Superbike, supersport, Superpole, superstock, super teen, super blackbird, super dream, supercross…
It’s probably fair to say that the word ‘super’ is overused in motorcycle circles. But it was not always like this.
It’s easy to think that superbikes have been around forever because they dominate today’s market. Still, the truth is that they’ve only been zipping around our roundabouts and pulling wheelies down main streets for three decades.
In the 1960s (just like today), the largest Grand Prix class was for the 500, and it wasn’t until Americans started racing 750cc two-strokes in the early 1970s that racing began. Of superbikes, culminating in today’s Superbike World Championship. But the first time the term was used, it had nothing to do with racing. The world press used it to describe a revolutionary new motorcycle introduced by Honda in the late 1960s.
The Beatles were still together, Elvis wasn’t fat yet, and a new decade was upon us that would lead to more fashion disasters than even the flower-power era of the 1960s had achieved.
The year was 1968, and as far as motorcycling is concerned, it was one of the most significant in history; it was the year the superbike was born.
The term has been used for many motorcycle-related purposes, from those mentioned above to your grandma saying your bike looks “super.”
So, in the absence of an official dictionary definition (the word is not listed in the English dictionary), let’s make our own for this feature.
Supermoto n. is a standard production motorcycle with a designated displacement of 750cc or greater and offers groundbreaking sports performance.
Ok, now that we’ve established that, you’ll understand why there’s no Yamaha RD500 or Kawasaki H1 here, so no letters or threatening calls, please.
1969: HONDA CB750
Let’s go back to 1968. October to be precise, and on the other side of the world: Japan. For the few Western journalists and photographers who were lucky (or unlucky) to make the nightmarish long-haul flight to the Tokyo motorcycle show, a surprise awaited them. It was called the Honda CB750, and it was going to change the face of motorcycling forever.
Rumors had been rife for several years that one of the Japanese firms would launch a four-cylinder bike, but these were largely dismissed as the project would prove to be ‘too complex,’ and the bike would have to be ‘too heavy.’ Incorrect. Honda shocked the press (and Kawasaki, which had been working on its four-cylinder bike) by introducing the CB750 and silencing all critics who said it couldn’t be done or rather wouldn’t be done.
The CB750 had, at the time, a very impressive spec sheet. The first production motorcycle in history to have a hydraulic front disc brake also featured those above inline four cylinders, four carburetors, four Foxy exhausts, four-in-four chrome, a five-speed gearbox, and an electric starter. Now that was high-tech.
The 736.5 cc single overhead cam engine produced 67 bhp at 8,000 pm, good for a top speed of around 120 mph. It might not set your pulse racing now, but in 1969 it was the absolute dog and good enough to set the standard for big-bore production motorcycles for the next decade and a half.
The CB750 was also one of the final nails in the proverbial coffin of the British cycling industry. An affordable and reliable big bike from the Japanese turned out to be too hard to beat.
The bike was so impressive that the world press coined a new word to describe it. They called it a superbike.
It came out in 1969, the same year we put a man on the moon, but for bikers, that was secondary. All they wanted to hear was the CB. The publicity campaign was aided when American driver Dick Mann won Daytona on a CB750 on his first attempt.
The bike sold 61,000 units in the United States alone in its first three years. Over 10 years, that number grew to 400,000, and in 1973, sales peaked with 60,000 rolling out of showrooms. At £679, the CB also represented good value for money, although you could have bought a Volkswagen Beetle for a little more if you like.
If there was any criticism of the Honda, it was directed at its burly 485 pounds (220 kilos) and less-than-perfect handling. But it wasn’t enough to detract from this brilliant bike that had a production run of 10 years, making it one of Honda’s longest. And once the superbike standard was set, the race to surpass it began. Kawasaki picked up the leather and Velcro gauntlet quickly.
Kawasaki was already on the development path with a superbike of its own when the CB750 was launched. Still, it wasn’t until 1973 that the Z1 was finally launched and raised the bar for superbike design.
1973: KAWASAKI Z1
Kawasaki was just as surprised — and upset — by Honda’s introduction of the CB750 as everyone else. Determined not to be outdone, the design team went back to the drawing board and created a 900cc machine to make a bigger and better machine than the CB. The design brief included the order that there be no ‘defects.’
The Z1 was hands down superior to the Honda in that it had more bhp and a higher top speed. But it wasn’t without its flaws, particularly in the braking and handling department, and it wasn’t nearly as innovative as the Honda had been when it launched.
Kawasaki copied the single-disc front brake, but with 82bhp at 8,500rpm and a top speed of 130mph, the brake just wasn’t up to stopping the Z1. The bike was also heavier than the Honda at 229.5 kilos (506 pounds).
And the notorious flex in the frameset was the precedent for Kawasaki engines being too strong for their frames until the late 1980s.
