In a world where big four-strokes rule, it's nice occasionally to remember a time when real performance and handling came courtesy of small, light, lithe two-strokes, based as closely as possible on the Grand Prix bikes of the day. Emissions rules and the rise of the adventure bike culture might have sidelined them years ago, but there's still a place in the world for the single-minded nature of a sorted race-rep stroker. Here's our pick of the ones that had us vainly checking our bank balances this week.
Aprilia arrived late to the road-going two-stroke 250 party, but they had plenty of experience with their excellent 125s, and impressive results with their Grand Prix bikes. Trouble was, they didn't have an engine – the 125s were Rotax-based and the GP bikes' engines weren't easily adapted for production. The solution was to buy in engines from Suzuki, so the 1995 RS250 got a reworked version of the 90° V-twin RGV250 engine. Bigger cylinder heads, more accurately machined barrels, a different ECU and more highly developed expansion chambers gave an extra 10% peak horsepower, which was nice, but what was even nicer was the rest of the package. The whole bike was designed to look as close to the GP Bikes as possible - frame, swing arm and bodywork look straight from the paddock. But it wasn't just looks - the handling and braking were racetrack-ready as well. Introduced in 1995, improved (ignition and carb changes giving a few extra bhp) in 1996, and again (revised pipes and higher rev ceiling, plus improved Showa suspension) in 1998, the RS continued on until emissions laws killed it off in 2003/4. 1998-on models are the ones to go for, and this 1999 version is one of the cleanest-looking we've seen lately. It's got 18k on the clocks, so might be due a top end refresh at some point soon, and we'd want to check the age of the tyres as it's come from a private collection, and we get the impression it's not been used lately. It comes with some very nice Scorpion expansion chambers and carbon tailpipes but is otherwise mercifully un-modified and unrestored. Crucially it comes with the original pipes so it can be put back to standard if required. Despite the rather terse and grumpy wording of the listing ("Time wasters and Bargain Hunters will not be entertained. NO PX!..."), this is definitely one we'd consider.
In this company, four grand looks like an absolute steal for an iconic 90s 2-stroke. And it is, sort of. For a start, it's not nineties – the KR-1 was the predecessor of the 90s KR-1S, and it's important not to get them mixed up. The KR-1 has more basic brakes, a ribbed frame (KR-1S is smooth) and skinny tyres (with an 18in rear to complicate tyre choice). It also came with lousy build quality and well-known reliability problems, not least a habit of eating its own piston rings when the retaining peg went walkies. The KR-1 was a short-lived model, so spares availability can be an issue – in particular crankshaft rebuild parts and bodywork. So you're advised to steer clear of basket cases. This one looks nice and clean though – it's a Japanese market B1 model (UK didn't get the KR-1 'til the following year's B2) and although it's not perfect, it is all there, which is important. It'll need a complete service, and we'd recommend stripping and greasing all the suspension pivots and bearings too – they're prone to seizure. You also need to check the engine to frame clearance -there's sometimes a gap. If there is, shim it, don't try and tighten the bolts further - you'll crack the frame. Although it's listed as a runner, we'd want to strip the engine and throw away the original SKE pistons – you can replace them with later ART versions, or get serious and use modified TZ250 pistons, but that's probably only worth it if you're going to tune the motor. Even in standard form though, the KR-1 was the fastest 250 of its day, making more than 200bhp per litre and easily out-gunning the RGV and TZR. Might be your last chance to pick up a pukka 2-stroke for this sort of money.
A couple of years ago you'd have said this was top money for an MC21, but the rise in 2-stroke race rep prices shows no signs of slowing down, so now it's looking like a bargain. All NSR250s are grey imports – they were never sold here officially – but there's still often a big difference between bikes which were brought in during the importing heyday of the early nineties, and those which have come in more recently. The latter tend to be lower mileage and more original. This is fresh off the boat (but UK registration is included in the price), and looks very, very clean and tidy, complete and original. That's important since spares are hard to come by and rescuing a tired or incomplete example can be either extremely expensive or simply impossible. Fortunately build-quality is exceptional, so keeping a good one looking and riding well isn't hard, although you will need to invest in the very best 2-stroke oil you can find.
It's sold with a full service, but we'd say that with 11,500 on the clock it's about due a top end rebuild just to keep it fresh. While we're at it, we'd be removing the Japanese-market restriction, which is a fairly simple mod to the ignition circuit and gives an extra 10bhp or so. We'd also fit new tyres to be on the safe side – the 21 has 17in wheels and there's plenty of choice of sticky rubber. Then we'd be off to a suspension specialist to get the shock and forks refreshed, and then we'd be off to a track day somewhere tight and twisty. Lovely.
The reverse cylinder TZR might have grabbed the headlines back in the day, but this V-twin version was the better bike. Based closely on Yamaha's excellent TZ250 privateer GP bike, the styling, handling and build quality are excellent. Crank problems aren't unknown on thrashed or neglected bikes though, and cranks aren't always easily rebuildable, unlike most two-strokes, due to the way the locating pins are designed. According to the seller though, this one 'starts and rides as it should' and with just 20,000km on the clock, it should be good for a while yet before needing serious attention, especially as we think this is still in standard, heavily restricted form, although there's nothing in the listing to say whether this one's been de-restricted or not.
It matters because the whole engine and ancillary package was developed for the low power output demanded by Japanese rules, so the good news is it rides very well in standard form, with more low- and mid-range power than you'd expect, it just lacks the real ripping two-stroke rush that we all crave. The bad news is that getting that rush isn't just a matter of snipping a wire to the CDi or knocking a washer out of the exhaust – it involves wholesale modification and replacement of major parts. If you really want to go mad, Sugo race kit parts are still available (see geckomotorcycles.co.uk) which can take power all the way up over 70bhp, although for the full effect, you also need the heads and cylinders from the SP version. All of which adds up to lots of cash, which is why we reckon this one's still standard - if it had a lot of trick bits, the seller (who clearly knows his 2-strokes) would be shouting about it, and asking a lot more than five grand...
Probably the least well-known of the 90s 2-strokes, the VJ23 is arguably the best. It shares virtually no parts with the previous VJ22 - even the engine went from a 90° cylinder layout on the 22, to 70° on the 23, allowing a more compact package. It was a full-on Sport Production spec, with dry clutch and close ratio gearbox, but also with electric start (previous RGVs were kick only). The VJ23 was only built in 1996 and 1997, and only around 2200 of them were produced, of which all but 360 were domestic market models like this one, restricted to 40bhp and 112mph. To get round the restriction you need a new CDi unit and some work on the exhausts and airbox – there's no indication in the listing whether that's been done to this bike, so we'd make that our first question, along with asking if the original brake calipers are with the bike (it's been pointlessly 'upgraded' to heavier, less efficient six pots...). The Lucky Strike paintjob is original, by the way – only a couple of hundred were produced in this scheme to celebrate Suzuki winning the prestigious All-Japan series in 1995. That makes it even more sought-after than the rather muted standard schemes, all of which helps to justify the rather salty price tag.
Ten grand's a lot of money for a 22-year-old bike, even one with only 6000 miles, but even if you have to rob, blackmail, kidnap or kill to raise the cash, just do it. It'll be worth the jail time, we promise.