A Motorcycle History Lesson
A primer on the bikes we love—where they came from and where they're going
Those of us who were riding in 1968 lived in a much different world. In those days, England was the planet’s largest producer of “real” motorcycles, a real motorcycle then being defined as something with a 350cc-or-larger engine, whereas the Japanese, at least in the U.S., were generally regarded as builders of small, inexpensive learner bikes. Overseas, the Europeans were watching the Asian imports erode their already small market, while here at home Harley-Davidson was barely solvent. And cruisers? Cruisers, at least in the form we now think of them, simply didn’t exist.
Back then, what we call a cruiser would have been considered a “custom bike,” and in those days, custom bikes, the majority of which fell into the chopper category, were something of an anomaly. They were well outside the mainstream, and considered by the majority of riders to be a heinous misuse of rolling stock, their builders deemed either fools or criminals, most often both.
1971 Harley-Davidson FX Super Glide
At the time, the motorcycle industry as a whole wanted little if anything to do with custom bikes. The factories disowned them, the magazines wrote editorials vilifying them, and had anyone seriously proposed building one at the OEM level, he’d have been laughed right out of the business. But as the ’60s wound down, all of that was about to change.
In October of 1968, Honda released the CB750/four. Overnight, the traditional Britbike was reduced to an obsolete relic, and the Japanese firmly established as builders of technologically superior, full-size motorcycles. Next, in January 1969, after months of legal wrangling, the AMF Corporation and Harley-Davidson agreed to an 11th-hour merger. The move prevented the Motor Company from going belly up and staved off a hostile takeover by the Bangor-Punta Corporation, a firm whose ultimate goals included the dissolution of H-D. Later that winter, the movie Easy Rider was released. These events, disparate as they may seem, revolutionized motorcycling and led directly to the creation of the modern cruiser.
1979 Honda CB750F
1980 Honda CB750K
William G. Davidson, head of H-D’s design and styling department, was an astute student of motorcycling and a keen observer of the burgeoning custom scene. Noting the sudden increase in the breed’s popularity, Willie reckoned there might be a ready audience for a factory-produced version. Furthermore, he reasoned that such a bike, which could be based on existing models and built primarily with off-the-shelf parts, could be brought to market quickly without spending a lot of dough earmarked for other projects. If his hunch paid off, it’d give Harley some running room. If it didn’t, well, at least it would go down swinging.
1982 Yamaha Maxim
1972 Triumph Bonneville Special
What Norton, a company renowned for building high-performance, stellar-handling, if somewhat finicky bikes, was thinking when it released the Hi-Rider in the spring of 1971 no one knew, although I’d guess it was along the lines of, “The bloody Nips are kicking our arses, we’d better do something.” If building a butt-ugly bike had been a viable sales strategy, Norton would have had a winner. It wasn’t, and they didn’t.
With the demise of the Hi-Rider, it looked like the days of the factory custom were numbered, but fortunately the brighter sparks in the industry realized that the basic formula made sense, especially for the American market. In Norton’s case, it was only the execution that had been flawed.
1979 Yamaha XS Eleven Special
The first Japanese custom, the Kawasaki KZ900LTD, was released in 1976. Based on the popular Z-1/KZ 900 series, the LTD featured high bars, a low seat, and a 16-inch rear wheel—attributes that would become common styling cues. Its inline-four didn’t have a lot of visceral appeal, but it did have gobs of performance, and for the time, that was enough.
The LTD didn’t exactly sell like hotcakes, and many riders still weren’t sure if they liked the idea of a factory custom, but it was no dog either, and it certainly caught the eyes of the other manufacturers, most of which began to quietly draw up plans for their own cruisers.
1983 Suzuki GS450
Some factories enjoyed a built-in advantage. For instance, Yamaha had a traditional-looking twin in the lineup, the XS650, which by 1977 had become something of a showroom liability. In an effort to liven up sales, some dealers began customizing new XS650s before displaying them. Yamaha quickly realized that the dealers were on to something and responded by creating its own version, the XS650 Heritage Special. The new model rejuvenated XS650 sales and eventually begat a whole series of “Specials.” Available in two-, three- and four-cylinder versions, the Specials sold very well throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, and even had their own upscale spin-offs, the black-and-gold-trimmed Midnight Specials.
1979 was a watershed year for the factory custom. In short order, Suzuki released the “Low Slinger,” or L-models, based on its existing four-cylinder bikes, and Honda followed suit with the CX500 Custom, a rather odd bike built around its staid transverse 500 twins. Not to be outdone, Triumph, by then the sole surviving British manufacturer, released the T140D-Special, a tarted-up Bonneville that was little more than the standard model fitted with a two-into-one exhaust system and mag wheels. The D was followed by the TSX in 1982, a bike closer to what we now recognize as a cruiser. Unfortunately, neither version sold well enough to stave off the inevitable. H-D, the factory that started it all, had several customs in the lineup; three versions of the Super Glide, two Wide Glide Customs and the XLS Sportster Roadster.
1986 Kawasaki Vulcan
1987 Yamaha Virago
1987 Suzuki Intruder 1400
As the manufacturers shook off the doldrums of the ’80s, the cruiser started to come into its own. During the tariff years (1983 to 1987), Harley-Davidson sales took off like a turpentined cat. (To its credit, H-D asked the ITC to rescind the tariffs in 1987, a year before they were due to expire, an unprecedented move for any company.)
1987 Honda Shadow
Rather than sit home and lick their wounds while Harley took control of the rapidly developing cruiser market, the Japanese decided to confront them head on. If traditionally styled motorcycles, in particular ones with V-twin powerplants, were what the American market wanted, then, by God, that’s what they’d get. Even Cagiva dipped a toe into the swirling waters with its interpretation of the breed, the 650 Indiana, a bike so ugly it made the old Hi-Rider look good.
1987 Honda Magna
By the mid-’80s, the other manufacturers had followed Yamaha’s lead and introduced their own V-twins. However, these bikes displaced between 700 and 1100cc; whether by design or default, none of the Japanese manufacturers were yet willing to directly challenge Harley in the 1200cc-and-up V-twin category.
That situation came to an end in 1987, when Suzuki released its 1400 Intruder and Kawasaki counter-attacked with the Vulcan 1500. The bikes were the opening volley in the “mine is bigger than yours” war, and a not-so-subtle message to the rest of motorcycling that size does matter, a message that the revitalized Triumph Corporation seemed to have taken to heart. It was also about this time that the word “custom” began to be replaced with “cruiser,” either because the description was more appropriate to the style of bike or because it rhymes with “bruiser.”
(Front to back) 1987 Kawasaki Vulcan, 1987 Harley-Davidson Dyna, 1987 Suzuki Intruder, 1987 Yamaha Virago
Through the ’90s and into the current millennium, the popularity of the cruiser, along with their engine displacements, continued to grow. Opinions vary on exactly what fueled that growth—certainly rider demographics, socio-economic factors, styling trends and a national longing for nostalgia all have something to do with it. But what it all boils down to is that cruisers are fun, undemanding to ride and lend themselves to “personalization,” all of which makes them attractive to just about every type of rider, from those just starting out to those graybeards that have been there, done that and worn out several T-shirts in the process. That the cruiser has become the most popular type of motorcycle in America speaks volumes.
1998 Harley-Davidson XLH 1200 Sportster
Once derided for focusing on style rather than substance, cruisers have become very good motorcycles in their own right, even if a few of them seem to have come from the Liberace School of Design. Where they’re headed from here, at least in terms of design and functionality, we can only imagine, but it’s sure going to be fun finding out.