Buying your first Japanese classic
The VJMC has a long and proud heritage of rescuing old motorcycles from almost certain doom. Years before the current frantic fiscally motivated classic scene got going the club’s members were restoring bikes that, frankly, no one else gave a damn about.
Times have changed and what was once old tat is now highly desirable. And when the so-called clever money went for the expensive and iconic stuff many of our members just smiled quietly to themselves. When the burgeoning moneyed ranks began throwing obscene amounts of dosh at those must-have megabikes many knew the true value was not in the commercial aspect of the bikes but, rather, lay in their technical workings allied to the ease with which they might be restored.
What follows is by no means exhaustive but should at least guide aspirant and would-be fettlers, restorers and enthusiasts along the correct path. Don’t believe everything you read; information in magazines decades old is very possibly out of date. For example Yamahas are not any harder to restore or obtain parts for than any other make.
The easiest and most inspirational way of getting into the whole thing is to buy a running machine with a UK plate and papers. Running bikes are infinitely more rewarding than dead ones; a simple but easily overlooked maxim. Sellers telling you it only needs a little bit of work and a set of plugs are probably spinning you a line. If it’s that easy to fix, how come they haven’t done it and added two grand to the price?
If you are new to the classic scene then be aware that all that glistens is not gold. Many an old shonker has been tarted up with fresh paint, some T-Cut to the frame and overzealous polishing of ageing chrome. A £250 blow over of a tank and two side panels instantly transforms all but the most obvious dog. Without doubt a running classic is a thing of joy. It may not throw big numbers on the clock but the sense of speed is just as great. Pretty much any Japanese bike from 1963 to 2000 will be reliable and rewarding to run and own. Any bike from anywhere in non-running condition is likely to be the object of potential frustration. Simply put, buy a working motorcycle not a money pit!
So what to buy? The correct response should be ‘how long have you got?’ There is no one size fits all solution but initially the bike should have the following merits. It appeals to you aesthetically; if it doesn’t float your boat look elsewhere. It needs to fit you; if you’re 6ft 7in a period tiddler may leave you seriously cramped because they can be very small.
Check out the bulk and mass; older Japanese bikes are substantially weightier than the equivalent modern machine of the same capacity. For example Yamaha’s XS1100 is 70 kilos heavier than the modern MT-09 from the same firm. Period candy paint and acres of chrome can be worryingly bewitching and beguiling. Buy some classic motorcycle publications, our sister magazine Classic Motorcycle Mechanics is a good place to start. Look on line at places like Bike Trader and eBay and get a feel for the price ranges and finally don’t set your heart on just one model based simply on a whim. A Suzuki GT250 is just as viable as a Yamaha YDS7 and likewise there’s little in reality to choose between the contemporary 500/550 fours offered by any of the Big Four. If you buy from a dealer be prepared to pay more and make sure that if the bike comes with a warranty (and quite a few do) it covers the things you can’t fix for a reasonable period.
The Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club has been encouraging and supporting newcomers since 1982 so if anyone knows about old Japanese bikes it’s likely to be us guys. Chances are there’s a local section near you; we have almost 50 of them across the UK and Ireland and if they can’t help there’s strength in depth elsewhere within the club.