If you started riding motorcycles in the 1960s or 1970s, as a learner you could ride any bike up to 250cc. By the late ‘70s, that meant having access to some pretty tasty machines like Suzuki X7s and Yamaha RD250LC – lightweight sports bikes which have become bona fide classics in recent years.
But by February 1983 the fun police had stepped in and decreed that learners would be restricted to 125s, as part of a major overhaul of the rules that eventually saw a new two-part test and the start of the more challenging examinations and graduated licences we have today.
So most of today’s riders started their two-wheeled careers on 125s and while these bikes haven’t gained the true classic status of their 250cc predecessors, they bring back great memories of the freedom and exhilaration we know our motorcycles bring.
These machines are getting really scarce these days. Most were abused by a succession of novices before heading to the motorcycle graveyards that we know as the breakers yard. Very few remain on the road so it was nice to put on our rose tinted glasses and take a ride down memory lane, to remember the motorbikes we lusted after as 17 year olds!
Yamaha classic learner bikes
Yamaha arguably has a more loyal following than any other Japanese brand and that is possibly because they made the most desirable learner bikes when we started out.
Rewind to the 1970s and Yamaha ruled the roost for small sports bikes. For 16-year-olds the highly tuneable Yamaha FS-1E was the top dog for any self-respecting teenager, while the coffin-tanked RD250 was the ultimate daddy for learners of the time. The initials ‘RD’ stood for ‘Race Developed’ and it was the bike to have for any self respecting young hooligan. What’s more, it looked identical to the faster RD400 (but for the stickers on the side) and urban myths suggest that some unscrupulous learners fitted 400 engines to their 250s (or simply replaced the ‘400’ badged sidepanels for ones saying ‘250’) on their 400s. In 1980, the RD250 was replaced by the liquid cooled RD250LC as the ultimate learner bike but by 1983 these 100mph learner bikes were no more.
So what has this trip down memory lane got to do with 125s? Well, when 17 year olds found themselves unable to loon around on an RD250 they looked for the hottest 125 in town – and Yamaha was again at the front of the pack.
The RD125LC was an all new bike in 1982. The styling echoed the RD350LC, arguably the bike of the time, and although it was (like all learner bikes of the period) restricted to 12bhp it was also highly tuneable. Remove the simple factory restrictor (hey, the police would never find out, would they?) and it made 21bhp. Fit some fancy exhausts and it might even show 100mph on the clock. Legend!
Alongside the RD, the off-road styled DT125LC (with the same engine) was another big hit. In 1987, Yamaha replaced the RD with the TZR125, which came with the option of a full fairing (as well as a naked version) alongside a Grand Prix style Deltabox frame and YPVS power valve system. Setting aside the Italian exotica, it was the most desirable learner bike of the 1980s.
So what about the other Japanese?
Having principally always built four-strokes, Honda never really participated in the game of producing sporty 250s – which meant that it didn’t have the powerful image of the other Japanese brands when the new learner laws came in during 1983.
That didn’t stop them pushing the boat out for their contender at the start of this new era. The MBX125F was a European built, water-cooled two-stroke single which also featured a power valve and very modern styling for the day. The 16” Comstar alloy wheels were very much an early-‘80s Honda thing, as was the tricolour colour scheme and bikini fairing. It looked great and in the restricted mode in which it left the factory (though very few stayed like that for long, as restrictors on most 125s amounted to little more than some easy to remove washers stuffed down the exhaust to limit gas flow) it was as good as anything else. Unfortunately it didn’t have the bad boy image of the Yamaha, nor the performance. When derestricted it was good for just 18bhp, which saw it sniffing the RD125LC’s blue exhaust smoke on the local bypass.
Like Yamaha, Honda also had some success with their off-road styled 125 (the MTX125). The MBX’s replacement, the NS125 came in 1985 and reflected Honda’s design language of the time. The NS125F was the unfaired version, while the NS125R came with a full fairing and had a hint of the VFR750F in its styling. These were built in Italy, where there was a huge market for sports 125s, as was the even higher spec NSR125R, which came in right at the end of the decade. The NSR was an all new design aimed at rivals from Aprilia, Cagiva and Gilera and was a rare sight on UK roads, even though they were officially imported.
