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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.

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.

Yet early ’80s Japanese bikes have their supporters, driven by a combination of memory (read: demographics) and affordability. In an age where Norton 850 Commandos command $8,000-plus, ’80s bikes from Japan represent vintage-hued riding at a reasonable price, and for that reason alone should be appreciated. More importantly, however, they should be appreciated for what they represent as reminders of a unique era in motorcycle history.

Published on Dec 11, 2018

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