Vintage-styled modern bikes are an incredibly popular segment in the motorcycle world. Harley-Davidson lives to evoke its machines of the past. Japanese marques crank out modern interpretations of the famed “universal Japanese motorcycle.” Somewhere in America, right now, someone is in their garage hacking up a bike to build a vintage-style cafe racer.
One company really embraces vintage motorcycling more than all the rest, and it’s not just about mimicking classic style. The Janus Motorcycles experience is about as close as you can get to buying a new-old motorcycle in the modern day, and that’s just the beginning of an incredible experience.
I got to spend a day riding Janus Motorcycles’ whole lineup, and I’m thoroughly convinced that this is the closest you can get to traveling back in time.
(Full Disclosure: Janus Motorcycles invited me to tour its Goshen, Indiana facilities and ride their whole lineup. I paid for my own travel.)
On the surface, a Janus might seem like yet another motorcycle made to capitalize on the vintage trend. But there’s a whole lot more going here. When I visited Janus’ Indiana facilities, I didn’t just get to see a bunch of gorgeous bikes — I got to witness how they’re built by hand from start to finish.
Could Janus have machines and robots do all of this hard work? Sure, but the company is dedicated to bringing motorcycles to life in a more old-fashioned, personal way. Each worker is invested in seeing your bike come to life. And since every bike is built almost entirely by hand, each one is slightly different, unique in its own way.
For years, Janus had a trio of models, all powered by a 250-cc single-cylinder engine: the Halcyon hardtail, the Gryffin scrambler, and the Phoenix café racer. Last year the company added a larger, updated Halcyon with a 450-cc single making twice the power.
We’ll have a deep dive on Janus’ operations soon, because there’s so much more to tell. But for now, let’s hop in the saddle and take a trip through time on all four of the company’s bikes.
Let’s start with the big bike of the family. The Janus Halcyon 450 made its debut last year. It represents not just a hot-rodded big-engine model, but an evolution in how the company builds motorcycles.
The Halcyon I got to ride was an Owners Edition. This was a special run of the first 17 Halcyon 450s, meant for existing Janus owners and fitted with a custom-etched fuel tank cap and signed by everyone responsible for bringing your bike into existence.
At first glance, this bike — which like all Janus models, features design elements dating back a century — appears similar to the smaller Halcyon, but scaled up to fit the larger engine. But this new bike actually has a lot of new parts backing it up. The frame is all-new, as are the leading-link front forks, the cantilever rear swing arm and the Ikon shocks tucked under the seat. The rear shocks are a departure from the hardtail 250-cc Halcyon, designed more like a Harley-Davidson Softail where the suspension is neatly tucked away.
I was pleasantly surprised by the bike’s ergonomics. The leather-covered Sargent seat sits 30 inches high and the narrow frame made flat-footing this beast easy.
Simplicity is a core value at Janus, and that even shows in how you operate the bikes. If you’ve ridden a motorcycle before, there’s nothing new you need to know to operate a Janus. You just fire up that engine, drop it in gear, and go.
My adventure took me through northern Indiana’s vast country roads with my colleague Lalita Chemello joining me on a Halcyon 250. Out there, I got to open up the big-bore bike to see what it could do and what it’s like to command a machine that looks like it time-warped from 100 years ago. The result was a sensory experience that I haven’t felt since the day I sold my 1982 Suzuki GS850G.
I started in Goshen, Indiana’s small downtown area, which was packed with afternoon traffic. Here, the Halcyon’s low 345-pound dry weight made for something easy to work with in traffic. If you’ve ever ridden a really heavy motorcycle, you know how tiring it can be to wrestle a bike on a hot day in stop-and-go traffic. That wasn’t a problem here thanks to that manageable weight.
Once the traffic dispersed we pointed our motorcycles at seemingly endless country roads dotted with Midwestern farms.
At one point, the both of us opened our motorcycles wide, jamming the throttles to see what they could do. The Halcyon 450 took off from a stop so quickly, it made its 250-cc predecessor look like it was standing still. And that was despite me having at least 100 pounds on Lalita and the Halcyon 450 having an additional 82 pounds on her Halcyon 250. When you crank the throttle of the 450 you’re greeted by a deep, baritone exhaust note followed by healthy thrust.
Before I knew it, the speedometer blew past 60 mph and kept a steady climb well into highway speeds. Janus’ advertised top speed of 90 mph is accurate, and it’s not a slog getting there, either. This engine feels like the Buell Blast I had for a first bike. It’s not fast, but there’s more than enough power to take you anywhere. I’d even feel comfortable riding this across the country.
The modest power is complemented with good handling. It’s agile enough that you can confidently take turns at speed while imagining yourself to be an old-timey motorcycle racer. The Halcyon 450 remains stable through turns, even when you hit a giant Midwest pothole part-way through. Some of that stability is thanks to the bike’s weight sitting down low. And when you squeeze the Brembo brakes you’ll find absolutely no front dive, thanks to Janus’ front suspension design.
