The Evolution of the World’s Fastest Bikes

By Staff - August 16, 2019
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Early Pursuits

For decades, turning a sub-12-second quarter-mile with a production street motorcycle was pure fantasy. Virtually no production bike could reach the top speed needed to break the 12-second mark.

750-Comando-1

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For decades, turning a sub 12-second quarter-mile with a production street motorcycle was pure fantasy. Virtually no production bike could reach the top speed needed to break the 12-second mark.

Cycle World says a “production” Norton Commando 750 punched out to 810cc and rebadged as the Norton Dunstall was first to best the 12-second barrier. In 1971 that bike turned an 11.9-second quarter-mile, but in many quarters it wasn’t considered a factory production machine. The Norton Commando is a classic British vertical-twin motorcycle commonly converted into dirt-trackers and road racers, and the rebadged Dunstall brought engine modifications as well as refinements to the frame arrangement of the Commandos at the time.

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Back in the early days of the quarter-mile wars, bikes were pretty much standard. They were not specialized to fit a particular purpose, like many of the motorcycles made today. Instead of a dedicated cruiser, road racer, adventure bike, or other type, bikes back then were made for one purpose – to go nearly anywhere and do nearly anything.

Those who wanted to go fast had to modify their bikes to extract better performance. That usually meant stripping off any parts that did not negatively impact power characteristics and modifying the engine, chassis and final power delivery methods for optimal performance.

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That spawned the notion of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, better known in biker parlance at the UJM. The UJM, as well as many Brit bikes and even the Harley-Davidson Sportster, could even be a bike you could ride to the racetrack. Once there, a competent owner could convert it into a race-ready dirt-tracker, road racer, hill-climber, or even a motocross bike, and race it.

Once done with the race, the UJM owner converted the bike back into road-legal condition, and rode it home. Naturally, the ride would be much better with a trophy and a winner’s purse to go with it. A classic movie still from “The Wild One” shows Marlon Brando on his Triumph Thunderbird with a racing trophy strapped it. It’s a classic take on the universal motorcycle theme.

Japanese Muscle Bike Wars

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Cycle World says the first factory production motorcycle to break the 12-second barrier in the quarter-mile is the Kawasaki H2 Mach IV. That bike heralded the power wars of the late 1970s, and it’s when Japanese manufacturers greatly surpassed Britain, the U.S. and other bike-building nations in producing wickedly fast bikes. The 750cc H2 shredded through the quarter mile in 11.95 seconds.

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That feat suddenly elevated Japanese models from makers of civilized motorcycles, like the venerable Honda CB750. Now, they were kings of the pending muscle bike wars among Yamaha, Honda, Kawasaki, and eventually Suzuki. The 12-second quarter-mile time became a top target for many Japanese brands, and spawned some of the most classic muscle bikes of the era.

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The Honda CBX and its insanely configured inline six is the best example of muscle bike excess at the time. The CBX is the first factory production motorcycle that ran a sub 12-second quarter-mile and had a maximum top speed exceeding 130 mph. The combination of acceleration and top end made the CBX a legend and an enduring collector’s item.

The CBX also is a typical example of the limitations of muscle bikes of the era – they went straight really fast, but good luck in the turns. The CBX, with its massive engine, was unforgiving when entering turns too fast. And with such a fast bike under the saddle, many riders entered turns too fast.

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That situation was common to most muscle bikes of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They had lots of straight-line speed, but that power often overwhelmed the relatively crude suspension and braking technology of the time.

Factory Sport Bikes Take Over

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The early 1980s saw a revolution in the motorcycling industry – one that nearly killed off Harley-Davidson and its venerable Sportster.

That revolution saw the introduction of the fully wrapped sport bike by Japanese manufacturers. Until then, bikes were built with no wind protection or thought to aerodynamics.

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The evolution of the factory sport bike combined advanced aerodynamic design with potent engine technology. Highly advanced inline-four engines were wrapped in durable plastic bodies. Windshields and aerodynamic fairings that punched holes in the lower atmosphere at high speeds became the norm.

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Suddenly, instead of relying on just brute power to go fast, Japanese bike manufacturers were also using aerodynamics to achieve ever-higher speeds, thus ushering in the sportbike era. Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki all produced legendary sport bikes to go along with a handful of more traditional muscle bikes, greatly elevating the technological state of the industry. Suddenly, technology and going really fast mattered.

The Kawasaki Ninja and Honda CBR1100XX were among the early sport bikes that combined power and aerodynamic styling to routinely break the 12-second barrier. Suddenly, factory-made motorcycles were turning times down in the 11-second range. Meanwhile, top speeds were increasing well beyond 150 mph.

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The more important improvement was that these wickedly fast bikes were also highly maneuverable. They handled turns with relative ease compared to the muscle bikes of the prior era. Their suspensions enabled riders to absorb more shocks and jolts, and tire technology kept rubber on the roadway where it belonged. Suddenly, club road racing was a real thing, and bikes like the Suzuki GSXR 750 were producing truly revolutionary quarter-mile times.

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Eventually, the 12-second quarter-mile competition morphed into a 10-second competition. Now, bike manufacturers are producing factory bikes that are insanely fast. The BMW S1000 RR and Kawasaki ZX14R are examples of commonly sold bikes that routinely smash the old quarter-mile records. They also are capable of topping 200 mph – with some aftermarket help to overcome intentional factory limitations.

Universal Competition Drives Today’s Market

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Today’s production motorcycles routinely top the 12-second mark in the quarter mile. Most of them are inline, four-cylinder bikes with liquid cooling. That is a far cry from the Norton Commandos and early, air- and oil-cooled Japanese muscle bikes of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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You can buy bikes made in Italy, Japan, Germany and even the United States that routinely beat the 12-second quarter mile mark. The BMW S1000RR is a perfect example of a modern bike that obliterates the old notion of go-fast bikes.

It is a highly refined and heavily engineered bike with an inline-four engine and impressive body styling. The suspension, steering dampers and adjustable fittings enable owners to dial in the bike to their exact riding styles and abilities. The brakes can bring the bike down from insanely fast speeds, and the new machines handle turns as well as they do the straightaways.

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Those who want a truly exhilarating motorcycling experience are in the heyday of wickedly fast bikes that nearly anyone can ride. While it certainly takes practice to go insanely fast in the quarter mile, today’s bikes make that notion seem a lot more fun.

These are now the good old days for those who want to ride fast and beat quarter-mile times that no one thought attainable just a couple of decades ago. The 12-second quarter-mile is a great way to have fun, ride fast, and stay in touch with riding history.