Hard Bargains for Hard Times - Special Feature

Economic stimulus packages you can ride.

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Modern fuel-injected motorcycles start instantly, run for the most part flawlessly and require little maintenance. What fun is that? And more importantly, how much does it cost? With plenty of exceptions, if what you want is a real deal on a motorcycle, you’ll be journeying back in time to a place where fuel flowed into your motor(cycle) through little brass jets and nozzles and gummed up in float bowls, and you knew where you stood and who to blame.

Prices are all over the place these days. Online sellers prefer Kelley Blue Book values. Online buyers will like NADA numbers, which are substantially lower. As usual, what you pay depends on how badly you want the bike, how badly the seller’s wife wants it gone, and the whole sweeping panorama of commercial vagary since time immemorial.

Another key to getting a deal, sort of, is to go where the crowds don’t. A lot of great bikes got overlooked in the roaring ’90s and free-credit ’Oughts. Here are a bunch of our favorites.

Honda VFR800 Interceptor

2002-2008

A lot of us experts pooh-poohed the VTEC engine as being a tad gimmicky, but actual buyers are clam-happy. The fact that Honda dealers have new VFR800s from 2007 on the floor at, ahem, substantial discount should give you a clue as to the price of clean, low-mileage used units. This is a fantastic motorcycle for any use, with available hard bags to make it a true sport-tourer. The VTEC system makes valve adjustments costly, but a Honda mechanic we know says he has never seen a VFR VTEC valve out of spec. Interceptor aficionados swear by the previous, non-VTEC version of the bike with delicious, RC30-derived gear-driven cams; rare and coveted now, but worth the search.

Suzuki GSX-R1100

Suzuki GSX-R1100 1989-1998

GSX-F1100 Katana 1989-1993

We’d call the GSX-R1100 the Sylvester Stallone of literbikes, but this one knew how to act in spite of its size. The 1987 model is collectible, so what you want is the later, radial-tired 1127cc beast produced from ’89-92, or the liquid-cooled 1074cc version that ran from ’93-98. Clean original ones are hard to find, but they’re out there. Tragically, there are plenty of 1100 Katanas from the same era to go around and, luckily, you don’t have to look at yourself when you’re riding one of these powerful, comfortable roadburners complete with electric windshield. Yours for a miserly $2000 or so. Torquey? I once lost the shift lever on one and made the 150 miles home, no problem, in fifth gear. For those feeling more financially secure, we’re told you can now find GSX-R1100-powered Bimota SB6s for around $7K.

Ducati 900SS

Ducati 900SS

1991-1998

Simple, air-cooled, torque-laden, light and just plain fun to ride and listen to. There are suddenly a bunch of these bikes around in the $3000 range. The coolest of them is the 900SS SP, with carbon-fiber front fender, floating front brake discs, aluminum swingarm and adjustable suspension—not to mention the rare Superlight. Avoid if possible the half-faired CR with its budget fork. And be very wary of cracked frame tubes at the steering head, an all-too-common problem remedied by Ducati, gratis, on many but certainly not all of these bikes.

Moto Guzzi

Moto Guzzi

Pleistocene–era-current

Face it, any Moto Guzzi is cool, from Eldorado to 1100 Sport to Breva to Griso. The cheap money, however, is on the late ’90s Centauro V10, an exotic standard/cruiser-style bike, or the 1100 Sport of the same era, both of which can be had for around $4000 if only you can find one.

Suzuki Bandit 1200/1250

Suzuki Bandit 1200/1250

1991-current

Maybe too obvious, but we love these for the same reasons we love the big old GSX-R1100. Gloriously powerful and robust, all-day comfortable and completely howitzer-proof, a great one can be found for around $3K anywhere in the free world. “S” models have half-fairings. Smaller, rarer and revvier, the Bandit 400 sold for just a few years in the U.S. beginning in ’89.

BMW R1100R

BMW R1100R

1995-2001

While the GS and the RS and RT were getting all the attention, the standard version of the original oil-head Boxer soldiered on in thankless obscurity from ’95 to 2001. The beauty of these is that, like the Honda VFR, they were all bought by steady professional types with controlling spouses and no time to ride. Those guys all want $4K for a 2000-ish model with ABS; NADA says $2700-$3300 retail is more like it. And if you sort of want a Harley but like to buck trends, find yourself an R1200C; BMW tried the cruiser thing just this once then threw up its hands.

Yamaha YZF-R6

Yamaha YZF-R6

1998-2002

We sort of steer clear of all-out squid magnets when looking for bargains, but for the 15,000-rpm R6, we’ll make an exception. For being so incredibly revvy-smooth and trackworthy, these actually had decent midrange power along with amazingly happy ergonomics. Come to think of it, the “suction-piston” EFI R6 that evolved in 2003 wasn’t at all bad, either. Brandishing the fact that new ’09 R6s are all over the Internet for $6999 should help you extort a pristine early model for no more than $2500.

Triumph Thunderbird/Thunderbird Sport

Triumph Thunderbird/Thunderbird Sport

1996-2004

Triumph’s new Bonnevilles are nice if you’ve got the money, and its old bikes are great if you’ve got the time.But its first retro-re-entry vehicle combines cheapness and modern technology, and throws in a skirling howler monkey of a liquid-cooled 885cc Triple to seal the deal. Not much more than $3K should procure a nice one.