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European Bike Guide: Part 1

Matt Hull
November 24, 2021

For reasons known to someone, but not myself, we tend to split up old bikes into British, Japanese and European camps. For some, the one camp will do, but like most of us, I like ‘em all, and for various different reasons.

The thought of Italian twins growling away underneath you, their stable handling romping through twisting valley roads, or German boxers eating miles like Pacman with the munchies, and Eastern European bikes getting under your skin and into your heart, their ring-a-ding singing voice accompanying each ride and ever-friendly owners pleased to see you...

European bikes offer all that a British bike could, often for less money. But they could prove an issue when needing parts, so if you like the idea of a certain model, chat to the owners clubs. All the clubs I speak to are only too happy to help, whether large or small.

Don’t forget, also, that a lot of European bikes were small – but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun! Italians, Spanish and others make cracking trials bikes that don’t cost the earth, often share engines or parts, and make superb, lightweight off-roaders.

Maria loves her Benelli 125 Enduro, which was also badged a Moto Guzzi and has a Motobi engine. I love the charm of the MZs, CZs and Jawas that the Eastern Bloc turned out, and don’t start me on my love of BMWs…

We have missed many 125s and mopeds out as there are just so many! But if you feel that certain ones deserve to be in future guides, please let us know.


Prices are included as a rough marker – owners will think figures are too low, those wanting to buy will think they are too high – it’s just a rough idea. For now, enjoy the guide and we hope to open some eyes to models you may take a shine to.

Aermacchi

Aermacchi began life as an aircraft manufacturer at Varese in northern Italy before the start of the First World War and turned to motorcycle production after the Second World War, producing small capacity motorcycles for the Italian market. In 1960, Harley-Davidson bought half of Aermacchi’s motorcycle division as it searched for a source of small capacity bikes.

Aermacchi remained largely independent until 1973, when H-D bought the rest of the company and produced a range of two-stroke singles.


This was before selling out to Cagiva, who used the leftover H-D/Aermacchi range to establish its foothold in the Italian market, with motorcycles continuing to be made at Varese.

Chimera

172cc OHV single || 300lb || 60mph || 1956-1960

A delightful period piece, the Chimera saw Aermacchi adopt full enclosure with more success than the British, and the bike has a distinctly 1950s space-age look. Only a few hundred were made, and more have been imported from Italy as classics than were ever brought in officially.

Prices

low £3500 || high £6000

SS/SST/SX 125/175/250/350

124/174/242/341 cc two-stroke single || 280lb || 70-90mph || 1974-1982

A range of rorty two-stroke singles badged as Harley-Davidson and sold alongside Sportsters and Electra Glides.

Not especially popular, the singles were good-looking little machines with a fair turn of speed and good handling – but suffered badly from poor quality control and an indifferent finish, rusting quickly. Parts are scarce, but a good one will turn heads, with the trail bike versions the best bet if you can find one. Aermacchi also made a tiddler X90 version

Prices

low £1000 || high £3500

250/350cc Sprint

249/344cc ohv single || 320lb || 90mph || 1960-1974

The first Harley-Davidson branded Aermacchis, the Sprint and subsequent versions are nice little bikes with a spine frame and a laid-down four-stroke engine similar to that used in the Moto Guzzi Falcone.

The engine was derived from the 175 Chimera and stroked in 1969 in a less attractive cradle frame to create the 350.
Never officially imported to the UK, with most of the production going to the US, these are now making their way back across the Atlantic.

Prices

low £2500 || high £6000

Aprilia

Aprilia was established in 1960 as a bicycle factory, and by 1975 was producing a range of machines with motors from Motori Morini Franco, Sachs, Rotax and Hiro.

Aprilia really reached public attention when it took on major Japanese teams with 125 and 250cc Rotax two-stroke twins, winning both GP championships in 1994.

The 1980s saw a wide range of two-stroke trail bikes and some ugly two-stroke US custom-style variants, alongside a range of sporty two-stroke street racers.


In the late 1980s it made the Tuareg Adventure sports bike with a Rotax single engine, which was a bit too tall, and the more practical Pegaso also with a Rotax engine, which was later fitted with the same motor BMW chose for its F650.

Moto 6.5

649cc OHC single || 300lb || 95mph || 1995-2002

A real oddity, the Moto was styled by Phillipe Starck, designer of the famous orange squeezer. Intended for city streets, the Moto 6.5 had a lower seat than the street/trail Pegaso, finding few buyers, being altogether too odd. Curiously, after being heavily discounted to clear stocks, it became briefly popular with London dispatch riders, who promptly thrashed it to death but proved that as city bike it was a practical proposition. Body work panels will be hard to find.

Prices

low £1000 || high £2500

Benelli

The Benelli story began in Pesaro with a 75cc two-stroke, produced in 1920. The following year it built a motorcycle with a 98cc powerplant. Benelli then built race-winning competition bikes throughout the 1920s and 1930s, winning a TT in 1939. The factory was bombed in the Second World War but Benelli returned and by 1962 employed 550 people, producing some 300 motorcycles a day.