However, the Z1 became the new King of superbikes, its 903cc DOHC engine. four-cylinder is good enough to take the bike to no fewer than 45 American and world records for speed and acceleration at Daytona in March 1973. There had never been a production bike as powerful as this one.
Like the Honda, the £1088 Z1 featured a five-speed gearbox, electric start, disc brake, and four similar chrome exhausts.
The Z1 itself endured a four-year production run in its original form, but derivatives of the basic design can still be traced in today’s Kawasaki ‘Z’s. Z engines found their way into racing chassis like the classic P&M but also became true superbikes like the US market KZ1000R used by pre-GP stars Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey and later the GPz1100.
Ironically, Kawasaki helped end the trend of making big-bore two-stroke multis that they were so good at. The world had gone crazy thanks to the CB and the Z1.
1977: SUZUKI GS1000
It’s a shame that Elvis Presley died in 1977 because he never got a chance to ride the Suzuki GS1000. Although the motorcycle was presented to the press in 1976, it was not until the year of the King’s death that it hit the streets.
Probably more important to Suzuki in that year than the death of the cheeseburger king was a young cockney guy named Barry Sheene lifting his second consecutive 500cc world title on a Suzuki. The GS1000 couldn’t have come at a better time for British fans who wanted to play Barry Sheene without the pins on his arms and legs.
There was one similarity between the RG500 two-stroke racer and Suzuki’s new 997cc four-cylinder four-stroke road bike: the inside of the fork.
Yes, the GS shared nearly identical fork leg internals as the racer, but more importantly, they were adjustable. The GS was the first production bike to have adjustable forks, but can you imagine not having them? That’s because you’re a spoiled mate.
It took Suzuki 8 years to get on the big four-stroke superbike bandwagon, but they made sure to move the game again when they did.
The GS pumped out 87bhp at 8000rpm and was good to 135mph, but the most significant improvement was in handling. The GS was the best handling Japanese superbike to date. Still rubbish by today’s standards, but the best of a bad band back then.
The design brief emphasized reliability. Hence the added weight of robust components, bringing it up to 227 kilos (499 lb), affordability, relatively low price of £1725, good top speed (135 mph ), and the inclusion of useful accessories. These included nonsense like a gear indicator that was unique and buzzing indicators to tell you when you had left them on. Hmm. Altogether more useful was a fuel gauge, even though the gory stuff still doesn’t work properly over 20 years later.
The 1000cc model was not the only GS in the family. There was also a GS400, GS550, GS750, and GS God knows what else (including ST, SZ, AN, LN, and SN versions), the last direct descendant being the GS850G from 1985 when the salivating public unleashed an entirely better Suzuki superbike.
The GS1000’s ugly looks, its fine racing heritage (Wes Cooley used one to beat demigods Eddie Lawson and Freddie Spencer for the American Superbike championship in 1980), and its bulletproof reliability have made it a cult following to this day. The present-day. And we all have the GS to thank for the adjustable forks.
It seems crazy that manufacturers didn’t always pay as much attention to handling as they did power, but it’s a fact.
The GPz900R, launched in 1984, will go down in history as one of the machines that changed everything. One could argue that Kawasaki beat Suzuki’s GSX-R750 by a year in building a bike that embodied the now-standard mix of power and decent handling.
The design brief for the GPz was to build a machine with the power of a one-liter bike but with the handling response of a 750. The bike took around six years to develop but was a resounding success on its launch. The 908cc DOHC 16 valve inline four-cylinder engine produced 115bhp at 8500rpm, taking it to a top speed of 155mph, making it the fastest production bike available. The engine was also very compact thanks to its liquid cooling system, which meant that the engine (which was used as a stressed member) could be mounted lower in the chassis to improve handling. The forks were three-way adjustable anti-dive elements, and a good rate-increasing rear suspension unit aided handling.
At 503 pounds (228 kilos), the GPz certainly wasn’t light, but that didn’t stop it from easily shaving off less than eleven miles in the second quarter, and its sporty riding position added to the feeling of power and engagement (both ways).
If you had a GPz900, you WERE the coolest guy on the trail and in the chippy, and you weren’t hassled. The choice of preteen girls was all yours, sir.
The bike was so good straight out of the box that it filled every podium position at the 1984 production TT. Well-proven power and reliability, thank you very much.
But the Kawasaki was not without teething problems early on. It suffered from camshaft pitting due to poor oil flow and carburetor icing, but both were fairly easy to remedy and did not unduly tarnish the bike’s image. The GPz was so successful that it continued production for more than 10 years, although it was remarketed in later years as a sports tourer.
1985: SUZUKI GSX-R750
Now you are talking. Suzuki’s GSX-R750 has two major claims to fame. The first is that it was the first replica of a real race bike for the road, and the second is that…