As we stand around and consider the Yamaha YZF-R1’s recent Motorcycle of the Year award, it’s not the worst idea in the world to put it into historic context. There have been some amazing machines in the 100-plus years of motorcycling, a fact not lost on us when we put our heads together and crowned the Motorcycle of the Century.
It was, of course, Honda’s CB750. This was the bike that changed everything. It didn’t break new technological ground—the engine configuration had been used before, and none of its essential chassis elements were totally new—but Honda managed to package the CB in a most compelling way. Suddenly, there was a smooth, sophisticated four-cylinder bike built to showcase state-of-the-art technology at an affordable price. By 1973, four years after the CB750 debuted, Honda was selling more than 60,000 of them a year.
The massive impact of the CB750 forever banished Japan’s former reputation as a copycat nation, capable of little more than mass-producing others’ designs for a fraction of the cost. The CB750 forged a new reputation for the island nation as an indisputable source of the best engineering, design and technology in the world. More important to motorcycle enthusiasts, the CB750 acted as the archetypal Japanese superbike, kicking off an epic high-performance arms race that continues to this day. There would be no Honda CBR1000RR—nor Kawasaki ZX-10R, or Suzuki GSX-R1000, or Yamaha YZF-R1—if the CB750 hadn’t come first.
It’s ironic that the most iconic British motorcycle of all time isn’t named after Donington Park, Silverstone or Brands Hatch, but a sunbaked salt pan located in the southwestern United States. It was at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1956, however, that Jack Wilson’s methanol-burning Triumph Thunderbird 650, ridden by Johnny Allen and nicknamed “The Texas Cee-Gar,” set an absolute motorcycle speed record of 214.17 mph. When Triumph needed a name for its first dual-carburetor 650cc twin, then its fastest production motorcycle, only “Bonneville” would do.
The T120 Bonneville first appeared in ’59, but it’s the redesigned ’60 version, with the stiffer twin-cradle frame and separate headlamp replacing the old nacelle, that’s considered the definitive version. With its stately, Edward Turner-designed parallel-twin, long chrome peashooter mufflers, pancake saddle and signature two-tone paint, the Bonneville characterized classic Brit-bike cool. Bob Dylan rode one. So did Paul Newman, Paul McCartney and, of course, Steve McQueen.
The Bonneville’s engine was based on that of the T110 Tiger, but came equipped with dual Amal carburetors instead of a single unit, as well as a performance intake cam. With light weight, abundant torque, decent handling and a 110-mph top speed, the Bonneville was the epitome of ’60s high performance—until the first Japanese superbikes arrived at the end of that decade. The Bonneville ruled everywhere from dragstrips to dirt tracks, and a Bonneville even made the first 100-mph production-bike lap at the Isle of Man TT, in ’68. The performance may have faded but the Bonneville’s silhouette has stood the test of time. Triumph’s current “modern classic” Bonnevilles, shamelessly styled to ape the originals, are among the best-selling bikes on the market today.
This is the bike that inspired a million imitations, both from within Harley-Davidson’s own styling department and, decades later, from halfway around the world, when the Japanese jumped on the bandwagon and began building “American-style” heavyweight cruisers. It’s the archetypal motorcycle, with a timeless look that’s as compelling now as it was back then.
Harley-Davidson debuted its FL chassis—a variation of which is still its best-seller today—way back in ’41, and introduced the famed, 1200cc Panhead engine in ’48. But it wasn’t until the following year, when the antique springer fork was replaced with a modern telescopic unit, that the quintessential American cruiser silhouette took form. Dubbed the “Hydra-Glide” in reference to the new hydraulic fork that delivered twice the travel of the old springer, this latest Big Twin offered much-improved ride quality and road-holding ability. The new fork also imparted a modern look more in line with the telescopic-forked British bikes that were beginning to food the American market.
