In the letters section of this issue, reader Mark Sanders asks the seemingly simple question, "Which bikes are the most reliable ever built?" I say seemingly simple because I don’t think there is a simple answer to his query.
Associate editor Landon Hall suggests almost any airhead BMW (particularly the /5 series — he has a 1973 BMW R75/5), Honda’s ugly duckling CX500 (for decades a favorite of couriers everywhere) and the early Kawasaki KLR650 as reliable bikes.
Other acknowledged reliability kings come to mind, including the Honda CB750, any 4-cylinder 4-stroke late-Seventies to early-Eighties Suzuki, ditto 4-cylinder Kawasakis. Seventies Yamahas? Certainly the Yamaha XS650 twin, but the 1973-1974 Yamaha TX750 twin was a disaster (even though, to be fair, its major issues were mostly quelled in its second — and last — year), and the Yamaha TX500 8-valve double overhead cam twin wasn’t much better. Ever try and get parts for one? Good luck.
I’m making an assumption here, which is that reader Sanders wants a vintage bike big enough for real world urban traffic and highway use. That rules out admittedly excellent but otherwise limited machines like Honda CB175s and 200s. The CB350 might be a contender, but even it had its problems (worn cam bearing supports spring to mind), despite the fact Honda made hundreds of thousands of them.
As it turns out, reliability isn’t the sole provenance of mass manufacturers. Laverda’s 750 twin — by all accounts an up-sized clone of Honda’s superbly built and hugely reliable 305 twin — is famous for covering tens of thousands of miles without complaint. Likewise Moto Morini 350 and 500 V-twins and just about any Moto Guzzi V-twin from the Seventies. Simple, solidly engineered bikes all.
Popular opinion suggests an inverse relationship between a bike’s level of technology and its reliability, but that notion doesn’t always hold up under the microscope. I’m in the middle of replacing a leaking rear main seal on my 1991 BMW K100RS. It may be 22 years old, but the K100RS has most of the attributes of a modern motorcycle, including water cooling, fuel injection and ABS. And it’s a bear to work on. Getting to the transmission is like peeling an onion, working through layers of hardware to get to the offending piece. But here’s the rub. While the seemingly over-engineered K100RS might not be easy to work on, I don’t actually work on it very much. It’s currently showing a little more than 80,000 miles, and outside of new fork seals, this is the first major work it’s required.
Experience suggests that whether by design or lack thereof, every bike has its own particular eccentricities. Hondas are considered a model of civility, but watch out for bad cam chain tensioners — they’ll kill an engine. My 1983 Laverda RGS requires minor (and sometimes more major) tending on a regular basis, yet I don’t consider it unreliable. British bikes are regularly derided for their unreliability, but my Nortons took me across the country regularly, and any issues I had on the road were usually solved in short order. Are they reliable? Yes, as long as you keep them that way.
If you’re looking for Toyota-like reliability, you should probably buy a Toyota. If you want to ride an old bike, you have to adjust your mindset to being prepared (a notion, I’d argue, that fits in with just about every aspect of motorcycling). You have to learn how to read your bike and predict what it’s going to need before it needs it, not when it’s finally broken. — Richard Backus