Five iconic motorcycles and why they matter

By Simon de Burton

In another departure from our usual watch coverage, we tasked Simon de Burton, a man who seems happiest on two wheels with an engine growling under him, to talk about a passion of his outside of timepieces, motorcycles. Not just any motorcycles however, the five that in his eyes constitute the most iconic to have ever graced the tarmac. Expect machines from British titans like Triumph as well as the ever track-dominant Japanese with Suzuki. 

Many people have opinions on the greatest cars of all time, and most lists include the Porsche 911, the Ferrari 250 GTO, the Jaguar E-Type and Mercedes-Benz SSK (to name but a few).

But what about great motorcycles? The real ground-breakers that were ahead of their time either in terms of performance, design, capability - or sometimes all three? 

 

Harley Davidson XR750 motorbike in red

Not what we normally expect from Harley-Davidson, but hear us out.

 

There are undoubtedly dozens that fit the bill, so the five stand-out machines listed below are not, by any means, intended to form a definitive list ("What? No Honda CB750, no Ducati 916, no Brough Superior and no Kawasaki Mach 1 (etc)", we hear you ask...... but they have all, without question, earned their places in the two-wheeled hall of fame. 

 

Vincent Black Shadow


the original 'superbike' and once the fastest vehicle on the road

 

Health and safety was not high on the agenda when Rollie Free set out to establish a new motorcycle land speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats on September 13, 1948. Having ripped his leathers on a trial run, he opted to discard them altogether and, lying stiff as a board on the bike, wearing plimsolls and a pair of appropriately-named Speedo swimming trunks, roared in to the history books at 150.313 mph.

 

Vincenet Black Shadow motorbike in black

The world's first "superbike".

 

The machine he did it on was a 1,000cc Vincent vee-twin, a model already advertised as 'the world's fastest standard motorcycle' following its launch by Cambridge graduate Philip Vincent, who established his eponymous marque in 1928 after buying an existing manufacturer called HRD for £450.

The first significant Vincents were the Comet, Meteor and TT Replica with single-cylinder, 500cc engines developed  by Australian motorcycle engineer Phil Irving - but legend has it that he was one day shuffling a drawing and a tracing of his design when it dawned on him that, if he put the two together, he could create a 1,000cc v-twin with almost twice the power.

 

Vincent black shadow rotating gif

There's isn't a bad angle on this machine.

 

Irving's 'Eureka' moment resulted in the Rapide model which, in Series A and B forms, was built from 1936 - 1948 and offered a then-unprecedented top speed of 110 mph. But it was the Series C that gave Vincent its legendary reputation for performance thanks to the highly tuned version known as the Black Shadow. 

Identifiable by its black engine coating, the Black Shadow carried the world's first 150 mph speedometer - but there was no shame in the fact that the bike was actually capable of 'only' 125mph because it was still the fastest vehicle on the road. Back then, remember, the average family saloon topped-out at 70mph. 

But it was not only the Black Shadow's sparkling performance that established its reputation. Important, too, were innovative features such as adjustable controls, footrests and seat, an engine that formed part of the frame and an exceptional level of finish that pushed the price to around £300 - more or less double the cost of any rival.

 

Vincent Black Shadow motorbike speedometer

The world's first 150mph speedometer. 

 

Around one third of the approximately 1,750 Black Shadows built have survived and the model's rarity, combined with the bike's status as the original superbike. has put it in the premier league of collectable motorcycles - which is why the best examples can now command upwards of £100,000. 

 

Triumph Bonneville


the quintessential British motorcycle

 

At London's Earls Court Motorcycle Show in 1958, the buzzword was unquestionably 'Bonneville'. The latest from Triumph had everything to keep the marque at the top of the street bike tree, including a hot new 46 horsepower engine, a top speed of 115 mph, lean and sexy looks and, best of all, a price tag of less than £300.

 

Triumph Bonneville British motorcycle

That's a lot of bike for less than £300. 

 

Named by factory chief Edward Turner in honour of a 214mph record-breaking run by Johnny Allen aboard a Triumph-powered machine at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1956, the 'Bonnie' became an instant icon.

Competition and export models - with higher handlebars and peanut fuel tanks - sold well in America and, in 1963, Triumph took the giant leap of fitting the new, unit construction 650cc engine to replace the earlier, separate engine and gearbox arrangement. 

