Until recently ‘retro’ bikes were all 1960s-styled scramblers, café racers or roadsters such as Ducati’s novice-friendly Scrambler, Triumph’s hugely-popular Bonneville or Kawasaki’s sharply-styled W800 Café – but not anymore.
As we head from the 2010s into the 2020s, the retro ‘net’ is widening and as times moves on and bikers get older there’s a new era that’s gaining resonance – the 1970s.
Ducati started the ball rolling with its Desert Sled, a 1970s trail bike-styled version of its popular, novice-friendly, retro V-twin taking inspiration from Yamaha’s game-changing XT500 trail bike launched in 1975. More recently, Yamaha themselves launched their own ‘XT-alike’, the XSR700 XTribute.
But this ‘70s revival is not all just about vintage ‘mud pluggers’. Classic Japanese four-cylinder bikes are represented by Suzuki’s most eagerly awaited bike of 2019 – its new Katana – plus Honda’s new special edition version of its CB1100, the RS5Four. Kawasaki, too, has recreated one of its classic 1970s superbikes, in this case the legendary Z1 900, with its great-looking Z900RS.
And there are plenty of other European marques that have got in on this ‘70s act this year, too. Morini’s new Milano has been styled to evoke its classic 3 ½ Sport while even BMW, who arguably set the whole retro roadster scene rolling with its first R nineT in 2014, have adopted a 1970s theme with its latest variant, the R nineT /5 as inspired by the R75/5 launched in 1969 which went on to become the Bavarian marque’s benchmark bike through the first half of the seventies.
So, with so many ‘1970s throwbacks’ now available, the questions are: what’s out there? What do you get for your money? And which are the best? Here’s our round up of 10 of the current best, to help you decide…
OK, it may be a little left field, but no bike also better represents the early 1970s than Honda’s original, small-wheeled fun bike, the Monkey – and last year Big H launched this retro-styled re-interpretation based on its brilliant MSX125 mini-bike. That bike, launched in 2014 and also known as the Grom, has cutesy 12-inch wheels, a 9.6bhp, aircooled, 125cc single-cylinder motor and is so easy to ride and so much fun (on short hops, admittedly) it became a huge, cult hit. But with the Monkey 125 Honda have gone a stage further by using MSX mechanicals but with new tank, seat, handlebars, clocks, headlamp and more inspired by the classic 1970s Monkey. Purists will tell you, of course, that the original Honda Monkey bike was the Z50 series from the mid-1960s and which took off after being introduced into the US in 1968. Most Brits, however, think of Honda’s Monkey bikes as starting with its ‘Dax’ series of 50s, 70s and 90cc two-stroke machines, distinguished by their pressed steel frames, which became hugely popular from 1969 through to 1981 – hence the ‘70s connection here.
But, although the newcomer is now 125cc and four-stroke, its spirit very much remains the same. Light, low and small it’s easy to ride. There’s a four-speed gearbox; it’s nippy enough around town; its ‘70s looks are authentic and classy; everything works as a Honda should and, best of all, it immediately raises a smile both for the rider and everyone who sees it – and isn’t that what retro motorcycling should be all about?
Inspired by Yamaha’s classic 1975 XT500 trail bike, the machine which was the original ‘big bore’ thumper dual purpose machine in turn leading to the likes of Honda’s XL500 and even BMW’s R80G/S, the new-for-2019 XTribute has a lot going for it. As it’s based on the already brilliant Yamaha XSR700 (in turn derived from the MT-07 roadster) it's dynamically proven and great value. The 75bhp parallel twin is grunty and flexible and its chassis, though a little budget, engaging and versatile. The XSR’s added retro styling touches brought a different tank, seat, bars, headlamp etc which brought an attractive retro styling touch while this XTribute version goes further still with more specific XT elements such as its trail bike handlebars, chunky footrests and fork gaiters, XT-alike gold rims and paintjob and slightly taller seat. Cynics may argue that, for your extra £850 over the XSR you’re not getting that much and, as it’s in no way a true trail bike, the XT elements are a bit superficial. But the other way of looking at it is that it’s a great, all-round road performer with more charming retro ‘70s style than ever and still, for such an exclusive machine, at a very tempting price.
