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Five best classic motorbikes

Retro bikes combining classic looks with modern manners and reliability now outsell sports bikes in the UK – we pick our five favourites!

Phil West

Words by: Phil West

Published on 31 January 2024 | 0 min read

There are two main definitions of classic bike. First you have the genuine, period machines which, like Triumph’s 1959 Bonneville or Norton’s 1967 Commando 750 are now valuable museum pieces in their own right.
In recent years, though, we’ve also seen the increasing popularity of classically styled or retro bikes, which is to say brand-new models built with varying degrees of retro style combined with modern mechanical bits for a worry-free yet evocative riding experience. Triumph was one of the first of this modern breed with its revived yet totally authentic looking new-school Bonneville 800 in 2001. The new ‘Bonnie’ was such a pleasure it spawned not only a whole new class of retro bikes but a whole Modern Classics family from Triumph that now includes the Bonneville-based Bobber, Scrambler 900, Speed Twin and the latest Speed 400. Triumph has since been joined by a host of other brands and the scene is thriving, begging the question which are the best modern classic bikes out there? Here’s our top five…

1 – Triumph Bonneville T120 – the original and still the best

Triumph kicked off the whole ‘retro bike’ trend with its revived Bonneville 800 in 2001 and this latest incarnation remains the best of the breed. All new in 2016 with a bigger 1200cc, 80 horsepower engine (there’s also a smaller, softer 900cc T100) it boasts two riding modes, twin Brembo front brakes, a quality aura thanks to classy clocks and two-tone paint and goes impressively, too. There are also loads of variants, accessories and used examples available.
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2 – BSA Gold Star 650 – the recently revived ‘big single’

Although largely dormant since the early 1970s, historic British brand BSA was one of biking’s biggest names in the 60s, the world’s largest manufacturer in 1951 and was responsible for classic models such as the Bantam, Thunderbolt and Gold Star single. It was bought by Indian giant Mahindra in 2016 who in 2022 launched its first new model, the Gold Star 650. It’s powered by a new liquid-cooled 652cc, 45 horsepower single has lots of impressive style, character and quality touches, is easy and pleasing to ride and makes a refreshing alternative to the masses of twin-cylinder Bonnevilles and Royal Enfield 650s.
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3 – Royal Enfield 350 HNTR – the bargain priced single

Modern-era Royal Enfield is on a roll, British Royal Enfield having closed at the end of the 60s while spin-off Enfield India has become a huge player and revived the original name in 1994. Although originally producing old 50s and 60s designs, since the early Noughties it’s been reinvigorated, has global ambitions and even set up a UK R&D centre manned by former Triumph personnel. Its first fruits were 2019’s all-new twin cylinder Interceptor and Continental GT which, at around £2000 less than a comparable Bonneville, have been a huge success. But the more recent HNTR 350 is equally impressive. Although putting out just 20 horsepower it’s smooth and willing with a fine handling chassis, lots of quality touches and, at under £4,000, it’s a steal.
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4 – Moto Guzzi V7 – Italy’s best-selling classic roadster

Italian legend Moto Guzzi’s response to the Bonneville landed in 2007 carrying the name of the historic brand’s classic 70s 750 and using the traditional shaft-drive, V-twin layout as a smaller, more entry-level machine. It’s been successively updated since, most recently in 2021 when it grew to 850cc to deliver a more competitive 65 horsepower to further flatter the sweet handling, easy manners and evocative character. A variety of trim levels are available ranging from the basic Stone at just over £8,000 to the more café racer style Stone Corsa for another grand or so. Our our pick is the V7 Special sitting between them, with more authentic twin dials, wire wheels and extra dose of chrome.
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5 – Kawasaki Z650RS – the ‘70s superbike made modern

Of the ‘Big Four’ Japanese, Kawasaki stands out when it comes to ‘classic’ bikes, in its case harking back to its iconic multi-cylinder 1970s superbikes. The 1973 Z1 inspired Z900RS arrived in 2017, and although effectively a restyled Z900 it convincingly built on the base bike’s lively 111 horsepower four-cylinder with new bodywork and retro touches like twin-clock instruments, all built on a modern chassis with monoshock rear end. And it’s been a big hit. So much so in fact that Kawasaki followed it up with the Z650RS in 2022, this time based on the 67bhp Z650 twin and inspired by the 1976 Z650 four. Although down on cylinder count, it’s equally authentic and charming and, at under £8,000, great value.
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