I am a product of the 1970s, the decade of the UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle), what’s become known as the “standard” motorcycle. I come from a generation that gazed at Bol d’Or or Suzuka specials on magazine covers and drooled. I was a “standard” guy by any measure, and my meager means at the time made it so. Much as I once drooled over a new Ducati 900SS sitting in a shop next to an equally alluring Darmah, I could no more afford those bikes at the time, much less the upkeep, than I could an Ivy League education. The beauty of those bikes though was evident right down to the attention to detail and artistry of the controls and rear-sets. But I was a rubber footpegs kind of guy; I was woefully standard.

By the time 1982 rolled around, I had actually saved a little money and was in the market for a new bike. That date is important. Unbeknownst to me and most others, the Age of the “Standard” was drawing to a close and on the way to being replaced by the Age of Specialization. What had once seemed unattainable, only gracing foreign paddocks of 24-hour endurance races, would soon be available in street trim in U.S. showrooms. The ubiquitous UJM would give way to cruisers and sportbikes, and later to even more niche markets involving power-cruisers and Paris-to-Dakar lookalikes. It took a few decades, but you would occasionally hear the passing of the UJM recalled by moto-scribes with a certain amount of lament.

I felt this passing acutely in 1983, a year after I bought a new 1982 Honda Sabre. In 1983 Honda introduced the Interceptor and everything was forever changed. Ninjas, GSX-Rs, VFRs and CBRs, and FZs and FZRs followed. If I had only known, I would have waited a year, and for once something other than “standard” would have been obtainable by my altogether standard income strata credit rating. What was lost on me then is what I would have missed if I had waited, I would have missed all the wonderful qualities of the “standard” motorcycle that only became evident when they were gone.

1982 Honda Sabre

What happens when a standard guy meets a standard 1982 Honda Sabre? He puts a TZ750 front fender on it, of course.

The simple fact is most of us live and ride in a “standard” world. It took me some years to learn that lesson, I’m a little slow on the uptake at times, and the RC51 sitting in the driveway is testament to that fact. But I recognize now the utility of utility, the value of the all-around motorcycle, one capable of being fun on the backroads yet also capable of lugging through rush-hour traffic or delivering you 750 miles away when the sun sets for the day. And I know the satisfaction that comes with making a ride your own. Standards were blank canvases that lent themselves to their owners’ modifications more so than many of the specialized rides that have come along in the intervening years.

My old Sabre was a case in point. A tip-over in a raucous barn-venue birthday party provided a great excuse to spend money getting it repainted. A tank, sidecovers, and tail section are rather simple to redo compared to acres of bodywork and does a lot more to alter the appearance, and a TZ750 front fender went on in place of the dented chromed OEM Honda piece. The Kerker replaced the stock exhaust that I crunched at speed on a buddy’s GS750 centerstand tang getting a little too rambunctious recreating the Isle of Man TT on the backroads of Kentucky. Little things like an S&W air fork balance kit were added and, before I knew it, I had the dubious claim of having a one of a kind Honda Sabre.

I know what you are thinking: “Well, so what?” I would probably think the same thing except for the fact that it was mine and I really liked it, and that is after all kind of the point of modifications and whatnot. That is why I have been encouraged by what I have seen in recent years with manufacturers introducing more standards or retro models into their lineup. I’ve taken particular notice of Yamaha’s Sport Heritage line.

Related: Duke’s Den: What Is Yamaha’s Sport Heritage Line?

These new bikes are far from the UJMs of old, though, in any pejorative sense. The fit, finish, and attention to detail in their planning and build quality is evidence of that fact, from Honda’s seamless gas tank on their CB1100EX to the Yamaha XSR700s use of removable tail-section mounts and fuel tank panels to further enable those who wish to customize and modify the bike. They are “standard” in the sense they harken back to timeless design qualities and ergonomic layouts that have worked throughout time, but they are beyond ordinary in any 1970s sense.

