There are classic hits and then there are memorable misses. Some hold their value on the collector market because of their inherent excellence, while others are collectible only in the quirkiest sense of the word. We now offer our Top 10 (plus 1) list of bikes in the latter category.
If you are a regular reader of ‘Robert Smith’s Vintage Hall’ you will know there are bikes that get all the attention from the collectors: the Nortons, BSAs, early Honda CB750s, ground-breaking Vincents, Harley FXRs, along with a wide array of Knuckle and Panheads. Then there is, arguably, the most ubiquitous collectible of all, the 1968 Triumph Bonneville. This list of verified collectibles is long and those above only scratch the surface. But what about the others? The bikes many have forgotten ever existed, the ones that don’t remind people of the halcyon days of the 1960s, those that once held so much promise but were ultimately wiped from our collective memory or swept into ignominy. The bikes that only Mother could love. The ones we now see as strange, unique and different—to be kind. Forthwith is our own Top 10 list of these models that never quite qualified as collectibles—at least not in the context of Vintage Hall. Consider these, the “other collectibles.”
1: Das Cruiser: BMW R1200C
For one carefree moment in time, BMW was in the landslide rush to join the cruiser movement of the mid-‘90s. And why not? Cruisers were THE class of the period. All those men and women who ever rode motorcycles way back in their misty youth were now dreaming of once again hitting the pavement and going cruiser-style was their key to the highway. Sales were set to skyrocket. The R1200C was a retro styled cruiser with steam punk attitude and a boxer engine produced from 1997 to 2004. Its breakthrough moment nearly came after 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies when James Bond manfully piloted Das Cruiser under the chopping blades of a helicopter while wearing the lovely Chinese spy, Wai Lin.
Why would you want one in your collection when it can be safely said that cruisers will never be BMW’s forte? Well, there will never be anything like the R1200C again. The engine and drivetrain are solid BMW and a design that is seriously outside the box(er). The bike sold well initially so there are a lot of them out there. It may be that their current owners realize they have something unique because you don’t often see one for sale. If you do locate one though, you will have landed a modern reliable ride that will prompt people to ask, “What is that thing?”
2: Back to The Future: Yamaha GTS
A short production run (a theme of this list) was the fate of Yamaha’s GTS 1000. The bike had all the goodies of the future including fuel injection, ABS, and forkless front suspension which in appearance was the polar opposite of the single-side swingarm. But the mid-‘90s were not ready for the future or perhaps the sticker shock of a $13,000 price tag. The RADD front end was designed to improve braking and handling and the 100-hp YZR motor was intended to get you down the road in a hurry. This was a big sport-touring machine intended to showcase the possibilities of technology. It was cutting-edge at the time but hub-centre steering did not grab the consumer. No doubt it will resurface somewhere (actually Vespa employs single side front suspension on its new 946 model). Eventually there will be another motorcycle with a similar concept but for now owners can boast, “I’ve had one of those for years.”
3: Almost anything from Buell: Thunderbolt S3T
It is tremendously difficult to launch an entirely new brand of motorcycles. Ask the folks at Victory and they will tell you the same thing. Deep pockets and patience would be two of the primary requirements plus a little light at the end of the tunnel. From the early days of enthusiasm to the surprise video from Erik Buell announcing the shuttering and sell-off of the factory, the story of Buell Motorcycles was a tumultuous one. But which Buell is definitively one of “The Other Collectibles.” The Cyclone? The X1 Lightning? No, that might be a little too cool? Certainly, all of the Rotax-engined models from Buell’s last years were too good for this list. Instead, we go back to the late 1990s where we find the Thunderbolt S3T. With its hot-rodded Sportster 1200 motor, roughed-out fairing, cobby linkages and assorted parts, the bike was fun to ride because it was like nothing else. It was all shake, rattle, and roll but you wanted one because it was so different. Here was Harley’s foray into the sport and sport-touring world. We can’t say with certainty the Motor Company will never go down this road again but it seems highly unlikely.
4: Long Live the Wankel: Suzuki RE-5 Rotary
It was recently announced that Mazda has halted production of the Wankel. The RX-8 motor was the one platform keeping Wankel’s dream of triangular combustion domination alive, and no one can deny that for Mazda and its sportscar it was the engine that could. But that’s just car stuff. Suzuki thought the same of the rotary for a very brief period back in the mid-1970s. The ideas behind the Wankel were sound: fewer moving parts and good output from smaller displacements. Everyone wants to try something different but still works because you never know if you have the next big thing until you try.
Suzuki put the rotary engine in a motorcycle that was both unremarkable and odd-looking at the same time—depending on what part of the bike you were looking at. There were attempts in the last production years to give the RE-5 a mainstream look, but by then the bike market had decided that rotary engines in a motorcycle were not something it wanted. In hindsight, it was a lot more complicated to put a Wankel in a motorcycle and performance figures were not significantly different from conventional bikes. Its lifetime production run was about 6,000 units, making them now few and far between.
5: The Left Coast: Honda PC800
There are some who still vehemently love the Honda PC800 Pacific Coast, but the styling was before its time by at least a decade. The PC800 looks better today than it did to consumers back in 1989. It has taken the market a while to catch up to the idea of integrated storage and mechanicals completely hidden by bodywork. It is still Honda with the new NC700 that is pushing the integrated look. But back in 1989 the PC800 looked like nothing else out there and yet beneath that completely unitized cladding it was powered by an 800cc V-Twin. “It looks too much like a car” was the common criticism. Integrated, free of extra bits and pieces in a clean, modern design and (bonus!) a trunk that opened just like a Civic. This is probably what had everyone upset. The PC800 would not have appeared so unusual had it arrived after the all-new 2001 Gold Wing because the motif of smooth, flowing lines would have had a precedent. Stand proud early adopters, stand proud. Perhaps now the rest of us will catch up.
