Last week, I wrote about five inexpensive new motorcycles that should provide some two-wheeled fun without putting you into the poor house. The market for cheap motorcycles is pretty awesome right now and you could get a usable machine for just $3,000. But what if you go used? If you don’t mind some years or some miles, you can find some absolutely thrilling motorcycles for not a whole lot of money. Here are five used motorcycles that won’t break the bank.
I first got my motorcycle endorsement just after Memorial Day in 2018. Since then, I’ve owned about 30 motorcycles. Most of those bikes were barn finds and forgotten projects that I got running, rode a little bit, then sold. I never really made any money, but I did find it to be an exhilarating way to experience a bunch of different motorcycles in a short span of time. My first motorcycle was the wonderful and weird failure that was a 2000 Buell Blast. I’ve also owned a fantastically comfortable 1980 Honda Gold Wing GL1100 (below) kitted out like a cruiser. Along the way, I’ve rescued bikes across a huge range from a 1992 Suzuki GSX1100G to a 1972 Yamaha DT175, which I kept as a sort of two-stroke Honda Grom.
Of course, I also picked up one of my dream motorcycles, a 2005 Buell Lightning XB9SX. Perhaps the best part is that I haven’t paid more than $3,000 for any one of these. What I’m getting at here is that there is a world of exciting used motorcycles waiting for you. I could write a list a dozen motorcycles or longer, but we don’t really do listicles here. So here are five. I encourage you to check your local classifieds for what gems may exist.
2004 Suzuki SV650 – $3,500
The Suzuki SV650 is not the fastest or the prettiest sportbike that money can buy. What makes them great is how much versatile motorcycle that you can get for under $5,000.
According to Suzuki UK, the SV650 was introduced in 1999 as an affordable motorcycle with a durable V-twin engine and suited for a range of riders and use cases. It’s a middleweight that you can cruise or commute on or perhaps even take across the country. The SV650 is also agile with plenty of grunt. What Suzuki didn’t expect is for it to become famous with almost a cult following.
The company notes that the SV650 has become the track weapon of choice for many riders. Personally, I’ve also seen SV650s kitted out to do some off-roading, SV650s turned into stunt bikes, SV650s dressed up for touring, and yep, SV650s used by city riders. It seems that if you have a motorcycle dream, you can probably make an SV650 do it. I’ve even seen these completely customized with tons of chrome, stretched frames, custom wheels, underglow, speakers, and more.
What kind of Suzuki SV650 you get will depend on your budget and what’s for sale in your area. The first-generation SV650 has a 645cc V-twin making a nice 69 HP and about 45 lb-ft torque. That still gets you a top speed in the neighborhood of 130 mph. It weighs around 417 pounds wet with a 31.7-inch seat height. These first-gen bikes have carburetors, so if you don’t want to mess with that, step up to the second generation, which launched in 2003.
For the second generation, you get goodies like a pressure-cast aluminum truss frame, new bodywork, a new swingarm, a digital display, and fuel injection. Power got a modest bump to 74 HP and 47.2 lb-ft torque. It weighs in at around 437 pounds wet with a 31.5-inch seat.
The SV650 that you see here is a second-generation with a full fairing. You can find them with a bikini fairing if you like looking at the engine. I haven’t taken one of these on a track, but I can confirm that they’re quite fun to ride, practical, and rather nimble. They’re a great all-rounder motorcycle. That said, some people say that these can be beginner bikes. I suppose they can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. These still have more than enough power to get a learning motorcyclist in deep trouble. It’s $3,500 from the seller in Monroe, Wisconsin.
2002 Harley-Davidson V-Rod – $4,500
Here’s a motorcycle on my dream bike list.