The deep-skirted front fender and thick, widely spaced fork legs—the upper halves enclosed in streamlined, stamped-steel nacelles—give the Hydra-Glide a broad-shouldered look that has never gone out of style. The rest of the bike, including the Fat Bob-type tank with its center speedometer and the sprung saddle cantilevered high above a rigid rear triangle, is just as memorable. Compare a vintage Hydra-Glide to a modern Heritage Softail Classic—or even a Star Roadliner—and you’ll count more similarities than differences. This is style with staying power.
BMW has been synonymous with Boxer-twins since the beginning— literally. The very first BMW motorcycle, the 1923 R32, was powered by a 494cc fat-twin that transferred power to its rear wheel via shaft drive. Designed by famed aircraft engineer Max Friz, the R32 is an engineering masterpiece that established the struggling firm as a successful motorcycle manufacturer. The Boxer configuration aided with cooling, and featured a recirculating wet-sump oil system. Friz’s design proved so sound that, 90 years later, it still forms the foundation for BMW’s most popular models.
It’s been immortalized on dragstrips and dry lakes and even celebrated in song, but the Black Shadow’s most lasting impact was its influence on future motorcycle design. Monoshock rear suspensions, “frameless” chassis designs, dual front brakes, adjustable controls and many other innovations originated with Phil Irving’s legendary Black Shadow. Powered by a black-enameled, 1000cc V-twin that propelled this black beauty to 125 mph, the Black Shadow was the wickedest motorcycle made in 1948—and remains one of the most desirable today.
Honda’s CR250 Elsinore wasn’t the first motorcycle designed specifically for of-road racing, not even the first Japanese one, but it was the trickiest, most reliable and least expensive. Named after Southern California’s epic Elsinore Grand Prix, it looked like something straight from the race shop with its lightweight chrome-moly frame, polished-aluminum gas tank, plastic fenders and 29-horsepower, two-stroke engine. Elsinore-mounted Gary Jones easily won the 1973 AMA 250cc Motocross Championship on what was the ultimate working man’s motocrosser.
Yamaha’s small-bore two-strokes were one of the great two-wheeled success stories of the ’70s, regularly humiliating bikes with more than double the displacement on racetracks and backroads across America. These quick-and-dirty giant-killers sold for next to nothing and provided racetrack handling to the masses. The Daytona Special—named to honor the TZ350 forebears that won more consecutive Daytona races than any other motorcycle— was the last, and arguably, the best, of Yamaha’s air-cooled two-strokes.
Honda’s Gold Wing invented the modern luxury-touring concept, and at every point in its evolution has continued to redefine that segment of the market. The biggest step forward came in 1980, when Honda’s legendary mile-eater received a larger, 1100cc fat-four engine as well as the Interstate touring package with a frame-mounted fairing and hard luggage that set a new standard for motorcycle accessory integration. Still now, 38 years after its introduction, nothing approaches the ’Wing in terms of performance, function, comfort or style.
Honda debuted its wild NR500 GP racer in 1979, replete with radical technology like a liquid-cooled V4 engine, 16-inch wheels, Pro-Link rear suspension and the sophisticated, Torque-Reactive Anti-Dive Control (TRAC) fork. The cursed NR500 may have been the least successful GP bike ever built, but the streetbike it inspired— Honda’s V45 Interceptor—was one of the most sublime. With all of the above technology in a fine-handling, aggressive-looking package, the Interceptor was an immediate best-seller—and Japan’s first real repli-racer.
Early sportbikes were crude machines, all overpowered engines in spindly frames with squishy suspension and worthless brakes. Suzuki’s GSX-R750 changed all that. The proverbial racebike-with-lights, this was basically Suzuki’s world championship-winning XR41 endurance racer with the minimum necessary modifications for street use. Everything—aerodynamic bodywork, aluminum frame, 18-inch mag wheels—was lifted from factory racebikes, and the oil-cooled, 106-horsepower inline-four delivered racetrack acceleration. “A true milestone,” we called it at the time. ’Nuff said.