15th November 2019

Classic Bike Legends: Do They Measure Up?

Never meet your heroes, they say; you’ll only be disappointed. When a classic bike is elevated to legendary status how can it ever live up to the hype? If you mainly ride modern bikes, you probably think your first ride on any of the famous oldies will be a bit of a let-down. In fact, there are quite a few surprises.

Let’s start with a mad two-stroke, the Kawasaki 750 H2 triple. Anybody growing up in the 60s and 70s will have heard the tales of a dangerous combination of explosive power and dubious handling. In fact, the later models were quite well sorted and are really just big ‘pussycats’ with plenty of low down torque, and handling no worse than their contemporaries. They do, however, vibrate harshly through the footrests and can get through a gallon of fuel in just 25 miles. The compensation is that charismatic two-stroke crackle from the three separate silencers, and the accompanying aroma. They definitely don’t make them like this anymore.

In the four-stroke camp, what could be more of a legend than the Honda CBX six? Reputed to be unwieldy and restricted in cornering ability because of its engine’s width, in truth, they steer with precision and can be hustled along a twisty road with enthusiasm for as long as you have the necessary muscle power. The sound, especially when howling through an aftermarket exhaust, is so utterly addictive that any shortcomings, such as having to keep six carbs in tune, are immediately forgiven.

Enthusiasts of Italian machinery have their own heroes and at the top of the pile is probably the Ducati 900SS Desmo vee-twin. With a thunderous roar from its chrome meggas, the big Duke punches you down the road like a giant fist yet smooths out as the revs climb, quite unlike a parallel twin. High-speed stability is peerless, if at the expense of flickability at lower speeds. Mike Hailwood’s famous comeback victory in the 1978 TT races, against more powerful four-cylinder bikes, underlined the Ducati’s abilities over bumpy high-speed surfaces and added further to its legendary status.

And what of the BSA Gold Star? In its final incarnation as the DBD34 with clip-ons, close-ratio gearbox and ‘twittering’ silencer, this machine has been put on a pedestal by successive generations. And rightly so. It isn’t so much the acceleration – this is only a 500 single and is highly geared – but the outrageous high-speed stamina which sets it apart. The Goldie is quite happy to sustain 80, 90 or 100mph for as long as the rider can manage, with road holding and steering to match. It’s incredible to think that this is a product of the 1950s yet is able to hold its own with high-speed inter-city traffic in the 21st century. Even more amazing is the fact that BSA developed it from the plodding 70mph B33 model which shares 90% of its parts.

Have you experienced a legendary motorcycle? Did it live up to your expectations? Let us know in the comments.

I always wanted a Norton Commando but couldn't afford one, forty years later I bought one which is nearly eight years ago. I love the bike, good fun and reliable. The modern bikes a BMWR1250GS.

Kev the younger., 23/11/2019

Any one growing up in the sixties will not have seen an H2, they didn’t arrive until 1972...

Doogle, 22/11/2019

Running a 72 Norton Commando 750 a great bike minimal vibes and handles sweetly.

Ninja, 21/11/2019