TJ’s Top Ten Picks For The Most Significant Bikes In Motorcycling History
Bikes that changed, or even created, the landscape that we enjoy todayby TJ Hinton, on LISTEN 10:50
What goes into moving a particular motorcycle into the “Historically Significant” category? That depends upon whom you ask, of course. What their priorities are, how far back in history they are interested in delving and even upon which surfaces the bikes are built to travel. Verily I say unto thee; the possibilities are legion. With that in mind, I want to tackle that question myself today, but first I will qualify what it means to me for the purpose of this article. Some will be mechanical marvels of their time, and some will be rather mundane yet have astronomical sales figures as an indicator of consumer popularity. I’m going to stick to street/road bikes and exclude off-road machines, plus I’m going to leave scooters alone as well ’cause they have their own history and deserve to be looked at as a major branch on the two wheeled-tree unto itself. As far as how deep I’m willing to go into the annals of history, I’m going to say “all the way.” Let’s get to it.
Back in the 1860s, a French blacksmith named Pierre Michaux had the first company to commercially produce two-wheeled, pedal-power bicycles called the Velocipede. His son Ernst looked beyond the leg-powered standard and mounted a small, single-cylinder steam engine to one of the bikes to make the first Steam Velocipede, making the world’s first external combustion-powered bike. That design crossed over to our side of the pond the following year where it was picked up by S.H. Roper who fitted the Steam Velocipede with a twin-cylinder, coal-fired steam engine, so I would argue that we have the Steam Velocipede and the Michaux family to thank for the two-wheeled lifestyle we all enjoy today.
Pennington’s Motor Vehicle
It’s impossible to talk about the early American motorcycles without touching on one Mr E.J. Pennington. Many consider him to have actually coined the word “motorcycle” all the way back in 1893 though there are some counters to that declaration. Though he died in 1911 as a disgraced huckster, his contribution to the motorcycle world is undeniable. In 1895, he built a working motorcycle that was then patented in 1896 as a “Motor Vehicle” with several features that we still see today. Spark plug ignition (he is credited with inventing) and balloon (pneumatic) tires, to touch on the main points.
It was a twin-cylinder, internal-combustion engine that ran on gasoline with proportions much closer to today’s machines as opposed to the big-wheel design of the Velocipede. The connecting rods were external, as was the crankshaft that was fixed to the rear wheel, and while the facts are muddied by Pennington’s own shady deals and patent rip-offs, it is generally considered to have achieved speeds between 30 and 40 mph. The National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire, England possesses the only known surviving model.
1915 Harley-Davidson V-Twin
Next up are our friends, Mr. Harley and the Davidson brothers and their efforts to expand the U.S. motorcycle scene. It isn’t their earliest work that deserves attention – there was no shortage of American marques on the scene just after the turn of the century – it was the V-Twin of 1915 that gets the limelight here.
It wasn’t even the first V-Twin the Motor Company had developed, but it was the first one that was relatively reliable. It sported cooling fins to aid cooling and rocked an over-head intake valve with an external pushrod opposite a sidevalve-style exhaust valve down below. The engine had a 61 cubic-inch displacement with an output of 11-horsepower with some engines testing as much as 16 horsepower. The three-speed transmission was cutting-edge for the time, and all together, these features made the 1915 V-Twin into the golden standard for motorcycles up until the years immediately preceding the start of World War II.
1958 Honda Super Cub
Now for an appeal to popularity and the sheer weight of numbers with Honda's Super Cub. This is more of a family of bikes – all with the same name – and is arguably the model that really put Honda on the map.
The early models were considered “high performance” for the time (1958) with the 49 cc displacement, but many consider the look to be the biggest selling point as it had full body paneling to hide all the unsightly hoses and wires from view. Make no mistake, this is the most prolific motorcycle in history by far with sales numbers that exceeded 100,000,000 units as of 2017, and that doesn’t take into account the sales since then or the success of the revamped, modernized version that hit showroom floors in 2019. It’s hard to argue with success, so if we consider popular appeal as the main criteria, the Super Cub can claim to be the most significant machine in the post-WW II era.
1952 Harley-Davidson Model K
The next model is important not for what it accomplished, but for what it led to. I’m talking about the Harley-Davidson Model K Sport and Sport Solo that hit the scene back in 1952. Powered by a flathead/sidevalve engine, the Model K was meant to be an alternative to the large-frame designs that dominated the U.S. motorcycling scene at the time. The Model K was short lived, it ran from ’52 to ’56, but the standard was set and the frame, fenders, peanut-shaped gas tank, and hydraulic-fork front suspension carried over into the XL “Sportster” family that is still running strong today.