Taken over in the early 1970s by Argentinian Alejondro de Tomaso, who also owned Moto Guzzi and his own sports car brand, the factory turned out a range of four-stroke fours, heavily based on Honda’s CB range, before going out of production in the mid-1980s. Benelli has returned several times with small production runs of high performance machines and was more recently bought by a Chinese company, making inroads in the Chinese and Indian markets.

2C Electronica

231cc two-stroke twin || 285lb || 90mph || 1972-1986

A stripped down two-stroke twin that could keep up with the best of the opposition when new, the 2C stayed in production for a decade and had the typical Italian 1970s confusion of indifferent parts matched with the best.

The frame, engine and brakes were excellent, while the ancillaries were out of Italy’s bargain bin.
Easy to tune, the 2C is a popular classic racer and was also sold as a Moto Guzzi.

Prices

low £1000 || high £3000

250 Quattro

231cc ohc 4 275lb || 90 mph || 1974-1979

Sold alongside the 2C, the Quattro has eye-catching styling and was eye-wateringly expensive. High revving, and more talked about than bought, the Quattro is the Benelli four that looks least like a Honda. Parts will be hard to find. Also sold in Italy as a 300.

Prices

low £2000 || high £4000

350/500TS

345/498cc ohc four || 370lbs || 100mph || 1974-1980

A pair of inline fours with engines that are almost complete Honda clones, and with the usual poor quality Italian equipment of the day, but vastly superior handing to their Japanese antecedents.

They show up only occasionally, and despite their rarity and the shortage of spares, they command good prices. Also available badged as Moto Guzzis.

Prices

low £1500 || high £5000

Tornado 650

643cc ohv twin || 410lb || 85mph || 1970-1976

First produced before the de Tomaso takeover, the Tornado is a very short stroke and buzzy parallel twin with a surprising amount of torque. More popular in the US than in the UK, which was out of love with parallel twins at the time, later models have electric starts and disc brakes, though the original drum is better.

Prices

low £4000 || high £6500

Sei

748cc ohc six || 520lb || 118mph || 1972-1978

Honda was just about to release its CBX 1000 to the world when Benelli trumped it with the Sei, the world’s first six-cylinder road bike. Turbine smooth and with fine handling, it’s also brash as heck, the six-into-six exhaust and the wide engine making a huge statement.

It also had a duplex rear chain, probably as a marketing ploy rather than for any practical purpose. The Sei grew to become a 900 in 1979, with less attractive hump-backed bodywork and a more restrained and longer-lasting 6-2 exhaust system.

Prices

low £6000 || high £13,000

BFG/MBK

1300cc OHV|| 123mph|| flat four|| 1978-1988

Not known for their volume big bike production, the French seem happier turning out scooters and mopeds, and, in the period around the Second World War, a lot of small bikes. If you want to buy an obscure French motorcycle you can’t get parts for, visit Netley Euro Jumble and pick up a Terrot or a prewar Peugeot, or a BFG/MBK.

This tourer was built by three former Concorde engineers who won a French government competition to develop a motorcycle fitted with an air-cooled 1300cc opposed-four engine from a Citroen GS, and production ran from 1978-88. It was marketed to French police forces, and a sports version was also

offered.Originally badged as a BFG, the company was taken over by MBK, previously named Motobécane. MBK also built a few MF 650R models with a Citroen Visa twin-cylinder engine. It was not a success. About 600 1300ccs were made, and they rarely appear on the market.

Prices

low £8000 || high £9000

BMW

BMW restarted production after the Second World War with the same basic models it began with, only with plunger frames and telescopic forks. These were sold until the mid-1950s, when it adopted swingarm rear suspension, but dumped the telescopic forks everyone else had adopted in favour of Earles fork front ends. The engines were the time-proved pushrod flat twins, tough and well-engineered.

They had 6v electrics, magneto ignition and four-speed gearboxes. The shaft drive helped with reliability over long distances. For 14 years these staid reliable beasts kept BMW rolling until a major redesign gave the R series twins telescopic forks again, and a new frame with a bolt-on rear end and a marked resemblance to Norton’s Featherbed.

The engine got a new one-piece crankshaft, and there were 12v electrics, coils and a starter motor. BMW’s practice of regular updates to existing models sustained it, including the ground-breaking styling of the R100RS until the surprise introduction of the K series triples and fours – though at first the airhead twins stayed in production.

Parts are often interchangeable across the range on the twins and it’s not unusual to find an R series with more than 100k on the clock. Until recently, the 1970s and 1980s twins were fairly cheap and you got a lot of motorcycle for the money, but prices have been going up at a remarkable rate, though cheap K series Beemers are still around.

The fashion for fitting knobbly tyres and brown single seats to BMWs and riding them round Shoreditch seems to be abating, which is nice. Matt the Editor loves his BMW R100RS with a passion beyond all understanding.