For those who lust after upgraded suspension components, Honda has teased us here with the Euro-only CB1100RS which complements its sibling, the CB1100EX.

For those who lust after upgraded suspension components, Honda has teased us here with the Euro-only CB1100RS which complements its sibling, the CB1100EX.

The degree to which these bikes emphasize retro as inspiration (XSR700) versus retro as spec sheet (CB1100EX) varies, but the theme is consistent: 1) Real world ergonomics, 2) Lends itself to customization, painting, etc., with minimal bodywork 3) Jack of all trades, interstate to backroad. The Yamaha XSR700, and its larger sibling, the XSR900, may most epitomize the modern evolution of the standard in contrast to the retro appeal and aesthetic of the air-cooled Honda CB1100EX. The degree to which you want to travel back in time is your choice.

The old UJM evoked images of mass production and affordability, and it became a pejorative term in a way implying cheap. But it turns out affordable was not cheap to make. All those air-cooling fins, graceful side covers, and valve covers cost money to manufacture if you aspire to an aesthetic standard somewhere north of roto-tiller.

To run sans fairing calls for a rediscovered appreciation for metal and attention to detail in components, and if they happen contribute to performance, all the better. Something that has been lost is that engines were once works of art to appreciate: The 4-into-1 exhaust of the early CB400F was a thing of beauty, the CBX mill was awesome to behold, and these were not things to cover up with plastic.

In the intervening years, engines morphed into efficient, water-cooled, plastic-covered, internal-combustion devices with all the allure of a sump pump. Plastic is cheap, while making attractive engines for the world to see is expensive. Today’s manufacturers struggle with those realities and try to balance aesthetic considerations against price-point priorities. The demands of the 21st century come with their own price; try making a catalytic converter attractive. No, really, please, anyone, try. Whoever figures that out will be the next George Kerker.

Yamaha XSR700

Yamaha’s XSR700 is a thoroughly modern interpretation of the “standards” of old, incorporating all the good of the new.

So I encourage you, those of you who live in the “standard” world filled with traffic and monthly bills, but also backroads and the occasional interstate adventure. Fall in love with a standard, get some soft bags, and maybe a vision of what you would like to see it become, money permitting, and ride the wheels off the thing. Clip-ons are for race tracks, and the front-leaning rest position is for basic training. “Standards” became standard for a reason: They are built for this world most of us live in, and they are uniquely suited to be modified in a way that is not “standard” at all. The bike, like the world, is what you make of it.

Ride hard, enjoy every mile, look where you want to go.

  • Fishsavannah

    Brought back some fond memories of an old CB 350 and a Radian, thanks.

    • dagobarbz, fine Italian shoes

      Radians were popular messenger bikes in SF in the late 80s. I remember the distinctive paint job.

      • Fishsavannah

        Was a great bike.

      • Nearly Over

        A 1986 Radian was the first brand new street bike that I ever bought. What a great little bike for a 5’7″ rider. Had a Vetter Ghost plexi fairing and a set of Chase Harper bags for touring. Took all that off for commuting and hooning. It was stolen one night from the apartment parking lot, right after it had rolled 10,000 miles on the odometer. I keep considering finding and purchasing a really nice, clean copy, but probably ought to leave the memories in the past.

        • dagobarbz, fine Italian shoes

          Probably, considering today’s bikes are lighter and more efficient. My buddy has an old Yamaha XS900…holy cow what an absolute BEAST! It’s HUGE, I can’t even think about shoving it around. He finally came around to a modern Yamaha, so the first time he cracked the throttle it was up up and over…front wheel came up and the bike did a 180 in the vertical plane. Gave him hell for weeks about that!

  • Starmag

    Great article Chris. Maybe one day it will hang in the design dept’s of the Japanese as it should.

    Besides soft bags (with garbage bags to waterproof), I’ve found a quick release(1 min. on/off) windshield (Plexifairing)to be a great luxury on long trips. Yeah, it doesn’t look racy, but it’s only on there for long trips or cold trips.

  • Tod Rafferty

    White man speak naked truth.

