1989 was a wonderful year in American motocross. As far as racing we were seeing the old guard of Rick Johnson and Jeff Ward near the end of their reigns and new kids like Damon Bradshaw, Mike Keidrowski, Larry Ward and Mike Larocco were coming in with aggressive riding styles. And when it came to the production machines we were entering the beginning of some parity. For the decade we saw Honda basically produce the best machines year in and year out-especially in the 250 class. Suzuki’s basically sucked from 1983 on up, Yamaha’s were average in every way with a few terrible machines stuck in here and there. And Kawasaki showed promise with a few models but mostly in the 80 and 125 classes. Their big bikes had left much to be desired.
But in '89, things were finally changing. Suzuki signed Bob Hannah in 1986 with the mandate to help their production bikes and starting in ’88 he got the 250 better and in 1989 Suzuki’s were brand new. Yamaha finally got off their butts and produced an all-new 1988 YZ250 that signaled a new era for them. In ’89 they gave the 125 the “ 1988 makeover”. Kawasaki was coming around on the big bikes and were just a year removed from an all-new (and successful) makeover. We started finally seeing new and improved production bikes starting around ’89 that would carry over for a few years until the mid 90’s where Honda started lagging a bit and Yamaha and Kawasaki took over. Just like the future superstars coming into the pros in this year, 1989 started the ball rolling for really good production bikes that were not named Honda.
Super/MotoCross magazine was actually pretty good although it was light in substance.
Our man Blazier profiled the ’89 KX 125 HERE and inside this story I added a bit of my own recollection from owning that bike. I’ll save you the jump and copy and paste what I said about that evil machine:
Blaze does a great job with these articles and when he told me he was doing one on the 1989 KX 125, I felt like I had to chime in. I had this bike and lived with it for a year; and I couldn’t wait to get rid of it. I rode Kawasaki’s in the 80 class and they were great bikes. Since I was getting some small help from Kawasaki Canada, we stuck with them in ’89 and picked up a KX125.
The first time I rode it in the spring in deep sand, I thought it was broken. Seriously, that’s how slow it was. Upon further inspection, it wasn’t broken. It was just that slow. To make matters worse, I jumped on a buddy’s ’89 CR125 and that destroyed my confidence in my ability to capture yet another prestigious Manitoba motocross title.
That was it for Tom (my dad). He shipped the cylinder and head off to Pro Circuit to get the complete works port job along with a pipe, silencer, jersey and a seat cover. It was some sort of package deal by Mitch (years later I would find out that my boss at Yamaha, Jimmy Perry, was basically responsible for all the customer stuff around that time and probably ported my cylinder himself - weird right?) and his crew. We got it back for the price of a small car (the Canadian dollar was worth about 60 cents US back then), bolted it on and waited for the shit to happen.
But nothing really happened. It was still very slow, almost electric feeling (DAMN YOU PERRY!!!). PC had helped it, but not very much. On the bright side, I did have a sweet seat cover. Again, my buddy’s Honda was stock and WAY better than this thing.
I wish that were my only problem with the bike. I came up short on a double and cracked the gas cap threads off with my nuts. That actually didn’t hurt nearly as bad as the gas on the balls did. I finished the race and then had to soak my nuts in water for thirty minutes to stop the burning. I stripped out bolts on the sub-frame, the frame itself cracked, the pegs rattled badly and again, it was SO SLOW.
In fact while waiting for a new gas tank to come in, my dad had his ’87 CR125R laying around and somehow bolted on the KX’s complete front end. I raced it and despite being two years old, it was way better than the green machine. My results turned out to be better on it as well. I rode the Millville national amateur day and won my class which got us into a halftime race at the next day’s national with the top two in every class or something like that. Up against 250’s, 500’s and all that, I almost pulled the holeshot on that bike. Yeah my chain broke two laps later coming out of the sand, but still…
Anyways, I’m getting off track here. This bike sucked. It was ugly, slow, had weak gas tank threads, bad reliability and did I mention that it was slow? About the only thing that was good was the suspension but then again, slow bikes always have good suspension right?
The Dirt Bike guys line up the '89 125's for a thrashing.
I thought it would be interesting to line up all the different moto mags from 1989 and see what they had to say about the 125 screamers from that year.
Oh yeah, by the way every single mag says that this test is the closest they’ve ever had and all the bikes are winners. Just know that these things were said in 1989 as much as are now mmmk?
