Alright, we get it, retro motorcycles are flavour of the month in the Malaysian motorcycle market at the moment with the call and price of nostalgia appealing to many riders, especially those who have taken care of life’s necessities and the fixed deposit has matured. So, in a momentary lapse of reason, the author had the idea of gathering retro bikes in the litre-class, available for sale in Malaysia via the official distributors, and seeing what was what.

We gathered together, for the first paultan.org Retro Bike Rumble, the 2019 Honda CB1100RS, the BMW Motorrad R nineT Racer, the Ducati Scrambler 1100 Sport, the Kawasaki Z900RS and the Triumph T120 Black. This became an exercise in easier said than done and the logistics involved in doing so were… well… somewhat difficult.

In this particular case, where comparison is being made in terms of design style rather than the basis of, say, outright performance, the main criteria became ‘does the bike look like it came from the 60s, 70s or 80s?’ The selection available to us did indeed cover the decades in question, all updated with technology from this millennium and reliability we take for granted.

But, is a modern motorcycle dressed in retro clothes all that it is cracked up to be? Many, including the author, are oftentimes guilty of looking at the past through rose tinted glasses and saying things like, “they don’t make them like they used to,” and “get off my lawn!”

Anyone who’s ridden a 90/90-19 Dunlop TT100 front tyre in the rain with brake pads made from wood – ok, they weren’t made from wood, it just felt that way – will recall some of their scariest riding moments, ever, and if you don’t, you’re weren’t riding fast enough. That being that, we set out to see if a modern retro bike would deliver fun, nostalgia and value for money, in that order.

For this particular shootout, we looked at what was on offer in the litre sized engine category. This meant a selection of fours and twins, some distinctly retro in style, with another a blend between modern and old school.

Save for the BMW R nineT Racer, all the others were upright, unfaired and naked, only because BMW Motorrad Malaysia did not have a base R nineT for review and we prevailed upon Motorrad dealer Millennium Welt to make one available for us.

As they too did not have a naked R nineT in their test fleet, they asked if the R nineT Racer would suffice and we said yes, since we had already reviewed the R nineT back in 2016. Many thanks at this juncture to EJ of Millennium Welt for taking time out of his busy schedule to help make this shootout a success.

And, on to the business at hand, a look at the big retros available to the Malaysian rider. Starting with the numbers, the Kawasaki Z900RS has the smallest engine capacity of the lot at 948 cc, but also makes a lot of power from four cylinders, some 111 hp with 98.5 Nm of torque on tap.

However, the king of torque in this review is the R nineT Racer, with some 116 Nm available at 6,000 along with 110 hp at 7,750 rpm. Munich’s opposed twin is followed by the Triumph Bonneville T120 with 105 Nm of torque but the lowest horsepower number at 80 hp.

The Scrambler slots in just above the Bonneville T120 with 86 hp at 7,500 rpm and 88 Nm at 4,750 rpm from it’s 1,079 cc V-twin. Somewhat of a surprise is the CB1100 RS with 88 hp at 7,500 rpm and 91 Nm of torque at 5,500 rpm, putting it right in the middle and to be honest, we were expecting bigger numbers from the air-cooled Honda.

But this is neither here nor there, and in the arena of retro bikes, numbers don’t mean anything, but looks and riding performance do. Retro bikes are not designed for top speed (though this did not stop us and we know exactly how fast each of the bikes in this review goes) but more for the riding feel and this is what we attempted to find out.

In the styling stakes, the Bonneville T120 and CB1100 RS take the prize, remaining most true to their roots in the 1960s Bonneville and the 1970s CB series bikes. The twin shock absorbers are an authentic touch the other three bikes in this comparo lack, along with the telescopic forks.

Cooling fins for that authentic air/oil-cooled engine look make the CB1100 RS stand out, as does the blocks on the Scrambler’s V-twin and R nineT’s opposed two-potter. The fins on the Bonneville are there but we cannot comment as to how effective they are while Kawasaki’s don’t even pretend to be functional, being machined narrow strips that are purely for looks.

As for the Z900RS, Scrambler 1100 Sport and R nineT Racer, coming with monoshock rear suspension as they do means some weight is saved and rising rate suspension can be used, saving space and providing better suspension compliance. This does mean remarks from the riding public about not being “truly retro” but it is what it is.

Plus, we remember Kawasaki’s Uni-Trak from back in the day as being somewhat better at handling high speed corners than its twin shock brethren, so there is that. In any case, twin absorbers or monoshock, all five retro bikes in this shootout are more than capable of taking corners faster and braking a whole lot better than anything available on the market 40 years ago.

Triumph Bonneville T120 Black

Triumph’s Bonneville series twins, its ‘Modern Classics’, have proven to be popular in the market since being launched in 2016. We have liked Triumph’s twins in all their guises, notably the Thruxton R and Street Scrambler, for their approachability and ease of use, making every sort of rider feel welcome.