  • Born to Ride

    The more I look at the CB1100RS, the more I realize that it is the ideal picture of modern-classic. I think, that if it were offered here that it might become my first ever brand new bike purchase. I could see owning that particular bike for the rest of my life. I think it is responsible for my recent fascination with the 919. I have to say though, if the amount of Triumph bonnevilles I see rolling around is any indication, I think the appeal of the standard bike is not completely lost. Personally I don’t see myself being content with the sole ownership of a retro-standard bike like a bonneville or cb1100 as I do quite a bit of aggressive sport riding and light touring, but there are bikes that do excel in a myriad of riding conditions and carry the spirit of the standard. So far in my experience, my Multistrada is exactly what Ducati advertised it to be, a master of many roads, and I think it carries the spirit of the standard despite looking nothing like one. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/49eed6aa9beffcd1ec9a9c3bfcbf50607c14e4036382b496b7a0a8b2e441fc65.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4c0080d88c6c0c4a94c4da3cd96b4fe023c638453c5f63c58017a4dcd1831123.jpg

    • Born to Ride
      • Larry Kahn

        Nac Ferg road SLO county. Best riding area IN THE WORLD!

        • Born to Ride

          I would never have ridden it if it wasn’t for mr. Kalfelz’ article from earlier this year. Had the whole swath of hwy 1 nearly to ourselves

          • Chris Kallfelz

            I saw that pic and I wondered, cool!

          • Born to Ride

            Dear god, riding thru the base was like the blast furnace of hell, and then when we got to the coast, it was like we came around a corner and the temperature dropped 30 degrees. It was crazy

          • Chris Kallfelz

            The United States Army has a keen eye for picking real estate that usually has one of two attributes; “blast furnace from hell”, or Ice Station Zebra, the choice spots alternate based upon the calendar…

    • Starmag

      I Iove UJMs, but when they are “tuned for torque” like the CB1100 they can be a bit bland. I have a 1982 CB900F which is a bit soft on the low end but has a lump in the power band after 5-6k rpm to its 10k redline which FEELS racy, even though I know it is not in comparison to modern bikes. This is the retro that Honda should have re-issued IMO. Feels racy, but not so fast, (80RWHP) that your licence or life is in serious peril when you whip on it. For me, the sweet spot between retro UJM and modern bikes. Decent two piston caliper brakes, beautiful rubber mounted smooth as glass to redine racy feeling engine, comfortable seat even two up, beautiful styling( for me ) strong enough 39mm air fork, compression and rebound adjustable shocks, stock exhaust sounds like a Ferrari and looks beautiful, beautiful gauges, aircraft gas cap, easy shim-over-bucket valve adjustments, tubeless tires, stock center stand, etc. If I had to make a decision to cut down to one bike, I’d sell my ZRX ( which I also love ),first.

  • JMDGT

    A CB350 a CB750 and a Triumph Bonneville thrown in for good measure were my rides until 1992. I am still attracted to the “standard” look and it will always define the beauty of the motorcycle for me. The modern versions are so much better than the old machines. We live in the best of times. I drool over the new bikes out there and the standards are always in the mix. For me anyway. As an old Honda guy I really do love the CB1100. There. I said it.

    • dagobarbz, fine Italian shoes

      Gottsta agree with you. However, my old Beemer was easy to wrench on; like half a VW. I look at this new bike I have; no carbs, fuel injection, ABS brakes…Yeah, I won’t be playing ‘shade-tree mechanic’ with this one!

  • Jon Jones

    Well done! Always loved wonderful, functional UJMs. Own some classics, acquired some sharper-focused motorbikes, but my heart is with sweet UJMs.