Back in 2001, Harley-Davidson did something that few expected. The Motor Company, known for its motorcycles that look and ride like they come from decades past, introduced something of a technological feat. The VRSC (also known as V-Rod) is a muscle bike that is a departure from normal Harley fare. It starts with a hydroformed tube frame covered in anodized aluminum bodywork. That tank isn’t even a real tank, but an airbox. Instead, engineers moved the real tank and the weight associated with it back and down under the seat. Under that airbox dummy tank is something special. The Motor Company partnered up with none other than Porsche to develop the V-twin.
Car and Driver notes that the Revolution engine bolted to the frame started with the bones of the Harley-Davidson VR1000 racing engine that was originally developed with Cosworth and Roush and then used for AMA Superbike racing. It’s a 60-degree V-twin that’s liquid-cooled with four valves per cylinder and overhead cams. The result is 115 horsepower from the 1,131cc engine. The publication notes that the V-Rod can dispatch the quarter mile in 11 seconds before racing on to a top speed of 135 mph. And that engine revs to 9,000 RPM, incredible for a Harley. A V-Rod goes, sounds, and handles like nothing else the Motor Company had ever built.
The V-Rod was an interesting vehicle for Harley. In 2008, the Motor Company said that 20 percent of V-Rod riders were women and a whole 50 percent came over from another brand to buy it. Further, 60 percent of V-Rod sales were to Europeans. These feature seats sitting a low 26 inches off of the ground, which is great if you aren’t that tall. They are on the heavier side at 615.5 pounds.
The V-Rod launched at $16,995 ($29,199 today) in the 2002 model year. 2017 was the last year for a V-Rod and it seems that they slip through the cracks. Today? You can find them for under five grand. I’ve seen a number of these with over 100,000 miles on them, so they appear to be able to go the distance. Here’s an earlier V-Rod. Not much of a description is given but it looks gorgeous. Thankfully this $4,500 V-Rod is in Ohio or else I would be picking it up, myself.
1993 Honda Helix – $2,500
Not everyone wants to ride a full-blown motorcycle. I totally get that and even I used to own a bunch of scooters alongside my motorcycles. Scooters deliver the two wheels good experience in a different form. In my experience, they’re often easier for a new rider to get accustomed to, sometimes easier to work on, and you can often find them with funky, sort of futuristic designs. Someone who may no longer have the dexterity to ride a motorcycle may be able to get their fix on a scooter.
And the scooter that I’d recommend? A Honda Helix. I’ve had the pleasure of riding both a Helix clone and a real one and they’re just a great ride. The Helix has a cushy seat, a soft suspension, and a tall windshield. Mine sometimes reached 77 mph given a long enough road, too. Plus, I’m a sucker for a digital display.
The Helix was introduced in 1986 as the answer to the problem of scooters generally being not capable enough for highway use. Honda addressed this problem by giving the Helix a long wheelbase (longer than many motorcycles), a huge trunk for storage, a seat for two, decent brakes, and a sizable windshield.
Back in 1998, a writer at Motorcycle.com called the Helix “The Limo of Scooters: It’ll Fool You.” The publication was amazed that the scooter had a longer wheelbase than a Harley dresser, was a soft ride, and felt at home on canyon curves, but noted that touring was sometimes frustrating thanks to hills and headwinds.
The Helix was never a huge seller, but it kept a cult following that exists today. It was on sale from 1986 to 1987, then production paused due to low demand. It came back in 1992 and remained on sale until 2002 when the Helix was replaced by the Reflex. Fans of the Helix demanded it back and Honda put it back into production from 2003 to 2007.
Power comes from a 244cc single making 19 horses. Its seat sits 26.2 inches off of the ground and it weighs about 349.4 pounds. It’s waiting at a seller in Peoria, Illinois for $2,500.
2005 BMW R 1200 GS – $3,500
The BMW GS is famous for its ability to go the distance regardless if you’re traveling down a road or down a trail. I have friends who have taken these tens of thousands of miles around America and beyond. Those people say that they wouldn’t buy anything else. Personally, I’ve found adventure bikes to be remarkable even if you don’t ever take them off-road. They’ll soak up scooter-swallowing potholes without unsettling their riders.