It almost felt wrong to wear my normal Power Ranger-style gear on this motorcycle. No, you’ll definitely want vintage-styled gear to match this bike’s stunning looks.
But what the 450 excelled in the most was bringing me back to what originally got me into motorcycling in the first place. It was the most pure, stripped-down experience of speed: Me, a wide set of bars and the open road ahead. The most technology involved here is fuel injection and LED lighting. No screens, no information overload. No worries. You could get this experience from a Harley, of course, but none of those bikes will make you feel like you’re riding a two-wheeled time machine.
This is intentional. Janus’s co-founder says he was inspired by the Kawasaki KLR when he designed the Janus lineup. He wanted bikes that were easy to work on and hard to kill, with the absolute bare-minimum tech. Janus wants its owners to wrench on their machines.
And that seat? It looks uncomfortable, with what appears to be thin padding and harsh springs, but it was surprisingly welcoming. A smidge more padding and I bet I could spend all day on that saddle.
I could have ridden that Halcyon 450 all day, enjoying the tranquility of a simple motorcycle ride and getting lost in that lovely design. But Janus’ other machines beckoned.
I next swung my leg over the big 450's predecessor and the difference between the two was night and day instantly. At 263 pounds dry, this one weighs just a little more than I do, making it feel bicycle-light.
Riding this requires you to wring out the little 229-cc engine. Janus tells me these bikes are meant to be ridden hard. If you keep the revs low you’ll be really slow. If you ride it like you just robbed a train, you’ll feel like you’re going 100 mph even though the speedo is barely cresting 50, with that little 250 screaming. Don’t actually rob a train with this as your getaway vehicle, though, because the cops will catch you.
I got the little bike to do 75 mph at best, and that was fully tucked, going downhill. On flat ground my top speed was usually 65 mph. For me, at least, I think this bike would be great for those summertime cruises down Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive or a lazy backroad jaunt. Roads that don’t demand more than about 60 mph.
Turn-in on the 250-cc Janus bikes is even better than the 450. I sometimes say that a Buell will turn if you just think about it. One of these? They’ll turn before you even get the thought to turn. And thankfully, while it feels like an old bike, the modern brakes stop the small machine nearly on a dime.
You’d think that the lineup of 250s are just the same bike with different visuals, but you’d be wrong. The Gryffin scrambler is a little more upright than the Halcyon. It’s also a little softer and fits bigger riders a little better. The Halcyon 250's seat is 31 inches high while this one is 33 inches. The engine is the same, as is the performance and top speed. This motorcycle is oriented towards off-roading with its thick skid plate, high pipe and dual-sport tires.
Sadly, I couldn’t find any trails to take this on, but as a road bike I did enjoy it more than the Halcyon 250. It reminded me a lot of a 1980s universal Japanese motorcycle.
The last of the 250s is my favorite. The Phoenix 250 has a sporty riding position and café-racer style that calls back to racing bikes of the 1950s and 1960s. Being in a sporty position only amplified the feeling that I was going twice my actual speed at all times. I was ready to scoff at the idea of a 250-cc café racer, but every mile behind the bars made me smile.
The handling wasn’t really any different from the other 250s. Instead, the riding position is what really sells this one as more sporting than its siblings. One neat bonus about the Phoenix is that the bars are perfect for bar-end mirrors to really complete the café racer look.
My only complaint about the 250s is that all three bikes have seats that are too hard for a larger rider to enjoy long rides. Janus says it has comfort seats available. What I’d really love to see is the comfy seat from the 450 on these small-bore bikes.
This ride has been in the works for over a year, and during that time I gathered questions from various riders curious about Janus.
One big question that many riders have asked me is, how long will a Janus last? After all, while the CG250-B engine found in the 250s is originally a Honda design, it does come from China. And while the SWM engine in the 450 is an Italian design, China also builds SWM engines today.
Janus tells me they’ve sold over 1,000 of the 250-cc bikes, and they’ve proven to be reliable. The highest-mile 250cc, for example, is daily-ridden with over 23,000 miles. That one was said to be in great shape and hasn’t needed major repairs. The company’s co-founder also took a 250 cross-country without drama.
As of now there just 39 of the 450s out there; the 40th was being assembled during my visit. Each bike, whether 250 or 450, gets rigorously tested by Janus on their dyno and on the road to ensure everything is up to snuff.
I can’t tell you how a Janus would be with 100,000 miles on its odometer. And Janus certainly ins’t the only vintage-styled bike out there. With the major motorcycle marques building compelling throwback machines, why go for a tiny company building bikes by hand?
Yes, you can buy a brand-new Kawasaki W800 and get vintage looks and far more performance for far less money. Janus isn’t trying to compete with the big guys. It’s a boutique company selling an experience that you won’t find anywhere else.
Riding these little machines reminded me why I got into motorcycling in the first place.
But more than that, these are functional eye candy. When it’s just you, the bike, and an open country road, you can full get lost in your fantasies of being an old-time motorcycle racer. A Janus has the perfect combination of vintage style and purity with just enough modern engineering to get you home. For that, I absolutely adore them.