Top 10 Used Sportbikes to Drive a Hard Bargain On and Justifications to Do It

John Burns
by John Burns

It goes without saying you need a new motorcycle, a new one to you, anyway. What’s sometimes less obvious is exactly why you need a new motorcycle, especially if you need to justify it to others who contribute to your Gross Family Income. It becomes even more difficult if you don’t have a particular bike in mind. It’s too easy at that point to let it slide, to cruise happily along in your current flip phone, zombie-like state, while you attend to affairs which seem more pressing but really are not. Don’t fall into that trap. At MO, we’re always here to help extricate you from the mundane.

10. Justification #1: They’re a Great Bargain

When I broached this Top 10 topic in broad terms, Dirty Sean Alexander jumped in immediately with his list of bikes: Bimota XB-Whatever, Ducati Supermono, Honda RC30, Yamaha RZ350, Honda VF500 Interceptor, Honda CB400F, Kawasaki Z1, Kawasaki H2 –

Whoa, man! Number one, you’re not allowed to mess with those classics for fear of being tarred and feathered by all the classicists. Number two, there are enough classicists around that you’re not going to get a rock-bottom deal on any of them. Purge perfect H2s from your cortex right now, and savor the memories. Now let’s move on.

What we’re after here are the bikes right on the edge of being classics or potential cult bikes, but ones that haven’t quite gotten there yet. Underappreciated, little-ridden bikes bought new by other weak-willed cheapskates whose wives have had a decade to beat them down. These bikes are girls with one too many tattoos, a beauty mark that verges on being a hairy mole, nearly unnoticeable scoliosis … bikes, in other words, we can pick up cheap and establish a loving, long-term relationship with none of the guilt. I said I was open to suggestions, but it winds up being a pretty subjective list. Then again, I have impeccable taste in motorcycles, so …

9. Triumph T595/ 955i (1997-2006)

First off, we’d just like to say that we’re saddened that our friends at SuperBike used to exploit women this way, and we’re glad they’re past it now. And please spare a positive thought for John Cantlie.

Triumph left the liter-bike game in a huff after 2006, and who could blame it? If the Speed Triple was the original mass-produced naked bike, then Triumph seems to be encouraging you to just make your own with the T595/955i, which is pretty much a faired and clip-on equipped Speed Triple that was purchased new by a more responsible sort and taken better care of. They’ve all got the beautiful, skirling Triple that reminds you of bagpipes, and the T595 has the single-sided swingarm, but the 955i weighs less and makes more power. Ditch the plastic, make a papier-mache fly screen, instant British cred.

8. Honda RC51 (2000-2006)

Everybody wants an RC30, and that’s why you’re not getting one. There’s a zero-miles 1989 model of Honda’s titanium-studded V-Four endurance racer on ebay UK now for £39,995, and you probably don’t want a bargain-basement one. Sure, if your car breaks down on a stormy night in the country and you find an RC30 in the barn where you take refuge, maybe buy it. But first ascertain your car wasn’t sabotaged by a British-accented person who planted a bent-framed RC in there with a VFR engine.

The RC51, on the other hand, is not quite so rare and is in fact more fun to ride than the RC30 (sez you … -Ed.) and the even rarer RC45, thanks to its big V-Twin torque. Honda only built the 999cc V-Twin to beat Ducati at its own game, which it did, winning two World Superbike titles under Colin Edwards, and the ’02 AMA title for Nicky Hayden. After 2006, a few years after World Superbike allowed Fours to also go up to 1000cc, the ’51 was discontinued.

Nice ones are out there for $5K. Not-so-nice ones are less. The less nice, the less restraint one tends to feel when it comes time to modify. The platform, though, is rock-solid and certainly less expensive to maintain than a desmo Ducati. You can’t open ebaymotors without Honda parts spilling out of your HTML ports.

