By Fish, with Max Klein & An DeYoung
Photographer: Angelica Rubalcaba
I’m here to take all the credit for bringing the VanVan into your life. This all started when I was making my monthly rounds, distributing copies of this here magazine, when I happened upon a VanVan in the showroom at Fremont Honda Kawasaki Suzuki.
The bike makes a remarkable visual statement. The metallic gray version I first observed in the wild was just perfect: the piping on the pleated seat, the round headlight, the dirt track-style knobbies. It made me stop and look. I immediately messaged Editor GS Aerostich and inquired about getting my grubby paws on one.
My request was granted, and our VanVan appeared at CityBike World Headquarters just in time for me to use it as a pitbike at one of my car races. I hopped on my trusty(?) FXR and headed to HQ to trade it for the VanVan. Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by the blue paint—it really ties the bike together. And sitting on the wide, pleated seat was as comfortable as I had imagined. The grips fell easily to hand, and the pegs were perfectly placed.
I spent enough time checking it out that the sun began to set, and the VanVan would definitely require the non-freeway route home to the far eastern side of the East Bay—my last ride on Redwood Road before parts of it disappeared.
The VanVan falls into an odd category, at 200cc. The chassis is comfortably sized for actual transportation use by my 6-foot frame. The fuel-injected engine and five-speed tranny lack the motivation required for freeway use (by sane persons) but my final Redwood run was far more entertaining than I’d imagined it could be. The small headlight was just enough light to keep me on the road, but not so illuminating that it ruined the surprises that Redwood is known for. While my speeds were not even in ticket range (I swear!), I was riding on the threshold of terror. Fantastic, fun terror.
I did manage to “safely” navigate Redwood and make my way home, but not before confirming that the VanVan really is a completely viable motorcycle, not just a diminutive plaything like some of the bikes it’s compared to by default. Just add a milk crate on the back and you’re set!
The tube-type balloon-esque tires—a colossal 180/80-14 in the rear and a not-exactly-small 130/80-18 up front—have a unique feel, more confidence inspiring than they probably should be. The suspension is not award-winning, but it works great for the intended purposes of the bike, and pretty well for my more mischievous purposes too. While the 125 minis seem near-completely focused on hooliganism, the VanVan is happy to oblige poor judgement—it’s just not so blatant about it.
Horsepower obviously isn’t overwhelming, but the overall feeling of the bike is one of eagerness. It’s also fantastically quiet. More on that later.
Day 2 of VanVanification was the first of three at Sears Point (I’ll never call it any other name), where the Double-V was pressed into pit bike duty for a 24 Hours of Lemons race. My pit bikes don’t typically live an easy life—I’m not really keen on rules, and expect my pit transportation to facilitate violations as well as transportation.
The VanVan’s first task in this area was demonstrating its burnout abilities. I am happy—overjoyed, actually—to report that it not only does burnouts, but has created a new genre, which I have dubbed the “conversational burnout.”
That quiet thing I mentioned? The VanVan is quiet enough that it can handily do a standing burnout while I carry on a conversation with another person. I verified this groundbreaking feature frequently, in the name of journalistic integrity.
Second on the list was the agility demonstration. Usually cones are laid out to keep miscreant drivers from going places they shouldn’t. I use these to explore my pit bike’s ability to navigate potential obstacles. The VanVan truly excels at this task, with reasonable ground clearance enabling tight turns. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the wide front tire does not impair the bike’s steering lock.
In spite of its 282.2 pounds of claimed curb weight, which some might call a little porky, the overall package offers impressive maneuverability—certainly a solid choice for pit recreation (or transportation).
Upon returning home, most pit bikes are unloaded from the race trailer and unceremoniously stowed in some dark, dingy corner of the shop until the next race, relegated to makeshift pile shit here duty. But the VanVan is proudly parked at the door, seamlessly becoming my choice for errands and midday joyrides.
This is partly due to simplicity: the VanVan packs many of the joys of a scooter into a motorcycle without losing the carefree attitude that scooter riding inspires. It’s a rare do-all-reasonably-well bike in a fairly niche segment of the moto-market, and that’s not just on pavement.
I don’t have dirt trails immediately accessible from my house, but I did manage to find a few suitable test tracks within riding distance, and I was not disappointed—the VanVan makes an enjoyable, mellow trail bike. The relaxed ergos inspire you to take in the scenery, and the silent little tractor engine pulls you along.
There are some things to think about: it’s a bit pricey for something that won’t work for freeway use (never mind what you’ve heard about us and 125s, let alone 200s). It only holds 1.7 gallons of gas—although I got pretty good mileage when I wasn’t just spinning the rear quietly without going anywhere. The build quality and style certainly justify the price point, but a $4599 price will not only buy you a Grom or Z125, it’ll get you a few add-ons as well.
Those mini mischief machines, however, won’t be as comfy or practical. Yep—I appreciate the practicality of this mini-ish motorcycle. Not many other minis, big or small, will tolerate the off-road antics as well, nor will they look as good or inspire beardo weirdos like Max to wax poetic about their misspent youth.
Really, when you add that factor in, you should actually buy two.
Max: Pizza And The Past
Sometime in the late Eighties, Little Caesars—you know, the five bucks, no time for real food pizza joint—ran a promotion for “two great pizzas at one low price.” Little Caesar himself would come out at the end and say either “PIZZA PIZZA!” or “PAN PAN!” and for whatever reason 14-year old me giggled every single time that commercial came on.
