Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Best Vintage Off-Road Bikes from the 80s

Ah, the 80s were good to motocross and off-road bikers. Monoschock rear suspensions and two-stroke engines that predated environmental crackdowns, and not to mention the 500cc class that pushed riders to their limits. Sit back and enjoy the nostalgia. 1980 Yamaha YZ 465 A beast of a machine, this model from Yamaha only lived for two years, but it was built with a big-bore engine and monoshocks when most racers were still riding with twin rear shocks. Replaced by the YZ490 4-speed (notoriously hard to keep running), it seems that Yamaha went backward after the 465.
1981 Maico 490 “The Mega 2” These bikes are legendary in the motocross world for outstanding handling and power. To some, the Maico was the king of the open class, and some call it the best motocross bike ever built. It’s hard to find a modern bike better than the Maico 490. Legend has it that Japanese companies bought the bikes just to dismantle them in attempts to recreate the machine.
1982 Suzuki RM250 Suzuki introduced its liquid-cooled RM in 1981 as well as the “Full Floater” monoshock system. However it was in 1982 that the Suzuki RM reached its peak with a liquid-cooled RM250 engine and the new monoshock rear suspension system with adjustable damping refillable oil and gas shock absorbers – and even with the new gear, the bike was 212 pounds, keeping it in the ultra-lightweight class of motocross bikes. There’s a reason it’s in Dirt Bike Magazine’s Hall of Fame.
1983 Honda XL250R I know you’ve probably been expecting to see the Honda CR on this list, (don’t worry, it’s coming) but if there’s a dual purpose bike from the ‘80s that deserves to be on this list, it’s the ’83 XL250. Built to compete in Enduro races, the XL250 is also street legal. The versatility of on- and off-road riding does come with some handling compromises – not enough power for throttle-steering – but it can navigate tight trails and low-traction surfaces just fine.
1984 KX 125To those who knew it best, the KX125 was “unreal” in 1984. The two-stroke engine gave these 125cc bikes a real boost in races, and many say it ran like a smaller 250. It may have been an unfair advantage, but it was something that most racers knew about and used to an advantage (ahem, Jeff Ward). Regardless, the KX 125 is the beloved lightweight bike of the bunch.
1985 Honda XR350 To be honest, 1985 was such an explosive year for off-road bikes, I decided to go with a bike that is just plain well-loved (much like the KX125). Vintage bike lovers praise the Honda XR350 for its durability and power; however, finding parts can be a bit of a challenge. It’s been called the best 350 of its day, and with a bit of love it can still be a lot of fun.
1986 ATK 560 One of the more obscure and exotic brands, ATK was an American motorcycle company founded by Austrian-American Horst Leitner. The early bikes, which used four-stroke Austrian Rotax engines, are still renowned for their power and durability, and were well-loved by dirt-trackers. The ATK 560 made a showing in many of the Top 10 spots in the Barstow to Vegas races of the 80s.
1987 Honda CR500 While some people might argue that ’85 was the best year for the CR500, the ’87 is much easier to handle. An open-class two stroke bike at 500 has a lot of power, and there are more people who want to ride one of these bikes than can actually handle it. The bike also boasts throttle control, and while risk-seekers can navigate tight wood trails, the onslaught of power can be too much for the rookie or the faint of heart.
1988 Honda XR600R The XR600R is an enduro model from Honda that forged the legend of the “big thumper” with a 600cc 4-stroke engine in 1985. The XR600R has the flexibility and balance needed to navigate the narrow tracks of the enduro races, but performs best in open spaces, making it a favorite in American desert races. These bikes are used in off-road races off all types across the world. The 1988 version features a single carb and an 18” rear wheel.
1989 KX 500 The KX 500 won National Championships in ’89 and ’90 with rider Jeff Ward. It also had first place showings in the 90s as well. The 500cc 2-stroke engine was considered to be the edge of sanity for riders – anything more powerful was just gratuitous. Kawasaki was the first company to venture into the 500cc range in the 80s (Maico predated them in the 70s), and the 1988 overhaul cemented the KX 500 as the victor in the race between Honda and Kawasaki for the leader in horsepower.
***** Ok – what did I miss, guys? Any Husky/Cagiva fans out there who want to chime in? Guest poster Stacy Holmes is a bike enthusiast and writer. You can read more of Stacy’s work at If you feel like yellin’ at him, you can leave a comment below.


Chiller said...

List looks good to me, I used to have an XL250

Gymi said...

I started out on mini bikes. My first "real" dirt bike was a '77 RM125. I have owned a few RM250's since then, but as I grew older I was attracted to the tractability of four strokes. I have owned an XR400 and currently ride an '01 WR426.

Anonymous said...

That's an 85 XL250 in the pic.I have one.My brother bought it new and its always stade in the family.Good bike.The front end is kinda heavy and will wash out on hard fast turns.

Gymi said...

Thanks for the heads up. I changed the picture to a '83 to reflect the copy in the post.

Anonymous said...

Good picks. Especially the 1984 kx 125. I was riding/racing a modified 1982 yamaha yz 125 in 1984, and if I did every thing perfect, and the stars were lined up, he'd pull me by at least 1 bike length to the first turn EVERYTIME!!!

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