Track days, tuning, dynos, R&D and knee-down: from the first FireBlade in 1992 to Triumph’s 2006 Daytona 675, it was a glorious decade-and-a-half of peak sportsbike. If you fancy dipping your toe back in, here are some cracking examples from the classifieds...
“The heady, hedonistic days of the 1990s feel like a dream – but if the motorcycling world has changed, the bikes that populated it back then haven’t”
The years between 1992 to 2006 were a good time to be a sportsbike nut (of whom there were many, back then). If the 1980s were mostly about evolving overgrown bicycles with engines into actual dynamic motorcycles – from big, hairy, air-cooled, bendy-framed, under-tyred and under-braked beasts to small, sleek, water-cooled, rigid-framed, radial-tyred and disc-braked water voles – then the next decade and a half would be about pursuing the philosophy, technology and marketing that powered that evolution to the extreme.
Bike development is, or was then, mostly iterative; a few steps forward in specific areas, released in a two-year cycle, as technology progresses – stronger and/or lighter materials, better performing components (like, tyres, brakes, suspension), smarter electronics, more efficient production. These feed, sometimes hand-in-hand with new engineering concepts or ideas, into more efficient or more powerful engines and/or optimised chassis dynamics.
But it usually manifests as a series of small steps – because a) that’s how new technology works, b) why blow all your advances in one go when you can string them out across a ten-year model plan, with each one bringing a sales uplift?
However, once in a while there’s a paradigm shift; more than just iconic, a new bike embodies a different way of thinking and changes the game for the industry and the public. Honda’s CB750 in 1969 did it. So did Yamaha’s RD250 and 350LCs in 1980, and Kawasaki’s 1984 GPZ900R – and, for the sake of balance, Suzuki’s 1985 GSX-R750F.
In the 1990s it was Honda’s turn again. The 1992 CBR900RR FireBlade defines the beginning of an era because its confluence of chassis design, engine development, motorcycle dynamics, production technology and material quality all took a generational leap to propel the Blade years beyond its predecessors, to a standard rivals took years to match and which some, frankly, never did (it’s arguable Honda themselves never bettered the original Blade in terms of design purity).
But not for want of trying – from YZF750 to R1, GSX-R750 SRAD to GSX-R1000, ZXR750 to ZX-10R, not to mention sports 600s and the sports technology overspill into sports tourers and roadsters – the Blade set the tone for the following 15 years, and sportsbike UK got into its stride. It was a crazy, heady time – we were young, we didn’t care as much, the roads were better and going faster was a simple, easily understood motivation to ride bikes – which kept getting faster too. The prevailing motorcycle culture in the UK, as well as the rest of Europe and North America, was sportsbike-centric and it felt then as if it always would be.
There were other genres of bike – crazy, WWII, flat-twin plodders from Germany (never catch on, don’t know why they bother), even more ancient and cheesy V-twin boat anchors from America, a lot of overpriced, largely underperforming and highly temperamental Italian exotica – and even a re-badged Kawasaki GPZ900R from a builder who bought a British bike name by accident (actually, it turned out Sir John had more than half a clue about creating a successful motorcycle company – one that contributing much to the later development of the sportsbike class and, towards the end, produced what could be called its crowning glory – the magnificent Triumph Daytona 675).
But post-2006 it all felt somehow downhill for sportsbike UK – even though bikes got faster and better-handling still, electronics and emissions legislation took over as the chief development story, penny-pinching robbed a level of lustre from sportsbike materials and finish, the credit crunch in 2008 pushed prices up overnight, and... we all know the story: we got older, roads got worse, traffic moved slower, speed cameras proliferated and sportsbikes just didn’t fit our riding lives any more. Suddenly, those German plodders didn’t seem quite so ludicrous.
So today, from the lofty perch of the latest adventure flagship, the heady, hedonistic days of the 1990s feel like a dream – but if the motorcycling world has changed, the bikes that populated it back then haven’t. They’re still there, some decaying and ready to restore, some gathering dust and waiting to go again for that last knee-down or that final autumn track day. And besides, nostalgia contains powerful anti-aging properties.
So for the benefit of the young-at-heart, here’s a trawl through today’s sportsbike classifieds, highlighting the best bikes for that feel-good 1992 – 2006 vibe. Go on, you know you want to.
