The thing with human beings is that most of us can never be satisfied with our lot in life. When there were just dirt trails and no roads, we wanted to go faster. So from horses and carts, machinery was born out of a need for speed. There was the cycle before the pedaling motorized version or the moped, and then came the motorcycles (and cars). But let’s talk about motorcycles here. In 1885, two German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach managed to make the first ever motorcycle with a gasoline internal combustion engine. Basically, the idea caught fire – and motorcycles became the biggest man toy of them all from then to now.
Of course, in the long and vivid journey of two-wheelers, there have been plenty of hits and misses. There have been motorcycles and bikes built so well that they never stopped selling, and even old models fetched their prices in gold. And then there have been two-wheelers built so bad, it was almost as if they were predetermined to fail, and fail they did, in epic fashion.
Take for instance dirt bikes – these stripped down motorcycles are really put to the test by their daredevil riders. They are ridden hard and fast and need to be able to withstand the worst of trails and the most callous of jumps. Not all machines can withstand that torture though. Some come through, and some are literally built too weak. On that note, here are 15 dirt bikes with a stellar record (and 10 made to crumble).
25 Stellar Choice: Suzuki DR-Z400SM
For many, the jury is still out on Suzuki DR-Z400SM (SM meaning SuperMoto) because some say those massive rotors will not do well in the dirt. But talk to any experienced rider and they'll say that a good set of knobby tires, peppered with a little caution, is all you need to take this baby out on the track.
Plus, it can easily do 94mph on a good set of rugged wheels under a rider who really knows his bikes, and his dirt tracks. For this bike, its a matter of proving them all wrong.
24 Stellar Choice: Honda XR650L
The Honda XR650L is dubbed a dual-sport classic, and is actually one of the best off-road models around that can still spit up the street even after a dusty run. The performance of this bike has made it an almost cult favorite, and it can reach 98mph an hour with ease. It looks good, handles well and can spin off into the sunset from 0 to 60 in under 6 seconds so it’s a good choice for sure. A bike that handles dirt and road with ease, what more does a dirt biker need?
23 Stellar Choice: Kawasaki KLR 650
The Kawasaki KLR 650 is more of a street-friendly bike, but that doesn’t mean this motorcycle will shy away from off-roading. It remains an all-season best-seller from Kawasaki’s stable, and the 2006-2008 redesigned models reached near cult status, especially since the remodeling happened after nearly 20 years of the same bike.
The 650 cc four-stroke, DOHC, dual-counterbalanced, single-cylinder, water-cooled engine makes the KLR650 fly at 98mph. Even with competition around, it remains solid and has an excellent aftermarket value.
22 Stellar Choice: Aprilia RXV 5.5
So the Aprilia RXV 5.5 is not a light ride – not at 303 pounds with a full tank – but it's a bike that most riders swear feels a lot lighter. This could be because of the tubular steel and aluminum frame, and the fact that the air filter sits atop the engine.
This is also one of the first few fuel-injected off-road bikes and manages a cool 55horspower from its 549cc engine. The supermoto version was street legal, and the bike was fastest among its class with the record being a 4.16-second sprint at 113mph.
21 Stellar Choice: Beta 450 RS
According to Ultimate Motorcycling, the Beta 450 RS may be street legal in all 50 states but it's pure and solid competition. The triangle ratio between handlebars, seat, and footpegs is near perfect, and the maximized power-to-weight ratio makes it a fast ride. The clutch is light and the six-speed gearbox works beautifully on paved roads as well as the roughest terrain you can throw at it.
It peaks at 111mph, and going 0 to 60mph is an impressive 5.25 seconds. As capable as it on paved roads, it's even better on trails.
20 Stellar Choice: KTM 350SX-F
What do we say about the KTM 350 SX-F? The racers use the 450s, so the 350 becomes the common man’s dirt bike. Its pro racing success has been limited and not much to speak of in domestic tracks, but it's an awesome motorcycle for the amateur dirt biker.
Plus, it's all-new, and the 2019 model seems to be getting fairly decent reviews. Frankly, if the 450’s heavy ride tires you out, the 350 would make a better ride – if a slightly slower one, according to Dirt Bike Magazine.
19 Stellar Choice: Honda CR480R
Not many would know of this one because it existed for a brief two year period between 1982 and 1983. This was the time of the open class two-stroke, and the 83 models were loved by many. A left-side kickstart, this dirt bike had drum brakes but was still adored by plenty.
The thing about the 480 was that it existed before the bike horsepower race and gave an awesome power-to-weight ratio, 55horsepower for 225 pounds. And many a racer won their trophies riding this much-coveted motocross that remains a collector’s favorite till date.
18 Stellar Choice: Yamaha YZ250
Honestly, for those who really know their dirt bikes, the sole two-stroke still in the market remains a popular choice. Launched way back in 1974, regular updates have kept it a consumer favorite. The bodywork, frame, motor and even the forks remain mostly unchanged for the past decade or so though yearly updates in design have been regular.