BMW Motorrad says that the GS story starts in 1978 when the company’s engineers built a road legal enduro motorcycle prototype. This bike performed well on and off-road, convincing company brass to give it the green light for production. In 1980, the development from BMW engineers led to the R 80 G/S dual sport. With the R 80 G/S, BMW saw itself building a motorcycle that you could use for touring and for off-roading, a formula not unlike what you see today.
As the GS evolved, it gained technology, power, and comfort features along the way all while remaining a durable machine. The R 1200 GS made its debut in 2004, boasting improvements like 100 HP, a slightly bigger 1,170cc boxer twin, and a weight loss of 66 pounds from its predecessor. Features included CAN-bus engine electronics, shaft drive, Paralever swing arm, ABS, and more. It tips the scales at 496 pounds with a seat sitting 33.1 inches off of the ground.
That seat height can make it harder for shorter riders. When I ride adventure bikes with a seat height like this, I cannot get both of my feet flat at a red light. I get around that limitation by planting my left foot flat on the ground and my right foot on the brake pedal. This BMW GS is $3,500 from a seller in Merced, California.
1983 Yamaha XJ650 Seca Turbo – $2,900
If you’re more into the weird fare, I think I have just the bike for you. The XJ650 Seca Turbo was the first and only production motorcycle from Yamaha to come with a turbocharger. It came from a time when Japanese motorcycle manufacturers were experimenting with ways to advance motorcycle technology. One way manfacturers did it was by slapping turbos onto their wares.
The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences explains what makes this so wonderful:
In 1982 Peter Ballamy, from “Revs Motorcycle News”, wrote after testing the motorcycle at Iwata, the headquarters of the Yamaha Motor Corporation, in Japan, “it whistles along like a Concorde, or maybe an F16 fighter – and goes just about as quickly. Blipping the throttle gave warning that the engine had a fair amount of power and the exhausts had a note similar to a jet engine!” Looking sleek and futuristic for the time, the motorcycle’s fairing design was achieved after hours of wind tunnel testing which was said to reduce front wheel lift by 25 per cent and make the bike go faster. Its instrumentation was claimed to include the world’s first electronic on-board diagnosis fault finding system, or micro computer, for reporting on the bike’s functions including battery and brake fluid, engine oil, side stand position and whether the lights were all functioning.
Yamaha sold the XJ650 Seca Turbo for just two model years between 1982 and 1983. The company moved just 8,000 of XJ650 Seca Turbos, making them a somewhat rare sight. It would appear that Honda’s turbo motorcycles are more popular, which is fine because this 1983 Yamaha XJ650 Seca Turbo is a running and riding motorcycle that costs less than a new Honda XR150L. The seller even notes that it still builds boost as it should.
Power comes from a 653cc turbo four making 95 HP. It weighs about 566 pounds and its seat sits 31 inches high. Perhaps unexpectedly, it’s fueled by a carburetor. These specs are good for a top speed of about 126 mph depending on conditions. This Yamaha can be found for $2,900 in Morgan Hill, California.
There Are So Many Great Used Motorcycles Out There
Like the last list, this is hardly exhaustive of the awesome motorcycles that you can find on the used market. I’m not sure that I could even make such a list without it turning into a book. One thing that I love about the used motorcycle market is that you can get some serious speed for not a whole lot of coin. Used sportbikes with top speeds exceeding 150 mph can be had for the same prices as broken-down, tired-out cars.
There are great beginner motorcycles out there too like the Honda Rebel 250, the Kawasaki Ninja 250R, or the Yamaha TW200. All of these could be found just about anywhere for under $5,000. I once owned a 2005 Honda Rebel 250 that I paid all of $600 for.
Once again, I also highly recommend taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation MSF Basic RiderCourse. The course’s instructors will teach you lessons that you can use in your car, in a plane, or really just about any activity in a motor vehicle. The Basic RiderCourse that I took back in 2018 was more informative in one weekend than an entire semester of driver’s ed back in high school. And if you already ride, the MSF offers advanced courses to help you hone your skills. Go to MSF’s site to learn more.