6: Heavy Breathers: The Turbos
It might have all been Born in the USA and Bruce Springsteen back in 1983 but it was also the heyday of turbo charged motorcycles such as the Suzuki XN85, Honda CX650T, Yamaha Seca Turbo and Kawasaki GPz750 Turbo. Blame the automotive world for this as back in the days of the oil embargo everyone was looking for ways to get more power from less displacement. Turbo was the euphemism for performance. Turbos allowed the power versus displacement figures enthusiasts drool over. Virtually everything that aspired to performance was getting turbo charged and if it worked for cars it would work for motorcycles. Well not exactly. One of the problems of turbo charged motorcycles was the same that faced the auto world: turbo lag. This period of separation between input and response was not one you want in your motorcycle. It is more manageable in your turbo 280ZX. But the turbo onslaught leapt like wildfire across the manufacturers (and then disappeared just as quickly). If you have a choice of the Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki variants, which one are you going to choose? Nearly 30 years after its introduction the Honda CX650T is still a good looking machine with clean lines and a factory-spec 100 hp from a 650cc engine (and who doesn’t want a motorcycle with “Turbo” emblazoned across the muffler?).
If reliving all the styling that was the early to mid-‘80s is your bag, the Seca is definitely the bike you want to be on. Too bad the Yamaha didn’t age well. The styling is a little too 1982 space shuttle, and surviving units are about as rare as hen’s teeth. Production runs were short, the technology was quickly obsolete and the Turbos are now bikes firmly entrenched in the 1980s. Did anyone keep anything from back then besides a Bruce Springsteen album?
7: The Big Fender: Kawasaki Drifter
Give Kawasaki credit. The company must have seen the writing on the wall. Every vintage collector really wants an Indian Motorcycle. Why else would there have been so many different owners and iterations of the company over the past 20 years? Safe to say, it’s now finally in the best of hands as part of the Polaris fold.
But at the turn of the millennium, it seems that Kawasaki decided if nobody else could competently build Indians they would do so—for at least a few years. Adding giant fenders, solo seats and classic paint, they did just that. The result was the Drifter in Vulcan powered 800 and 1500 variants. These bikes must have been the ultimate in historical tributes. And no matter what your wife might say about that pair of plaid pants you won’t throw away, history has a way of repeating itself. Which Drifter makes the list? The 800. With its hardtail look and big Chief saddle with chrome grabrail it was a unique tribute to classic American styling. And as with most every other bike on this list it doesn’t look like anything else on the road. Well except maybe an Indian. But when was the last time you saw one of those rolling down a highway near you? Ride on Kawasaki Drifter, ride on.
8: That’s Not What I had In Mind: Ducati Indiana
Most riders visualize Ducati as sexy, red machines from Italy that look fast even when standing still. Rolling art. Fluid lines and beauty enshrined in the machinery. So on and so forth with the poetic licence. The Indiana might be a Ducati but it sure isn’t rolling art. In fact, if there is an antithesis of sexy, red and Italian, this is probably it. Cruelly, it’s been called the Italian Virago. Why collect one? Because there just aren’t enough homely Ducatis in existence. You will have something that is incredibly unique! You might not want to show it to anybody but it will still be there lurking in the garage. When is Ducati company ever going to build a cruiser again … oh, never mind, they did. Yes the mid-‘80s have much to answer for. Just like the song said, “Indiana wants me, I can’t go back there …” Looking at this Indiana you sure as heck wouldn’t want to.
9: Dirt Roads: Harley-Davidson SX250
Before Buell, Harley-Davidson took another road less traveled with a dualsport 250 sourced from Aermacchi in Italy. The odds of finding one are not good, though surprisingly the odd rusted hulk will surface at the local swap meet. Why are they now tough to find? Mainly because they were dirt bikes and dirt bikes get broken. Nor was there ever an enamoured fan base. They were pretty inexpensive even at the time, and there was a lot of very competent competition in the segment. We cannot guarantee anyone loves them now either.
10 & 11: Very Heavy Metal: Honda Rune and Dodge Tomahawk
Okay these seem like easy choices. The Rune and the Tomahawk. What to say about them? Very big. Very few were sold. All sorts of interesting styling components. Very few were sold. An inline six and a V10. Concept bikes that somehow managed to find their way to the sales floor with much of their “concept-ness” intact. Very few were sold. The Tomahawk has one too many wheels to actually be considered a motorcycle and you are going to need a “private” stretch of road to ride it on. The Rune may not be quite as rare as the Tomahawk—a reported handful sold through a US retailer known for gift ideas for the man who has everything and too much money—and you can choose to ride it wherever you like. The odds are you will not find a Tomahawk to add to your garage. You may however find a Honda Rune—there might still be a few new ones at dealers. And honestly, for what it was intended to do (get people talking), it did that in spades. This level of extreme and “Honda-ness” may never happen again. Ditto for the “Dodge-ness” and motorcycles. Here are two bikes that were so singular, that together they comprise their own entry on our list of “The Other Collectibles.”