We’ll get to the overall rankings at the bottom of the story but first let’s take a look at what the guys had to say.
First off, as stated above I owned the Kawasaki and rode my buddies CR 125. I also spun some laps on the RM. I know it was a long time ago but there was no doubt- as I state in the story above- the Honda CR125 was THE fastest 125 in 1989. Anyone who doesn’t say that is ridiculous. And possibly high
I'm being dead serious. The Honda CR125 was the fastest 125 in 1989.
Super/MotoCross mag said the Honda motor “is better than anything else” and that “all our riders kept coming back to the CR” and it seems like across the board with all their testers, the Honda had the best motor. They call the Kawasaki “uninspiring” in the motor department and I would agree with that.
Dirt Bike has always been a bit weird and different (think that strange nephew that dresses all goth-like at the family dinners) and they’re the only American mag that includes the KTM in their test. And of course they feel the KTM has the best motor but a slight edge over the Honda. But then I looked at their four test riders lap times and every single one of them (four riders) on two different tracks were the fastest on the Honda. Some of them by three seconds or so! But yeah, sure the KTM is the best guys. DB says the Suzuki is the worst 125 as it “gets outgunned in sheer firepower and upper revs”.
Larry Brooks on the cover of the MXA where they line up the '89 125's to go to battle with each other.
Dirt Rider has our own FOP (friend of Pulp) Rich Taylor helping out with the testing and they do a little unique deal where they headed to a couple of different tracks (one sand, one intermediate) with two pro riders, two intermediate riders, a novice guy and logged in some serious laps. The pros all went fastest on the Honda (except for one guy who said the Kawasaki suspension worked so good he was able to go faster on it) but overall on both tracks, the guys logged better laps on the Suzuki than any other bike. Honda was second and the Yamaha last. And THEN they rank the motors as well and say that even the riders who weren’t faster on the Honda rated it the best. The Suzuki was rated second despite them using words like “the bike felt slow” because the delivery of said power was smooth. Yamaha’s rated last because it seems that they didn’t like the shifting very much. Shifting on the Yamaha is rated poorly by just about every test we read so we’re confident in saying that the Yamaha must have shifted like poop in 1989.
Motocross Action, the bible of bike tests back then, rates the Honda as the best motor of the year and say it’s not even close. Then they go on to talk about needing to add one tooth to the rear sprocket. And we’re not even kidding about this. The Yamaha “has easily” the second best power and needs to be “ridden hard and put away wet”. MXA thinks the Kawasaki has the worst motor but is misunderstood because it’s “fast but flat”.
DBR is a magazine based in England and they rate the Kawasaki as the best motor in 1989. I stopped reading after this. Paul Malin is one of the test riders for this magazine back then and I believe he was a factory Kawasaki guy in ’89 and gives the Kawasaki HUGE marks for their motor. Shocking really.
Cycle News was never really considered much of a testing mag (or newspaper as it were) back in the day but they rate the Honda the best and the Suzuki the worst. One thing almost all the mags say is that the Suzuki was very receptive to porting and a pipe which I would think might be true or otherwise all the editors seem to be meeting for burritos in Corona at the same time. Cycle News does praise the Yamaha’s shifting so that’s a little weird right?
Damon Bradshaw on the cover of the Dirt Rider with the 1989 125 shootout in it. The DR shootout has some really cool things in it with the most wacked out rankings of all the American mags.
I loved my Kawasaki’s suspension back in the day but as I said, slow bikes always seem to work well. Once you start adding power to any bike things get a bit wonky as far as getting suspension working right. This is one category where all the mags seem to agree on. Either the Suzuki or the Kawasaki judged to be the best when it comes to the boingers.
Super/MotoCross: Let’s get it out there right now- I liked this mag growing up but it’s a Peterson Publishing magazine and therefore, they never want to piss anyone off. The Kawasaki isn’t slow it’s “deceptively fast” and the Honda doesn’t have bad suspension it’s just needs “better damping” and it’s performance is the same as last years machine. These guys like the Kawasaki and Suzuki suspension and the Honda is the worst.
Dirt Bike says that the Kawasaki has the best fork AND shock and therefore the best suspension. Suzuki is second and in a bit of a deviation from the other guys, they have the Honda third. Yamaha’s the only bike that has upside-down forks and Super Hunky and crew just don’t like it very much. Bringing up the rear in the DB shootout is the KTM, which in the ‘80’s isn’t very rare.
