New motorcycles cost millions of dollars to develop, and for a short time, they are the best things ever. It doesn’t take long to fall out of fashion though, and they find their way into the small ads; home of the bargain hunter. By discovering what to look for, you can find some of the best cheap motorcycles you can buy.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, motorcycles were the poor man’s mode of transport. If you didn't have a family to lug around, motorcycles were cheap to buy and run, but most of all, they were cool.
This picture pretty much stayed the same for the next 70 years, but by the time the Japanese invasion was well under way, bikes had turned into superbikes. Bikes such as the Honda CB750 and Kawasaki Z1 900 turned the ordinary working guy’s transport into a two-wheeled status symbol with a price tag to match.
In the race for bigger and faster bikes, prices began to climb. When exotic looking machines from Italy and Germany joined the party, the poor man’s transport appeared to have gone forever.
Fashions and Buzz-Kills
Like everything in life though, fashions come and go, and buzz-kills like inflation, fuel increases, and hiked import tariffs seem determined to stop the fun. Most of the big players came to the decision that small and economical was once more the way to go and the middleweight motorcycle class became firmly established.
It’s all very nice taking a stroll down memory lane, but what the hell has this got to do with cheap bikes I hear you ask? Quite a lot in fact, particularly if you’re in the market for an inexpensive ride.
Over three decades of Japanese manufacturers trying to out-do each other has left behind a huge pool of decent bikes from the late 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. What’s more, if you're real smart and patient, you can even bag a more exotic European bargain.
However, it wouldn’t be a ‘how to’ article without a but! There are an awful lot of bear traps out there just waiting for an unsuspecting foot. So read on and discover which bikes are treasures, and which are better left buried.
To cover all bases, we are going to break things down into three groups; up to 500cc, 550cc-750cc, and 800cc-unlimited.
Up to 500cc
Motorcycles around the 125cc mark are not as popular in America as they are in Europe, but there’s plenty in the 250cc–500cc category. For this article let's check out eBay and Craigslist.
I imagine Honda, being the number one best seller, would have a plethora of cheap bikes out there, especially models like the 250cc Rebel. In reality though, Rebels are a little thin on the ground and seem to be holding their price well.
There are plenty of inexpensive Honda off-roaders, and this also goes for Suzuki, too. Roadsters like the Suzuki GS500 keep appearing but not in significantly high numbers.
The two makes and three models that make their presence known are the Yamaha XV250 and Kawasaki Vulcan 500 and Ninja 250. So let’s first take a look at Yams little V-twin.
The XV250 has been around under a number of different names (the Route 66, Virago and V Star) since 1988. Except for a few years of nonproduction in the early 90's, that's almost 25 years worth of bikes.
The model remains virtually unchanged through the years, so spares are cheap and interchangeable. There are also plenty of examples to choose from, and the bike’s stats speak for themselves.
The Micro-cruiser’s 249cc V-twin, single carb fed engine will give you well over 70 miles to every gallon. Although buzzy at interstate speeds, the engine is pretty bulletproof and owners tend to look after them cosmetically.
Seat height is low (27 inches) and with an all up weight of just over 320lbs, the bike is maneuverable and user-friendly. Expect to see good condition early examples for less than $1000, with the later V Star version coming in at around 2k.
Kawasaki made two models in this category, and the first is yet another cruiser. Making its entrance as the slightly bunched-up looking EN454 Ltd, cashing-in on the newly emerging cruiser class. Its revamp in name at least, to the Vulcan 500 didn’t take very long.
2007 Kawasaki Vulcan 500
The parallel twin engine being a lift from Kawasaki’s popular Ninja 500 came with a sixth gear to drop the revs down and a belt final drive. In 1996 the model got a significant facelift, becoming the Vulcan 500 Ltd and an engine re-tuned for more low-down torque.
If you don’t mind the quirkier looking early version, you can bag a bargain for well under a grand. The much cooler looking Ltd sell for anything from 1-2K.
As previously mentioned, Kawasaki came up with another contender for the cheap bang for buck category with the Ninja 500. This neat little bike with its half fairing may look sporty, but the riding position is comfortable, and the revy engine and nimble handling are well matched.
Kawasaki Ninja 500
Prices are dependent on condition, but you can pick up a good condition version for under 2K.
This category is great for anyone on the look-out for cheap wheels. This category is the start of the mid-range sports bike class with 600cc models from all the big four.
The 650cc is a classic size engine, and here you can choose from the Yamaha XV, Honda CB and Suzuki Katanas. A tricky engine size as some 650’s now fall into the dreaded ‘classic’ category such as Yam’s XS650, which commands silly money.
1974 Honda CB 750
The same goes for 750's; the early SOHC Honda CB750’s having achieved cult status, thus forcing the price upwards. With the likes of Kawasaki's Z750 and Yamaha's XS750 being left out in the shade.