Even though it has probably been 20 years since I’ve tried (and likely failed) to digest their sauce-and-cheese covered cardboard, their marketing was so impactful that every time I see VanVan written down I hear it in that little pizza guy’s voice.
So the VanVan (VAN VAN!) took me on a strange little nostalgia trip, and not all of it was about crappy pizza with great marketing.
The seat reminded me of the bench cushion in my ‘78 Oldsmobile, only I’m pretty sure the one in the Olds was not quite as wide. The VanVan’s divan (VAN!) was wider than the Grand Canyon and I’m pretty sure it accounts for about one-third of the bike’s suspension travel.
The giant balloon tire brought back memories from the makeshift sandbox my friend Bryan Kizer had when we were five years old, although I think the sandbox was a little smaller. That and I didn’t find any neighborhood cats pooping on the VanVan.
Styling is timeless, and inspired reminiscence of my neighbor’s homemade, lawn mower-powered minibike, something I lusted after in my youth, that arguably helped fuel my love of motorbikes today.
I looked at this thing with the same 14-year old eyes as I did those damn catchy pizza commercials and it seems I was not alone on the nostalgia—Editor Surj told me that the bike was a hit with the vintage-loving crowd at the Hanford bike show and swap meet.
The problem with nostalgia is that sometimes memories and reality do not quite sync up. More times than I could count, people asked, “How long you had that Yamaha TW200?” Or informed me, “There’s a huge custom scene in Thailand.” Others claimed it was the best restoration they’d ever seen, and many spoke of how they miss theirs and all of the jackassery it caused them to do.
I usually waited until their stories were done before I crushed their memories by introducing the VanVan as a brand-new machine, and not a Yamaha.
Riding the thing was hassle free, both mechanically speaking, and with regard to The Man—perhaps surprisingly.
Well, with the exception of the Sonoma Raceway (Sears Point to Old Man Fish) security guy, but in his defense there are rumors that his parents were first cousins, so I don’t think that really counts.
So short of riding the VanVan to the potty at 7 PM at a race track, you can get away with quite a bit of shenanigans on this thing…not that we condone such things as “unmarked” shortcuts, 40-foot skids, and Fish’s specialty: silent (but deadly) burnouts.
I did think that the name was a bit silly, and so did literally everyone else. The same people that were so excited to tell me about how bitchin’ my restoration was often inquired why Suzuki named it after another form of transportation… twice?
My only guess is that somewhere in some sub-basement at Suzuki, the guy in charge of naming things was hungry, had five bucks, and was too busy to go out for real food.
It’s a rare occasion that I get a press bike up here in the Sac without having to ride it here myself. I think Editor Surj is still trying to make amends for the 150+ miles of ass-busting I endured on the Sportster Forty-Eight, so he offered to bring the VanVan my way.
I first laid eyes on the VanVan as Editor Surj was unloading it from the truck formerly known as Bigger Fancy. It looked like an old school, small-engine motorcycle from the olden days.
Actually, the front looks like a regular old motorcycle. The ass end looks like someone took an air compressor to it and blew up the rear to triple its normal size. Big balloon rear tire, huge exhaust, seat that feels like sitting on a cloud, rear fender that could double as a sled.
One word came to mind. MotoMullet. Is that two words? Well, whatever.
We woke up early, my husband hopped on his Hyper—a perfect companion for the VanVan, thanks for asking—and I fired up the VanVan. We headed for the river roads, skipping the freeway, as I was told the top speed on the VanVan was “maybe 65mph.”
On a long straight, I proved that wrong. A guy on a souped-up moped pulled up next to me at a light, and well, it was on. I managed 71mph. Full tuck, no wind, no hills.
Max tried to steal my thunder, claiming 74mph, but he was going downhill, therefore disqualifying himself.
The ride on the river roads was smooth. The seat on the V-squared is super-comfy, and wide, and the suspension… well, kinda bouncy, but ok?
When we reached the first bridge and hit those metal grates, I thought I was going to die. The knobby-ish tires hooked on every groove and the bike was all over the place. I kept it out of the river, and aside from that it was smooth sailing back home, and the VanVan went back back to CityBike World Headquarters for more abuse / testing.
A few weeks later, Max showed up at the AFM races with the VanVan in tow. Or rather, in his van, which is how it should be transported—not in a truck. A van!
I must admit I was really happy to see it. Mostly because I was the only person in the paddock other than Max that was allowed to ride it. Friday night there was a vague accusation by security regarding the VanVan having a “race motor” and being ridden after 7 PM, which is against the rules.
Since us CityBike folk live by the rules, we parked the bike and bitched about it the rest of the night. Saturday, Max was still bitter so we decided since I’m the most law-abiding member of the wrecking crew, I’d ride it as a pit bike to throw off security. I think it worked because I was able to ride it after curfew, in fact I even raced AFM legend Paul Johnson down the length of the paddock for pinks. He was on his electric mini-dirtbike, but I’m still claiming a fair victory.
I vote we get a CityBike VanVan, put a cup holder on it because the main thing it’s lacking in is its ability to carry a cold beverage, and keep it in the office for taco runs. Sound like a plan?
This story originally appeared in our August 2017 issue, which you can read in all its glory here.