Gamma, Gamma, Go…
Suzuki was a hugely popular motorcycle brand in the UK in the 1980s.
Still basking in the glory of Barry Sheene’s racing success and with an impressive range of motorbikes that included the sporty little X7, they were nonetheless a little later to the sports 125 party than the rest.
Sure they had the neat DR125 motocross style machine for this new generation of learners, but it would be 1985 before the arrival of the RG125 Gamma sports bike. Styling echoed the hugely desirable RG250 and RG500 Gammas and it was faster than its peers, with a claimed 25bhp once the simple restrictor was removed.
Good as it was, the RG was never a massive seller, possibly just because it was a little later to the market than the competition. It would run on into the early 1990s, when it was replaced by a new model with sharper styling based on the RGV250.
After a strong initial entry to the class, Kawasaki seemed to give up on the sports 125cc sector as the 1980s moved into the 1990s. Sure the KMX off-road contender was a good seller for many years but, after a strong start, the sporty AR125 never really stacked up to the competition.
With a claimed derestricted power output of 22bhp upon its 1982 launch, the AR was the most powerful bike in the class at the time. Styling was on the bland side though. Design echoed the big GPz range, which itself was starting to feel dated, and the skinny 18” wheels and spindly forks looked low rent compared to the Honda and Yamaha competition. A 1986 update simply replaced the tiny bikini flyscreen with a full fairing in the style of the GPZ900R, but against models like the TZR125 and RG125 it looked and rode old fashioned. Unlike the competition, who regularly updated and replaced their 125s, Kawasaki retained an unchanged AR in its range into the early 1990s, when it ghosted out of the catalogue without replacement.
What about the Italians?
Sports 125s were huge in Italy in the 1980s and 1990s. You couldn’t walk down the stradale without hearing a buzzing two-stroke and this popularity, along with race series for up and coming youngsters, led to a number of exotic and highly strung Italian 125cc sports bikes.
These would really come to the fore in the 1990s, with the Aprilia AF1 and RS125, as well as the Cagiva Mito (which was launched in 1989), but the seeds were sewn in 1984 with Aprilia’s first street bike, the ST125, and the Gilera RV125.
The RV had more than a hint of the Honda MBX about it and was the first of a series of 125s from the now defunct brand, which led to the staggering 35bhp SP-01 in 1988.
Cagiva produced a number of off-road styled 125s in the 1980s before delivering the elegant, fully faired, Aletta Oro S1 in 1985. The 24bhp two-stroke is virtually unknown here in the UK but the later Freccia and Mito models would enjoy more success, especially the latter in the early 1990s.
Can I buy a classic 1980s 125cc sport bike today?
Yes, although finding a good one might be a challenge.
New, most of these bikes were built to a price and were highly stressed when tuned (and most were). As they passed from hard up novice rider to hard up novice rider, they were kept on the road with minimum maintenance until they finally expired or got written off, so it’s no surprise that there are but a few around 30 to 40 years on.
These were never as desirable as larger capacity motorcycles when new, so few people considered cosseting, collecting or restoring them while it was still viable, but nostalgia sells and there’s a growing demand from classic motorcycle enthusiasts who remember them from the first time around.
In theory these two-stroke 125s are simple to work on but the big challenge, if you want a restoration project, will inevitably be finding parts. If that is your aim, Yamaha’s RD and TZR models are probably the easiest to tackle. Parts for these are not exactly plentiful, but most can be found, while spares for Italian bikes of the same era will be like the proverbial rocking horse poop.
Prices for restored examples still don’t really justify all the effort that goes into it though, so any restoration will be a labour of love as much as anything else. If you do fancy getting a good running example or a mint restored 125cc classic, you’ll be looking at spending at least £2000, through to around £4500 for a mint example.