This category is also where European bikes start making an appearance, but if you see a cheap Ducati Monster or 750SS, it’s probably best to keep walking.
Mega Bargain Dukes do find their way to the classifieds, but I’m willing to bet a cartload of Carbonara that they are 10 miles away from a major belt service ($1000). Don’t worry though, if you know what to look for there’s plenty of other bikes out there.
Let’s start with Suzuki, the DR600 recognized as being a dirt favorite for decades, are tough as old boots, and there are lots of tatty ones around. Because they aren't as popular as the Kawasaki KLR650, prices are nice and low, and if you're patient, you'll eventually find a clean one.
1985 Suzuki DR600
Insane or Mundane
Similarly, Suzuki's GSXR range are always popular mainly the 600 and 750, but their slightly less insane stablemates, the GSX-F 600 and 750, can usually be snapped-up for a song.
2007 Suzuki GSX-R750
The reason why is quite simply this, the softer engine tune, more upright riding position, and jelly-mold bodywork place them in the sports/tourer category. Who cares what we call them though? The engines are bulletproof, and 600's go for between $800-$1500.
It’s a similar story with Honda, with 750’s currently keeping their value but models including the Nighthawk can still be snapped-up for reasonable money. Look for a 700 version for even more savings.
The same goes for the middleweight cruisers; the 750 range in their many variants are still very popular bikes. Drop down a size though, and 600 Shadows with 30-40k on the clock, regularly fetch anything from $800-$1200.
2006 Honda Shadow
When it comes to Yamaha, keep a look-out for the Seca inline fours in either 600 or 750cc. These are good dependable bikes especially if looked after, as are the XJ models, of which the 700 is a bargain.
If you’re a Big K fan, the 750cc Vulcan with its gnarly looking V-twin cylinders and heads, failed to cut it in the cruiser category for some reason which is excellent news for all us frugal bikers. The late 80's/early 90's KZ750's similarly haven't made it on the ‘classic' list yet so are still a good prospect for those on a budget.
800cc and Above
With some thorough detective work and a bit of patience, this category is one that can give you pretty good bang for your buck. The 800cc category, however, has never been very popular except with Suzuki.
You may find the very occasional (Suzuki USA designed) XV800, but if someone calls it a ‘fast appreciating classic,’ laugh and run away. Alternatively, should you see an 800cc Marauder for under $1500 it may well be worth a look?
2003 Suzuki 800 Marauder
This model in my humble opinion is a far neater package than the Volusia or Intruder, and you can even squeeze a GSX1100 engine into a Marauder’s frame (yes, I did it, just don’t expect it to handle).
The only other contender in this engine size is the Honda Pacific Coast. The fully enclosed rounded bodywork and integral trunk gave it a kind of bath time toy appearance. Take a look under all the plastic, and you will discover an underwhelming bored out Honda Shadow V-twin. This bike is so uncool it’s almost hip and is a stress-free, cheap tourer.
Again 900cc, another odd size, represented by Honda Fireblade’s, Hinckley Triumphs and Ducati. Honda’s original superbike, the ‘blade’ sometimes comes in cheap, and the engine and cycle parts are solid. Stay away from the first generation models as they’re collectible and look for signs of heavy thrashing.
Hornet 900’s use a de-tuned Blade engine, and due to their somewhat bland styling, didn’t ever set the world on fire, so cheapies can be good value. The older CB900s can be inexpensive so try and find a regular 5-speed box version rather than the 10-speed version.
Beware the Sprag Clutch Bearing Gifts
The early 90’s saw a slew of triple cylinder Hinckley Triumphs make it to American shores. From the base model Trident to the tricked-out Super III and the cruiser styled Thunderbird, all offer a lot of motorcycle for the money. Beware though of hesitant starter motors, it usually means sprag clutch ($400 fix) problems.
Cheap Ducati’s do make it to the classifieds in the 900cc category, more often than not in the form of the 900 Monster or early 90’s 900SS. These are great bikes and full of character, but with a major service every 7500 miles costing around a grand, owners usually bail just before service time.
One bike that does get very overlooked in this category is the Yamaha TDM 850/900. Best described as a dual sports bike for the road, these parallel twin engine bikes are solid, reliable runners. If the bike has service history, there is no need to be afraid of cheap high mileage examples.
Yamaha TDM 850
Now we’ve reached the magic one-liter, and thanks to the Japanese power wars of the 80’s and 90’s there are some great big bargains to be had. Let’s look at the individual manufacturers for potential bargains, but remember, it's a fine line that separates a ‘classic’ from a bargain.
Yamaha - Yam's early superbike, the 1987 FZR1000 Genesis is a 145bhp ballistic missile capable of almost 170mph. Owners tend to look after them really, and the first generation in all probability fetch a premium.
However, two years down the line not only did Yamaha sharpen up the look, but also the performance with the introduction of the famous EXUP valve. The best news for bargain hunters was the introduction of two paint schemes namely the naff, purple and blue and the boring, blue and white.
