Ah, the 1980s. The decade when GSX-Rs started to roam the earth, while names like Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer and our own Wayne Gardner ruled the Grand Prix tracks.
Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke were in The Lodge, while Billboard online sums up the 1980s as: “the decade that brought us Dallas and DeLorean, Madonna and MTV, Chernobyl and Cats, the Tylenol Murders and the discovery of the Titanic, Rubik’s Cube and Reykjavik, Farm Aid, Live Aid and the fitness craze.” From Oz, we had acts like Men at Work and Olivia Newton John scrambling into the international charts.
This was the decade that saw liquid-cooled engines start to dominate the showrooms, 16-inch front wheels come and go and a host of other techno tricks tried out. In the second half of the decade it was also a time motorcycle sales fell through the floor, to something like a fifth of what they are today. Harley very nearly went bust and a lot of local retailers keeled over.
In a mad scramble to grab whatever sales they could, the industry launched a dazzling array of models, trying every trick in their techno armoury.
Inevitably there were some sales flops along the way – some richly deserved to sink without trace (a topic we’ll cover another day…), while others deserved better. It’s that last group, the orphans of the eighties, we’re covering here. We’ve selected the top five on the basis they were worthy motorcycles in their own right that deserved a better run. Plus, even now, they’re probably not a bad buy.
1. BMW K1
Launched near the end of the decade (1988 for the 1989 model year), the K1 was BMW’s attempt to stamp out the conservative image that had ghosted its inline K-series machinery. With a then industry-leading drag coefficient of 0.34, it was designed as a grand tourer capable of 225km/h and spectacularly good point-to-point times if you by any chance had access to an autobahn.
A beefed-up chassis boasted ABS and four-piston brakes up front, parallelogram shaft out back, matched to the first 16-valve version of the injected powerplant. The performance belied the ‘mere’ 100-horse output while the handling was ultra-stable.
There was nothing wrong with the spec, so why did people stay away in droves? Price didn’t help, as it was close to double the cost of the popular but more pedestrian GPz900R. But it was styling that really pulled people up in their tracks. The big boofy bodywork with the screaming K1 graphics was just too much for most to handle, and the company soon toned down the paint in an attempt to appease buyers.
Now, of course, the radical-looking one is the version to have. Even today, it would be a very capable tourer, albeit with restricted luggage capacity thanks to the design of the inbuilt mini panniers.
2. Kawasaki GPz750 turbo
Japanese turbos dominate our top five because, as a breed, they sank rapidly without trace. However in many ways they epitomise the mood of the decade, when engineers were going all-out to break out of the existing motorcycling mould.
Kawasaki’s GPz750 tops the list because it was the best ride of the four, is arguably the most handsome and had the best bragging rights with a horsepower claim around 110. It was the only one of the group that, on paper at least, was a performance match for the current 1100s.
In reality, it could hit just shy of 240km/h while US drag ace Jay “Pee Wee” Gleeson managed to get one across the standing quarter in 10.71sec – a remarkable time for the day.
Running a Hitachi turbo unit just in front of the head, the injected machine suffered minimal turbo lag and seemed to be a reasonably robust unit – though Kawasaki’s injection of the time had a questionable reputation for reliability.
Originally intended to be a 650, this was the last of the T-bikes to make it into the showrooms and was built from late 1983 through to 1985. However the market was by then deeply suspicious of turbos on motorcycles, when there was little evidence the technology provided any significant advantage over a normally-aspirated design.
3. Honda CX500/650 turbo
The first and most radical of the turbo generation, the boosted CX V-twin was made as a 500 in 1981-82 and a 650 in 1983.
Honda had designed the humble CX twin engine for forced induction from day one, and the IHI unit itself was mounted in front of the vee. Complexity was a feature of this design with Honda plucking up the courage to trial new computer-controlled injection and ignition.
Power was 82 horses for the 500, boosted to 100 for the 650. Performance was hobbled by weight at 235kg dry (actually no worse than the other entrants in this techno race) and more significantly a substantial lag before the turbo kicked in. In reality, a 900 Bol d’Or was easier to ride fast and less scary when it came to diagnosing dramas.
Even so, history has treated the twins kindly and they’re now very desirable as a classic toy.
4. Yamaha XJ650 turbo
Yamaha hit the market a year after arch-rival Honda with a substantially less radical technical list, though the styling screamed futuristic. With the Mitsubishi puffer mounted behind the gearbox, the 650 was the only machine of the four to retain CV carburettors. It also exhausted through just one of the twin mufflers – the other was reserved for overboost.
For many, the XJ typified what was wrong with these early attempts at turbocharging a motorcycle. It was only a few tenths quicker than a stock XJ650 over the standing quarter, with the real benefit from the 85-horse power claim failing to kick in until you were doing stratospheric speeds. In between, you had to juggle a power lag as the puffer got up to useful pressure.
While now looking dated, the angular lines of the machine were cutting edge and attractive at the time, however it wasn’t enough to convince many people to empty their wallet.
5. Suzuki XN85 turbo
Launched pretty much at the same time as the Yamaha, Suzuki’s oddly-named XN85 was a near match in the power stakes, though it ran a slightly larger 670 engine. Like Honda, the company opted for an IHI turbo for the injected machine, in this case mounted on top of the transmission.
All of the turbos had at least a couple of new features to boast about, though the 85 was fair bristling with them. It was the first time the company used the Full Floater rear monoshock design on a road bike, there was a 16-inch front wheel (mimicking the GP bikes of the day) and the under-piston oil-cooling jets used in the later GSX-Rs were being trialled on this machine.
Only 1153 were made, which might make it a contender for the lowest production number but it also says a lot about how hard it was to sell one.
Tackling an orphan
While there are plenty more 1980s orphans out there, we’ve picked this list as interesting and fun rides.
So should you tackle an orphan of your own? Low sales volumes mean that parts and repair knowledge can be tricky to find, depending on how radical the bike really is.
Engines often present far less of an issue than bodywork and sometimes sophisticated electrical equipment.
In many cases, buying a good clean one at a considerable price premium will ultimately be cheaper than the restoration of a sad example.
One thing we can recommend is do a little research before handing over the cash. A good starting point is searching online for parts and seeing what’s out there.
If resale value is a concern, keep in mind that rarity does not necessarily mean a rich profit years down the track. Something that was deeply unpopular in the 1980s may still be as desirable as deep-fried broccoli on a stick, decades later.
A quirky eighties transport of delight can be a hell of a lot of fun to play with and, with these things, there’s not much chance of striking matching T-shirt syndrome down at the local coffee stop.