The 250 cc single-cylinder, water-cooled, two-stroke, cylinder reed motor has proved itself over and over and some riders claim it handles better than any modern four-stroke dirt bike around.
17 Stellar Choice: Honda CR250R
The 80s was the time of the motorcycles, and it was then that Honda really upped its ante, forcing Yamaha and Suzuki to work doubly hard to catch up. In 1986, there was the Honda CR250R that had a spanking new 250cc motor with a superpower valve. Launched in 1970, this dirt bike lasted for 37 years, all the way to 2007.
The 2001 model is of particular value, with bits and parts’ prices skyrocketing to the moon. It was the 97 model that was a game changer, with an aluminum chassis, a first for dirt bikes. Since then, there has been no looking back for Honda.
16 Stellar Choice: Yamaha YZ360
For a model that's lusted after by the newbie racers of today and held in immortal appeal by vintage racers, very few Yamaha YZ360A were made. Basically, it was like a carbon copy of the works bikes that were racing around Europe at the time, and honestly, the 1975 model with its mono-shock suspension was sheer brilliance. The fuel tank was an alloy, and to make the dirt bike purely professional, it came sans headlight and taillight.
Steve McQueen had one, and according to Mecum, it’s on the market for the taking – for a price, of course.
15 Stellar Choice: Kawasaki KX450F
The Kawasaki KX 450F boasts a liquid-cooled DOHC 449 cc four-valve four-stroke engine, strong enough to let this motorcycle have an impressively long run. Unlike the KX250F that was jointly developed by Kawasaki and Suzuki, this one was all Kawasaki. It was launched in 2006 though it was met with a tepid welcome considering it was a 4-speed bike in a world of 5-speed transmissions. And yet, it won so many motocrosses in its maiden year, that it soon rose in the eyes of the rider and became a hot favorite.
For 2019, the design was revamped and the bike was renamed KX450, with the main appeal being the shift to a coil-fork Showa suspension.
14 Stellar Choice: Suzuki RM125
For 1981, the Suzuki RM125 could almost be called ahead of its time. While liquid-cooled bikes had come out before, Suzuki managed to do it right and made this 125cc a lighter, faster and cooler bike around. The rear shocks were Full-Floater and this dirt bike’s suspension made it a class leader in its own right before the other Japanese brands caught up.
Considering that RM stands for racing model, they had to work to make this little beauty the zippiest thing around; and they repeated their prowess with the RM250 they brought out in 1982.
13 Stellar Choice: Maico 490 Mega 2
Maico was somewhat of a leader during the halcyon days of motocross. The long-travel suspension was first brought out by them and one of their all-stars had to be the 1981 Maico 490 Mega 2. The 490cc motor was a thing of beauty and this nifty dirt bike handled better than anything ever on the market.
According to Thumpertalk, this may have been the bike to also blame for the demise of the open class, or at least the eventual downfall of it all. For this bike, Maico had managed an infallible power delivery. The next year, they stuffed the same motor into a heavy single-shock frame and lost the lead.
12 Stellar Choice: Honda CR125M
The 1974 Honda CRM125M Elsinore is probably what jumpstarted the motocross craze in the US, and was mass-produced in astounding numbers. The bike was good with such a controlled performance that it gave a tough level for brands like Suzuki, Kawasaki, Can-Am, and Yamaha to match, though they all brought out their 125s to the lot.
This particular bike literally ended the bikes from Hodaka and Penton, and it was miles ahead of the competition as well for a two-stroke, 124cc little wonder.
11 Stellar Choice: Honda CRF450R
This was the last of the Hondas to have a carburetor, and the 2008 Honda CRF450R was clearly the best motocross bike to ride, ever. Many not only dub it the best dirt bike by Honda but the best bike ever, period. Not to say the current 450s are bad, but the 2008 model was way superior and handled like a pro.
It remains perhaps the best thing to ever have happened to motocross. The four-stroke, 449cc, liquid-cooled, OHV, kick-started single-cylinder engine was a thing of beauty if a transient one.
10 Bit The Dust: Husqvarna 450 Desert Master
This has to be worst of all bad ideas from Husqvarna and was so bad that the designer Reuben Helmen promptly disowned his cousin, who had urged him to make this bike in the first place. Yep, blood is not thicker than motor oil. Heavy, slow, awkward placement of the gearbox and a power curve that never curved right made this the worst thing to ever take to a motocross event.
In case you still managed to get on and hold on, the exhaust burned your leg and the brakes were nuttier than, well, nuts. Oh, and things fell off the bike at every jump.
9 Bit The Dust: Honda CR450R
Not to be confused with the CRF450R, which was a stalwart, the CR450R was Endgame Thor to CRF450R’s Infinity War Thor. In reality, the 450 was a 430cc with a gearbox and a powerband that was better left on the curb than on a bike. The suspension simply did not want to work together and that oddly space gearbox kept you guessing the speed; making you rev or bog!
