Slant: Honda, Kawasaki have taken the UJM full circle

You might not know it, but we’re living in exciting times. With the new Honda Rebel lineup and Kawasaki’s updated 650 lineup, we’re now seeing the first true modern Universal Japanese Motorcycles.

The Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM, for short) is a much-discussed phenomenon of the 1970s and early 1980s, when the Big Four (Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki) all had very similar product offerings, and they all saw big sales numbers. The typical UJM had an air-cooled four-stroke engine, dual rear shocks, and upright riding position, and the public bought millions of them.

But it wasn’t just the combination of engine, suspension, and ergonomics that made the UJM great. What made the UJM concept great was that these motorcycles were accessible; there was something for everyone. Want a cruiser? Suzuki had the GS450L for you. Want a cafe racer? Ride off on a GS450E. And if all you wanted was a basic, standard motorcycle, there was the GS450T.

Every manufacturer did this, with sport machines, low riders, and standards all built off the same basic platform. It kept prices low, there was lots of variety available, and the bikes were mostly reliable, easy to ride and versatile. You could ride your Suzuki GS750 across town, or across the country.

The Suzuki GS750: Suitable for riding across town, or across the country. All the manufacturers had similar models, and they mostly sold very well.

Surprisingly, it’s taken the Big Four about 30 years to get back to this formula, with Kawasaki and Honda being the first.

Kawasaki was arguably the first manufacturer making UJMs this millennium, with its 650 parallel twin platform. Team Green already had a naked bike (ER-6n), a sportbike (Ninja 650) and an adventure bike (Versys 650) based on the platform, but in 2015, the Vulcan S cruiser sealed the deal. On the 2016 show circuit, Kawasaki unveiled the new Z650, named after the original Z650 of the 1970s, one of the most-loved UJMs of its time.

Kawasaki’s new Z650 is a nod to Team Green’s popular naked bike of the 1970s, known in Canada as the KZ650.

But it’s this year’s Honda Rebels that are the most exciting news, because they’re proof the industry is once more willing to explore a market that UJMs once dominated: the pocket cruiser.

Most riders are familiar with the long-running Honda Rebel 250, but before that bike hit showrooms, all the Japanese manufacturers had cruisers with engines smaller than 500 cc, with engines borrowed from other UJMs.

And they sold a lot of them, because they were affordable when compared to a Big Twin. The undersized cruisers were much easier to handle than a full-sized 750-class or 1000-class superbike, with unintimidating low seat heights, and they were cheaper to insure. The people who bought them were more concerned with low rider styling than they were with the brand name on the gas tank. And despite experienced riders poo-pooing the machines as underpowered, many of these bikes could hold their own on the highway. Some could even do the ton.

The Suzuki GS450L. Today, these pocket cruisers are considered a styling abomination, but at the time, the Big Four sold a lot of these bikes.

We’re in the same position today with Honda’s Rebel 300 and Rebel 500. That 300 (actually a liquid-cooled 286 cc thumper) also powers the CBR300 and CB300F, which have no trouble handling freeway speed.

A 250 version of that engine also powers the CRF250 Rally and the CRF250L dual sport bike. That’s the same versatility that the manufacturers employed 40 years ago.

The Rebel 500 is the same, with a sport bike, a naked bike, an adventure bike and now a cruiser all powered by a 471 cc liquid-cooled parallel twin that will take you down the highway at extra-legal speeds all day long.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the new Rebel lineup shares a similar design philosophy with the pocket cruisers of the past.

Most importantly, the new Rebels seem poised to exploit the same fashion-conscious market that Ducati already hit hard with the Scrambler brand. If you dig cruiser looks but aren’t hung up on owning a V-twin, the Rebels have bold styling, bright paint, and are easily modified towards further cosmetic changes.

Honda’s marketeers have been clever enough to portray the bikes as the entry to a hip, fun-loving lifestyle, one that today’s cash-strapped millennials can actually afford. It’s all about riding to the beach with your buddies, instead of hitting apexes and dragging your knee. It’s about making motorcycles easy to ride, and easy to buy. Expect huge sales as a result.

The future

So Kawasaki has developed a few bikes around its 650 platform, and Honda is selling funky new Rebels. So what? How does it affect the rest of us?

Be assured the rest of the industry is taking careful notes on the success of these bikes. If Honda’s pocket cruisers sell well, it would be unsurprising to see Kawasaki drop its 300 cc engine into a similar frame. And the same goes for Suzuki, which has already shoehorned its made-in-China GW250 engine into a naked bike, a couple of different sportbike models, and an adventure bike.

Suzuki has already shown it’s willing to adapt its GW250 platform to different motorcycle styles. It’s back to the future all over again for the Big Four these days.

There could also be a payoff for experienced riders. If motorcyclists think a parallel twin cruiser is okay, what about a three-cylinder cruiser? Yamaha could take its FJ-09 motor, build a modern muscle cruiser chassis around it, and corner a section of the market that’s been stagnant for years. Or maybe we’ll see that T7 Tenere adventure bike hit the market, another savvy re-use of existing technology. Maybe the Honda 650 adventure prototype we saw at EICMA a couple years ago will become a reality, or maybe Suzuki will explore the idea of once again building a sportbike around its V-Strom 1000 engine.

In short, what we might see is the re-emergence of market options that have mostly disappeared as motorcyclists demanded more specialization: Superbikes that were more super, cruisers that were built solely for cruising, and so on. We could finally see motorcycles built for all-round motorcycling, and that would be a good thing for everyone.

 

12 thoughts on “Slant: Honda, Kawasaki have taken the UJM full circle”

  1. The GS450L is not a ‘styling abomination’, rather far from it.
    The new Honda Rebel on the other hand, is frighteningly horrid looking. Man, what were the stylists at Honda thinking? Yikes!

        1. The thing about all those bikes is that they had soft, flowing lines and a reasonable seating position WRT seat/footpegs. Adding a 1/3-1/2 size windscreen and you could stay comfy for a long while. Admittedly, I was more mainstream UJM, e.g., KZ650C or RD400F with slightly low “superbike” bars. With bars and seats being most of the difference in riding position, those cruisers were quite comfy.

          IMO, YMMV and all that.

    1. A quick glance at the Rebel would seem to indicate Honda “stylists” had little to do with the bike’s design… It looks more like a “build” that a 15-year-old might cobble together with old parts his
      big brother was tossing out…

      1. Dave Mazz – I agree and I would add that you’re being generous on the maturity of the ‘stylist’. I feel that skills of the Honda Rebel stylists is more in line with ‘pre-school’ children and finger painting…

  2. Agree, to a point. A lot of the motorcycles you mention as the “new” UJMs aren’t even built in Japan. For me, something like the current Honda CB1100 is more evocative of the traditional UJM in terms of its model type (standard) and styling cues (e.g., metal fenders, round headlight, analogue instruments). Of course, it’s hefty price consigns it to low sales volumes, but its closest to the UJMs I remember from my youth.

  3. Amen to this – parts bin engineering has been overlooked for a couple of decades, its good to see the manufacturers rediscovering their roots.
    If it puts more bums in the seats, that’s a really good thing.

      1. Cool. Had one…flipped it to the 1980 colour with cam chain tensioner, seat and bolted on a real kick from a KZ1000. Had the chance to get one in excellent condition a couple yrs back fir $5K and kick my arse I didn’t…too many other toys…

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