For the T120, the classic Triumph look is preserved, but with updated braking and handling manners. Out of the quintet of bikes in this comparison test though, the T120 is most suited to somewhat sedate all-round cruising and riding around, whether for short jaunts to the coffee shop or heading across the border for a cross country epic.

With 105 Nm of torque available, second highest on the list, the T120 has a suitable amount of “get up and go”, certainly enough to satisfy any rider. Certainly we didn’t have any issues riding the T120 at extra-legal highway speeds, complete with pillion, although the lack of wind protection limited the amount of time we could comfortably spend breaking the speed limit.

Handling manners on the T120 are a little on the basic side and spirited riders will soon run into the limits of suspension travel, with the associated wallow of the rear end during high speed cornering. Braking also requires a dedicated squeeze of the lever to bring 224 kg weight of the T120 down to lower levels.

Ridden within its envelope, the T120 is, at its heart, an all-rounder machine, meant to satisfy the needs of any rider and looking stylish whilst doing so. With the image of the classic British motorcycle brought up to the date, the T120 is a suitable bike for the rider raised on a diet of British steel.

Ducati Scrambler 1100 Sport

When Ducati released the 800 cc Scrambler a couple of years ago, many accused the Bologna firm of selling out and trying to use up leftover air-cooled engines from its stock. Now, be that as it may, we did enjoy the small Scrambler as a run-about, and Ducati upped the ante with the Scrambler 1100, brought into Malaysia in two versions – the Sport and the Special.

While we have spent time with both versions of the Scrambler 1100 available, the one that appealed to the author most is the Sport, with it’s Ohlins suspension and Brembo brakes. Because that old adage holds true, you will know quality when you ride it, the Scrambler 1100 Sport ticked all the right boxes for us.

Styled with a nod to 70s dirt bike design, the Scrambler 1100 has now become somewhat interesting, with enough power at the rear wheel to go sideways at any given opportunity. The Scrambler 800 would do it too, but it was more work. In the case of the 1100, front wheel in the air shenanigans is a given in the first three gears.

This is quite understandable, given that the Scrambler 1100 is the lightest of the retro bikes in comparison and the wide handlebars makes wrestling the Scrambler into and out of corners quite entertaining. The Scrambler is somewhat long though, and changing direction quickly should be given some though, especially when we took the bike on the tight corners of Fraser’s Hill.

Although the Scrambler 1100 addresses a different market segment for Ducati, we would not hesitate calling it a Monster in retro clothes, which it really is. Compared to the other bikes in this comparison, the Scrambler 1100 feels a little more raw and immediate, and makes no pretence to being a shy type of motorcycle.

Kawasaki Z900RS

Straight out of the 70s is the Kawasaki Z900RS, which actually comes in two version, the RS and the RS Cafe. We have taken both versions out for a spin and indeed, found much to like about Kawasaki’s contribution to the retro bike arena.

Taking the inline-four from the Z900 naked sports, the Z900RS is slightly detuned from its modern sibling but still rocks in with near enough the highest horsepower rating in our comparo, right alongside the BMW Motorrad R nineT and actually makes more torque lower down the rev range than the Z900.

Next to the Triumph T120, the Z900RS is probably easiest to the just jump on and ride, and its easy to go quick and fast on this bike with its eager throttle response. There is enough zip in the Z900RS to keep up with any litre-class sports bike, which, at the risk of stating the obvious, is understandable since it is the most ‘modern’ of the retros here, by a fair margin.

The smoothness of the four-cylinder engine helps a lot in this respect and during our earlier review period, we found ourselves taking the Z900RS for long highway rides just for the sheer enjoyment of it. Seat comfort was found to be quite good, supporting rider and pillion in all the right places.

Coupled with adjustable suspension and radial-mounted brakes, the Z900RS is, alongside the Scrambler 1100 Sport, the most technologically advanced retro bike you can get in Malaysia. Recommended retail pricing for the Z900RS at RM67,900 also makes it the cheapest big retro you can get.

BMW Motorrad R nineT Racer

Say what you want about BMW Motorrad, but the boys from Munich don’t do things by halves and when they set out to build a retro bike, they really build a retro. With four model variants over the base model R nineT to choose from, BMW Motorrad has almost every riding style covered.

In this case, what we got, courtesy of BMW Motorrad authorised dealer Millennium Welt was the R nineT Racer as there was no R nineT available. This did not matter much as we have previously reviewed the R nineT back in 2016 and will be basing our comparison on that.

The boxer engine, in 1,170 cc air-cooled form, takes pride of place in the R nineT and posts the highest numbers in our retro comparo, 110 hp at 7,750 rpm and 116 Nm at 6,000 rpm. What this means is the torque delivery from BMW’s boxer is instantaneous in any gear and felt most comfortable in fourth and fifth for that arm-wrenching acceleration.