As the years rolled by, Japanese products began to eclipse the best of British and the Bonneville didn't seem quite so 'bonny', although tuned versions continued to perform well on the race tracks both in the U.S. and Europe.

By 1973, engine capacity had grown to 744cc and the model was designated the T140 - but poor sales, questions over reliability and unsettling industrial disputes loomed large at the Meriden factory and the beginning of the end was clearly nigh.

A workers’ co-operative took over in 1975, and attempts were made to increase sales by giving the Bonneville an electric starter and a five-speed gearbox, features that had been around on Japanese bikes for more than a decade. Triumph even tried to boost the bike's appeal with an eight-valve cylinder head on the sporty TSS model, and created the 'Bonneville Executive', a feeble makeover with badly-fitting luggage and some extra pinstripes.

 

Triumph Boneville motorcycle fuel tank and logo

The famous logo of the great British brand. 

 

Triumph threw in the towel in 1983 and was subsequently bought by property tycoon John Bloor who licenced West Country firm Racing Spares to build new Bonnevilles from surviving parts until 1988, by which time around 1,000 had left the line. 

Bloor went on to revive Triumph's fortunes with an impressive initial line-up of modular machines using marque names from the past, such as Tiger, Daytona, Thunderbird and Trident -  and, having put the firm back on track, finally produced what every Triumph fan had been longing for in 2001: a 21st century Bonneville.

That model, now in its second generation and with an all-new water-cooled engine, has gone on to become the best-selling Triumph of all time - and it still has the unmistakable look of the original from 1958.

 

Harley-Davidson XR750


the world's most successful race bike

 

Ask most people to name the maker of the most successful race bike of all time and they are quite likely to choose Honda, Ducati, Yamaha or, perhaps MV. But those who really know their stuff will say Harley-Davidson.

That's because the same firm famous for producing chrome-dipped, saddle-bag equipped straight line cruisers with names such as Electra Glide and Fat Boy also made the legendary XR750 which is, quite simply the all-conquering king of flat track racing.

 

Harley Davidson XR750 motorcycle in red

The all time great of flat track racing. 



The first XRs were campaigned in the U.S. National Flat Track Series during the late 1960s. Powered by sleeved down, overhead valve 1,000cc Sportster engines with iron barrels and cylinder heads fed by a single carburettor jammed between the 'V' of the two cylinders. They were a complete flop. 

For the 1972 season, however, Harley-Davidson wheeled out a new XR designed by factory race chief Dick O'Brien. It had aluminium heads and barrels, twin carburettors and massive cartridge air filters that jutted into the rider's right leg. 

In the hands of Mark Berelsford the new XR750 won that year's AMA Grand National Championship and it proved to be the start of a thrilling 20-year era of dirt track racing which was led by the Harleys in their distinctive black, white and orange competition livery.

Rising stars such as Yamaha-mounted Kenny Roberts and the phenomenal Harley rider Jay Springsteen came into the sport to mix it with veterans such as Gene Romero, Dick Mann and Mert Lawwill who drew massive crowds eager to witness the spectacle of stripped down, tuned up bikes going hell-for-leather around a dirt-covered oval at speeds of up to 120mph.

 

Harley Davidson XR750 motorcycle in red

Very few could compete with the likes of this bike. 

 

Roberts won the championship on his Yamaha in 1973 and 1974, and Honda took the title during the mid-1980ss after spending a fortune dissecting an XR engine, copying the best bits and adding twin camshafts and other trickery. But, to all intents and purposes, the Harleys dominated. 

Evel Knievel even used one for his madcap jumping stunts. 

Although flat trackers fitted with modern v-twin engines from Suzuki, Ducati and Honda have since made a significant impact, the XR is still a force to be reckoned with, partly because the old-fashioned, relatively heavy Harley engine produces massive traction-inducing torque, while its ultra-powerful rivals are more inclined to spin wheels.

Nowadays, the only people who can buy an XR engine direct from Harley are recognised race teams who build bikes up using custom-made frames and top quality wheels, forks and suspension - although complete used machines do come onto the market at starting prices of around £20,000.

