One grand wonders
Take a look through your favourite bike website – SuperBike, of course – and you’ll notice the amount of brand-spanking-new, shiny metal staring you in the face. From your iPad. As you crimp out a length.
While it’s nice to look at the latest technology, design and engineering, if you haven’t got the cash to blow on a new bike or aren’t willing to get PCP’d up to your eyeballs, it might feel a bit irrelevant. So what if, for your first bike you’re on a more modest budget, say… £1000? A bag of sand can still bag you a first bike that you’ll learn loads on and have fun with, and there’s plenty of variety out there to suit different tastes, so here’s 10 different one grand wonders to start you the road to riding nirvana.
First big bikes don’t come more reliable, friendly and easygoing than the Honda CB500. You can’t go wrong with a CB500 and if you’re after a bike that can do it all (including racing – the CB500 is the bike that sent James Toseland on his way to two WSBK titles), then look no further.
The CB’s economical parallel-twin engine is bulletproof and with regular servicing, will clock 100k miles without issue. Honda’s legendary quality means that getting a minter should be easy, but older bikes might need fine tuning – think cam chain tension, carb setup and a valve clearance check.
When buying, check out the exhaust – the silencer and header pipes are notorious for rusting. If there’s evidence of lock wiring (check the sump bolt, brakes, holes in various bolt heads) give it a miss – you don’t want one that’s been raced. Parts are readily available but with Thundersport 500 racers snapping them up, grabbing a bargain can sometimes take some searching.
Prices: A mint condition CB500 from 1994 – 2000 will set you back between £700 – £900, depending on mileage, which might be up to 50k. Cheaper bikes can be had for as little for £500, but will need a bit of TLC.
Some people think the Suzuki SV650 is the best bike ever and it’s not hard to see why – it’s a budget blaster with a characterful 645cc V-twin dishing out up to 73bhp, with a good chassis and brakes. The result is a torquey bike with sweet handling – one that’s as at home tearing up a track day as it is commuting. It comes in two flavours – naked and the more popular semi-faired S model, with a shorter wheelbase and more sporty ride position.
Early SVs (1999/2000) weren’t renowned for their build quality, with fasteners and screws prone to corrosion. Lower fork legs are also known to corrode and the front cylinder also bears the brunt of road spray in poor conditions, with water sometimes finding a way into the front spark plug hole.
SVs are popular with minitwins racer so look for evidence of it being put to work on track – heavily marked wheels (indicating lots of tyre changes), evidence of lock wiring, no original fairings, scrapes on the engine cases/swingarm could all point to a chequered (flag) past.
Prices: An original SV650S from 1999/2000, in good nick with around 30,000 miles is likely to set you back between £800 to £95
If there was an award for a classic first bike, the DT125 would be odds-on to win because like your mum it’s cheap, easy to ride and can handle a bit of rough.
If you’re in the market for this eighth-litre off-road razzer, there are a few things you need to know. Make sure your potential new bike doesn’t have a dodgy past – scrote thieves love to steal these and tear round council estates on them. A HPI check and inspection of whether the frame and engine numbers match is a good place to start. Check whether the steering lock and ignition has been molested too.
Because DT’s are the choice of yoofs who want to do cool shit like learn to wheelie, it’s worth checking the head bearings aren’t shagged from countless hours spent monoing. Ditto for fork seals. If there are a lot of miles on the clock, find out if the engine has been rebuilt, when that was, and make sure the chain and sprockets aren’t completely badgered, although if they are, it’s a cheap fix.
Prices: Bagging a DT125 from the ‘80s could cost as little as £400, but its carb, suspension and chain/sprockets might need some attention. A runner from the ‘90s should be within reach for £900.
Gilera Runner 125
When it comes to sporty scooters for a grand or less, there’s only one bike worth looking at – the Gilera Runner 125. It’s the most badass 125 scooter going, which is why it’s a favourite with wheelie-pulling urban urchins; it’s got the looks, the performance and handling to tear up any city centre.
Because Runners are often run by yoofs, you want to look for signs of crashes – damaged bodywork and bar ends are the main giveaways but on older sub-£1k models, getting one that’s totally mint might be a challenge. On the plus side, you might find some potent skunk under the seat.
Make sure the front wheel points forward when the bars are straight – when these get crashed, the front wheel can easily get knocked out of alignment which might signal the fork being bent or being twisted, or possibly even chassis damage.
Prices: £600 will get you a slightly tatty but mechanically sound 125cc Runner from 2003 but if you’re willing to splurge up to the full £1k, a newer, (late 00s) will get you tidy runner of a Runner.
With its unmistakable outline, Suzuki’s first 600cc supersport bike, the SRAD Gixxer Six, is one of the most iconic 600s ever. The 90hp on tap puts it at a disadvantage compared to more modern 600cc sports bikes, but the SRAD is still capable of delivering a rad time and it’s a bargain.
SRAD GSX-R600s are likely to have had hard lives being ragged on road and track. With the cam chain tensioners known for being crap, if you can hear the engine rattling at idle, it probably needs some attention (not too costly to fix). Some people question Suzuki’s build quality because of soft, corrosion-prone fasters and peeling paint on fork bottoms but that’s not too surprising considering the age of these bikes. Fuel pump problems are a known issue.