7. Justification #2: EFI

Now that all the guys who were power-crazed 10 years ago are moving on to “adventure bikes,” it’s time to replace your old high-maintenance moto with something you can tell your loved ones will allow you to spend more quality time with them. Whether you enjoy playing with carburetors or not, all the major manufacturers began phasing in electronic fuel injection about 15 years ago, basically negating the need for expensive, finicky tune-ups or for you to spend time crawling on a dank garage floor looking for tiny brass carburetor parts.

The CBR929RR, descendant of the 900RR, introduced EFI to the line in 2000, and remains a great bike. The ubiquitous GSX-R1000 Suzuki had EFI from its inception in 2001, the same year Yamaha updated the R1 with fuel injection. The ZX-10R Kawasaki made its 2004 entrance with EFI. You’re not going to get traction control or ABS in this era, but you’re also not going to go into debt, carry insurance other than liability, or be reluctant to ride the occasional track day.

6. Aprilia RSV Mille (1998-2003)

This one’s from the Troy Siahaan list, age 30, and so seldom seen it had fallen off my radar screen. He’s right, though. This bike, which announced Aprilia’s entry into the world of big four-strokes at the turn of the century, is a great, solid platform which offers booming performance from its 60-degree V-Twin. It’s the same type deal as the RC51, but with far fewer dealers and support. Not that you need it now that there’s an internet. The perceived exoticity of the brand drives down the price, but if you find a nice original one, it really shouldn’t. See also the original Tuono.

5. Justification #3: LSL Superbike Bar Kits from Spiegler Performance

I used one of these on a Kawasaki ZX-9R a few years ago, and was highly impressed with the fit and quality. Imported from Germany and TUV-approved, this kit transforms almost any sportbike instantly into a naked/ hooligan/streetfighter with much friendlier ergonomics for street use. The catch is you may have to trim the fairing for clearance. But if you were just going to throw the fairing up in the garage rafters anyway, then it’s not a problem.

4. Ducati 998 (2002-2004)

Massimo Tamburini’s original 916 blew our pucks off in 1994, with styling that many think just isn’t ever going to go out of style. The 998 is the last Ducati to retain that look, but it’s packing the much-improved Testastretta engine that would go on to power the next-generation 999. More oversquare, more powerful, smoother-running and a delightful Duc-motor better in every way than the 916, they’re out there with less than 10,000 miles for $6k and less. If you get tired of riding it, park it by the fireplace and have a glass of vino. If you like yellow, 748s are even cheaper and revvier. You do need to bear in mind that a full service could cost a third of what you pay for the bike. Four-valve Desmo heads do not adjust themselves.

3. Honda VFR800FI (1998-2001)

Here’s a bike that was just too good and efficient for its own good, or born at the wrong time or cursed by its predecessor or who knows? But it’s always been a fantastic bike to ride and to listen to, thanks to its RC30/45-derived V-Four complete with gear-drive cams. “Inside every one of these there’s an RC30 screaming to get out,” Honda’s ad used to read for the 750 version. At the time, hard-edged sportbikes were all the rage, the VFR sort of got lost in the racetrack-shootout shuffle – and never mind that the VFR was always Freddie Spencer’s chosen mount at his riding school.

All the VFRs are great bikes, and the earliest ones are collectible – but the first fuel-injected 800s – produced from 1998 to 2001 – are the best looking, best sounding and easiest to live with. In 2002, Honda put VTEC variable valve timing on the bike, which most riders didn’t like and which made servicing more expensive. It also replaced the gear-driven cams with chains to save money and reduce noise. Sacrilege.

While the old VFR appears to be a little thick in the ankles by current standards, it’s still a great sportbike and a much better sports tourer than any GSX-R ever. You can pick up clean, low-mileage units anywhere in the country for around $3K and just ride till the cows come home. Or, bin a bunch of that plastic to expose that V-Four and bundle-of-snakes exhaust, Mr. Baba’s pivotless frame and single-sided swingarm. It’s a great mystery why there aren’t more VFR nakeds/ratbikes/customs.