We do reserve comment on the racer tuck of the R nineT Racer – which, in all fairness should be directly compared to the Triumph Thruxton R – the standard riding position of the R nineT is comfortable and well suited for fast highway jaunts. Handling manners on the R nineT is good and will suit almost all riders save the certifiably insane but we did take exception to the inclusion of jackshaft effect.

In terms of riding aids, the rider gets nothing but two-wheel ABS. Some might take exception this, as we did in our original review but BMW Motorrad does make it clear the R nineT is meant to be modded, and extensively at that. Including a whole bunch of electronics and sensors will just make things expensive and complicated.

Honda CB1100RS

Back in the 1980s, the Universal Japanese Machine, or UJM, motorcycle ruled the streets and it is now back in the form of the Honda CB1100RS. A big, unadorned, air-cooled four-cylinder, tank above the engine, fuelling behind the cylinder and not above, that is the very definition of a big UJM and the CB1100RS delivers in the looks department.

Despite being the biggest of the retros in this roundup, the CB1100RS does come with a somewhat ‘soft’ power delivery. This did not mean it could’t go, though, it did, and with some alacrity, but hauling around 252 kg of motorcycle around was telling on the engine, smooth as the power delivery is.

The CB1100RS does have an imposing presence though and for riders who first cut their teeth on bikes from the 70s and 80s, the big CB will bring back a rush of nostalgia, as it did for the author. Riding the CB1100RS around – for this we have Datuk Seri Tan of Boon Siew Honda to thank, who asked his staff to make arrangements to have the CB1100RS included in this comparison – we liked its road manners, where it proceeded majestically down the road.

Its weight does come into play when taking the corners and a firm hand at the handlebars and some planning ahead is required. Higher speed cornering requires more commitment and after a certain point, when ground clearance starts running out, you had better know what you’re doing.

With a soft power delivery and laid back comfort and handling, the CB1100RS is a good weekend cruiser and highway traveller. Taken as a whole, the CB1100RS does convey the essence of the 1970s/1980s superbike well, and riding it is enjoyable once you get used to the heft.

What we thought

As author has said before, and will say again, “retro is as retro does.” Different bikes from different eras mean different things to different riders.

The point being made is motorcycles are a very personal choice, and what looks good on paper, on the specifications sheet, is not necessarily what drives the purchase decision. In the case of our quintet, looks as much as performance has an impact on what might cause the rider to, or not to, buy.

So, at the essence of it, a retro bike, in today’s definition, is a two-wheeler in classic clothes with modern running gear. In this respect, we would have to say all the motorcycles in our comparison have succeeded.

But things being what they are, some of the retro bikes we rode are rather better, or different, than the others. If you’re a speed demon, the Kawasaki Z900RS fits the bill, to a ‘T’, as does the Honda CB1100RS.

Either will quite quickly get to above the ton and quite happily stay there all day. Although the upright riding position means dealing with the wind is an issue, dialling things back a touch will make conditions a little more bearable.

On the other hand, if handling matters, then the Scrambler Ducati 1100 stands above the rest, with its Ohlins and Brembos. So does the BMW Motorrad R nineT, especially in the guise of the Racer, where high-speed corner strafing is the order of the day.

Truth be told, any of the five machines in our Retro Rumble will perform as a capable highway cruiser, or for general purpose riding duties. This is more so in the case of the triumph T120 Bonneville, which ticks all the boxes for a do anything retro cruiser.

So, which would be the author’s choice, based on a combination of price, power, handling and comfort? That is indeed a tough question to answer, since all the bikes in the comparison do much the same thing, albeit in different ways.

For the author, if it came down to price and power, the Kawasaki Z900RS would be first choice. Second in line would be the Bonneville T120, simply for its approachability and ease of use, as there is a lot to be said for an honest motorcycle not pretending to be anything else but.

Looking at handling, it would be a close tie between the Ducati Scrambler 1100 Sport and the BMW Motorrad R nineT Racer, jackshaft effect notwithstanding. In the respect, the Scrambler has a slight edge, simply because the adjustability afforded by the Ohlins suspension makes it that much easier to get the bike dialled in for the rider’s riding style.

But, more than most bikes, retro motorcycles are memory machines, especially for older riders of the author’s vintage, harking back to the days when size 30 jeans fit and combs were actually necessary. Having ridden many of the forebears of today’s retro bikes when they were new, the bike in our comparison most evocative of a time when the author was young and fearless, is the Honda CB1100RS.


BMW Motorrad R nineT Racer
Ducati Scrambler 1100 Sport
Honda CB1100RS
Kawasaki Z900RS/Z900RS SE
Triumph Bonneville T120 Black