“Big, sporty V-twins were a thing in the 1990s”
1999 • £3800 • 20,173 miles • dealer sale
Seller says: “In amazing condition, standard throughout, full service history.”
BikeSocial says: Look at the size of that end can! It’s like a wheelie bin. And the post box-red calipers! And the pair of kitchen sieves doubling as radiator fans. Aprilia’s original RSV Mille is nothing if not distinctive. And this one looks clean and original – unmolested, still on original Sachs rear shock, end can, rear hugger and indicators. The only visible accessories are the braided brake lines and carbon wrap on the forks, either covering up stone chipping, or preventing. Ten years ago a Mille in this nick would set you back between £3000 to £3500 from a dealer, so this one, at £3800, is pretty good for such a nice bike, especially considering how much prices have risen in the last five years.
Big, sporty V-twins were a thing in the 1990s. Long the exclusive preserve of Ducati, 1994’s 916 prompted manufacturers to design their own: Honda’s VTR1000 – and eventually SP1/2 – and Suzuki’s TL1000S and R both hit drawing boards around that time. But another Italian sports V-twin was in the offing too – in 1994 a Noale-based engineer called Mariano Floravanzo was tasked with designing a big, sporty road bike and potential World Superbike contender to take on the 916. He came up with a short-stroke, 128bhp 998cc, 60° V-twin in an aluminium beam frame – the company was Aprilia and the bike, after a lot of development, was the RSV Mille.
It landed with a small fanfare in 1998 and was often said to feel more Japanese than Italian – which, at the time, was a compliment. The V-twin (built by Rotax) was more civilised and flexible than its equivalent Ducati, and its Showa front and Sachs rear suspension more compliant. A massive twin-spar aluminium beam frame and swingarm sealed the difference. But the RSV wasn’t as pretty – red calipers, massive titanium end can, slabby styling and a clunky look to the clocks, cockpit and switchgear – so although it went well enough on 110bhp at the wheel, and handled well, it never quite took off as a must-have dream bike.
The Mille R in 2000 added Öhlins and forged Oz wheels (makes them sound like fakes!) with a bit of carbon, or the limited-edition Mille SP WSB homologation bike with a Cosworth-tunned motor and loads of trick bits. The Mille and R were overhauled in 2001 with more power, engine, brake and suspension mods, plus cosmetic and bodywork changes – and there were Nori Haga and Colin Edwards replica editions with a few uprated parts. There was another tweak in 2003 before the introduction of the RSV 1000 R in 2004.
Today, a sorted Mille is a cracking bike with a good balance of size and performance – it’s not the smallest sportsbike in the world so there’s a bit of room to move around (although the riding position is fairly hardcore), and 110bhp is enough to get some speed up but not get carried away. And although the thought of a 20-year-old Italian sportsbike might produce concerns over durability, know that Griff Woolley at Aprilia Performance in Tamworth (apworkshops.co.uk) is there to rescue your RSV, whatever the problem. He’s seen it all, and fixed it.
“Just a gorgeous thing to look at in the garage”
1995 • £4995 • 22,075 miles • dealer sale
Seller says: “Excellent condition; a very clean early FireBlade, rides and runs great. Original with low mileage, very usable, approaching classic status. Comes with Yoshimura silencer and original indicators.”
BikeSocial says: Oh go on then, if you must. Almost a cliché by now, everyone knows about Blades – where they came from, what they meant and their legacy. And just how good they were – and still are. Thankfully Honda sold a shed-load of them otherwise prices would be sky-high. This bike is the second-gen – the Foxeye – and an alternative colour to the bike usually associated with that model, the Urban Tiger. So it’s the same basic machine as the original 1992 bike – 893cc, around 110bhp at the wheel, with a couple of tweaks to the gearbox, suspension, headlight shape and a few other detail changes. In terms of rideability, it’s a bit more civilised; in terms of collectability, it’s not quite as sought-after as the original. The next gen, from 1996 to 1997, got a bigger motor to 918cc, a new frame and revised suspension, brakes and bodywork.