As a side note, the current Sportster engine is based on the Evolution Sportster engine that uses a single casting for both the engine and the transmission, just like the ’57 model. This makes the 1,200 cc and 883 cc Evo Sporty engine the longest-lived mill to come out of the Motor Company. Its three-and-a-half decade span shows no sign of easing up, even though H-D has other small-displacement engines of much more recent vintages to use. That’s a success story in anybody’s book, and it all started with a risky “eXperimental modeL.”
1959 Triumph Bonneville
Now for a taste of England with Triumph’s fabulously-famous 1959 Bonneville model. After the war, the British manufacturer enjoyed an era of prosperity. It sold so well that 9 years after its release the “Bonnie” was moving off showroom floors at almost 30,000 units per year, and that’s just what sold on our side of the pond, nevermind domestic sales and European business.
Many of the design components persist to this day to include the tank shape that came complete with kneepads for the racers, the parallel-twin powerplant, and the bench seat.
The British Bonneville would enjoy a large slice of the pie for well over a decade until the advent of the high-performance, affordable cruisers came out of a Japan that had since recovered from its disastrous Pacific expansion effort.
1969 Honda CB750
And this brings us to the model that’s widely credited with starting the Universal Japanese Motorcycle boom in 1969, the Honda CB750. For the first time in the motorcycle field, a transverse-mount, in-line four-cylinder engine served as the beating heart. The style was very similar to the aforementioned Bonneville and Sportster, which no doubt played a role in its general acceptance with the riding public. But it was the performance, reliability, and affordability that sounded the death’s knell for so many models that, up to that point, had dominated the market. In the span between ’69 and ’78, Honda built over 400,000 units and inspired a new era of development that put the island nation and its motorcycle industry in a dominant position that continues to this very day.
1973 Kawasaki Z1
Honda’s success with its CB750 put a serious dent in Kawasaki’s market prospects, so much so that Kawi was forced to boost displacement to produce the 903 cc “Big Kwack” engine and stuff it into its own version of the UJM, the Z1. This bike hit showroom floors in 1973 and is widely considered to be both the first of the superbikes, and the herald of the war-of-power that rages to this day.
It weighed in at 550 pounds with 82 horsepower tucked away within its four-banger mill and put enough pressure on domestic foe Honda to force it to improve its CB750, thus starting the great Japanese motorcycle arms race. In ’73, the 130 mph top speed was indeed serious competition for the rest of the world as evidenced by the Kawasaki race team’s dominance throughout the Seventies.
1985 Suzuki GSX-R750
Japanese dominance continues into the ’80s, and the most notable bike to come out of that era has to be Suzuki’s GSX-R750. This machine launched the Japanese race-replica sportbike genre, and I would argue that it created a new type of rider as well.
It first saw light of day at the Cologne Motorcycle Show in ’84 for an ’85 release. Though the design is considered to be rather “slab-sided” by today’s standards, it still set the standard that almost every builder around the world would adopt for their sportiest machines.
Suzuki still builds the “Gixxer” that has expanded through a number of displacements. It also inspired the GSX-S series built more for the commuter market to expand the family tree further yet, and it all started with the vision embodied by that first GSX-R750.
1975 Honda GL 1000 Gold Wing
Honda shows last, but not least, in my rundown for its GL 1000 “Gold Wing.” The Gold Wing rolled onto U.S. and European showrooms in 1975, and would grow to develop an almost cult-like following on both sides of the pond. It was the first heavy cruiser/tourbike to really give riders an alternative to American tourers, and its sales numbers hover somewhere around the one-million mark.
Contemporary GL models enjoy a reputation for being reliable and powerful with speed and maneuverability that is surprising given its great bulk and intended purpose as a comfortable, long-distance tourbike. What can I say – a million Wing-Dingers can’t be wrong – and the Gold Wings remain the main competition for Harley-Davidson’s and the resurgent Indian Motorcycles’ touring divisions.
I’m sure many could make arguments for umpteen other candidates, I could too given a different set of criteria to define “significant,” but as far as machines that shaped the motorcycle world that we have today, I think this list hits the major high points. Heck, just opening it up to off-road machines, trikes, and sidecars would change the landscape significantly, but this is a top-10, not a top-100 pick. What’s your picks for this list?