Look Out for Ugly Paint Jobs
Believe it or not, factory paint can make or break a model, and the two mentioned above are the least popular colors, which translates to cheaper bikes. These bikes can handle the miles if looked after, so don’t worry too much about 50k on the clock, expect to pay around $1500 give or take a few bucks.
If you can add a bit of money to this an even better bike is the 1996-2003 YZF1000 Thunderace. These bikes are a bit of a parts bin special, intended to get Yamaha through the wilderness years before the arrival of the R1.
2003 YZF1000 Thunderace
They aren’t as sports-focused as the EXUP or R1 and are comfortable enough to make great sports tourers capable of triple-figure cruising. On private roads, of course!
On a more laid back note, is the Yam XV1000, or TR1 as it’s also known. The 1000cc V-twin introduced to go head to head with the likes of Ducati and in production between 1981-86.
More of a roadster than a custom cruiser, the TR1 just didn’t hit the right note, so there are quite a few unloved versions out there going for a song. Find one quickly before they’re all snapped-up to turn into ‘retro’ café racers.
Having a Bad Day
Honda – Honda’s design shop was evidently having a bad day when they signed off on the CBR1000F. I get the aerodynamic concept of enclosing the entire bike in smoothly contoured plastic unfortunately for Honda though, bikers not even way back in 1987, felt the need to ride around on a chocolate rabbit.
Their design is a shame because the gigantic sports tourer is fast, ridiculously smooth and comfortable. Two years into the run, they tried to upgrade the noisy cam chain problem and later on tweaked the fairing, but in its decade of production, it stayed pretty much the same. Except for a noisy cam chain, the bikes are rock solid and will see 80k miles, definitely worth looking at around $1500.
If you’re after a 1000cc Kawasaki for around a grand and a half, take a box with you to put all the bits inside. The charismatic old Z1000, unfortunately, attract premium money, which is a shame because although the engines are fun, they handle very badly.
A Side of Chips
Find an old beaten up CHP Z1000 however, and not only will you get an upgraded suspension and a service history. Hand paint it matte black though, and you've got an uber-cool mega cheap tourer, with a well bedded-in fat saddle.
The Kawasaki ZX10 Ninja or Tomcat to give it its badge name stateside is another 165mph blast from the past which often fetches low rent. The model wasn’t in production long before it got kicked to the curb by the ZZR1100.
In production for over a decade, the 176mph ZZR and initially, the fastest bike on the road is a lot of bike for the money (anything from $1k-2k). Watch out for dodgy gearboxes though, and engines that tick over unevenly.
If you prefer something without a fairing, ZL1000 Eliminators are another low buck alternative (about the same price) or the 1100 Zephyr.
Liter plus Suzuki’s are always entertaining, the old GS range either in standard or L form haven't quite fallen into the dreaded ‘classic' category yet, and the later GSX range is even better.
Suzuki GSX R1000
Obviously, the oil cooled GSXR's are still great value for money, and if you find an old one with even a bit of service history, chances are the engine will be fine. Search for the Yamaha Exup, different model years (colors) are cheaper than others.
The GSXR and Yam EXUP also have something else in common, of all the big bore superbikes from the 90’s, they both make the best Streetfighters.
As for any other potential bargains to look out for, you could try the BMW K1000. With an engine that looks like a cabin trunk, they're not the prettiest, but yet again; they can really pile on the miles.
Anything over 70k miles on the clock seems to give the average Joe palpitations, which yet again, is excellent news for the avid bargain hunter. The big K’s are capable of twice that, but don’t tell anyone!
A quick round-up of liter plus bikes that won’t break the bank are the Yamaha XV1100, Honda Goldwing, BMW R series airheads, Honda CB1000, Yamaha XS1100 and Kawasaki KZ1100.
Forty Years of Bargains
The last 40 years are responsible for some great bikes. Obviously, some enjoy more popular than others, but things like poor color schemes, bland bodywork or bikes that just fell out of fashion, have always provided a huge gene pool of cheap bikes.
Unfortunately, this gene pool has taken a kicking lately, as the nation appears obsessed with turning any cheap bike into a café racer or a Daryl Dixon bike. But don’t worry, fads come and go.
The novelty of being stretched over a gas tank or bouncing around on knobby tires eventually wears off. That’s when we’ll be there waiting, with a fist full of dollars, in small denominations, naturally.
The adage of buyer beware is important to keep in mind when swimming in the shark-infested waters of the cheap motorcycle. If something appears too good to be true, it usually is, and if you don’t like the look of something, just walk away.
If you know where and what to look out for you will discover some of the best cheap motorcycles you can buy to suit your needs. Try not to rush into it and regardless of what make or model it is, do as much research as possible in the owner forums to find its real pros and cons.
(Photo links courtesy- Southwest Salvage, Cycletrader, Yamaha Motors, Suzuki, McFarlane Toys)