R51/R67

494cc OHV flat twin || 420lb || 80mph || 1951-1954

First out of the new BMW factory postwar was the R51/2, a 500cc twin heavily based on prewar models, which was replaced in 1951 by an updated R51/3 model with modernised engine components and a generator on the end of the crankshaft.

The R67 was a 600cc version of the same, with a sportier R68 joining the range a year later. Sport wasn’t really a BMW forte at the time, but the flat twins were favourites with the military and police forces around the world or hitched to sidecars for family use.

Prices

low £8500 || high £13,000

R50/60

494cc OHV flat twin || 430lb || 85mph || 1951-1954

More refined than the R51/67, the R50/60 were durable middleweights with a particular charm, and while the hefty price tag put off buyers, their reputation went before them. Brakes were good, as was equipment. A comfortable classic that can hold its own on most modern roads. US models had telescopic forks.

Prices

low £7000 || high £10,000

R50/60/75/80/90/100 5 series onwards

498-997cc OHV flat twin || 430lb || 85mph || 1969-1984

Introduced in 1969 with the 5 series, these twins brought BMW up to date and looked ahead of their time, despite the heritage of the engine. They had refinements like indicators, 12v electrics, Bing CV carbs and electric starts (backed up with kick-starts until the mid-1970s).

The 5-7 series lost the R50 first, the R75 was replaced by the R80, and they were joined later in the day by the R100/7, a big bruiser of a motorcycle that handles surprisingly well given its weight, though the single disc is certain to make life more exciting.

The R90 or R100/7, along with most of these twins, is still the kind of motorcycle you could jump on with a few hours’ notice and be in St Tropez in 48 hours later.

Prices

low £1000 || high £7000

R90S

898cc OHV flat-twin || 475lb || 125mph || 1963-1976

The most desirable of all the boxer twins, this performance sports tourer is beautifully finished, refined, and capable of covering massive distances in comfort.

Their smart nose fairing spawned a forest of imitators. They may have covered high mileages and as such, buyers should be prepared to shell out for transmission overhauls.

Prices

low £6000 || high £18,000

R80GS series

797.5 cc OHV flat-twin || 410lb || 104mph || 1980-1987

The GS is a ground-breaking big dual-purpose tourer/off roader made from 1980 to 1987. It was the first in the BMW GS family of specialised dual-sport bikes and is often considered the world’s first adventure bike.

It has an R80 engine in a compact R65 frame, with a monolever rear end. The designation ‘GS’ stands for the German words Gelände/Straße, which means off-road/road. The most sought-after are the Paris/Dakar replicas and if you can find one at a reasonable price, snap it up.

Prices

low £5000 || high £10,000

K100

987cc Longitudinal DOHC four || 131mph || 536lb || 1982-1992

Chunkier than the K75, this was BMW’s 1980s superbike. A naked version was at the bottom of the range but lacked the RS model’s style.

The RS, in turn, was not as comfortable to ride, with the pilot in a semi-café racer stance that put a lot of weight on the wrists, while the RT, with a barn door of a fairing, was the most comfortable. Almost unbreakable, K series bikes will go round the clock twice, though you might uncover problems with clutch and cam chain tensioners in time.

Prices

low £1000 || high £4000

K75

740cc Longitudinal DOHC triple || 131mph || 505lb || 1983-1995

Designed to replace the airhead twins BMW was having trouble getting to comply with emissions regulations, the K75 is thought to be the best of the K series BMWs.

A lot more complex than the boxers, you’ll need a little skill to keep one going by yourself. The C series has a small handlebar fairing, while the S series had a larger touring fairing – and an RT had a bigger fairing still.

After 1990 the K series bikes had modern refinements like ABS. This is sometimes faulty, and many owners get their K series bikes through MoTs by disconnecting the ABS and taking the warning light bulb out.

Prices

low £1000 || high £4000

R45/65

649cc OHV flat-twin || 110mph || 1978-1981

Made to comply with German home market licensing laws, the R45 was BMW’s first sub-500cc bike for decades. Not particularly fast, few were sold in the UK, and the R65, essentially the same bike with a bigger engine, was more popular.

A compact boxer twin for city and A road use. Later, the R65 gained a much-needed extra disc with Brembo calipers. The R65LS was a sporty version design by the same team that created the Suzuki Katana.

Prices

low £1000 || high £2500

R100RS/RT

980cc OHV flat-twin || 506lb || 125mph || 1976-1993

The RS was stunning – and expensive – when first released, and remains a good looker today. With an aerodynamically designed wedge-shaped fairing, the RS was the height of sophistication at the time.

The RT was the touring model with a sumptuous fairing, still one of the best fairings for covering mile after mile. Both bikes have twin discs on the front. Underneath the top-quality bodywork is the same solid flat twin from the R100/7, giving 70bhp pre-1985 and 60bhp later – though some do prefer the later bikes overall. Spares availability is excellent and these are genuinely useable classics for every day.

Prices

low £2000 || high £8000

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