(Top Photo: Mecum Auctions)
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The VROD is cool and I always wanted one as a kid. However, being 6’7″, I agree that it’s a wee bit too low
I agree with the MSF, I would even venture to say the Safety course is superior to a Helmet for safety. Knowing what to do in a panic situation is really the most important thing on a Cycle.
First Gen V-Maxes over the V-Rod in my opinion, but I like both, https://www.cycletrader.com/listing/1997-Yamaha-VMAX12-5016676801
I am offended by the lack of any Honda 750’s on this list, honestly.
Actually, I’m offended that this list doesn’t just include “Any Honda CB750 4 cylinder under $5k.”
Of course, then I remember what’s involved in replacing the very susceptible to wear cam chain tensioner on those. Pull the heads off, and you’ve only got everything between that and removing the crankshaft till you’re a third of the way done.
The Honda Hawk Series was pretty much every other bike as I grew up. all sort of sizes, good at most things, but not great at any one thing except maybe simple daily transpo.
And that, my friend, is what made the Nighthawk the ultimate bike.
It wasn’t excessively sharp, it didn’t have 100HP, it didn’t have tire shredding torque, the brakes didn’t throw you, and it didn’t have an acre of plastic to scratch up and crack.
It was simple. Reliable. Balanced. Predictable. And more importantly to me, it was a bike that didn’t leave me feeling like I needed an upgrade after I learned how to ride decently. It just felt like a nice, easy, comfortable ride that I didn’t need to upgrade, I didn’t need to improve, I didn’t need to replace.
That was the magic. It wasn’t “great” at one thing. It was great at being good at all things.
“That was the magic. It wasn’t “great” at one thing. It was great at being good at all things. ”
Yep. That’s why bikes of that type were called UJMs: Universal Japanese Motorcycles.
Other brands had their UJMs as well. For example, Kawasaki had the KZs and Suzuki had the GSs.
“And more importantly to me, it was a bike that didn’t leave me feeling like I needed an upgrade after I learned how to ride decently.”
Exactly this, my first street bike was an ’83 CB650SC and was the perfect learner bike. Not so powerful that you’d worry about sending a new rider out on it but unlike a 250 it can easily keep up with freeway speeds. The only reason I traded it for my 700S is the styling.
I’ve got an ’84 CB700SC with the broken starter/alternator chain. I’ll sell it for $4,999 and we can add it to the list.
… you motherFUCKER.
Sigh. What color?
The best color, blue/black. I keep telling myself I’m going to fix it some day but that’s an intimidating job to get into.
You can get a used Honda CB 1100 for next to nothing, and they are better in every way.
I’ve heard that early 80s turboed motorcycles were kind of…bad. I’d welcome opinions from any actual owners.
I didn’t have a Seca turbo, but I did have a Seca II (aka: Diversion, XJ600). It felt like the definition of “an motorcycle,” but I still kinda miss it. You can definitely pick one up for under $5k, and if you look hard you can probably find one under $1500. Just make sure that it has the front fairing, a lot of people either drop these bikes or crash them and turn them into weird looking naked bikes. Extra bonus if you find it with the optional bottom fairing and the plastics aren’t all cracked.
I had a previously thrashed seca 2, much better bike after pod filters and stage 3 jet kit. Also the turbo seca was a james bond bike in never say never!
Not speaking from experience, but as I understand it, 80’s turbo motorcycles had about the same power delivery as 80’s turbo cars, which isn’t ideal. Like, people called Porsche 930’s widowmakers, but those had a bunch more tire and wrapped you in a steel cage.
Easy: Buy the BMW! They’re just built SO well. I’ve had my 1977 R75/7 for 12 years now, with nothing but ordinary regular service.