This particular Blade is a bit confused; the advert says it’s a 1995 N-reg (correct) but that it’s and RR-T model with a 918cc engine (incorrect). This bike is very much a 1995 RR-S – visually, it’s got a single-piece front hugger, bronze stanchions, holes in the belly pan, differences to the frame and engine covers, two slash vents in the seat unit and block chain adjusters compared to the 1996 RR-T model. Small differences, but important to a buyer. Not to mention the smaller engine.
But that notwithstanding, this Blade has much in its favour; it’s not been chopped about – if you’re looking for a keeper, get a standard bike (finding certain parts to get it back to stock is getting harder). This one even has its undertray – try finding one of those – and a clear screen. Components look in good condition too – barely any sign of corrosion or wear. In fact some it is very new – the front brake discs are mint and don’t match the condition of, say, the rear shock body. Honda’s build quality is good, but not that good.
But what a great bike to ride still, even now. I owned a 1996 model a few years ago, standard except for brilliant MCT-tuned suspension, and it felt like a fast, comfy sports tourer. Riding position not too radical, loads of ability to carry luggage (you should see the space under the pillion seat – why did manufacturers stop doing that?), gutsy, potent motor and just a gorgeous thing to look at in the garage. Wish I still had it…
“Unforgiving handling that felt like it’d flick you off for being not good enough”
2004 • £3399 • 25,683 miles • dealer sale
Seller says: “The perfect weekend fun toy, certainly a bucket-list bike for most, service history, only extra’s fitted: blue foot pegs, R&G engine bobbins, SXC-4 Sprint steering damper, Nitron rear, Maxton forks. Also comes with spare keys, Laser Hotcam rear silencer, service booklet, owner’s manual.”
BikeSocial says: the ultimate lairy litre sportsbike. Kawasaki’s responses to the 1992 FireBlade started in 1994 with the ZX-9R B model – a soft, comfy sportsbike that felt like a ZZ-R1100 in running shorts and weighed about the same. Then, in 1998, came a proper response with the ZX-9R C model – lighter, sharper, more aggressive. Unfortunately, it arrived alongside the new R1, which kinda overshadowed it. Kawasaki soldiered on, evolving the design until 2004 and the arrival of the first ZX-10R.
It was a total bastard of a bike. With new family styling by Shunji Tanaka, the ZX-10R looked annoyed right from the start. Fast, brutally powerful – 150bhp at the rear wheel – and with hard, sharp, unforgiving handling that felt like it’d flick you off for being not good enough, the first 10R was a handful. Lovely stuff. Now, it’s just a prime example of sporting purity, pre-electronics, pre-meaningful emissions regulations and pre-being nice about things. It’s a bike you need to respect – and maybe there aren’t enough of those these days.
This bike looks to be in pretty good condition – a few rusty bolts and corroding fasteners, and some bolt-on baddies like the blue knurled anodised footpegs – easy enough to return to stock – and wavy discs. The original bike, amazingly, didn’t have a steering damper so the Sprint damper can stay – and the Nitron rear shock and Maxton fork internals hint at someone trying to soften the chassis up; for all the bravado of owning such a hard-assed bike, that’s probably not a bad thing. Worth pre-booking a bed in Casualty, either way.
“One of the last great sportsbikes you’ll be able to restore in 20 years’ time without needing a degree in electronics”
2005 • £4695 • 3077 miles • dealer sale
Seller says: “A bike we’ve known/serviced and MOT’d since September 2015 (and 2600 miles). It really is in outstanding condition for its year, with MOT history dating back to October 2008 (and 1400 miles). Comes with handbook, service book, spare keys and all alarm fobs and paperwork.”
BikeSocial says: the K4 and K5 GSX-R-750 might be the most perfectly balanced sportsbike ever built. The GSX-R1000 K5 gets all the classic sportsbike nods – and prices reflect that; you can get them (or the K6) for less than five grand, but they start to get a bit covered in the kind of tat you’d only have to take off and replace or it’ll make your teeth itch every time you ride it.
But the 2004/2005 750 (600 had the same chassis, smaller motor) is a peach. Like all GSX-Rs before, it went through multiple iterations to get here, arriving at a point with the motor making a sweet 140bhp and with some usable midrange, a light gearbox, perfect chassis poise and that classic flat, stable Suzuki GSX-R handling. It’s a classic shape too – no emissions plumbing to distract, just an engine, frame, wheels, tank, seat and exhaust. This is one of the last great sportsbikes you’ll be able to restore on a bench in your garage in 20 years’ time without needing a degree in electronics, a computer and a frickin' soldering iron.
