Getting Small: Lightweight Motorcycles

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus

My first motorcycle was a 1971 Kawasaki Bushmaster enduro, purchased with 721 miles on it from a retired teacher who kept it lashed to the front of his Winnebago. A 100cc 2-stroke single, that little Kawi was the perfect first bike. Light and underpowered, it was easy to handle, easy to work on and close to indestructible. I say “close” because in the end I did manage to dispatch it to that great salvage yard in the sky, but only after two years of ruthlessly thrashing it on the trails that surrounded the old limestone quarries outside of town.

I forgot all about the Bushmaster when I got my first “big” 4-stroke, an almost brand new 1978 Yamaha XS500E. Ignore what you think you know about Yamaha’s complicated little twin: The last ones (my 1978 was the last year) were excellent bikes, their demons finally excised, albeit a little too late. The XS500 was followed by another, much larger Yamaha, a fearsome 1978 XS1100. It was fearsome all right, and not just because of its prodigious power, but also because of its less than competent handling thanks to a chassis that couldn’t hope to match the engine.

The 1100 was followed by a Norton Commando, which introduced me to the superiority of British machines, at least in terms of handling. Tellingly, the Norton had a broken second gear. That meant it was cheap, and since I was — and still am — always willing to dive into parts unknown, the fact it was broken was sort of a twisted plus.

Other bikes followed, of course, all of them 4-stroke road machines. That is until a few years ago when my kids, Maddie and Charlie, started expressing an interest in street riding. I said I’d help them find a good first bike, and as luck would have it one of the Thursday Night Hovel Monkeys (a group of vintage bike nuts who congregate every, you guessed it, Thursday night at my garage to work on broken BSAs, Yamahas, Nortons and whatever else is around) had a 1976 Suzuki GT185 he was willing to sell. Rough around the edges but a solid runner, I snatched it up.

The GT185 has turned out to be something of a revelation. My Bushmaster was cheap, and cheap to run, and that’s why I bought it. Yet while it made me mobile, it didn’t “move” me like the 4-stroke twins and multis that followed it. I like to tour, so I gravitated toward larger motorcycles, moving from Nortons to a BMW R75/5 with an R90 top end before topping out with a 1991 BMW K100RS — 518 pounds and a claimed 100 horsepower — and my Laverda RGS, even heavier at 556 pounds; both are a long way from that Bushmaster’s 183 pounds and 11.5 horsepower.

Thanks to the GT, however, I’m rediscovering the joys of small, lightweight motorcycles. Even though it’s pushing 40 years old, the GT is still perfectly relevant as an around-town, go-to-market machine. It’s light, maneuverable, has an excellent front disc brake, gets good mileage and has enough power for the occasional sprint on the surrounding two-lane highways. Just as the Bushmaster was for me, for my kids the GT’s been a perfect partner.

In fact, the GT is so fun, I decided I didn’t need two large bikes; better to have a few small ones for blasting around town with a road bike waiting in the wings, a role the Laverda fits perfectly. The K100RS is gone, its spot in the garage now taken by a 2005 Kawasaki Ninja 250. Small and light, it goes and handles brilliantly for what it is. While it’s admittedly gutless at the low end, get the insides moving, swing the tach up to 12,000rpm(!) and it scoots down the road, hitting 80 almost effortlessly.

I still like to tour and I still like to commute on two wheels, so I won’t be giving the Laverda up anytime soon. But thanks to that little GT, I’m relearning what it means to enjoy riding, and that small bikes are just as fun, if not sometimes more fun,  than their bigger brothers. — Richard Backus

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