  • Kevin Curtis

    Great article! I’m a “standard” guy. Have owned ten bikes and many brands from Harley’s to UJM’s. Single cylinder thumpers, twins, quads, cruisers, sports, dual purpose, shaft drive, belt drive and chains. Loved them all. A past favorite was my Honda 550 Four, made the year I graduated from college in 1976. Loved that bike, but traded it for a car when my wife and I got married that same year. For my 63rd birthday, this year, I bought a Honda CB 1100 EX. The only one available in Upstate NY. It’s a dream bike. Creamy smooth, tons of torque at low revs, ABS, fuel injected, analog gauges and beautifully finished. Three times the HP of the old 550 yet 55 MPG. Wow. Retro cool with spokes and just the right amount of chrome. Truly a joy ride. Thanks, Honda.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c7024933aa7be54e5ad6b2219c58566906b172a4c2d1dd9b919a5da1dc0465da.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/15cb8b199055fac7691513c6e8fdb829cb1a8269ba7db68f653105bf2c7c16de.jpg

    • spiff

      It is a beautiful thing when a butt finds the right seat. Now go get lost in the Adirondacks before the snow forces hibernation.

  • SRMark

    That first image shows that Yamaha used to understand design, even if it was lifted from a Bonneville. The XSR700 is a tangled mess. Honda certainly gets it. I don’t know how well the CB1100 sells but it certainly is beautiful. However the 300 and 500 Rebels are another story altogether. But I guess they were aimed at someone 40 years my junior.

    • Paulevalence

      As someone 40yrs your junior, I have the complete opposite view. I am much more attracted to the new “retro” bikes with modern equipment and design details. Hopefully other people my age agree, so that these bikes can continue to attract and expand the new generation of motorcycle riders

      • Chris Kallfelz

        The 700 works for me too aesthetically, I geek out over little things like the horizontal rear shock and the banana-style swingarm reminiscent of the old TZ 250s, the fork brace, just the details work for me…But what do I know, I bought a Sabre?

      • SRMark

        I thought that might be the case. I like to admire a bike’s look almost as much as I like to ride one. And the classic styles that focus on the engine as the center piece works for me. Times and styles do change. Get what you enjoy and enjoy the hell out of it.

    • Born to Ride

      I too can’t stand Yamahas offerings, they could have put a little effort and reconfigured things like the airbox and intake location so that a more traditional tank shape and geometry can be used. The XSR line looks like bad retro conversions of their base bike done in someone’s garage. I’m young and I vastly prefer the aesthetic of the bonneville and the CB1100. I really hope the new retro Z900 is going to buck this trend and bring forth a modern rendition of the classic standard.

  • dagobarbz, fine Italian shoes

    I bought a 79 R65 back in the late 80s, and rode it until last month. I loved that bike, but age and entropy were getting expensive. Sold the old gal and bought this F650gs:
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4e391bd9102ec21c3b8eb24fa58f3d77a19810034bcac30dbd358f7e4da7ce7b.jpg

  • Old MOron

    Ha, for 50K miles my standard was a DRZ400SM.
    I kept it stock, too. Only aftermarket parts were the handlebar, tank, and taillight.

    • Lewis

      You did 50K on that stock saddle? Yikes. I had one and that seat was the next item on the list before I sold it. Next bike was a Husky 650 and the first and only modification was a Seat Concepts kit. Went from a 90 minute bike to a 3 hour bike.

      • Old MOron

        I’m too cheap to buy a seat. I just kept riding until I got used to it. It actually wasn’t that bad. The main thing was that I wasn’t stuck in one position.

  • gjw1992

    Hits a chord or two. My first ‘big’ bike was a cb900fa in 1981 (year of the fb – but these were going so cheap). Funnily enough rode it to the Bol D.Or in 81 and 82 from the UK. Years when far more Brits went to the Bol D’Or than to the UK stage of that endurance series at Donnington (correction – only one of those years would the Bol be in the series as alternated with Paris I think). And suddenly bikes changed. Monoshocks on big road bikes! Water cooling everywhere. Fairings became common. But still fond of that ‘standard’ style – so much that on returning to biking in 99 got an xjr1300sp. Lovely. Regret selling that.

