We’ve covered the top nine bikes, leaving only tenth and the mysterious second spot to cover here in Part 3. Tenth place goes to perhaps an unexpected choice: a purple and white 1972 Yamaha YR5 350. I had just come back from my first trip to the US that summer, working as so many students do on a J-1 visa, and I’d saved some money for my next year’s university fees. My mother kindly said she’d cover those, and I happened upon this Yamaha in the showroom of Gem Motorcycles in Ranelagh, Dublin. It had just 200 miles on the clock from new and the previous owner had crashed it. The damage had all been repaired and it looked like new. I paid £350 for it (about $850 at the exchange rate in 1972) and it was awesome!
The 350cc two-stroke accelerated like a bat out of hell compared with many of the bikes on Irish roads at the time: Honda CB250s, Yamaha 125s, Bridgestone 175s and a fair number of British twins. My friend John Giblin was the very proud owner of a Triumph 500 and was flabbergasted when the YR5 left him for dead at the lights, not once but every time. People were still coming to terms with the fact that smaller, lighter and peppier Japanese two-strokes were the new game in town.
The Yamaha took me from Dublin to London and back for a summer job in 1973, and when I graduated and moved to England to take up my first job in 1974, I bought another one, in orange and black, and rode it from London to Rome in two days in 1975, a journey of about 1,200 miles (1,900 km). It was a joy to ride through the mountain passes along the way, and while these days the basic seat and minimal fuel range would make me think twice, I was 21 and all I knew was that I wanted to do the trip. Ah, the folly of youth!
That completes my personal top 10 – almost. I need to give one bike an honourable mention. During my time as a motorcycle magazine journalist, I went to the British motorcycle industry annual test day at the Military Vehicle Engineering Establishment at Chobham in Surrey. This comprise an oval track with a little bit of banking where you could really use the engine performance of 1970s superbikes. The attending journalists could try pretty much every bike available in the UK, and this particular day I did just that: Harleys, Yamahas, Hondas, Suzukis, Kawasakis. The event was almost over and I’d had my fill of the latest one-litre machines when I bumped into a really nice guy I knew, Mike Jackson from Norton. “Have you tried our bikes?” he asked. I hadn’t, I admitted. “The track is empty – take one out now,” he offered, and I did.
The Norton Commando Interstate 850 that I took out, resplendent in its black livery with gold pinstriping, was an utter revelation. The infield of the circuit included a section of hilly, twisty road called the Snake River Pas, or something like that, and it was an excellent test of any bike’s handling. The Commando lapped it up, flicking from side to side like a 250, accelerating with gusto, braking perfectly and generally giving me 15 minutes of sheer joy.
I handed the bike back with profuse thanks and told Mike it was the best bike I’d ridden all day, including the XS1100, GS1000, CBX and many others. “Would you please tell everyone else,” was his parting request. I did, indeed, although I couldn’t help feeling that this was a factory bike, fettled by factory engineers, its swinging arm expertly shimmed, oil leaks banished by official edict. Ownership might be a bit more problematic. But it was a hell of a bike. If you get a chance, try a good one. Even the new 2016 version, though pricey, looks the biz.
So what is the mysterious second-place bike in my personal top 10? Those five bikes that tied for joint third spot gave it a hard time, but for me there was only one choice: the original Honda Valkyrie. I saw one parked in a London street shortly after it came out and was instantly impressed. Here was the natural successor to all those unfaired Gold Wings I’d loved, only with a 1,500cc flat six engine and a mild custom-bike look and feel. I first sat on one at the BMF Rally in Peterborough, which I visited in May 2000 with my daughter Charlotte. It felt plush and looked great, and I resolved to buy one.
The opportunity arose a few months later in Hong Kong, where I was working for a couple of years. Hong Kong ain’t all that big but I rode pretty much every inch of it on that ’97 red-and-white Valkyrie, many times over, and never tired of it. Every time I fired it up it felt like an occasion. So as soon as I landed a job back in the UK two years later, an almost-new 2000 model in black became my regular ride. It took me around the UK, to the west of Ireland and down to Rome, and every journey felt special, even though the custom seat never felt as comfortable as I’d have liked.
My wife sat on the back across some pretty bumpy roads between Dublin and Galway and commented that the seat and suspension weren’t as comfortable as they could be. In the queue for the car ferry back to Holyhead in North Wales, I saw a new Suzuki M109 and a Triumph Rocket III. Both riders professed themselves delighted with their respective steeds, so after five years of owning the black Valk, I traded it in for a Rocket III Touring.
On a test ride it felt spacious, comfortable and very torquey, and I was up for a change. The Triumph took my wife and me across Europe and acquitted itself reasonably well, laden with 59 pounds of clothes and camping gear, but I didn’t bond with it the way I had with my Valkyries. The 2,300cc triple felt and sounded a bit rough, especially at low speed; vibration would numb the outer three fingers on my right hand; and the fuel gauge was useless. Yet when we rode two-up down the via Appia Antica in Rome and the tarmac suddenly gave way to the boulders that had clearly formed the original road in Roman times, the Rocket didn’t complain. What I needed was a trials bike, or at least a motocrosser, but the 348 kg (dry) Triumph handled it all with amazing aplomb. And it rarely failed to attract admiring glances due to its vast size. People would ask about the engine and whistle when told it was 2.3 litres.
We shipped it to Abu Dhabi when work took us there but ultimately I felt that a Valkyrie was essential, so I sold the Rocket and bought my third Valk, a 2002 model, in black, with just 10,000 miles on the clock. It felt like putting on a pair of favourite old boots. It took us around the Peak District two years ago and down to the south of France last summer, and this year it’ll take us to Austria.
What’s the big appeal? It’s roomy for my 6 foot 2 frame; reasonably comfortable in the seat department; handles like a bike 200 pounds lighter; and the engine makes any speed feel effortless. Winding it up through the gears produces turbine-like smoothness, accompanied by a cross between a whistle and a wail. It also looks like a large naked motorcycle should look, following traditional lines with smooth curves. I’m not a fan of the angular look of the 2015 Valkyrie and its ilk.
So the black Valk will take us around the UK and Europe until I get too old to manoeuvre it, and the Rune will probably stay in the family for ever, as much a work of art as it is a form of transport: two worthy holders of the first and second places in my all-time top 10.