When Ducati first introduced its all-new, retro-inspired, novice-friendly Scrambler family in 2015 they proved an immediate hit with fashion conscious-types wanting an accessible, affordable V-twin Ducati with bags of retro style. But it was the 1970s trail bike-styled Desert Sled version, which arrived in 2017, which immediately appealed most to more experienced riders due to its all-round larger proportions and more aggressive style which came via its longer travel suspension, extended swing arm, larger, off-road wire wheels. What’s more its XT-alike 1970s styling was, for many, the most convincing; with 75bhp and easy but credible handling, it proved, for many, the best mix of performance, handling and versatility and, although more expensive than some of its siblings, it remained great value, too.
Better still, it’s been updated significantly for 2019 gaining new LED lights, a red-finished frame, an extra, off-road riding mode, improved switchgear and instruments, new headlight grille, braced handlebars, seat and even knobblier Pirelli Scorpion Rally ST tyres. If you want 1970s style but in an affordable, Ducati V-twin package, they don’t get any better.
If your idea of a 1970s retro bike is a big Japanese four-cylinder they don’t come more authentic than Honda’s CB1100 ¬– and now with this new, special edition RS5Four version, it’s more distinctive, aggressive and evocative than ever.
Although the base CB1100, first introduced to the UK in 2013, with its sublimely authentic and brilliantly smooth, 88bhp air-cooled four, has gained friends for its style and quality, especially since its 2017 makeover, it’s also still considered a little soft and sensible. But this new, limited edition, built in cooperation with Honda UK by customisers 5Four Motorcycles, changes that. It’s based on the RS version (which has sportier 17in wheels and improved suspension and brakes compared to the classic standard variant) and then given even more ‘edge’ with a restyle inspired by Honda’s factory ‘RSC’ endurance racers of the late 1970s. So, there’s a new, handcrafted aluminium headlight shroud and seat unit, Renthal bars, Tommaselli grips, slimline mirrors, Racefit 4:2 exhaust and hand-stitched Alcantara leather seat, all rounded off, of course, in Honda racing red – all the sort of stuff, in fact, any self-respecting loon would have done to their CB900F in 1979. Just 54 are being built and you can order via your normal Honda dealer but be quick, 1970s retro fours don’t get any more racy.
OK, we may be taking a few liberties with the exact dates here – the first original Suzuki Katana actually came out in 1981 – but surely there’s no more evocative Japanese biking name from the era (or distinctive style) than that of the special, silver Suzukis named after a soldier’s sword.
Those original Katanas, of course, were radical restyles of Suzuki’s then 1100 and 750 GSX four-cylinder superbikes (there was also racing homologation special 1000cc version, plus some softer-styled 650 and 550s) and created by Target Design in Germany So although the engine and chassis was contemporary its sharply styled bodywork looked like something from a sci-fi film. As such, today they’re considered modern classic in their own right.
Suzuki’s new homage to those bikes follows a similar recipe without intending to be an exact replica. Based on the competent GSX-S1000 sports-tourer complete with smooth and meaty, detuned 2008 GSX-R1000 four-cylinder engine producing 148bhp, it, too, has all-new Katana-inspired looks. It’s neatly and strikingly done, too: There’s a new, angular half-fairing, tank and seat (although nowhere near as extreme as the original) which gives a slightly taller, more aggressive riding position than the stock GSX-S; uprated radially-mounted Brembo brakes; LED lights all round; a swanky new digital dash; tweaked suspension and lots of neat styling touches, not least the retro silver livery complete with ‘80s-style red graphics. The ride, naturally enough, is much akin to the GSX-S, although weather protection and range is actually worse due to the new bodywork. But if you can live with that, the new Katana, for a £900 premium over the GSX-S, has nearly all of that bike’s decent all-round ability but with a huge extra dollop of retro style, class and exclusivity.
Originally launched in 2017, the 1970s-styled Z900RS has proved one of the best and most popular of all retro roadsters and is updated again for 2020 with some new colourschemes.
That popularity is undoubtedly due to the RS being based on the already capable 109bhp, 948cc four-cylinder Z900 but given a thorough 1970s, Z1-mimicking makeover with new bodywork, wire-aping cast wheels, round clocks, ‘duck bill’ tailpiece, ribbed seat, oval tail light and more which together is more than good enough to fool a casual observer. On top of all that, at under £10K, the RS remains temptingly affordable; there’s a half-faired café racer version (called the Café) for £350 more while for 2020, there’s two new colour ways available which craftily mimic the style of the 1973 Z1A, the bike that replaced the 1972 Z1. The result not only looks more authentic than most retros (at least it does if you can ignore the modern, liquid-cooled engine and monoshock rear suspension) it rides better, is smooth and fast as only a four-cylinder can be and yet remains temptingly priced, as well.
