Should I buy a retro motorcycle
or a genuine classic?
Triumph | Royal Enfield | Kawasaki W650 & W800 | Ducati Scrambler | Sportster
▲ 2019 Triumph Speed Twin and 2019 Kawasaki Z900RS. Modern re-imaginings on an old theme. These retros are not not "true" classics, but both will be in a few decades. Meanwhile, they're simply fantastic bikes that will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go as long as there's tarmac beneath the tyres.
Should I buy retro or classic, huh? Well the simple answer to this question is, it depends primarily on how you plan to use your motorcycle. Daily? Weekly? Twice a year? Or maybe your interest is more left field and/or esoteric. Either way, you need to clearly define your goals. So here are a few pointers that might be helpful.
Many of us—if not most of us—who are riding classic bikes these days started out when these classics weren't classics at all. They were brand new bikes back then. Mainstream motorcycles. Fresh from the box. And they certainly weren't retro.
We rode the bikes, and they got older, and we got older too. Then one day we realised that the bikes had become classics (in the broadest and most generous sense of the word, anyway). Or maybe we rode those bikes and upgraded every so often and then suddenly noticed that things had changed.
These feelings and realisations usually happen around aged 40. At that point, the latent/dormant nostalgia bug kicks in, and most of us begin re-evaluating our lives and the story so far, and we think about reacquiring the motorcycles of their youth, for "old time's sake".
So riders born in the 1940s would have been teenagers in the 1950s to 1960s. Consequently, unless they were fairly well paid whilst working at the gasworks or digging ditches or running errands in an office, they might have been riding around in their free time on anything from a BSA Bantam to a Triumph Tiger Cub to an Ariel Arrow to pretty much any Villiers two-stroke. There was a considerable choice.
Or if they had a little more money in their pocket, they might have been lucky enough to acquire a 350cc or 500cc British single or twin (AJS, BSA Matchless, Norton, Royal Enfield, Triumph, etc). Or maybe their dad owned a Vincent Rapide or a Black Shadow or an Ariel Square Four and let them ride it occasionally (possible, but not likely).
Regardless, these would have been the bikes of their youth, and they eventually became the classics of their later years.
Alternately, riders born in the late 1950s to late 1960s would have grown up in the 1970s and 1980s with Japanese motorcycles, notably Honda and Yamaha, but Suzuki and Kawasaki too. So their idea of a classic motorcycle would be very different. And naturally, at the time of writing this article (November 2019) there are still one or two hardy souls riding around whose idea of a "true, true classic" are bikes built in the 1940s and 1950s. But that's a dying breed. Literarily.
Retro bikes, meanwhile, are a relatively new diversion and date back no more than maybe 20 years or so—although at the outset they weren't so self-consciously retro. The retro scene, such as it is today, took some developing and is an ongoing and relatively new phenomenon.
▲ 2019 Kawasaki W800, 2019 Ducati Icon, and 2008 Triumph Thruxton. Some think of these motorcycle as retrograde designs. Some call 'em classic. We say just ride the hell out of them. But first make up your mind how you plan to use them. There are two worlds here, similar but different.
Retro or classic?
So if you're still asking "should I buy retro or classic?"the question implies that you're probably younger rather than older. Older bikers, after all, would find it easier to make that judgement simply through greater experience and would be less likely to ask the question. Therefore, there's little advice we can offer here.
However, if you're a younger rider and are fairly new to the scene, and if you like the style of classic bikes and plan to actually ride anywhere of any distance, you're advised to buy a modern retro bike first.
There's a huge range to choose from which includes motorcycles such as:
Triumph Bonneville, Thruxton (image above), Bobber & Speed Twin
Royal Enfield Bullet, Interceptor & Continental
Kawasaki W800 & W650
▲ 2019 Honda CB1000R. You might call it macho, but you wouldn't call it exactly retro. Although some folk would. Nevertheless, it's got a certain retro style—assuming, that is, you live in a parallel universe where a different path led to a different future. Sound a bit Star Trekkish? Well just buy what you like. It's the only route to motorcycle satisfaction.
