A big deal, and a big steal.
Motorcycling is a sensory rush you simply cannot get on four wheels. If you’re a brand-new motorcyclist, the ride is best learned and enjoyed aboard a small machine. For every heavy-hitter Vincent or Indian headlining an auction stage, there are a jillion unheralded 90–200cc bikes that can provide equal joy for an iota of the price.
Small motorcycles are naturally lightweight, so they’re easy to balance and ride. Their engines produce modest power, roughly 10–20 horsepower. They’re affordable—often less than $1000 and rarely more than $5000—and they tend to hold their value. And their diminutive stature permits easy garage storage alongside your car.
If you’ve been considering a switch to a classic two-wheeler, here are three of our favorite learner bikes to get you started.
Almost everything about Honda’s plentiful 89cc single is bliss. The little overhead-cam four-stroke is easy to kick-start, stingy on gas, untemperamental, and of high quality. At roughly 200 pounds, the bike also handles well, shifts and brakes smoothly, and typically boasts an oil-tight engine and reliable electrics. But with only eight horsepower, it’s hardly quick: 60 mph would be all she wrote on a good day, so it’s incompatible with fast traffic.
For mastering riding skills inexpensively, however, few bikes compare. There are several variations from which to choose, too, including the S90 street bike; the CL90 street scrambler; the CT90 (Trail 90) with its step-through frame, available dual-range gearbox, and rack; the racy 1969 SL90 (Motosport 90); and the minibike-inspired ST90.
With its signature chromed tank and red frame, the Hodaka, designed in Oregon by the Pacific Basin Trading Company, was the street-and-trail bike that teens desired in the late 1960s. Powered by a simple 8-hp, 90cc two-stroke engine and weighing less than 190 pounds, the beautifully styled Hodaka was the gold standard for aesthetics and energy in its time.
For all its intrinsic beauty and trail readiness out of the crate, the Japanese-built Hodaka had a frail engine and gearbox. Still, it remains iconic: As the decades passed, no motorcycle better utilized Hodaka’s striking livery. Models succeeding the Ace 90 trail bike were fancifully named, including the Dirt Squirt, Super Rat, and Wombat.
The 199cc, single-cylinder T20 Cub was baby brother to the twin-cylinder 498cc and 649cc Triumphs. Available in street and trail guises, the British-built Cub was developed into serious competition machinery in its day. However, it was also English and suffered various engineering and electrical gremlins. Instantly recognizable by its forward-inclined overhead-valve engine, a good Cub is a friendly ride. It is reasonably easy to start and notably lightweight, and it offers perky performance from its 15 horses. Even better, the Cub’s simplicity is an asset to fledgling mechanics, with the spark plug, ignition points, lighting, carburetion, and tappets all easily accessible. Cubs have long been overshadowed by larger Triumphs, so they can be good buys.
Now that you have three reasonably inexpensive and easy-to-handle motorcycle ideas, get out there and ride, especially if you’re a novice who’s looking to gain skill and confidence.