Higher performance has always been a winning sales tool for motorcycles. Throughout the history of motorcycling, rival manufacturers have sought to outperform each other on the track, on the road and in the sales charts. Since their arrival on the international scene in the early 1960s, fierce competition between the Japanese manufacturers meant motorcycles got bigger, heavier and more powerful.
Legendary machines like the 1969 Honda CB750 and the 1972 Kawasaki Z1 are typical of the ‘bigger is better’ ethos. Unfortunately for the rider, bigger often meant more unwieldy but nevertheless the Japanese factories continued up the scale with models like the Yamaha XS1100 and the Kawasaki Z1300.
Then in the 1980s something changed. For the next 20 years motorcycle manufacturers created a series of landmark models that weren’t just better than the rest, they were so much better that they set a new class benchmark. This golden age didn’t just come from one manufacturer, in fact each of the Japanese ‘big four’ manufacturers enjoyed a period in which specific models achieved class domination by hitting on the perfect recipe.
The 1984 Kawasaki gpz900 (908cc, 115bhp, 228kg) was developed from scratch by Kawasaki to recapture the glory days of the 1970s Z1. It was the first Japanese product to combine power and handling in a balanced all-round package. By using a compact, efficient, liquid-cooled four cylinder engine as an integral part of the frame, it took a different direction to the increasingly powerful but cumbersome machines that preceded it. The gpz900 was so successful it remained in production after the bike intended to replace it, the gpz1000rx, and the one after that, the ZX-10!
The 1985 Suzuki GSXR750 (750cc, 106bhp, 176kg) was an endurance racer for the road. In fact, it was so successful that it eventually drove the other Japanese manufacturers out of the 750 super sport category entirely. The aluminium frame was claimed to weigh just 8kg, half the mass of a steel one. To underline the sporty characteristics of the motor, the rev counter scale didn’t start until 3000rpm. Originally a bit fragile and flighty, later models were tamed a little and put on a few pounds but the legacy of the first models was the foundation of a dynasty of GSXR models that lives on today.
The 1992 Honda Fireblade (893cc, 122bhp, 185kg) hit on a magic formula. Originally planned as a 750, it provided the Holy Grail for motorcycle designers; a litre-class punch in a 600-sized motorcycle. The combination of high power and light weight were unprecedented in a production machine yet Honda’s approach was nothing fancy; just exhaustive in attention to detail, optimising every part of the bike for maximum performance and minimum weight.
Lastly, you cannot fail to mention the later, but greater, 1998 Yamaha R1 (998cc, 150bhp, 177kg). This blew away even the Fireblade’s achievement, with a power to weight ratio equivalent to 850bhp/tonne. By putting one gearbox shaft underneath the other, the motor was also shorter than any competitor, meaning the R1 had a long swinging arm for good stability, yet a short wheelbase for agile handling. Brilliant.
Since the new millennium, progress has continued but not in such dramatic steps.
Do you agree with the choices above, or think another bike deserves recognition? Let us know in the comments.