This GSX-R is as stock as they get and with so few miles on it, it’s literally just run-in. No-one has fitted a double-bubble, or hacked the undertray for a tail ‘tidy’, or replaced the indicators with something that looks worse and stops working after a rain shower. You could fit good rubber and maybe new brake pads, turn up at Cadwell on a track day and absolutely rock it. Just like you could 17 years ago.
“It’s stunning to look at and intoxicating to ride fast”
2006 • £4000 • 24,000 miles • private sale
Seller says: “Just under 24000 miles. All MOT certificates, some service history, original manual and service book, two keys. New battery. Fantastic colour and carbon mix, gets lots of looks. Beautiful ride but I'm just not using her enough. Needs a good home.”
BikeSocial says: just as the FireBlade opened the book on sportsbike UK, in many ways Triumph’s Daytona 675 was the final chapter. There have been great sportsbikes since then – BMW S1000RR, Aprilia RSV4, Yamaha’s second gen crossplane R1, Suzuki GSX-R1000R, and apparently Ducati’s V4S Panigale is quite good. But although these bikes are continuing a tradition of sporting excitement, most riders in the UK have turned the other way and are looking for something else. And in that sense, the Daytona 675 marks the pinnacle not just of the sports 600, but Sportsbike UK as well.
And what a way to go out. The Daytona was a return to three cylinders by Triumph, after the 600 and 650cc inline four Daytonas – this was Hinckley staking out their triple territory. And how – every other previous attempt by the factory at building a contemporary sportsbike had ended up failing to convince. The T595 Daytona in 1997 contained much current thinking as well as nods to legends of the past – fuel injection, single-sided swingarm, oval section tubular alloy frame, DZUS fasteners. But the engine was too heavy, not powerful enough and the chassis too steady to pull it off. Nice, but no cigar.
The 675 changed that. Sharp, styled to die for, dripping in spartan design economy and producing class leading performance (thanks to its cheaty extra capacity no-one cared about), the Daytona was it: light, agile, explosively rapid and with a beautifully balanced dynamic. It’s stunning to look at and intoxicating to ride fast.
And it still looks divine today, especially in Scorched Yellow (although Graphite looked elegant and Tornado Red was cheap but fast). This bike has a fair few miles on it, but it looks cared-for. The Arrow underseat exhaust was a factory accessory and the seat looks aftermarket (same twin-shape as the original; could be a factory option comfy seat). The carbon seat unit looks okay but be nice if the seller has the original. And the missing fairing bolt. But the main thing is the look of the bike – who wouldn’t want one of these in their garage?
“Who can complain about that sparkling preponderance of sheet and extruded aluminium?”
2001 • £4999• 18,274 miles • dealer sale
Seller says: “Registered Sept 2001 with 4 keepers and just 18,274 miles on the clock, both keys and books are present with service book. Mot until Apr 2023.”
BikeSocial says: okay, so you can’t get a 1998 R1 for less than five grand – not a good one. Even a bad one is up there. But you can get a decent second gen bike, just – and it’s dynamically much better than the slightly wonky original, while still retaining the classic R1 shape and exhaust (titanium end can, not carbon now – and pre-underseat). Over 150 updates included a better gearbox, revised carbs, more efficient engine with a hint more performance, revised suspension and tweaks to the frame and steering geometry to add more weight to the front end and calm instability. The result was a much nicer, less stressful ride – but which meant, of course, you could simply go faster for the same level of effort. Result. Cracking bike.
This one looks cracking too – standard apart from Oxford heated grips which, as any sensible sportsbike rider will tell you, extends the comfortable riding season of the bike by a few months either side of the annual heatwave. Maybe it’s an age and circulation thing, but the older I get the more I value keeping me digits toasty no matter what I’m riding or when I’m riding it. Anyway, there are worse crimes, and none are bolted to this bike: stock can, stock screen, no unsightly crash bungs or crap brake and clutch levers. A colour-coded rear hugger is the only concession to dubious taste. And someone’s done a deep clean on the bike – the rear sprocket shows it wasn’t always as minty as it looks now, but who can complain about that sparkling preponderance of sheet and extruded aluminium?
