A Motorcycle History Lesson

By Mark Zimmerman - August 09, 2019

A primer on the bikes we love—where they came from and where they're going

Credits: Although it was built long before the terms "cruiser" and "factory custom" were coined, Honda's first motorcycle, the 1949 Dream D, reflects the same sort of aesthetic.

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

While the artistic value of Easy Rider is debatable, its effect on the popularity of the chopper isn’t. Within weeks of the film’s opening, it seemed like every yahoo with a 350 Honda and an adjustable wrench had bolted on a pair of ape hangers and a sissy bar. The “custom chopper” had arrived.

Harley-Davidson was the first to react. Although AMF’s largess was keeping the company afloat and providing the funds required to get sorely needed new models into production, the Motor Company was under no illusions. If the factory couldn’t stand on its own, AMF would pull the plug—nothing personal, you understand, but business is business. With the new bikes several years away, and the Honda 750 hammering it in the showrooms, Harley-Davidson was still on thin ice—it had to generate some positive cash flow, and soon.

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

Introduced in the fall of 1970, the FX 1200 Super Glide mated the frame and some of the running gear from the FLH Touring bikes with the slender front end of the XL Sportster (hence the FX designation). The new bike was great looking and worked reasonably well, and it was also immensely popular with riders who wanted something a little different. It was the first factory custom, and its influence on motorcycling was profound—35 years later the impact is still being felt.

That H-D had built such a bike was unexpected, but certainly not out of character. That the first company to imitate it would be Norton was both.

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

The problem was that these bikes, with the exception of the H-D line, were often perceived as little more than gussied-up standard models, modified with bolt-on pieces. That would change when Yamaha introduced the first designed-from-scratch factory custom, the 1981 XV750 Virago. The Virago line, which in its time encompassed a range of bikes from 250 to 1100cc, was important for several reasons, but mainly because Yamaha, by then the leading producer of metric customs, was the first Japanese factory with the audacity to build a traditional American-styled V-twin custom.

Building a V-twin wasn’t something anyone, especially Yamaha’s Japanese cohorts, took lightly. The rest of the Big Four didn’t want to be seen as Harley-Davidson imitators, a charge leveled at Yamaha, and they weren’t sure how their traditional customers would react to an Asian interpretation of the time-honored American V-twin design. Because they weren’t sure what to build, the Japanese hedged their bets and built a little bit of everything. In 1981, you could buy an import factory custom (the term “cruiser” still hadn’t caught on) equipped with a V-twin, a parallel twin, a transverse V-twin or a single-cylinder powerplant as well as a UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) transverse four. It was a confusing time for the industry, and things were about to get worse.

1987 Yamaha Virago

The problem was that the motorcycle business was about to enter an economic tailspin, one that would take a tariff court and several long, lean years to recover from. Until things sorted themselves out, neither the motorcycle business nor the motorcycles themselves offered much in the way of excitement.

One of the few bright spots occurred in 1985, when Yamaha introduced what was arguably the first real “power cruiser,” the 1200cc V-Max. Certainly there had been big, fast cruisers in the past, the seminal LTD 900 and the Honda V-65 Magna, to name two. But neither was as exhilarating to ride, as righteous looking or as mind blowing as Mad-Max. Two decades later, he’s still a force to be reckoned with.

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.