And there are many others to settle on, but note that some of them are actually more "stylised retros" and bear little relationship to anything built in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. We're talking about, say, the Honda CB1000R or the BMW R nineT. These motorcycles are often loosely or lazily referred to as retros, but both are perhaps better described as futurist bikes. Or new age retros. Or simply as retro-ish inasmuch as they carry some retro design cues or hints, but they take that design in a different direction and stray from the path of classic conservatism. Alternately, you can think of them as "what if?" retros. Currently, there's no clearly defined category or pigeon hole for these bikes.
Pros and cons of classics & retro bikes
The advantage of owning a "true" classic bike is that if you're buying a motorcycle that you used to own and ride in your youth, you're naturally reacquainting yourself with your past and scratching that nostalgia itch, etc (and when it does start itching, it can take the rest of your life to stop). But that can be hugely rewarding and satisfying, and it can help make you feel young again.
You're also buying a motorcycle with some history beyond your personal history, if that's important to you—and that history could become a good investment if you're shrewd and if you buy wisely. And the more faithful these classic bikes are to that history, the greater their intrinsic value. Might take a while for that fidelity to become marketable. But it will get there. At least, it always has so far.
Additionally, classic bikes tend to hold their value and, occasionally, they increase in value too in both perceived terms and real terms as the years roll by. But note that this isn't always/exactly the case.
For instance, a £4,000 classic bike might still be worth £4,000 in, say, five years. However, in real terms that original £4,000 might actually be worth just £3,800. These aren't hard numbers, note. But you get the principle. Also, you might buy a classic bike when the market for that particular model is high, only to watch the demand fall a few years later. That happens—although generally prices recover and even rise again. But there are always fluctuations.
On the downside, classic bikes are certainly more labour intensive, especially if you plan to use them regularly, or tour; in which case you're going to have to get the right tools, a workshop manual of some kind, find some workshop space, and spend more than a couple of weekends every year cursing and skinning knuckles and throwing tools around. And there are generally oil leaks to contend with, or just live with.
Sounds dire, but it doesn't have to be that bad. Or that expensive. You just have to make adjustments, and the pay-off is the aforementioned satisfaction plus full admission to the classic bike club of your choice (once you pay your subscription, that is). And the classic bike scene is a great scene and will give you like-minded company throughout the year.
As for retro bikes, these give you classic bike style (albeit a little synthetic in most instances), and the bikes will lose value year on year—until, that is, these bikes become classic retros in their own right. But you might have to wait 20 or 30 years before that happens.
The obvious advantages with modern retros is that the technology is far in advance of anything built up to, say, the 1990s. Or the noughties. Current models boast anything from ABS (anti-lock braking systems) to traction control to ride-by-wire throttles, to extra high output alternators, to slip-assist clutches, to fuel injection, to engine counter-balancers, to onboard connectivity, to built-in security systems. And naturally, all have electric starters.
Additionally, modern retros are smoother, generally oil leak free, offer dozens or hundreds of accessories, can supply current for heated gloves and jackets, have good spares back up, better lighting—and are still generally "acceptable" in classic bike communities.
If you want to tour far and wide, a retro won't necessarily take you anywhere that a "genuine" classic bike won't, but the retro will usually do it more conveniently, and possibly faster. However, you'll probably pay a premium for all this, and the bike will devalue until that aforementioned classic tipping point is reached.
Here at Sump, if we were starting out again as youngsters, we'd probably either buy everyday mainstream bikes, or possibly retros. But we probably wouldn't by "true classics". Not at first anyway. However, the older we get, the further back we look, and there are plenty of motorcycles built long before we were born that we'd love to own. And then again, there are plenty of retros out there that are currently catching our eye.
Check Sump's Classic Bikes For Sale page.
Check Sump's Classic Bike Guides page.
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