In retrospect, the 1980s weren’t entirely bad. Sure, they gave us weird clothing, big hair and some tragically awful music, but they also gave us factory turbocharged motorcycles, at least for a few years. Between 1982 and 1985, you could walk into your local Honda / Suzuki / Yamaha / Kawasaki dealer, plunk down an astonishing amount of cash, and ride out on a factory-built, forced induction bike, complete with a manufacturer’s warranty.
By 1986, the party was over. Kawasaki was the last manufacturer to produce a factory turbo motorcycle (and it was, arguably, the best of the bunch), but even they pulled the plug when insurance costs and manufacturing expense all but eliminated demand. The bikes were still in circulation, and well into the 1990s you’d find the occasional Suzuki XN85 or Yamaha Seca Turbo on a dealers lot, for sale at astonishingly low prices.
So what ultimately killed the factory turbo bikes? Two things, really: their prices when new were astronomical when compared to conventional bikes of the day, and they were seen by insurance companies as too much of a liability. In fact, by the late 1980s, most motorcycle insurance companies either wouldn’t write policies on turbocharged bikes, or quoted absurd annual rates that far exceed the bikes value. No one in their right mind would spend $4,000 per year to insure a bike that was only worth $2,500, but that didn’t stop insurance companies from quoting grab-your-ankles-and-squeal-like-a-pig rates. Conventional bikes got much, much better, and by the time the last Kawasaki GPz 750 rolled off the production line, a Kawasaki Ninja 900 would match it in performance and handling. Factory turbo bikes had become too expensive and too irrelevant.
Thanks to a misspent youth, I’ve ridden all but the XN85 and the Seca Turbo, which never sold in the same quantities as the Hondas or Kawasakis. Turbo bikes were a handful to ride, and demanded your full attention when you whacked the throttle. The Kawasaki was fairly well behaved for a bike that wanted to kill you, but the Honda had “lightswitch” power tied to a non-sporting chassis. Like driving a Porsche 930, you had to anticipate boost; when it hit, the bike went from “grossly underpowered” to “grossly overpowered for the chassis” in about a millisecond. Maybe the insurance companies were on to something, after all.
Honda CX500 Turbo
Released as the CX500 in 1982, Honda’s entry was first on the market. Featuring a transverse mounted, 80 degree v-twin motor, the CX500’s fuel injection system was best described as “unnecessarily complex”. Nonetheless, the bike made 82 horsepower and turned the quarter mile in 12.38 seconds at 106 miles per hour. In 1983, Honda upped the displacement to 650cc, and the new motor made an even 100 horsepower. Quarter mile times dropped to 11.95 seconds at 112 mph.
Best thought of as a relatively quick touring bike, handling was not the CX 500/650’s forte. After a two year run, the CX Turbo disappeared from Honda’s product catalog in 1984.
Suzuki XN 85
Perhaps the rarest of the bunch, Suzuki’s XN85 was released in 1983. The turbocharged, 673cc inline-four motor was good for 85 horsepower, and the bike was capable of running a 12.3 second quarter mile at 106 mph. Unlike the Honda turbos, Suzuki’s offering actually did well in the twisties, and the frame was carried over into the GS750ES of 1984. Approximately 300 XN85s were imported into the US, and they could be purchased new in dealer showrooms as late as 1988.
Yamaha XJ650 Seca Turbo
Introduced in 1982 and discontinued after the 1983 model year, the Seca Turbo was probably the quirkiest bike of the bunch. First, it was air and oil cooled, which critics saw as a recipe for disaster in a turbocharged motor. Next, it used pressurized carburetors instead of fuel injection, which again drew flack from doubters. Finally, Yamaha stuffed the motor into a Seca chassis, which wasn’t known for spectacular handling, and wrapped it up with bodywork that simply didn’t age well. Despite its failings, the Seca Turbo put out 90 horsepower and was good for a 12.68 second quarter mile, at 106 mph.
Kawasaki GPz 750 Turbo
Kawasaki was late to market with their GPz 750 Turbo, which didn’t hit dealerships until 1984. It was fast, it handled reasonably well and it was jaw-droppingly beautiful, and Kawasaki probably sold more GPz 750 Turbos than the other factory turbo bikes combined. The downside is that the GPz 750 Turbo probably killed more unsuspecting riders than all of the other factory turbo bikes combined as well. In stock form, the GPz 750 Turbo put out 112 horsepower and ran the quarter mile in 11.2 seconds at 125 miles per hour. The bikes were easily modified to produce more power, and many owners built their bikes over 200 horsepower.
In 1984, Kawasaki also introduced the Ninja 900, which did nearly everything as well as the GPz 750 Turbo for a lot less money. Insurance companies were even willing to write policies for the Ninja, when they wouldn’t touch the Kawi Turbo. Sadly, the best of the factory turbo bikes went extinct in 1985, but clean used examples can still be found. If you want to own a factory turbo motorcycle, the Kawi is the one to shop for.