When the music stopped in 2008, at first the motorcycle industry didn’t have a clue. Product planners wanted what pilots want when things go wrong: “Can we just take the last five minutes over again?”

They searched for something people would buy. Super scooters? Lockable storage on wheels? How about a nice automatic, starting at $13,000? During previous prosperous years the market evolved into thinking 600cc sportbikes were "entry-level." Get real, guys! A new Yamaha YZF-R6 is now $12,200. Who among us can find that by burrowing under the sofa cushions? That's not pizza money.

Yet back in the 1960s and ’70s, two-wheelers covered the waterfront, from 50cc step-throughs to 250cc and 350cc middleweights, then by easy steps to the air-cooled liter bikes of the mid-1970s. At the present moment, a roughly 300cc class of single- and twin-cylinder lightweights has emerged, as follows in alphabetical order:

  1. Honda CBR300R
  2. Kawasaki Ninja 300
  3. KTM RC390
  4. Yamaha YZF-R3

I don’t really want to get into comparative masculinity—quarter-mile times and top speeds. That might have been appropriate for Daytona’s 3 a.m. Hess Station crowd running for pink slips. But that’s on the serious side; these new bikes are fun to ride and big enough to deliver what was promised us in the song “Little Honda”:

We’ll ride on out of the town
To anyplace I know you’ll like.

Yamaha ad
Yamaha advertised its 1974 RD350 two-stroke twin as "an embarrassment to Goliaths."Cycle World archives

Then I realized there is a natural comparison to be made here with those classic lightweight twins of the late 1960s and ’70s, Yamaha’s two-stroke RDs and Honda’s four-stroke CB350K.

The pleasures of lightweights have been overshadowed in recent decades by gushing, overwhelming fashion: Sportbikes! Don’t we all need 200 hp to express ourselves properly? Get your elbow sliders on! Choppers! Lookin’ cool with a Buick tire on the back, front wheel out on two chrome poles, and a belt primary drive the size of an exercise treadmill.

I think of the talking blues’ “High Riser Bars”:

They ride motorcycles
With high-riser bars
They go up so high
They don’t know where they are.

Those giant trends told us how to act, how to dress, and how to ride. Did we like it when our parents tried to make decisions for us? So the passing of those trends is a liberation. We are now free to ride motorcycles for the quality they naturally embody—fun.

The average wet weight of these lightweight sportbikes is 374 pounds and average horsepower is 35. Average top speed is 100 mph and the quarter-mile time (if you must know) is 14.4 seconds. For the 1960s–70s 350s, the average weight was 358 pounds and the average power was 37 hp. Average top speed was 102 mph and quarter-mile time 14.5 seconds.

Road Atlanta
They make good racebikes, too: MotoAmerica Junior Cup riders battle in the rain at Road Atlanta.Brian J. Nelson

In plain language, that's zero change in performance in this class in 40 to 50 years. That's because the mission of these bikes hasn't changed. To have a good time at reasonable cost (the $908 MSRP of the 1970s Yamaha RD350, corrected for inflation to 2018 dollars, is $4,994, pretty much list for today's lightweights).

Therefore I urge you to consider some ordinary, fashion-free, trendless fun that doesn’t require you to wear a costume—on a lightweight.