The decade of disco may have been unkind to cars, but it was a golden age for motorcycles. In the 1970s, bike manufacturers dodged the double-whammy of becoming fuel-efficient almost overnight (unlike ‘60s-era Detroit four-wheel dreadnoughts) and measuring up to new draconian emissions-control requirements, which didn't yet apply to motorcycles. While the car industry struggled to cope with these new burdens, the bike industry was able to focus on what mattered — looks, power and style.
Best of all, some of these classic bikes still are around — and affordable.
There are several "high-water mark" models from the ‘70s some of which can be bought for about the cost of a decent used Toyota Corolla, around $5,000 or so. And if you're good with tools and don't mind some hands-on wrenching, solid "riders" that may need some help — but still are perfectly functional — can be acquired for half that amount.
Here are a few "best bikes" from the days of disco:
• 1973-75 Kawasaki Z1900. The first full-on Japanese superbike still is a very potent machine more than 30 years after it was introduced.
With 82 horsepower on tap from its air-cooled, 903cc dual-overhead cam four-cylinder engine, the big "Kaw" had the grunt to run 12.5-second quarter miles ? as quick as a 2004 Corvette Z06 ? and topped out at nearly 140 mph, blazing speed in those days. This is a big, good-looking bike that's comfortable, easy to ride — and sturdy as oak.
In 1976, the Z1 became the KZ900, but it's essentially the same bike. An LTD variant also was offered that year. It featured dual front disc brakes (instead of the standard bike's single disc), mag wheels (instead of spokes), a different seat and bright candy-apple-red paint job unique to that model.
In 1977, engine displacement was bumped to 1000cc, and the bike became the KZ1000. And in 1978, Kawasaki unleashed the Z1-R, a special high-performance variant with bikini fairing to cut down wind resistance at speed, larger 28mm carburetors — and 90 horsepower at 8,000 RPM. While the early Z1900s and the Z1-R can be pricey, the nearly identical (and more plentiful) KZ900 and KZ1000 can be purchased in very nice shape for anywhere from $2,500 to $4,000.
Near-perfect ‘76 LTDs currently fetch about $6,000. This also is about what you can expect to pay for a mint-condition, "early" (‘73-'75) Z1900.
• 1970 Honda CB750. We're used to fast, reliable bikes today and take them for granted. But in late 1969, when the CB750 made its debut, most motorcycles were neither.
Engines that struggled to make 80 mph — or run right for more than a few days at a time without needing to be fiddled with — were about as good as it got. So when the CB750 appeared — with in-line single overhead cam four-cylinder, electric starter (with kick-start back-up), five-speed gearbox, disc brakes and all — it was like being fast-forwarded 20 years into the future.
While not lightning fast by modern sport bike standards, the CB750 has 67 horsepower and more than enough poke to be enjoyed in traffic on modern roads. It's also a forgiving (to your rear) cruiser that can be taken out for long trips, and its reliability is as strong today as it was then.
As the ‘70s wore on, Honda also offered a smaller-displacement CB500 and even a CB350F with 32 horsepower. These are three-fourths-size CB750s and share the same look and layout.
All are wonderful old bikes that have the virtue of being like modern bikes in their lack of fussiness and ease of upkeep. Five thousand dollars should be plenty sufficient to acquire a well-preserved/restored CB750.
• 1977 Harley-Davidson XLCR1000 "cafe racer." One of the more interesting old Harleys is the black sheep of the family — literally.
While most people associate the Harley name with the big chromed-out cruisers that are the company's mainstay, in 1977, Harley design chief Willie G. Davidson decided to throw a Molotov cocktail into the ever-growing crowd of Japanese sport bikes. The XLCR1000 was unlike any Harley before or since.
Willie G. started out with a Sportster frame and 998cc 45-degree V-twin engine and powder-coated the whole thing "Darth Vader black," right down to the piston barrels and low-profile fuel tank. He then added a bikini fairing to cheat the wind ? and facilitate 120-mph top-end bursts — plus straight bars, set-back foot pegs, black anodized mag wheels, dual front discs (single disc in the rear), a race-style seat and high-performance unequal-length dual exhaust to boost the midrange torque spread of the throbbing V-Twin. It was b-b-bad to the bone!
Though it wasn't as vicious in a straight line or on a curve as the best import sport bikes, the XLCR had more than enough attitude to make up for that. Few bikes are as cool to roll into a parking lot on — or kick start to life. Only 3,124 of the black beauties were built between 1977 and the last year, 1979. If you find one, grab it. Retail prices range from around $6,200 in average shape to $12,000 for a really nice "mint" example.
• 1975 Triumph Trident T160. British bikes ? Nortons, BSA and Triumphs — always have had character.
And the last of the Triumph Tridents was among the best of the breed. In an effort to catch up to the Japanese, the ailing Triumph company revamped the three-cylinder Trident, giving the machine a new, more stylish gas tank, electric starter and a neutral light — three features earlier model T150 Tridents lacked. The T160 also got a new frame, and the bike's 740cc engine was angled forward for better weight distribution. New "shorty" forks that were more steeply raked and a longer swingarm — which gives the bike more control and stability — gave the bike graceful lines prettied up by extensive chrome work and polished aluminum casings.
The bike also featured a solid rear disc brake instead of the usual (and inadequate) drum. This is a good-looking bike, and one of the nicest examples of classic British machinery that's both reasonably affordable as well as ridable you'll find.
Prices range from around $3,900 to more than $6,000 for a "mint" version.
• 1977 Suzuki GS750. Before Suzuki's 200-mph GSXR, there was the GS750, fountainhead of all modern Suzuki sport bikes.
The GS750 was Suzuki's first large-displacement four-stroke bike — and the model built to dethrone the then-king of fast Japanese bikes, Kawasaki's Z1900.
Though the original GS's 68 horsepower rating was 14 horsepower shy of the big "Kaw's" impressive 82 horsepower, the GS's lighter weight made it a close contest. But the GS did ace-out the Z1 in handling, especially at higher speeds — where the Z1 was notoriously sketchy and required a combination of fearlessness and stupidity to push past 130.
Like the Z1, this bike and its descendants were built in large numbers, and thus decent examples still are available to ride and restore. The GS was built for three years but laid the groundwork for today's monster machines like the GSXR1100 Hayabusa — one of the world's quickest and fastest street-legal motorcycles.
The bargain of the bunch, these retail for about $1,500 for those in nice shape to less than $3,500 for a near-perfect one.
Classic bike bennies
Not only are old bikes like these neat to own and ride, they're also a sound investment. Unlike a brand-new bike, which like a new car loses value the moment the 30-day tags go on, a classic motorcycle will at least retain its value, if not appreciate. So if you ever get tired of it, you'll be able to walk away anytime without dropping a wad of cash. You may even make a few bucks. (This helps with the spouse/significant other.)
Also, like classic cars, classic/antique bikes are eligible for classic/antique/specialty insurance coverage that generally is much less expensive — and offers better coverage — than a regular policy. And finally: You can get "historic" tags in most states for any machine over 25 years old that exempt you from having to wait in line for an annual safety inspection.
And that means no ugly decals to peel off your shiny forks.
Eric Peters is an automotive columnist who has covered the auto industry since 1992. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, among other publications. E-mail him at Epeters952@aol.com">firstname.lastname@example.org.