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Buying Guide: Buying a Japanese classic

Steve Rose
March 11, 2013
Yamaha RD350LC

Pricey, but still worth the money because these bikes will continue to go up in value. In 50 years of Japanese motorcycles few machines have genuinely made classic status.

These are the elite. In some cases it comes with racing pedigree, others simply changed our world. Honda’s RC30 is already a classic because it was based heavily on an unobtainable works racer. Kawasaki’s ZXR750K will never reach the same heights because it was based on a road bike.

And then come the ones with the bad reputations – the widow makers. Kawasaki’s H2 750 is an icon, regardless of the reputation for flighty handling, Suzuki’s TL1000S will never make the same status because it was never the fastest and they fixed the flaws pretty quickly.

Honda VFR750R RC30Honda VFR750R RC30
The first proper Japanese classic. Honda had built homologation bikes before but not like this one. Based heavily on the RVF race bike, the RC30 had a big bang, V-four engine in a tiny alloy chassis. The waif-like dry weight (20kg less than a GSX-R750) was more important than the ‘not-too-impressive-for-twice-the-price-of-an-FZ750’ power figure as was the quality of every component.

Move on 23 years and this Honda still feels fast and capable, still feels compact and purposeful and still looks the business. But you need to be rich. For a bike that’s not even that rare, prices are getting scary. Honda built the first 1000 models for the home market with small headlights, black mirrors and a 77bhp restriction. They then built another couple of thousand with full power and wide-eyed headlights.

Plenty were raced, but almost all are back in road trim now, masquerading as low mileage minters. Don’t worry – even an ex-racer in fresh paint isn’t a rip-off so long as it’s been sorted. Prices will continue to rise and the higher they go, the less the bikes get ridden so it matters even less. Sad but true.

Some are already calling it the Japanese Brough. I’m not sure. The NR750 will take that title – the RC is more like the Japanese Vincent.

Top speed: 160mph, Engine power: 106bhp Weight: 183kg Price range: £10,000-£20,000


Suzuki RG500 classic Japanese superbikeSuzuki RG500
The closest race replica yet, the press reports screamed crazy power and lightweight handling. Just like Barry’s. Sort of. Except the road-going RG500s weren’t quite as well prepared (tuned) as the press bikes.

The RG500 engine is a superb motor with enormous potential and a bunch of knowledgeable enthusiasts who know how to make them go  fast and stay together. Prices have risen rapidly but there are always a few RGs for sale.

Beware of a low-mileage rarely used bike though – you’ll have lots of problems. Moisture gets in through the open disc valves (one is always open) and corrodes the bearings which then destroy themselves when the bike is run.

Regular use is the best thing for an RG500, so at £1.40 a litre and 25mpg, you’d best make sure you can afford the petrol as well as the pistons.

Top speed: 151mph Engine power: 86bhp Weight: 154kg Price range: £5000-10,000


Yamaha RD350LC
Yamaha’s LC is a justifiable classic. The perfect two-stroke experience. Ride a good one and you’ll happily pay silly money for it too. Plenty of bikes look immaculate, but there’s more to restoring than cosmetics and most of these bikes are very tired. Check the numbers carefully because so many were nicked, and use your loaf when buying.

Top speed: 110mph Engine power: 49bhp, Weight: 135kg Price range: £1000-£5000


Honda NR750
Honda’s one-off oval-pistoned, carbon faired technical showcase cost £37,000 in 1992. Only 200 were built and it was slower than a FireBlade. 19 years on, that doesn’t matter. The filthy rich want one and will pay what it takes. The last one we saw sold for £100k, the same dealer has another one for £222,000.

Top speed: 160mph Engine power: 125bhp Weight: 200kg Price range: £40,000-£222,000


Buy it now
It’s hard to justify paying £20,000 for a 23-year-old Japanese 750. Even harder to think who in their right mind would pay almost a quarter of a million quid for an NR750. Welcome to the world of self perpetuating classic indulgence. Because the problem is that there are plenty of people out there with more money than you or I could ever dream of, and once these lucky bleeders have bought their stately home in Surrey, a yacht, a football team and a garage full of classic cars, they might decide to add a motorcycle or two to their collection. And for them, £20,000 is small change. ‘RC30? I’ll take a dozen’.

Twenty years ago the filthy rich were of an age where it was Vincents, Manxs and Broughs that caught their eye. These days it’s all the above plus maybe a nice LC and a CBX1000... and why not an NR750 too? Have a look at the old British bikes and you can see that it’s only going to get worse. £280,000 for a Brough Superior?

I can’t even afford the Brough Mediocre anymore. Which is why it makes sense to buy now if you can. In fact buy two – sell the spare in five years’ time and you’ll have your one for free. bike

? Buying a superbike
? Buying a race replica
Bike buying checklist
? Buying a sports bike

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