Other than that, check the condition of the chain and sprockets, fork seals and see how the engine runs. Chavvy, low budget mods could indicate uncaring, mechanically unsympathetic knobhead owners, and if that person has cocked about with the wiring to fit tiny indicators or some horrific neon light kit, you might have problems on your hands.
Prices: Upwards of £800 will bag you a good runner from 1996/97 that should be in OK condition for its age, with around 30k miles and nice additions like a fruity can and aftermarket levers.
If you’re the kind of rider with ambitions to hit every apex and scuff your knee sliders at the earliest opportunity, Kawasaki’s pocket rocket ZXR400 is the bike that’ll set you on a path to sports bike glory. With only 60ish ponies on tap from its 399cc inline-four, this scaled-down sports bike isn’t mega powerful but it is pokey for a 400, plus it’s light and handles superbly. These qualities means that it’s the ideal bike to teach you how to carry corner speed, which is so fundamental to fast riding – learn to go quick on this and you’ll go quick on anything.
When buying, look out for corroded header pipes (they’re made of mild steel and prone to rotting). Make sure it runs sweetly – if not, the carbs could be worn, not just in need of setting up; ZXR400 carbs are known for wearing out. Listen for any odd engine noises at tickover – it could need a new cam chain tensioner or lots of rattling could indicate a tired top end; ZXR400s will have spent a lot of time at very high revs.
Prices: You’ll be spending the full £1k here and for that you should be able to get a good, running, mechanically sound bike from the early 1990s with an MOT, but it’ll likely need some aesthetic attention and may have scratched or cracked fairing panels.
If you’re looking for something cheap and easy-to-ride that’s not sat in your local low-rent knocking shop, Honda’s CBF250 is it. This 250cc machine definitely isn’t a quarter-litre lap record beater, but a friendly, forgiving and cheap-to-run bike that’ll handle all your daily duties. It’s small and nimble, has a smooth engine and in typical Honda style, is well built (if basic) but for learners, new riders and commuters, it’s spot on.
CBF250s are pretty solid, but find out what kind of service history is on offer and inspect the bike to see if it’s been looked after – with a grand to spend, you can afford to avoid tatty bikes that need money spending on them.
Prices: A tidy bike from the mid-00s should be easily picked up for £1,000 or less. £700 will get you a well looked after bike from around 2005, with north of 30k miles on the clock.
Think of Suzuki’s GS500’s as you would the Honda CB500 – it’s a cheap, hardy, economical bike that’s great for new riders to build confidence on. If that sounds like you, you’ll be glad to know that the smooth, bulletproof 487cc parallel twin-cylinder engine has enough in reserve to keep you entertained once you’ve found your feet. It comes in two flavours – unfaired and faired (GS500F). Older models get the GS500E name, but they’ll be pre 2001, and a tidy bike from 2001 onwards is easily within your range with a big one in your wallet.
Engines are solid but electrics get tired with age so regulators can go (but are simple and cheap to replace). Check that the area around the rear shock is free from corrosion and that the swingarm doesn’t look like it’s been eaten by salt and road grime.
Prices: £800 will get you a tidy, mechanically sound bike from the early 90s with around 30k miles, but if your budget doesn’t stretch that far, a high mileage (45k+ miles) MOT’d and ready-to-ride bike can be had for as little as £500.
Yamaha YZF600 Thundercat
If something like a GSX-R600 seems too lairy and inconvenient then Yamaha’s more easygoing and practical YZF600 Thundercat should get you purring. As fully-faired 600s go, it’s not as focused as the Suzuki and has soft suspension but the Yamaha’s four-cylinder motor is smooth and thanks to a good spread of power, flexible too. As friendly first sports bikes go, the YZF600 is a winner.
When it comes to pulling the trigger on one, make sure you test ride it to find out what the gearbox and fuelling is like. Pin it through the first three gears and see how the Thundercat feels – YZF600s had occasional gearbox problems so if it jumps out of gear and runs like shit, find another. Make sure the exhaust isn’t rotted to buggery (the downpipes in particular) and check the swingarm for signs of corrosion.
Prices: A Thundercat will probably take up the whole of your budget, but for £1000, you’ll be able to get a clean, sweet running bike with service history, and current MOT from around the turn of the century with less than 30k miles.
A cheeky Chinese
We’re partial to a cheap Chinese, but usually on the way home from the pub after five pints. There are plenty of Chinese bikes on offer in the UK and while we can’t vouch for how good they taste, we can tell you that they’re cheap as chow mein.
If you’re up for giving a Chinese bike a try, you can get big bang for your buck. With Chinese 125s and 250s costing as little as £1300 new (the WK RT 125 is £1299, the Lexmoto Aspire 125 is £1399 and the Sinnis Max II Max is £1350), the secondhand market is full of cheap bargains. New Chinese scooters easily cost less than £1000 – Lexmoto offer three sub-£1k models, so do Sinnis).
Before you rush out to buy a Chinese bike, it’s worth considering one thing: quality. Chinese bikes simply aren’t at the same level of quality as Japanese machinery. There’s a reason they’re inexpensive: they use cheap, often poor-quality parts (plastics, wiring, engine internals, crap tyres, brakes you’ve never heard of, etc). It means bikes are susceptible to corrosion, wearing out quickly, and not performing as well as they should. With that in mind, consider whether a Chinese bike will save you money in the long run, or whether you wished you’d bought a more expensive but better-made Japanese machine that will last longer and be more reliable.