Yes, we know what you’re thinking: ALL Harleys are retro throwbacks of some kind and to a degree that’s true, although most hark back more to the ‘50s.
But the new-for-2018 1200cc version of its popular Iron Sportster is one of the first Harleys to specifically cast a nod back to the ‘70s – most particularly with the lurid paintjob on its ‘peanut’ fuel tank whose stripes and bold graphics have been designed to commemorate those of the early 1970s when H-D was under controversial AMF ownership.
It’s a decent enough attempt, too, although it has to be said that the rest of the bike, despite using the better 1200cc version of Harley’s small-block Sportster V-twin, can’t match the appeal of its little brother. Yes, the Iron’s characteristic blacked-out and pared down looks are all there and the 1200, too, is reasonably affordable, but its higher ‘mini ape hanger’ handle bars are awkward and unnecessary on such a small bike and its oddball nose-cowling neither serves any real function or, in our view, adds to the look of the bike. ‘70s-style tank ‘art’, however, doesn’t get much better.
Revived Italian firm Morini may still seemingly be stumbling from pillar to post commercially, ever since its relaunch in the mid-Noughties with a range of dramatic, potent V-twins fizzled out, but encouragingly it lives on today and its latest, this Milano, is a 1970s-style retro based around its Corsaro 1200 super naked.
Styling cues are taken from Morini’s classic 31/2 Sport from the 1970s and there’s a new tank, sidepanels and seat to go with its dramatic red and black livery but the rest, including alloy wheels, monoshock rear, Brembo radial calipers and colour TFT clocks are bang up to date. Although the big V-twin’s been detuned to 114bhp performance is in no way lacking and with quality cycle parts and a tubular steel trellis frame it has the handling to match. An initial limited edition version restricted to just 30 bikes and featuring hand-stitched saddle, special paint, numbered plaque and posh accessories went on sale first for a whopping £15,950. But the standard production version is imminent at a far more reasonable £13,700.
Fantic are another revived Italian manufacturer most famous, this time, for its off-road and trail bikes during the 1970s – a heritage celebrated brilliantly by its new, retro Caballero family.
Three variants are available: the high front mudguard, off-road able Rally, more street, low front mudguard Scrambler and US-themed Flat Track, but all are essentially the same bike. The Rally is only currently available as a 500 whereas the Scrambler and Flat Track can also be had as a 125 or 250.
All are based around a Chinese-built, liquid-cooled single which, in 500 (449cc) form produces a perky 43bhp while the chassis and styling is a pleasing mix of old and new blending inverted forks with wire wheels, a ribbed seat, yellow number boards and more. Simple, easy and fun to ride its nearer Ducati Scramblers than other Chinese bikes both to ride and admire; it looks great, is reasonably well built is great fun around town or on quiet B-roads and, best of all, is significantly cheaper than all retros from the likes of Triumph or Ducati yet still has a credible name on its tank.
We’ve left what is, in our view, one of the best ‘70s throwbacks of all until last – in fact it’s still so new no official price has yet been released.
Yes, the new /5 limited edition is merely a slightly restyled version of BMW’s now long-established R nineT retro roadster. But as that bike is so good and as the /5 styling touches are so sweet we see no reason to hold back our praise.
The original R nineT, of course, first debuted in 2014 intended as a limited edition, retro-styled homage based on the older, 110bhp R1200R to mark 90 years of the BMW boxer – hence the name. However it proved so successful that it quickly went into volume production before spawning a whole family of variants, ranging from the basic, budget priced Pure to the half-faired Racer.
This /5 is the latest variant and has been produced, as its name suggests, to mark the 50th anniversary of the BMW /5 series of boxer twins as launched in 1969 and which proved so successful in the early 1970s – and particularly the range-topping R75/5.
So, on top of all the R nineT basics, like easy, modern, flexible boxer twin, decent Paralever chassis and modern brakes plus retro clocks, tank and detailing, the new /5 gets a R75-alike ‘Lupine’ blue paintjob, knee pads, fork gaiters, wire spoked wheels and lashings of chrome. A further special touch is a special badge on top of the tank.
Like all R nineTs the /5 is basically a modern bike with retro styling touches but it’s done so well that it’s almost beyond criticism. Besides, who doesn’t want modern BMW goodies such as heated grips and ASC (Automatic Stability Control)?