The lightweight sector – broadly speaking bikes up to 400cc – is undergoing something of an epiphany at the moment: great news for corner speed junkies and newcomers alike. We look at the reasons behind the resurrection and talk to someone who specialises in importing skinny rubber……
You know a trend is well under way when the majors get in on the act. Yamaha’s decision to bring their 35 year old SR400 to European shores this year is no co-incidence: all the Japanese manufacturers (and KTM) have road orientated 250 – 400s on the roster for 2014, after years of neglect. And for those who want to get into something which offers style, fun and practicality without the capital outlay of buying new, the grey (unofficial) imports market for used lightweights is booming again – many bikes are sold to UK buyers before they make it off the boat. So what’s going on here?
The crucible that fires global bike consumption – developing Asian markets – has ensured that factory focus on lightweights is ever more sharply defined. Nearer to home, a further combination of factors has eased 400 world back into motorcycling’s collective consciousness. Firstly, EEC wide A2 licence compliance is seen as significant, since it is the category which most learners will find themselves in at some stage during the protracted business of gaining the full ticket. Most 250 – 400s comply, with or without restriction. Secondly, the combination of busier roads, restrictive speed limits and increased urban riding provides a context in which smaller, lighter machines come into their own. They’re more economical (fuel, consumables) and a half decent one will remind you of a key asset: agility. Jump off any modern, big cc machine onto a capable, skinny rubber 400 and you suddenly realise how much fun you’ve been missing, courtesy of all those extra kilos. That tired old journo mantra – ‘you don’t feel the weight on the move’ – is exposed for utter nonsense it is. Thirdly, the yen / sterling equation is less prohibitive for importers than it has been for a while. Finally, younger urban riders appear increasingly style conscious – 400 imports are rare by nature, while offering something to suit almost everyone taste wise. For a fraction of the price of some iffy customised airhead boxer you can pick up authentic, rare retro that will run rings around the average caff racer.
I spent a day with Bassel Itani of Motorcycle Giant, one of maybe half a dozen imports specialists, and one of the very few to offer a wide range of stock – from emblematic two stroke race reps to flat trackers and beyond. He’d just got back from Japan…
” It works like this. I actually go out there and source myself – so straight away I’m eliminating the chances of buying crap. I’ll fill a container with say sixty to eighty bikes, because economics of scale matter hugely. I buy most at auction. The auction house is effectively the agent for the whole transaction. So I pay the agent’s fee, which includes the cost of employing maybe five people for a day
to prepare the bikes for the container – removing indicators, bars and so on – plus the cost of transportation to the port. There is the cost of shipping, an export licence, and my own costs. There’s a £100 fee to get the container off the boat in the UK, plus import duty and VAT. The bike has to be verified and certified by the manufacturer at this end in order to register it, for which the fee is variable. I concentrate on bikes more than ten years old, because they can go through a normal MOT. More recent machines have to go through a single vehicle approval test for which there is a waiting list, and SVAs specialise in minutiae – like precise distance between rear indicators – which can introduce a whole new world of pain…. Bottom line is to bring in a container and get the contents ready for sale costs me at least £2500 plus the individual cost of the bikes. But bringing in a one off privately could cost £1500 on top of the price an unseen bike, so filling a container makes sense. This approach benefits our customers. They get can get a bike with full UK documentation including an MOT, plus some warranty, and still end up paying less than buying a UK used import privately, never mind buying a new 400. And they’ll certainly save on the cost of importing the thing themselves. “
I asked Baz to pick a few bikes from current stock, based on value, fun factor and relative rarity. This is what he came up with – my post ride comments follow. It is worth pointing out that these are real world, ready to run bikes. Baz does not spend fortunes on cosmetic restoration: that is the customer’s call.
the bikes: four stroke
- 1 YAMAHA SR 500 / SR 400
BAZ: Legendary motor, in SR form more common as the sleeved down 400. It’s an easy kick start (even the new one is kick only), and as long as you know the routine the 500 isn’t a problem either. This 500 is ported, has high lift cams and so on. I can do a decent 500 for three grand, this one is a bit special and wants £500 on top of that. 400s are between £2 – 2500 and the good news is that being the same motor they tune up nicely as well.
