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The Rise of Micro Machines: Small Displacement Motorcycles

The category of small displacement motorcycles gets more intriguing with each passing day.

2014 Honda Grom

Build it small and they will come. Or so the theory goes, although whether that actually happens remains to be seen. It is no secret that the motorcycle industry is looking for its next generation of motorcyclists but it may take a paradigm shift to even draw the attention of the target demographic: the elusive new rider who will take over when those who comprise the current but aging backbone of the motorcycle market decide to hang up the gloves. 

There are many theories why the past 15 years have seen the wane of the market following its prosperity in the early to mid 2000s. One is that there are simply fewer motorcycles being sold in general. While there has been growth in the last several years it has been segmented with only some brands experiencing the benefits. A mass influx is what the market needs. To paraphrase an ancient expression: a rising tide lifts all motorcycles.

But there are the barriers to entry, starting at cost. The days of plentiful heavyweight cruisers with substantial price tags from each and almost every manufacturer are done. Those bespoke machines were for upgrading and returning riders, less so for the neophyte—and certainly not for today’s neophyte who has a notoriously short attention span and interests in many other activities. Prohibitive insurance costs, the active dissuasion of non-motorcycling parents, and the lack of any real working knowledge about the sport and culture of motorcycling inhibit the involvement of many potential new customers to whom the concept of motorcycles might all seem a little vague—like granddaddy’s Oldsmobile.

Mitigating some of these problems is the simple solution of going small: lower costs, less perceived danger, and more manageable insurance premiums. Sounds great so far but for goodness sake don’t make it utilitarian. With a social media posting on every corner whatever the little bike does, it better look good doing it. Fortunately this is happening. Kawasaki recently announced the Z125 Pro will be coming to Canada to join the Honda Grom in Canada’s portfolio at the 125cc threshold—a new entry to a very open market.

Why the 125cc small displacement motorcycle category? Well, because it already exists as a healthy segment elsewhere. We need look no farther afield than the UK to illustrate. In the motorcycle hierarchy 125cc and 15 horsepower are the first and earliest cut-offs if you want to get a motorcycle at 17 years of age in Manchester. Any younger and you are limited in your two-wheeled selection to a moped with a top speed of no more than 45 kilometres per hour. After the 125 segment you must be 19 to legally ride a motorcycle with a power output of over 50 horsepower, or 24 years old if you want an unrestricted licence. The caveat to that holy grail of licences is that if you had begun on a 125 and progressively worked your way up, you could get an unrestricted licence with a minimum of two years experience when you are only 21 years of age. That all seems complicated enough without mentioning the other categories of three wheeled and quadricycle vehicles but the crux is that below 125cc begins a progressive licensing system that takes into consideration both displacement and power-to-weight ratios. All said and done, you can be a kid with a motorcycle.

Z125 PRO

Wander further afield and you will find a surprisingly robust segment in the micro machine category because, like the UK, there are many countries that place restrictions on the size and power of motorcycles for the simple reason that many countries just don’t have the roads or income levels to justify the larger machines. Intriguing in these offerings is the KTM 125 Duke which, while at the premium end of the segment in terms of cost, comes equipped with a liquid-cooled motor that produces enough power to bump right up against the UK’s limits for the category. Yamaha is also in the category with a liquid cooled machine, the MT-125—otherwise known as part of the FZ family in Canada. Suzuki likewise is represented in the category.