The good thing was the bike had power but the power delivery was temperamental, to say the least. Of course, starting it in the cold was tough but once the engine overheated, it would ping to no end and kill the plugs.
8 Bit The Dust: Rokon 340
Apparently, Rokon was your bike, if you hated to shift or turn or otherwise try to avoid a head-on. This was a bike best left to its own devices on a straight road because even if you wanted to turn, it didn’t. The Sachs engine had a rope starter (okay, it was the 70s) but it needed power and a ton of patience. The good thing is it had disc brakes, the bad thing is they were moody and didn’t always work. Of course, if you wanted to gear down, you couldn’t and had to free-wheel into turns and down dusty tracks. One ride was too many on this one.
7 Bit The Dust: Yamaha SC500
The best thing about this bike, according to Rick Sieman from Dirt Bikes, was that it didn’t leak around the gas cap. It goes downhill from there, pretty fast. The only constant thing about this bike was that it would seize and stall with great irregularity. The front suspension was shaky at best and the rear bucked like the bike had a hinge in the middle. The engine ran hot and tended to backfire when revved with great alacrity.
Clearly, the big minds at Yamaha were on a break during this sheer joke of a motocross.
6 Bit The Dust: Harley-Davidson Baja 100
In the early 70s, trail bikes were being led by Hodaka, and Harley Davidson decided to bring out a jewel to close in on the competition. To prove their mettle, they raced this bike and actually began to win. So people bought the Baja like there was no tomorrow, only to discover the dupe. The racing bike wasn’t stock and had everything changed. The actual Baja was a little faker, so made by the Italian Aermacchi factory with everything wrong.
The mailbox gas tank, the strange under-the-crotch hook, the harder than saddle seat, the short wheelbase, and a ridiculously tall height. No motocross could ever have been made worse, period.
5 Bit The Dust: CZ 250 Enduro
This is the bike that singlehandedly ruined the CZ market in the US, and well-deserved is what we say. Introduced in the mid-70s, the Enduro tag on the bike had to be a joke because it seemed more a jigsaw puzzle than an actual machine.
Things tended to fall off this bike in hordes, and after enough things had been dropped, it sort of sputtered to a stop. Nothing in the motocross was well thought out, and no one knows why CZ would ever make a bike like this, let alone try and sell it in the US.
4 Bit The Dust: Yamaha YZ490
Sometimes bad thing tends to get cult followings. And in the case of the Yamaha YZ490, it’s because of the very good YZ465 that came before. However, as good as the 465 was, it couldn’t cover the shame the 490 brought to the Yamaha brand.
This bike hopped, seized, grunted, stalled and basically made a rider’s life a living hell. It was heavier so didn’t handle well, and was a pain to start. The suspension meant you felt every little pebble the tires hit and gave you butt ache the moment you sat on it.
3 Bit The Dust: Penton 125 Mudlark
John Penton is known to be a savvy dirtbike innovator, but this is not one of the bikes he would even like to remember. While he was involved in some really cool enduro bikes by KTM, he ended up buying a cartload of Sachs 125B engines. To get rid of the engine, he and an English fabricator called Wassel, hammered out these bikes that Penton dubbed the Penton Trials.
The bike was a trial to ride from start to end with really bad Betor forks, the worst ever shocks and a front end that tended to plow whenever you tried to turn it. In the end, Penton called the bike the Mud Lark, and it splattered quite a bit of mud on Penton’s reputation.
2 Bit The Dust: Any Three-Wheeler
If you didn’t have the skills to balance a two-wheeler, Honda and many others brought out the three-wheeler, or the ATC (all-terrain cycle). Think of this as the worst precursor to the ATV or the quad bikes. The ATCs had no suspension, just balloon tires to handle the shock. The riders sometimes couldn’t handle the shock of this all and ended up doing inspiring things like riding over their own legs. Anything over 20mph caused a high-speed wobble that made the riders go sailing over the bars in spectacular fails.
Thankfully, though they sold like hotcakes, they were finally pulled off the market.
1 Bit The Dust: Suzuki TM400 Cyclone
According to Dirt Bike, this newspaper ad sums up why the Cyclone was perhaps the worst dirtbike in the history of all dirtbikes. “For sale-1972 Suzuki TM-400. Only 10 hours on the bike. Possible injury forces sale. $500 or best offer.” Focus on the possible injury bit and we’ll explain to you why no one could ever tame the Cyclone. The ignition went from start mode into any kind of power mode it wanted to, at any time. The slightest of throttle could make it deliver anything, at any time, least when you expected it.
The commonest picture of a Cyclone rider was not on the bike but pinned to the ground with the bike on top of him. Capish?
Sources: Dirt Bike, ThumperTalk, Mecum, and Ultimate Motorcycling