2. Buell XB9S/XB12S (2003-2010)

I’m reluctant to put this one out there because I really want to park one of these in my own garage someday. All the Who’s in Sportbikeville throw up their hands immediately when they hear it’s powered by an H-D Sportster motor, and few listen long enough to ascertain that this Sportster is so modified that it reciprocates in the opposite direction of the H-D original, makes a bunch more power, and is in the words of the original rough rider, Teddy Roosevelt, a DEE-light!

The XB9S got here first, with the small-block Sportster motor; the XB12S a year or two later with the 1200. Buell’s Uniplanar mount lets the big V-Twin shake but not the bike, it carries its gas in the Verlicchi-built frame, and it’s one of the best urban rat racers ever produced by man. Sure you run the risk of having to take your sportbike to an H-D dealer now and then, but at least not for routine maintenance, thanks to the hydraulic lifters, belt final drive, EFI … On second thought, no, you don’t want one of these at all. Forget I said anything. They’re really an acquired taste.

1. Yamaha YZF-R1/R6

Okay, I admit it, I’m biased, I’ve got a 2000 R1 sitting in the living room right now. Which I would be happy to ride if not for all the MO test bikes scattered about the grounds. The original R1 of ’98 was the original low-mass liter-bike in my book, and though CBRs and GSX-Rs and others are just as potent and have their adherents, the brushed aluminum frame of the first-generation R1 and various other aspects of it still speak to me; I think it’s one of the prettiest Japanese bikes ever. But not so pretty and rare that you feel much compunction deconstructing one. They’re cheap to buy, ridiculously robust, and parts are easy to come by new and used. I also happen to have a big story in the works that details exactly how we turned my $1500 Craigslist R1 into a powerful beast for half the price of a new bike, which this Top 10 list so gracefully segues into …

By now you probably noticed every bike in this list is an Open-classer, and I’m not sure why that is, really. People who can afford big bikes take better care of them, have jobs, and ride less? When it comes to 600s, I’m also a huge fan of the previous generation R6 (2003-2005), a surprisingly comfortable yet hyper-sporty little beastie, whose Cycle Trader ads contain phrases like: Only selling because my parents hate me riding this thing because it’s AWESOME.

These bikes got Yamaha’s “suction-piston” fuel injection system, an ingenious idea that blended constant-velocity carburetor vacuum diaphragms with EFI to deliver power really smoothly. Everything about these bikes was smooth, in fact, from their lack of engine vibration to the welds on their new (at the time) vacuum die-cast frames. The best one is the 2005, which has the inverted fork and radial-mount brakes that would go onto the current-generation R6, which debuted in ’06 and is like riding a bumblebee compared to the previous version.

John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 5 comments
  • Curly Curly on Sep 27, 2014

    Good article, good choices.
    I think I counted 7or 8 bikes, not counting the H2. Owned 4 or 5 of them.
    Vfr- well, no, rc30?
    1998 R1/several early R6's

    H2's command big money from collectors (in Japan), but H1's are better bikes, and cost a lot less- get a 74 model and spend a little on a John Aylor reed kit, a set of good shocks and a front brake upgrade- go smokin!

    I would substitute 996 for 998(budget bike that hauls). 999's may not have that look, but they are better bikes, and a bargain, IMHO

    Delete Either the aprilia or rc51, add 929 or 954

    And I would comment that if you could find a mint early R1, you'd be making a rare find. 98's are all gone, and I would not chop one up to make a "street fighter"

    a Suzuki on the list? 2005 gs xr anything, 30 year anniversary color
    scheme bikes are nice, getting cheap, and of course they haul ass

    Where's the Kaws? - ever ride a 05-06 636? Or a 04-05 zx10? Insane

    Zx12s aren't well thought of , but see above

  • Mahatma Mahatma on Sep 27, 2014

    Personally would list 996 over the 998 as they are very similar and 996 could be got for less money.Also dissagree with your assessment of the VFR 800.Found it bland,but that was comming from a 929 blade,so may have influenced me negatively...