In an attempt to lure the young gamers and “illustrated novel” readers onto the pavement and to the benefit of all motorcyclists these new machines have borrowed heavily from the stylings of larger naked bikes—one of the “it” categories in today’s market. Kawasaki’s new Z125 is undoubtedly part of the Z family: a 3/5 version of the Z1000 or Z800. In the two dimensional world of photography there is little to give away the size of the motor in this feisty little machine. An aggressive headlight treatment, stubby under-slung exhaust, inverted fork; the new bike is all check, check, check. It isn’t until you see someone seated on the Z125 that you realize that it is a small machine yet not “funny clown on a minibike” small, just downsized onto 12 inch wheels. Nor does the bike look budget with its disc brakes, LED lights and full instrument panel. With fuel injection and 7.4-litre tank, the bike should go far and keep the cost of fill-ups low. Honda, not wanting to lose ground to Kawasaki, has taken a little of the fun and friendly out of the Grom for 2017 as it also gets a more aggressive facelift (while standing pat with the unfortunate name). Both the Z125 and Grom will list at MSRP $3,399 in Canada. Both are powered by air-cooled singles so the battle of equivalents will be similar to the recent days of Honda and Kawasaki tussling for the right to claim “best selling motorcycle in Canada” with the smallest of the CBRs and Ninjas duking it out in the 250 and then 300cc class.

Are the aggressive looking new small displacement motorcycles the answer to the elusive new rider problem if they do in fact surface in the Canadian market? Small, insurance friendly and not a whit of heritage styling is a good thing. How much heritage does an 18-year-old demand? The little machines are fun, big in style and shift with a clutch and a foot pedal, just like a “real” motorcycle. Honda has shown with a couple of Grom concepts that the segment can be really unique. But fun is the key. Even us old riders know that it has to be fun. You can’t drag the kid out of the basement to do something boring. We know how successful that will be. 

Small Displacement Motorcycles Through the Years

In a reversal of the old notion of there being “no replacement for displacement,” there have been several machines that have carved their own niche by getting smaller not bigger. Sometimes the results have been successful while at other times the concept started well but eventually sputtered.

Honda Z Bikes

Colloquially known as the “monkey” bikes, Honda’s Z50 bikes began production in 1966. The first iterations were basic with no front or rear suspension but did come outfitted for the road with mirrors, headlights and taillights. The following generation introduced in 1969 eventually received front and rear suspension giving an even more compliant ride than that supplied solely by the thick seat. These fun little bikes fueled a mini-bike craze in North America. They were reliable, had an MSRP below $300 and flew out the doors of Honda dealerships while looking good on their little eight-inch wheels. They were small in size and power but they were accessible and fun and, considering the boom in motorcycles that followed, the air-cooled 49cc machines probably sparked a lifelong love for motorcycles for thousands of riders. They carried on for years without huge changes before giving way to Honda’s XR50 dirt bike. Honda recently revealed prototypes of new models that echo the original monkey bikes while embracing the name.

Honda monkey z50

Yamaha YSR50

Back in the early 1980s there were a couple of gorgeous and lustworthy sportbikes by Yamaha that still hold a dear spot in many a rider’s heart as it is unlikely we will see anything quite like them again: the RZ350 and RZ500. The RZ500 in particular was potent and exotic with “got to have it” appeal. But a half litre of two-stroke power was more than most riders needed. There was however the YSR50 that took the style, paint scheme and idea of the RZ bikes and shrunk it all down to a 3/5 scale. It became a favourite of the pocket racer enthusiast due to its authentic looks, five-speed transmission and front disc brakes—all that and the ability to squeeze more power out of the miniature platform. The bike was produced from 1986 to 1992. The sight of one on the street always produced smiles because they were so small.


Harley-Davidson had a long history of building small displacement motorcycles. Following World War II, Harley-Davidson built the S125 that incorporated classic Harley lines in a small, inexpensive machine. These bikes progressed through the 1960s slowly but not drastically gaining displacement and power. The final straw may have been the last bike. As rare as hen’s teeth and originating in the AMF period, the Harley-Davidson SXT125 was an Aermacchi supplied air-cooled single that existed from 1975 to 1977. Set up as a street legal dualsport, the bike was only mini in displacement in comparison to its Harley-Davidson stablemates. It may have been the answer to a question that no one asked but then as now, it was an attempt to extend the brand beyond the big cruiser market.   

By John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #324


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