Dirt Rider loves the Suzuki’s suspension and places Kawasaki second with a shock that is “vague”. Maybe the Kawasaki should just be more specific with its demands? The Honda and Yamaha are tied for third (and last) with the editors noting that there is “no flex” in the forks of the Yamaha. Dirt Rider also says the “Pro” in the “Pro Link” must mean it’s only good for pro riders. Which is weird because I guarantee you every single pro rider put heavier springs in the Honda. It’s just what you do when you’re a pro.
The MXA guys thought that the Kawasaki would best be shown from the rear for some reason.
JodyCross Action or MXA as they are known don’t really go into much detail about the suspension of the four bikes which is weird because it’s such a key part of each bike. They spend more words on which bike is a holeshot machine (which could have been done with one word: Honda) than the suspension. One thing about the Honda front end is that it’s a smaller diameter fork than Suzuki and Kawasaki and it’s not a USD like the Yamaha. In fork performance (especially back then) a bigger diameter is always better. More oil is a good thing people. MXA likes the Kawasaki best and rates the Yamaha the worst. Poor Yamaha! Punished for being the innovator and putting on USD’s. At least they have two radiators on the bike and not just an ugly-ass tank like the Kawi.
Oh those Euros! DBR says the Honda has the best suspension with the Yamaha second. I again stopped reading after that. One thing to keep in mind is that these guys got the Kawasaki with the upside-down forks and one tester rated them just a four. Paul Malin LOVED the Kawasaki suspension though so there is that.
Cycle News loved the green machine suspension and didn’t like the Honda so much but they do think the Yamaha had “the best rear suspension ever found on a Yamaha” which seems pretty awesome but the best Yamaha COULD EVER DO was only good enough for third out of four bikes.
Here's the British mag DBR with the 125 shootout in it. I think that could be JMB on the cover but I'm not sure.
Everyone said the Honda brakes were the best. Even DBR mentions how great they are. Ergonomics is such a personal thing and as expected opinions are all over the map. I know from my own riding experience that the Honda and Suzuki were by far the slimmest, best feeling bikes out of these. Kawasaki was terrible but yet some people thought it was awesome. Those people must be bull riders and enjoy their legs being spread apart constantly. Dirt Rider’s shootout format is pretty cool with dyno graphs, torque readings and the most pages out of any of the mags. Dirt Bike lists the retail prices for some common parts of the machines which is a nice touch. Oh there was one thing that the KTM won in and that’s “ease of air filter" maintenance. Ccongrats guys!
The guys at DBR all voted the Cagiva as the best looking bike which continues to reinforce my theory that the Brits dropped LSD before doing this test. I didn't look but I guarantee Malin thought the Kawasaki looked the greatest.
The DBR guys thought this was the best looking bike from 1989. I'm serious.
I know sometimes it really is hard to tell the bikes apart from one another but MXA does this lame thing where after they rank the bikes in order from worst to first they then have a “Conversations from the test riders” box where by the end each of the testers want to ride a different bike and thereby making it seem like they are all winners.
1-Kawasaki (I like Kit, he’s a good dude but I will fight anyone who says the Kawasaki was the best bike.) 2-Yamaha 3- Suzuki 4- Honda (C’mon Kit…last? Really?)
1-Kawasaki 2-Honda 3-Suzuki 4- Yamaha
1-Honda 2-Yamaha 3-Kawasaki 4-Suzuki 5-KTM (KTM’s ads in 1990—“Hey, we’re better than Cagiva!!”) 6-Cagiva
1-Honda 2-Yamaha 3-Suzuki 4-Kawasaki (MXA the only mag to rank the Kawasaki last. In my eyes horsepower is everything in this class and with the Kawi being so slow it should be last.)
1-Honda 2-Suzuki 3-Kawasaki 4-Yamaha
1- Suzuki 2-Honda 3-Kawasaki 4-Yamaha (but Dirt Rider is VERY clear there are no losers, every bike can be great and they continue the Peterson Publishing tradition of NEVER pissing off an advertiser)
1-Kawasaki (No word on what the Wolfman’s individual ranking was) 2- (tie) Yamaha and Suzuki 3-Honda 4-KTM
There you have it. If you're in the market in 2014 for a 1989 125 I think you're all set. You're welcome.