1998 • £n/a • 30,995 miles • private sale
Seller says: “In nice condition with a few age-related marks and battle scars from previous owners. 10 months MOT, rides how it should, gears and clutch good, aftermarket carbon end can and steering damper. Also comes with original end can; a well-kept bike priced to sell as the back’s not as good as it used to be and something a bit more upright calls.”
BikeSocial says: love an early ZX-6R, especially in red (the proper colour for Kawasaki road sportsbikes – don’t remember GPZs being green, eh?). This one has the expected wear and tear, but nothing too criminal and, as ever, the standard look of the bike is a bonus. Don’t expect modern performance; in the day it was 165mph fast (and quicker off the line than most 750s) but I rode mint one a few years ago and the gearbox, although sound, was clunky and suspension felt pretty stiff and unresponsive. Nothing a set of cush rubbers and a suspension service wouldn’t fix. And maybe swingarm, wheel and head bearings. And then balance the carbs, change the cables, bit of tlc. But make it nice, and you won’t stop riding it. Oh, and change the screen.
2005 • £4100 • 22,000 miles • private sale
Seller says: “Excellent condition, Factory model comes with fully adjustable Öhlins shock, lightweight forged OZ wheels and carbon trim. All servicing during my ownership has been at Aprilia Performance, Tamworth.”
BikeSocial says: Uprated second-gen (ish, depends how you count them) revamp of the RSV brought a revised 60° V-twin making a claimed 139bhp, with less weight and numerous chassis and styling tweaks. Slimmer, lighter, faster – the RSV 1000 R is perhaps less collectable than an original Mille, but it’s a much better motorbike dynamically.
The Factory version of the RSV 1000 R is even better, adding a raft of brand name components including radial Brembo calipers, lightweight forged OZ wheels, Öhlins forks, shock and steering damper, braided lines, carbon hugger and fairing parts and aluminium steering stem. It all saves weight and makes the Factory even sweeter handling.
The Factory was launched at the heavenly Mugello race circuit in Tuscany in 2004 – and it was a full-factory launch, with each bike in the pitlane attended to by its own technician, ready to adjust tyre pressures and set up suspension exactly as the test rider wished. A bit like this bike – with few concessions to tinsel apart from aftermarket levers and crash bungs (has it been used for a few track days? Be rude not to), it looks standard – still on stock cans, too. And best of all, the owner says it’s been through Griff’s hands at Aprilia Performance – always a good sign.
2002 • £4500 • 11,600 miles • private sale
Seller says: “Not covered many miles in the last few years. New MOT, spark plugs changed last year. New fork stanchions and head bearings. Always maintained by Honda technicians in my ownership.”
BikeSocial says: Better than the similar, smaller-engined 929cc Blade that preceded it, and many would say nicer than the CBR1000RR that followed it. The 954 is the last the FireBlade’s original designer, Tadao Baba, had anything to do with – he was rumoured to have personally signed his name inside a few bikes’ fairings on the production line (here’s a pic – it’s not exactly a Sharpie, but it’s worth having on your bike).
954 Blades feel, today, like pokey sports 600s – they’re physically small; compact (but not cramped), nicely rapid without being crazily fast (130bhp is about right) – and still have the old 1990s Honda traits of smooth, finely tuned, clockwork mechanical precision about them.
What can’t you get for £5000? Pretty much any 916 variant or 999 variant. The only sports Ducati you see for less than £5k is the 749S or original Biposto, and maybe the odd 748. But they’re really best for restoration and admiration – observe scrupulous maintenance schedules and even then never seriously hammer the bike or chances very much are you’ll be looking at a hefty engine rebuild invoice. A 749 Ducati is not an Aprilia RSV Mille.
You also won’t be able to afford a Honda SP1 or SP2 – both the big V-twins are now in level flight well above that figure – and you can also pretty much forget about Yamaha’s 1998 R1. Original bikes – clean, stock UK runners with history – are now achieving crazy asking prices – seven or eight grand. You can still find grotty examples for much less, but it’d take some work to bring most of them back to life. Good winter project, perhaps. Or just watch TV instead.