is still a great ride at a great price. As reported by us recently, there’s a new KLR650 ready to hit the showrooms. We won’t be surprised if it’s not much different to the current model.
Kawasaki KLR650 1987 —
Price then: $4699
Price now: $9234 ride-away (price may vary)
Engine: Single cylinder four-stroke 651cc
Final drive: Chain
Top speed: 150km/h
Why it survived: Cheap, reliable, good performance, liquid cooled and comfortable. Kawasaki will keep making this bike forever.