NICK: It doesn’t looks like it, but with half and half tyres this 500 would rock off road – the suspension has loads of smooth travel and the bars are perfect for standing up. And that tuned lump would roast any XT 500, this is a much lighter bike and you can feel the rear dig in…. lets face it, a big single is the best form of traction control….
- 2 KAWASAKI TR 250
BAZ: Typical Jap flat tracker, available new here but only as a 125. It’s light, agile and handsome with old skool trailie looks: a pretty bike and popular. Low miles ones like this are around £3k.
NICK: You can really fling it around and it’s well suited to smaller riders, but the single port 250 is a little bit breathless compared with…
- 3 SUZUKI TU 250 GRASSTRACKER
BAZ: Jap 250 four stroke trackers all attract different buyers. The TR is agile, Honda’s FTR 233 is a great all purpose bike – but this is the one (twin port single) that tunes up best. The lump also ended up in the ST 250, Volty and bigger Van Van, but this incarnation offers best power to weight. 2.3 to 3 grand.
NICK: This one’s more got more power than the current Inazuma and the grass has loads less weight….
4 Honda CB 400SS
BAZ: The classic. Comes in a variety of formats including the GB Manx rep. Far lighter than it looks and one of the most handsome production bikes on the planet, quality wire hoops and thick paint.
NICK: From a rider’s perspective the Super Four (same capacity, IL4 format, also available through Baz) is more thrilling simply because it has twice the power and revs high. But amazingly the SS is nearly thirty kilos lighter – a really classy town bike.
5 Honda C50 Solo (jpegs 5-7 c/w SR 400; also 11 & 12 c/w SR 400 cafe racer)
BAZ: Very popular in Japan due to style consciousness and their licencing laws. The motor is a legend, one of the most robust units ever constructed. The Jazz variant (jpeg 5) is very rare. Most Solos go out around the two grand mark.
NICK: This belongs in Tate Modern. It is quite simply a work of art – the lines just flow. The fact that the engine also powered the most successful motorcycle on earth (in differing capacities) simply adds to the allure.
the bikes: two stroke
Some sound advice from Baz. Cult race reps (like the exquisite NS250SP c/w the classiest Repsol livery bar none, clean Gammas and so on) command serious dosh even in average condition, and retro stroker mania has seen less exalted models inflate pricewise, while the most iconic nakeds (Kawasaki S3 et al) have gone stratospheric. In other words, if you are buying to ride as opposed to making an investment, you would be better served by judiciously sourcing an Aprilia RS250 – a great bike with the advantage of official import history. However, there is a niche stroker import market where value, fun and investment potential lurk. Naked production versions of two stroke race reps are rare and feature the same quality components found on the faired machines – and prices are still real world. Suzuki’s Wolf 250 was the first real production fighter (long before someone at Aprilia ripped the fairing off an RSV to find a Tuono lurking inside). And just as there are Tuonos out there which started life as an RSV, so you’ll find home brewed Wolves. Just possibly the commonality factor has helped hold down prices, and yet this remains an exotic machine.
Yamaha’s R1-X houses a TZR250 lump but unlike the Wolf (and the Tuono) has its own bespoke frame: a steel and ally trellis job. It is therefore very much a separate model in its own right, rare, and good looking. As such it commands higher prices than the Wolf, but you could pay a lot more for a really tidy TZR. Out of the individual machines listed here this is the one which could have the most investment potential and possibly the most fun to ride, a nice double whammy. The bastard love child of a TZR and a TRX, and all the better for it….
fade to grey
It is hard to escape Baz’s line of reasoning on buying an import. For those on a budget (ie almost all of us) there are really only two options: go private for a bike which has some UK miles under its belt, or go to a specialist like Motorcycle Giant. Unless you know exactly what you want, and are prepared to forego support and a warranty option, then the latter route makes a good deal of sense – the more so since you might well end up paying less than on ebay or similar. Me? There’s a Suzuki250 Wolf shipping in soon, a black naked RGV at decent dollar. I may have to call the man back…..