Also the ride on the GSes is just so wonderfully soft. Plenty of power and stopping ability for not getting yourself killed too. A safe bet.
I agree it’s not the most beautiful lines, but it sure is very functional. And it’s just going to go on driving and driving for a long time.
Sell off the top box though, so you can swing your leg over it like a real cowboy 🙂
ya, the gs is the pick of the litter…and affordable.
on my third boxer now.
started with an airhead (2valve pushrod), wish i still had it – so simple and reliable.
second up was an oilhead (4 valve, still pushrod, but camshafts in the heads).
now on a camhead (4valve dohc) that i’ve put 80k miles on. one of the strongest arguments for bmw over other manufacturers is that new replacement parts are available. rebuilt front suspension on airhead – brand new bmw rubber, plastic bits and fasteners (springs and damper valves were also available). try getting new parts for a 20 year old bike from other manufacturers.
Got rid of my horrible fxst and bought a r1200c, best motorcycle move ever!
I had to quit motorcycling around 2004. Now that I am old and have money to spend, all the bikes I lusted after in the 90s and 2000s are cheap, available, and off limits. *shakes fist at fate*
“The first-generation SV650 has a 645cc V-twin making a nice 69 HP and about 45 lb-ft torque…..For the second generation… Power got a modest bump to 74 HP and 7.2 lb-ft torque. ”
No wonder those second generation bikes felt gutless, they had the power curve of a 250cc two stroke motocrosser.
OH NO! Somehow I occasionally make that kind of mistake, miss it during my self-edit, then the editor also misses it. Thank you! I have issued an edit.
Back at the old site, I made this mistake when talking about the HP rating of a Golf R in a headline. It read: “The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R Is A $43,645 Drift Machine With 31 HP.” That one also somehow made it past the editors.
I quit riding when I got married and had kids, because it’s the responsible thing to do, right?
Twelve years later, newly separated and finding out my brother had terminal cancer, I realized that life is short and I had made a mistake in giving up something that was so important to me. So I maxed out my life insurance policy and bought a 1997 Suzuki Bandit 600 for $1700. This time around I decided to go all-in and ride it everywhere, every day, no matter what. Unless I was hauling kids, I was on the bike. The Bandit is fantastic. 600cc inline-4, air cooled, half fairing. It’s like a GSXR600 for grownups. Mine has a Two Brothers carbon fiber exhaust and dirtbike handlebars, the combination of which just inspire doing naughty things. I put 20,000 miles on it in a year.
At the end of that year, my brother passed away and I needed to take things up a notch. So I bought a 2006 Honda VFR800 Interceptor for $4700 (still under the $5k!). VTEC V4, ABS, full faired but with a comfortable touring riding position. It is an incredible machine. I added hard saddle bags and an exhaust that makes a sound like nothing you’ve ever heard. It was 16 years old when I bought it and only had 15k miles on it. Somebody missed out!
Riding has made me happy in times where nothing else really did. And I intend to keep doing this. I’m pretty sure by the end of the summer there will be a V-Rod or a Buell in my garage. I was thinking about those even before I read this article.
In 2002 I bought a brand new VFR800 and rode it across the US and BC. Fantastic bike.
Great list, But the BMW GS is the one to have out of this group. I’ve owned 5 over the last 20 years. Also there are still a ton of indestructible BMW R100’s of various types out there.
Bikes that also deserve to be on the list:
1. DR650 dual sport (Don’t fall into the KLR trap)
2. Bandit 1200 or 600 (fantastic bikes)
4. Honda VFR of any era
5. Triumph Speed Triple
7. Any BMW R1000 series
8. Any BMW K-Bike
9. Ducati Monster
10. Any early CBR/Fireblade or Ninja
Thanks for the motorcycle content. Since the smarter people are reading this article may I suggest visiting the Barber Motorsports Museum in Leeds, AL near Birmingham? I made my fourth visit last week and am still amazed by the size of it. Over a thousand bikes from all over the world and all time periods plus a nice collection of Lotus race cars. Eat first as you can easily spend over six hours there. I’m in no way connected to Barber, I just love the place.