  • wolzybk

    I went with the UIM option (universal Italian motorcycle). I bought a Ducati M900 Monster when they came out in 1993, and couldn’t have made a better choice for a great versatile bike that does everything well (except tour two-up). 24 years later, I’m still riding it daily, with 264K miles on it so far, and still love the thing. (I solved the two-up problem by getting my wife her own M900.)

    • clasqm

      Nice one. I went with the UBM (Universal British Motorcycle), a 2015 Triumph Bonneville T100 Spirit, the last of the air-cooled models.

  • Greg Webb

    Yes. I have been crowing this for decades. In 1986 or so, Japan started producing real race replicas (for that day), and suddenly every magazine farted on anything that didn’t have clip-ons and rearsets from the factory. These bikes SOLD COPY…with pictures of screaming wheelies and monstrous Stoppies. Anything PRACTICAL got shoved into the bargain bin.. and Japan happily went along with it.
    Now riders are finally coming to their senses, after years of tortuous Insectoidal contraptions.. and suddenly saying, “HEY.. why can’t I have my GSXR with CARRYING CAPACITY, WIND PROTECTION and LOW FOOTPEGS??”
    Voila! I am a Deeply Dyed Bandit 1200 freak.. have had two of them, the current one (a ’98) now has 140 Thousand miles on it.. carefully modded with a JE bore kit, good aftermarket suspension, drag bars, and a modded Corbin seat. I rode it 12,000 miles in 5 weeks in 2010… and it does superb trackdays with no changes except tires.
    DON’T LET JAPAN RUN YOUR TASTES. Let’s have real, Open Class, Lighweight Standards again.. NOT “Retros”… just the old ergonomics …and a bit of the Classic Style.

  • Craig Hoffman

    Cool and timely article. Interest in ADV bikes and Standards seem to be on the rise.

    Been riding my ’06 FZ1 for 11 years now. It is creamy smooth and fast, with just shy of 150 at the wheel (ECU flash, full exhaust, fueling mods), handles nice (Penske shock, fork work), is reasonably comfy, has proven to be unbreakable, cost peanuts to buy new and is worth even less now. All this causes me to not be interested in selling it.

    My FZ1 is kind of a pain, because I am restless and kinda want to experience something else, but this bike simply refuses to go away. I guess I just need to buy something to park next to it. Problem solved!

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9896d5e8fe375e2cd6618cf485a34ad831f1eea12ebdbb5079674f4844afe9e6.jpg

    • therr850

      I have a Suzuki Bandit I feel the same way about. Smooth, reliable, comfortable and enjoyable. Just wish it had been designed with a flat seat like the UJM’s.

  • Mad4TheCrest

    Great take on a frequently debated topic. Personally i’m conflicted since I love my ZRX1200R, which represents what I would have built back in the late 70’s or early 80’s had I the money then to do it; and I enjoyed a 2004 T-100 Bonnie for a few commuting years as well; but, I also loved the ‘specialist’ Italian impractical sport bike bike I owned. I also have given weird oddball bikes a chance too – heck, I bought a CX500 new.

    But I always come back to more or less standard bikes as keepers alongside my ZRX though: things like the road version of the Tiger 800 (it may be ‘adv’ but it feels pretty standard to me).

    The XSR models do seem certifiably standard and are steam-punk funky enough to overcome my preference for cleaner, less cluttered looking engine bays. I could be happy with a 900 version if they could find some way of building in a little storage space.

  • Rick McKinsey

    One solution is to just rebuild one of the great old standards. I love my 1981 XS11 Venturer. 95Hp. 6.3 gal. tank, shaft drive. Just make it your own!

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a4108104937f1b175e2d9e7ba18110d3acdce414d59933bb0744bd623c449253.jpg

  • Pete M

    What? A “standard?” It’s “nek’d!”

    I do, sometimes, miss my ’81 GS1100EX. But Tuono V4 definitely fills the gap.

  • Dan

    My FJ-09 is a great example of an updated standard concept. Not too heavy, comfortable seating position, ABS, handles everything from commuting to touring,