Motorcycle Classics Blogs > Black Side Down

Most Reliable Old Bikes

Last issue, Mark Sanders wrote in asking a question we’ve likely all pondered: “Which bikes are the most reliable ever built?” I put forward a few of my own thoughts on the subject, and judging from the responses we’ve received since, our readers have plenty of their own opinions on the subject, as well.

There’s a sizable group of motorcyclists who have old bikes only, and only so they can ride them. I’ve never been a collector, so for me riding's the whole point. And since I ride what I own, reliability is often a key consideration. That may not explain my current penchant for Italian bikes, but the truth is, a good Italian bike is as reliable as any machine ever made.

Reader Paul Bohac would tell you that nothing beats a carbureted Moto Guzzi V-twin. Guzzi built them by the thousands, churning out an impressive selection of big and little V-twins between 1967 and 1995, when, at least for the U.S. market, fuel injection became the norm. Paul pronounces the eight Guzzis he’s owned “stone simple” to work on, benefiting from an evolutionary design decades in the making — and he’s got 500,000 miles of experience to back him up. Reader Bill Alnor is right in line with Paul, proclaiming his current ride, a 1978 Moto Guzzi V1000, as “built like a tank.”

“I came to the conclusion a military bike was the answer,” Andrew Fetchina wrote, reasoning, among other things, that new-old-stock parts should be easier to find thanks to military parts contracts. “Engineered to be trouble-free and easy to repair, I settled on a Triumph TRW,” Andrew writes. While the 500cc flathead Triumph won’t win any speed trials, there’s no question it was built to go the distance, and that’s what Andrew was looking for when he bought his circa 1960 ex-military Triumph.

Bruce Dahlquist’s decades-long experience with Suzuki GS series bikes, particularly the late Seventies to early Eighties GS1000E and S models, has convinced him there’s only one brand to ride. “I think my Suzuki will outlast most if not all of the bikes of its era,” says Bruce of his current Suzuki, a 1980 GS1000E.

Honda fan Gary Ilminen sides with editor Hall’s pick of the Honda CX500, suggesting the touring-oriented GL500 variant as well, but he also singles out Honda’s venerable Gold Wing. “From the original GL1000 to the present day, they seem to be able to roll up six-figure mileage totals without major failures as easily as any V8,” Gary notes. Michel Croteau singles out Harley’s 883 Evo Sportster as a contender for most reliable based on ample availability of bikes and parts, ease of maintenance, and a heritage that reaches back more than 50 years. The only downside he sees is that "you'll be anonymous at rallies."

Reader James Ingram isn’t sure there is such a thing as a truly reliable bike, noting the documented electrical issues threatening to plague even the most modern bike he owns, a 2000 Honda VFR800. James recalls his boss at the BMW/Norton/Triumph dealership where he worked in the Seventies remarking that, “Even BMWs break.”

Richard Backus and his LaverdaAt the end of the day, it’s kind of the old Chevy versus Ford argument. Which one’s best? That's a matter of opinion. While there have been plenty of dogs on the market — OK, some outright horrible motorcycles — there’s an amazing variety of interesting, fun to ride and reliable vintage bikes out there. My advice? Find your flavor, whether Italian, British, German, American or Japanese; pick the brand and model that appeals to you most; research it and become familiar with its foibles — then find the best one you can and buy it and ride it. You’ll never look back. — Richard Backus