 

Suzuki GSX-R750


the first modern-day race bike for the road

 

A new breed of motorcycle was unveiled at the Cologne show in 2004 - affordable, the out-of-the-crate, mass-produced race-replica. 

Made by Suzuki and designated the GSX-R750, it was a radical departure from what had come to be regarded as the benchmark superbike because it not only looked like it belonged on a racetrack but had the engine, brakes and suspension to match.

 

Suzuki GSX-R750 motorcycle

Just as good on the road as it was the track. 

 

The hot new 'Gixxer' (as it was soon dubbed) was the result of Suzuki's decision the previous year to offer race technology to the masses with the RG250 two-stroke twin that came with alloy frame components, lightweight ancillaries and a tuned engine capable of pushing the little screamer to 120 mph.

Scaling-up the package was the logical progression, hence the arrival of the first 'hypersports' GSX-R, which went on sale in 1985 with a featherweight, air and oil-cooled engine that made 100 bhp, a figure that, alone, set it apart from everything else. 

The bike also boasted a six-speed gearbox, hydraulic clutch, an alloy, beam frame that weighed an insane 8.1 kilos and the type of endurance racer looks that most special builders had previously only dreamed of. And, no sooner had the production bike hit the streets than it was clearing-up on the track thanks to some deft tweaking by Japan's tuning legend Hideo 'Pops' Yoshimura.

 

Suzuki GSX-R750 motocycle detailing

It's the little details on this bike that made it so special. 

 

The bike's success both in competition success and sales too ensured its future, and Suzuki made refining and improving the package an annual event: '86 saw better handling and brakes; '87 brought larger diameter forks and new suspension, '88 heralded a wholesale revamp and in 1992 the 'WN' model received a new, liquid-cooled engine.  

The original, air and oil-cooled GSX-R, however, can lay claim to being the one that started it all and is now regarded as a modern - and highly collectable - classic. 

 

BMW R80GS


the first factory-built 'adventure bike'

 

Big-engined 'adventure sports' motorcycles with off-road credibility are all the rage nowadays - but back in 1980, there was only one option if you fancied taking on the world - you had to buy a BMW R80GS.

Logically, the flat-twin, shaft-drive GS should have been soemthing nobody wanted in a trail bike, but it was born out of the success of numerous privateers and factory riders using specially-built BMWs in gruelling events such as the International Six Days Trial. In fact, BMW can trace its roots on the dirt all the way back to WWII and before with robust machines such as the formidable all-terrain, sidecar-equipped Wehrmacht R75.

 

BMW R80GS Motorcycle

There was nowhere this bike couldn't go.

 

The firm also produced various single-cylinder trail machines for military use, with the first GS 'works special' competition bikes being introduced during the 1960s - and it was the success of these that led to the development of the series production GS. 

The original 'R80' model (denoting 800cc) appeared in 1980 and, although it looked as though it would be a handful off-road, the GS quickly won fans because its tourquey, 797cc engine and physical size made it a comfortable, long-distance tourer while its high mudguards, pliant suspension and raised exhausts encouraged riders to leave the beaten track.

The proof of the unlikely pudding came in the form of Paris-Dakar rally wins for Hubert Auriol in 1981 and 1983, with subsequent, 1,000cc versions of the bike winning in 1985 and 1986 with Belgian motocross star Gaston Rahier at the handlebars.

 

BMW R80GS Motorcycle

The Paris-Dakar rally was a real testing ground for this machine.

 

In 1993, an all-new, far more advanced model called the R1100GS replaced the originals - and it was the 1150cc upgrade to that bike that long-time biking buddies Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman rode on their 'Long Way Round' world tour of 2005. 

Their incredible journey and the subsequent 'Long Way Down' adventure in 2007 resulted in books and films that inspired thousands of people to pack it all in, saddle-up and head out in search of roads less travelled.  

The result was a surge in the sales of the R1150 and a race by rival manufacturers to develop comparable 'adventure sports' bikes that were capable of eating up motorway miles but which could also tackle un-mettled roads and muddy tracks, ford rivers and conquer mountains.

But it all started with the R80GS...

Our thanks again to Simon for penning this insightful look into the world of motorcycles and helping us branch-out from the world of watches. We would also like to thank Bonhams for supplying the images of all of these glorious machines. 



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