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.