Are Japanese retro bikes the Next Big Thing?

Kawasaki is about to unveil a new retro naked bike, the Z900 RS (teaser video below). And while nobody is talking much about it right now, this could be one of the most influential motorcycles released this fall, as it could build a lot of interest in a very underserved market: the Japanese retro bike.

Such bikes do exist already. The Big Four have been pumping out motorcycles with throwback styling for decades, arguably starting with the Yamaha XS-1. Yamaha’s first big four-stroke, unveiled in 1969, bore a remarkable resemblance to the Brit bikes that had dominated the motorcycling world in the previous decade.

Since then, the Japanese factories, while known for their technical innovation, have also pumped out many retro models, like the Kawasaki W650, the Yamaha Bolt C-Spec, the Suzuki TU250X and the Honda GB500. But almost all these models had something in common: ultimately, they referenced someone else’s history. They emulated classic British, European or American designs, not Japanese bikes.

Once in a while, a Japanese OEM does build something that recalls its glory days, but it’s rare. The discontinued Kawasaki ZRX1200 is certainly one of the most successful and most-loved of these machines, and the Honda CB1100 is probably the most prominent example in recent history. These bikes both hark back to a time when the inline-four engine was king, and the Japanese were locked in cutthroat competition for salesroom supremacy. But for some reason, these tributes come along very infrequently.

Currently, the Honda CB1100 is the only inline four-powered retro model available from Japan.

However, changes in cultural demographics mean changes in buying patterns; the time has never been better for a Japanese retro revival, and the manufacturers know it.

There are two kinds of customer who would be interested in a machine based on classic Universal Japanese Motorcycles. The first is the boomer who doesn’t want a Harley-Davidson, but is still interested in retro styling.

If they weren’t worried about the look of their bike, the choice used to be easy for those buyers: purchase a naked bike or adventure bike, and call it a day. But as naked bikes get increasingly uglier and adventure bikes one-up their way up the spec sheets, buyers who just want a good-looking, reasonably powerful bike for a bit of backroad fun are left wanting. Many of these customers learned to ride on big four-cylinder machines from the KZ, CB, GS and XS lines, and would be very happy to see a modern equivalent.

There have been plenty of successful Japanese retro bikes over the years, but most have referenced machines from other makers, like this Honda GB400 which harks back to British racers.

The other buyer for the Japanese retro bike is the jaded millennial (a.k.a. hipsters). Today’s younger buyer is concerned with authenticity, individuality, and eventually, reliability. Many of these buyers have already spent a few months turning crappy old UJMs into poorly-running cafe racers, and they’re ready to take a bold step into brand-new vehicle ownership (as soon as they move out of mom and dad`s basement). Wrenching will never be as fun as riding, and that makes new bikes much more appealing.

But wait, you say — I thought millennials had no money? Well, somebody’s buying all those BMW R NineTs and Triumph T100s and T120s and Ducati Scramblers for the reasons listed above, and you can bet the Big Four would love to get a piece of that pie. The Euro manufacturers are making truckloads of money selling modern classics today, and the Japanese can cash in, if they have a mind to.

The new 900 is likely to be the first foray into that market, but it’s interesting to speculate where the future could lead. Many of Japan’s most successful bikes were mid-sized inline fours; might we see a Z650 with retro lines? And what about sportbikes with throwback styling? Nobody’s really making sportbikes with the classic filled-out lines that typified the late 1980s and 1990s. Might Suzuki recall its classic Gixxers and bring out a retro-styled sportbike, with big, googly round headlights?

Nobody’s dared to make such a move, but you can bet that if it happens, people will buy it.

Rarely does a motorcycle manufacturer combine up-to-date capability with retro design. Yamaha’s XSR series tries hard, and does have decent performance, but it doesn’t really look like any classic Japanese bikes.

It’s particularly interesting to note the Z900 RS seems to emphasize retro styling, but also looks like it will come with decent components. Kawasaki’s teaser video shows radial-mount brakes, and of course, the Z900 RS is built on the existing Z900 chassis.

Hopefully this means Kawasaki built the bike with performance in mind, which would be a welcome change in the world of retro machines; traditionally, manufacturers have been content to let styling sell those bikes, and throwback motorcycles typically have less horsepower, more weight, and cheaper components than other naked bikes. Honda’s CB1100 is a good example of this; with a 249 kg curb weight and 89 hp, it’s almost the same weight as the old CB900 series, and produces the same power, even though the 900 has a smaller motor and was built 30 years ago. Because CB1100 buyers are primarily buying it for the styling, they’re willing to put up with less power and more weight.

Yamaha’s XSR series might be an exception to this, as those bikes are built around competent FZ-07 and FZ-09 platforms (but still lacking some of the features of those bikes), but despite the marketing, their styling doesn’t bring back memories of much other than the glory days of Transformers.

This is the the goal Kawasaki should strive for: a bike with retro superbike looks, but modern components and capability. The ZRX1200 pictured here filled that description, and was well-loved for it.

So, it’s possible the Z900 RS might be unique in today’s market, combining classic Japanese looks and ergos with performance in a package we haven’t seen since another Kawasaki classic: the ZRX1200 series. Those are big shoes to fill, but if Kawasaki can do it, this machine could be the right bike at the right time, and if it’s also at the right price, expect sales success to follow.

8 thoughts on “Are Japanese retro bikes the Next Big Thing?”

  1. Very good write-up Zac!
    Boomers have been buying retro muscle cars like the new Camaro, Mustang & Challengers since they became available several years ago and I believe the same will happen with bikes.
    I have two ZRX’s and can’t wait for the USA release of the RS, especially considering how great the Z900 is.
    Dan

  2. still love my TU250x! would love to see more new UJM-style bikes as the choices out there are few and far between if you’re looking to buy a newer bike.

  3. I’m with ya, Zack! I can’t wait to see what Kawasaki has in store for us with the RS. The Z900 is already one of the best things on two wheels, but with some properly beautiful styling, it could really be a complete winner. I nearly pulled the trigger last year on the XSR 900 because of its blend of beauty and genuine performance chops, but ultimately saved a few pennies and went for the used Street Triple R instead.

  4. Retro bikes are also typically far more expensive than their transformer cousins. e.g. The XSR700 lists for $9699 versus the mechanically identical FZ-07 at $7999.

    I’d like to ride one, but I don’t want to be *taken* for a ride.

  5. UJMs (Universal Japanese Motorcycles) come with round headlights and slab seats.
    We shall see if Kawasaki gets the fundamental esthetics right ?

  6. Spot on Zack.. I’m of the latter group having started on a 1979 Yamaha SR500 and currently on a 1998 Sportster Sport (XL1200s); I became ready to get on a brand new bike only after the announcement of this z900RS.. I’d like to see what Honda comes out with as well in November under the NSC project they released teased.

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