Classic Japanese Bikes Come of Age


Japanese bikes from the early 1980s have been slow to be appreciated by "traditional" collectors, seeming to be generally ignored, and rarely perceived as desirable or collectible in any way. That’s something of a mystery to me, because while I understand the aesthetic allure of vintage Brit bikes and early American iron, the Japanese onslaught of the early ’80s represents a unique era in motorcycle history.

In the 1950s and ’60s, bikes poured out of Britain, Italy, Germany, Spain and Japan in a wave of new offerings from upstart companies. The proliferation of manufacturers and models built to something of a crescendo in the 1960s, creating a market literally flooded with choice.

The market was shifting by the 1970s, as smaller manufacturers dropped off the radar, and by the 1980s, a quiet but steady consolidation already in motion hit full stride as motorcycle manufacturing turned into a game played by a few. A struggling Harley-Davidson, the U.S.’s sole manufacturer, defined the U.S. market. In England, Triumph was still — barely — in production, and in Japan, once home to a dizzying number of small manufacturers, it was the Big Four: Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha. In Italy, a hotbed of manufacturing from the ’50s to the ’70s, small concerns like Laverda and others were either withering on the vine or had gone completely to seed. Ducati was hanging on, but the landscape was hardly rich. In Germany, formerly home to giants like Adler, Puch and Zündapp, the market was dominated by BMW.

Yet at the same time that the number of manufacturers was shrinking, unique market forces created a proliferation of new single, twin and multi-cylinder bikes from Japan. In 1981, Yamaha kicked off the so-called Honda-Yamaha War when it opened a new factory to challenge Honda as the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. At the start of their battle for supremacy, Yamaha and Honda each had a 60-model global lineup. Eighteen months later Honda, its R&D and manufacturing capacity far greater than Yamaha’s thanks to a push into automobile production, had introduced 113 new or revamped models. Yamaha couldn’t come close, introducing 37 new or revamped models in the same period, and Yamaha’s ill-considered quest for dominance almost crippled the company; it’s been reported that by 1984, Yamaha had more than 12 months of inventory in dealer showrooms.

Honda CX500
The technically advanced 1982 Honda CX500 Turbo was introduced during the so-called Honda-Yamaha War of 1981-1983. Motorcycle Classics photo.

Thirty-five-plus years later, bikes from the model boom of the early ’80s are increasingly influencing the vintage bike market, presenting some interesting challenges for “classic” bike enthusiasts who don't accept them as worthy of the title. Certainly, there were more than a few bikes from that epoch that were, to be kind, fairly awful. Technically proficient, they were often lacking in personality, a complaint regularly levied against Japanese bikes. With some exception, they were in most ways simply consumer items designed to be bought, used and then cast aside to make room for the next great thing from Japan Inc. As such, they rarely engendered the kind of loyal and enthusiastic following that bikes from companies like Harley in the U.S. and Triumph and Norton in the U.K. did.

1/19/2019 2:17:42 PM

Old Harleys and Brit bikes haven't gotten any more reliable over the years. You can hop on a KZ1000 or CB750, RD350, H1, etc, and ride it wherever at anytime and not have to worry about whether you're going to make it home. If you just want a museum piece, I guess it doesn't matter, but you might as well just collect paintings of motorcycles-that would be a lot cheaper! If you want something you can actually ride, the Japanese classics are the way to go.

The sound and the fury: celebrate the machines that changed the world!

Motorcycle Classics JulAug 16Motorcycle Classics is America's premier magazine for collectors and enthusiasts, dreamers and restorers, newcomers and life long motorheads who love the sound and the beauty of classic bikes. Every issue  delivers exciting and evocative articles and photographs of the most brilliant, unusual and popular motorcycles ever made!

Save Even More Money with our RALLY-RATE plan!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our RALLY-RATE automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5.00 and get 6 issues of Motorcycle Classics for only $29.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and I'll pay just $34.95 for a one year subscription!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter