Modern Throwback Motorcycles Versus Real Retros

Are old motorcycles really worth the hassle?

retro racer
"The road to retro-racer paradise is littered with half-finished, non-running CBs, RDs, and XSs."Julia LaPalme

When I see a Honda CB350 with an audibly loose cam chain or a smoking SR500 rolling down the street, I cringe. Don't get me wrong: I love old bikes, and I like seeing them on the road. I was raised around vintage bikes, I own several, and I restore them for myself and for others because I relish the raw simplicity of '60s and '70s era machines. My unease stems from the fact that I think vintage bikes are a terrible entry point into motorcycling, like deciding to try seafood and kicking things off with a big, cold cube of pickled shark.

Learning how to ride isn’t easy, so why make things more difficult by starting out on a bike that’s liable to be hard to start and have feeble brakes, crummy tires, leaky carburetors, crumbling air filters, clapped-out suspension that was crap four decades ago, and a schizophrenic electrical system? New riders need all the help they can get, so why forfeit so much functionality and safety and subject yourself to the strife of owning a finicky old bike?

We want more people to join the fold, and a bad first experience from an unreliable, scary-to-ride bike might frighten folks away from motorcycling for good. Or worse. It's the same line of reasoning that compels experienced riders to warn newbies away from 1,000cc sportbikes and other similarly powerful-yet-alluring machines. We know it's a recipe for disappointment.

I understand the temptation. Café racers, scramblers, and their ilk are crazy cool right now. Everyone wants so badly to be "authentic," and what's more genuine than a proper vintage bike, brought back to life and customized with your own two hands? It's a romantic and compelling vision indeed, but making an old bike road worthy usually entails far more time, money, and frustration than anticipated. And that's if you already know how to set points, sync carbs, and diagnose electrical gremlins. If that café or scrambler build is going to be your first foray into mechanics, you may be in for a rough ride. Better to buy something reliable as a daily rider—even if it is uninspiring—and pursue that restoration in your leisure time. The road to retro-racer paradise is littered with half-finished, non-running CBs, RDs, and XSs.

That's why I'm grateful for the bevy of modern, retro-styled bikes that are beginning to dominate dealerships. Triumph, Ducati, BMW, Yamaha, and others are all responding to the café-racer craze and cranking out beautifully styled machines that wrap that '70s look around modern technology. These are bikes with fuel injection, ABS, solid-state ignition, tubless radial tires, sealed chains, and other 21st century features that make riding safer and more enjoyable. It's the aesthetic many riders want without all the maintenance, breakdowns, and headaches of owning an actual vintage bike.

So if you crave something classic, know that there’s a sensible alternative to that Craigslist buy that’s suffering from 40 years of deferred maintenance. A modern retro bike might not be completely authentic, but it will start when you want it to.