Best bike for under $5k? Two RZ500’s like the one I foolishly sold for $2300 back in 1995…
I honestly had no idea the Helix was in production until the mid-aughts. I always thought they were an 80’s oddity.
Now I need to find one.
I’ve always felt the V-Rod always deserved a lot more love than it got. In my view, it’s the 2nd most interesting bike they’ve made… with the first being the Livewire.
While the V-Rods were never super common to see on the road, bringing them up made me realize I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw one in the wild. Could be partly due to the fact I moved from motorcycle-ground-zero (near Sturgis) to a place with what seems far fewer bikes, especially cruisers, per capita (very large metro area). But yeah, seems like the V-Rod road off into semi-obscurity.
There’s irony there….the bike that HD made to bring riders from other brands disappeared at a point when HD is still really struggling to bring riders from other brands. Perhaps dipping a toe in the water wasn’t enough and they should have jumped in…..
How about the Honda Hawk GT650? (NOT the Nighthawk CB series). Only made for three years in the late 80’s/early 90’s, single-sided swingarm, V-twin, the forerunner of the naked bikes like the SV650 and with a cult following. A few years ago you could pick them up for a song (what few there are left), but sadly they seem to be disappearing from the market (or you’re seeing listings for Nighthawks incorrectly called Hawks…)
So many sweet used bikes out there. The Yamaha Vision in the photo was in my list back in the day, but I went with the non turbo 650 Seca.
Some bike to consider:
Honda FT500 Ascot. Pretty doggy stock, but really responds to engine mods. Classic flat track styling
First gen Kawasaki Concours. Great sport tourer
Kawasaki ZRX. My current ride. Will never sell that bike
“Honda FT500 Ascot. Pretty doggy stock, but really responds to engine mods. Classic flat track styling”
What I like about the Ascot is there were two models: the single-cylinder FT500 and the v-twin VT500.
By “engine mods”, do you mean parts swaps (like cam and carb) or machine work (porting)?
ZRX 1100 or 1200?
I love my ‘99, even though it’s a porker.
Always do your homework on a bike, no guesses, know the subject.
Even common bikes can find OEM parts are no longer available at the 20 year old mark.
You have to know the limitations.
It’s a fun game. (-:
And uncommon bikes make finding parts even harder. I bought a 2002 Honda RC51 April ’22. It was in slightly rough shape, but a good rider. I had dreams (fantasies?) of revamping it as they can be very collectible (if low miles, all original, or really, really clean). Try finding an OEM seat cowl or any plastics really. My janky body made riding for long periods of time uncomfortable so I traded it before I got to deep into it.
This is an awesome list, Mercedes. I am particularly enamored of the Buell. But that sweet XJ650 will always be a collectors item. So many cool motorcycles, so little ride time…
Please stop telling everyone about the VRSCA. It’s pretty much the only Harley I’ve ever wanted, and I’m shopping for one this year or next. Thanks in advance!
Riding the black sheep of the Harley family means you don’t catch flak if you decide not to participate in all the other typical Harley things, like getting tattoos everywhere, wearing a scraggle beard and buying all the Harley clothing and accessories you can afford. (You won’t actually get harassed for riding a Harley without doing those things.)
On a serious note, these are amazing buys. They’re built to last for ages, and are just plain cool. That you can find them under $5,000 with under 10,000 miles tells you just how resistant to change the air-cooled Harley guys are. The strange connections to Porsche are not only the engineering help with the engine.
The Honda Helix is a trip to ride. I demoed one in the 90s when they were popular with Gold Wing rider’s wives. (saw about a dozen Wing/Helix pairs at Americade in 1992). I’m surprised how cheap early BMW Oilhead and Hexhead bikes are now. If I didn’t need my money for other stuff I’d seriously consider retiring my Airhead.