The boom in 250 two-stroke race reps followed a similar trajectory to the explosion of grunge and alternative rock that took the music world by storm in the late 80s. While the sounds of alternative, punk and grunge rock were confined to dive bars and tiny, single-city scenes in the mid-80s, by the early 90s, it seemed as if bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and The Smashing Pumpkins were about to take over the world, wrestling the crown of kings of the charts away from pop emperors like Michael Jackson and Madonna … yet by the end of the decade, the grunge revolution had imploded and died with a whimper rather than a bang, with puerile boy bands and annoyingly bouncy girl groups flooding the airwaves with saccharine, insincere dancey drivel.
And so it went with the 250cc two stroke race reps. As amazing as the NSR250 MC28 and the RGV250 VJ23 were, (and the stunning Aprilia RS250, with its RGV250-derived motor), neither Honda nor Suzuki could sell decent numbers of them by ’96 or ’97. Yamaha had thrown in the towel, with the last of its beautiful TZR250 3XV models rolling out of the factory in ’95, and Kawasaki had long since quit the ‘stroker game, ditching its potent KR1S back in ’92 after only three years of production. The fresh Honda and Suzuki models, representing the absolute pinnacle of race-replica evolution, sat gathering dust on showroom floors while the fickle local market abruptly changed direction and flocked to buy naked bikes and cafe racers.
In the world of MotoGP, things were changing too. While the track, in all size classes, had been dominated by two strokes since the early ’80s, by the mid-90s there was an increasingly urgent push to switch to four strokes due to changing emissions rules. Valentino Rossi won his first World Championship in 2001 on a NSR500 – but by then the final nail had been driven into the two-stroke coffin. In 2002, the starting grid was packed with 990cc four strokes, and the last 500cc two-strokes quickly disappeared.
They had become extinct on the streets a few years earlier, at least in brand new form. Honda produced the last of the NSR250s in 1996, with Suzuki’s production of the RGV250 fizzling out in ’97. However, even though the tide had turned for these bikes in Japan, in other markets demand remained high, and tens of thousands of barely-used 250s made their way across the oceans (along with four-stroke, four cylinder 400s) to eager riders in the UK, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other countries, who bought these bikes at bargain bin prices before new restrictive import tax laws in most of these countries prevented “gray” importers bringing them in by the containerload.
Owing to their cheap prices and the fact that little detailed information about these bikes was available outside of Japan, the bikes were often bought by ignorant young boy racers who subsequently destroyed most of them, either through a total lack of basic maintenance or by recklessly wrapping them around tree trunks and lamp posts, and within a few years of the gray import explosions in these countries, most of the two-stroke 250s that had survived the long ocean freight journeys across the seas were rotting in scrapyards. The era was well and truly over.
Fortunately, not all of these bikes were bought by neglectful hooligans. A few landed up in the hands of collectors, and if you were lucky enough to find a mint condition NSR250 back in the late 90s or early 00s for a bargain basement price, and you kept it in that condition, your investment would now be worth five, ten or even twenty times what you paid for it. And if you’re a collector interested in adding an NSR to your stable, you’d best move quickly … The number of bikes in decent condition is shrinking rapidly, and prices are always rising.
For those of us who can’t afford to pay what a brand new superbike costs for a twenty-something-year-old or even thirty-something 250cc bike, though, we’ll always have the nostalgia-coated memories of that explosive hit of two-stroke power, that sublime handling, and the banshee howl of those twin pipes, echoing for the rest of our days in our dreams…