The Monkey bike is an icon of the Swinging Sixties. Nicknamed because the diminutive dimensions seat the rider like an, erm, primate, these mini bikes were originally designed to be perfect leisure tools. With fold down handlebars, early Monkeys could be stuck in the back of a car or caravan and used as transport while going away on holiday.
The Monkey quickly gained a cult following and now, almost 60 years after the original Z100, the Monkey name returns with an eagerly awaited 125 model.
But as we wait for the new model to arrive in dealerships we’ve taken a look back at some of the cheeky monkeys which have stolen our hearts over the years.
The original Monkey of 1961 was a quirky portable bike with hardtail suspension, tiny 5” wheels and folding handlebars, but it is the later J model that remains the classic monkey shape for most.
Still tiny, and still with folding ‘bars (so it could be loaded into the boot of a car) the 1970s Monkey was a touch more practical. The 10” wheels featured balloon style tyres that gave gentle off-road ability, a raised and generously padded seat and, in later Z50J form, twin shocks. Known as the Mini Trail, the Monkey Z50 had surprisingly good off road ability for something so small.
Power, modest as it was, came from the venerable 49cc semi-automatic motor and, overall, it proved to be a massive success in America. The Z50J remained in the Honda line-up, mainly as a home market model, until very recently and has been much copied by Chinese manufacturers of various ilks.
The very first Monkeys were actually used for kids to learn to ride on at Japanese fun fairs and, in 1979, the Big H released a proper off-road Monkey aimed, largely, at the under 13s – assuming they could get their dads off it!
The Z50R was a pure off-roader with big balloon tyres and equally soft and bouncy suspension set up that was ideal for hooning around wasteland. The R had an annual change of colours and an update in 1988, when it got more modern bodywork, but largely they remained the same over until replaced by the XR50 in 2000.
These days, Z50Rs are hugely collectable. Most lived a hard/neglected life, so finding good original ones is very difficult, but ratty field bikes and restored examples can usually be found on eBay, where they are quickly devoured by Generation Xers looking to relive their childhood.
Honda Z50J Baja Africa
Honda’s Monkey bike range has a real cult following, particularly in Japan, and over the years there have been a number of spectacular specials, both from tuning shops and the manufacturers themselves.
Monkey bikes came out of the factory plated in gold, and chrome and in all manner of weird and wacky colour schemes, but arguably the weirdest (and also one of the most collectable) specials were the Baja model of the early 1990s. This Japanese market model looked like a Manga style Africa Twin, with a 55cm seat height and out of proportion balloon tyres.
Whether or not you think it looks cool or not is a matter of opinion. Under the fancy bodywork lies a standard Z50 frame and engine, but prices for good ones can reach an eyewatering £6k on the rare occasions they come on the market here in Britain.
Suzuki RV VanVan
Monkeys haven’t just been the domain of Honda and the Chinese imitators. Kawasaki (with the KV75) and Suzuki with the RV ‘Van Van’ series also saw a good thing and made their own little leisure bikes in the 1970s.
The Suzuki, in particular, garnered a cult following and came in a variety of engine sizes, from a moped spec RV50 through to 75, 90 and 125cc variants. The RV designation stood for ‘Recreational Vehicle’ while the ‘Van Van’ moniker was applied to Japanese versions.
Production of the originals ended in 1981, but a rebooted RV125 VanVan was introduced in 2003. Although more generously proportioned than the originals, the charming learner legal retro encompassed the spirit of the Seventies and remains (along with a 200cc variant) in the range.
Suzuki also introduced the world to the Street Magic, a modern two-stroke Monkey Moped, which graced their brochures for over a decade from 1997.