What makes something collectible?

There are several things that can contribute to collectability. People like hard-to-find items, from priceless Stradivarius violins to rare Magic: The Gathering cards. Some people go for nostalgia, buying things that were popular when they were in their youth, that they mentally associate with good times, or perhaps fulfilling a long-ago desire to buy something previously unattainable (this explains a lot of muscle car purchases). Others simply collect things based on aesthetic sensibilities—maybe they like a particular artist’s style.

The Honda Z50 Mini Trail seen here probably meets all those criteria, at some level, and its upcoming auction price will likely vastly outstrip its original MSRP in 1983.

Made for kids, but adults enjoyed them too … Photo: Mecum

Monkey business

In 1983, the monkey bike craze was at the end of its glory years. Since the 1960s, Honda and other Japanese manufacturers had all sold kid-sized minibikes aimed at fun, not performance. With drum brakes front and rear, fat, small-diameter tires on cast wheels, pullstarter or kickstarter, and horizontally-oriented air-cooled engine, these were simple bikes. That meant they were cheap, and easy to fix.

Generally speaking, the Japanese monkey bikes were a step above the competition’s minibikes. Honda’s Z-series was the best-known of them all, with front and rear suspension and the general look of a proper scaled-down motorcycle. There were various other brands with their own take on the formula. At one point, Arctic Cat (known today for snowmobiles and ATVs) even had a line of minibikes. Euro companies like Rupp also got in on the action, before fading from the public consciousness.

Air-cooled 50 cc engine, complete with three-speed gearbox. Photo: Mecum

Or, you could even build your own. Magazines like Popular Mechanics ran ads with such promises as “Build your own minibike! NO WELDING REQUIRED! Plans $2.00.” What could go wrong?

Many of these machines were sketchy, with weak wheels, poor tires, and overstressed motors. Watch Ari Hennings and Zack Courts on their two-up journey to Aspen, re-creating the cross-country minibike pilgrimage in the movie Dumb and Dumber, and you get the idea. These are not made for sensible, full-sized adult riders.

But, although pre-teens were the primary market, plenty of older people had fun goofing off around the cottage property with these bikes too. They fit perfectly into the odd counter-intuitively commercialized get-back-to-nature movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and many people have fond memories of the monkey bike they owned, or that they wanted to own.

In fact, monkey bikes are making a bit of a comeback. In an age where many worry about rising inflation rates, with central banks barely keeping a lid on consumer pricing … in an age where there’s constant supply shortages … in an age where, indeed, we are starting to see much of the same doom-and-gloom of the 1970s, people are buying and riding undersized motorcycles instead of paying off debt or saving for a house.

It sort of started with the Grom, an air-cooled 124 cc minibike that Honda brought to western markets in 2014. Honda had long abandoned the monkey bike in the west, keeping 50 cc motocrossers around instead. People didn’t want goofy minibikes … did they?

Big Red’s Z50 was probably the premiere monkey bike of the whole generation. Photo: Mecum

They did, and in the years since, Honda has gone on to use that Grom platform as a basis for the new CT125, the new Super Cub C125, and the new Monkey. What’s old, is new. The updated Monkey is squarely aimed at larger riders, and it has to be, with a $4,199 MSRP. It has the same dual-shock, chromed, retro look of the original Z50 series, but with modern touches like electronic fuel injection.

Why bring the monkey bike formula back to North America now? There are likely a few reasons. First, the Chinese sold a lot of monkey bike knockoffs over the past 15 years, and no doubt helped convince Honda there was a market for these machines. Second, events like the Monkey Run are bringing these bikes back into the public consciousness. And third, the same kids who skateboarded through their teens are now turning to motorized fun in their 20s and 30s, and minibikes seem to be the drug of choice for many.

What about this monkey bike?

This 1983 Honda Z50 is up for grabs at Mecum’s October 7-9 auction in Las Vegas. It’s offered at no reserve.

While Z50s aren’t exactly on every corner, they’re not rare, either. Flash a couple thou around a local dealership, and they can probably find one for you. However, it’s very rare to find one in this condition—it looks brand-new. It’s finished in “period-correct Blaze Red,” and comes with a “Comprehensive restoration to factory specs.” It has an air-cooled 50 cc engine, with “3-speed automatic transmission.” Probably, that actually means a centrifugal clutch setup, with clutchless shifting between three gears, as that’s how these bikes and many like them came in the early 1980s (see an explanation here).

Considering its shape, it’s likely to bring in a decent price—not $10,000 or anything silly like that, because it’s not original and it’s still just a Z50. However, if a collector wants something that reminds them of their misspent youth, don’t be surprised to see them throw five grand or more at this machine at its auction.

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