Superbike, supersport, superpole, superstock, superteen, super blackbird, super dream, supercross........
In the 1960s (just like today), the biggest Grand Prix class was for the 500s and it wasn't until the Americans started racing 750cc two strokes in the early 1970s that superbike racing began, culminating in today's World Superbike championship. But the first time the term was really used had nothing to do with racing. It was used by the world's press to describe a revolutionary new bike unveiled by Honda at the end of the swinging Sixties.
The year was 1968 and as far as motorcycling was concerned, it was one of the most significant in history - it was the year the superbike was born.
superbike n. a standard production motorcycle with a designated engine capacity of 750cc or above and which offers ground-breaking sports performance.
1969: HONDA CB750
Back to 1968. October to be precise, and the other side of the world - Japan. For the few western journalists and photographers lucky (or unlucky) enough to make the nightmare long-haul flight to the Tokyo bike show, there was a surprise in store. It was called the Honda CB750 and it was to change the face of motorcycling forever.
Rumours had been rife for several years that one of the Japanese firms would release a four cylinder bike but they were largely dismissed because the project would prove 'too complex' and the bike would have to be 'too heavy.' Wrong. Honda stunned the press (and Kawasaki who had been working on their own four cylinder bike) by unveiling the CB750 and silencing all those critics who said it couldn't be done - or rather, wouldn't be done.
The 736.5cc single overhead cam engine produced 67bhp at 8000rpm which was good for a top speed of around 120mph. It may not set your pulse racing now, but in 1969 it was the absolute dog's and good enough to set the standard for big bore production motorcycles for the next decade and a half.
The bike was so impressive that the world's press coined a new word to describe it. They called it a superbike.
If there was any criticism of the Honda, it was aimed at its portly 220 kilos (485lbs) and less than perfect handling. But it wasn't enough to detract from the fact that this was a brilliant bike which had a 10 year production run making it one of Honda's longest ever. And once the superbike standard had been set, the race was on to beat it. Kawasaki picked up the leather and Velcro gauntle readily.
1973: KAWASAKI Z1
Kawasaki were as much surprised - and annoyed - by Honda's unveiling of the CB750 as everyone else. Determined not to be outdone, the design team went back to the drawing board and came up with a 900cc machine in a bid to make a bigger and better machine than the CB. The design brief included the order that there were to be 'no defects.'
The Z1 was undoubtedly 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 as innovative as the Honda had been when it was launched.
Kawasaki copied the single disc front brake but with 82bhp on tap at 8,500rpm and a top speed of 130mph, the brake simply wasn't up to the job of pulling the Z1 to a halt. The bike was also heavier than the Honda at 229.5 kilos (506lbs).
And the notorious flex in the frame set the precedent of Kawasaki engines being too strong for their frames right up until the late 1980s.
Like the Honda, the £1088 Z1 featured a five speed gearbox, electric starter, the disc brake and four similar chromed exhausts.
Ironically, Kawasaki helped to kill off the trend for making big bore, two stroke multis which they themselves were so good at. The world had gone four stroke crazy thanks to the CB and the Z1.
1977: SUZUKI GS1000
It's a shame Elvis Presley dies in 1977 because he never got a chance to ride Suzuki's GS1000. Although the bike was unveiled to the press in 1976, it wasn't until the year of the King's death that it hit the streets.
Probably more important for Suzuki in that year than the king of cheeseburgers dying was that a young cockney chappie called Barry Sheene lifted his second consecutive 500cc world title on a Suzuki. The GS1000 couldn't have come at a better time for British fans wanting to play at being Barry Sheene - without the pins in their arms and legs that was.
There was one similarity between the RG500 two stroke racer and Suzuki's new 997cc, four cylinder, four stroke road bike - fork internals.
It had taken Suzuki 8 years to jump on the big bore, four stroke superbike wagon but when they did, they made sure they moved the game on again.
The design brief emphasised reliability, hence the extra weight of robust components bringing it in at 227 kilos (499lbs), affordability hence the relatively cheap £1725 price tag, good top speed (135mph), and the inclusion of handy accessories. These included nonsense like a gear indicator which was unique and buzzing indicators to tell you when you'd left them on. Hmmm. Altogether handier was a fuel gauge - even though the bloody things still don't work properly more than 20 years later.
The 1000cc model wasn't the only GS in the family. There was also a GS400, GS550, GS750 and GS god knows what else (including ST, SZ, EN, LN and SN versions), with the last direct descendant being the GS850G of 1985 when an altogether better Suzuki superbike was unleashed upon a heavily salivating public.
The GS1000's bad ass looks, good racing heritage (Wes Cooley used one to beat demi-gods Eddie Lawson and Freddie Spencer for the American Superbike championship in 1980), and bulletproof reliability have ensured it a cult following to this day. And we've all got to thank the GS for adjustable forks.
1984: KAWASAKI GPz900R
It seems madness to us now that manufacturers didn't always pay as much attention to handling as they did to power but it's a fact.
The design brief on the GPz was to build a machine with litre bike power but with the handling response of a 750. The bike took around six years to develop but it was a howling success on its release. The 908cc, dohc, 16 valve, in-line four cylinder engine produced 115bhp at 8500rpm taking it to a top speed of 155mph making it the quickest production bike available at that time. The engine was very compact too thanks to its liquid cooling system which also meant the engine (which was used as a stressed member) could be mounted lower in the chassis to improve handling. Forks were three way adjustable anti-dive items and a good rising rate rear suspension unit further helped the handling.
At 228 kilos (503lbs), the GPz certainly wasn't light but that didn't stop it easily cutting sub-eleven second quarter miles and its sporty riding position added to the feeling of power and commitment (in both senses).
If you had a GPz900, you WERE the coolest guy on the road and down the chippy and definitely not to be messed with. The choice of the pre-pubescent young ladies was all yours sir.
Hell the bike was even so good straight from the crate that it filled every podium position in the 1984 Production TT. Power and reliability both well proven thank you very much.
But the Kawasaki wasn't without its teething troubles initially. It suffered from camshaft pitting due to poor oil flow and also carb icing but both were fairly easy to remedy and didn't tarnish the bike's image unduly. In fact, the GPz was so successful that it continued in production for more than 10 years, albeit re-marketed in later years as a sports tourer.
1985: SUZUKI GSX-R750
Now you're talking. Suzuki's GSX-R750 has two major claims to fame. The first is that it was the first real race replica bike for the road and the second is that it was - and to some extent still is, the ultimate hooligan's bike.
In a world where comfortable seats, upright riding positions and an emphasis on good mid-range power delivery were the norm, the GSX-R was a radical, focused and powerful lightweight with a top end rush of power which would still scare the pants off most of us today.
The inspiration for the bike, which was unveiled at the Cologne Show in 1984 and hit showrooms in 1985, came directly from the world endurance championship. Suzuki had won the title in 1982 with its GS1000R XR41 race bike and ran a prototype of the GSX-R the following year, winning again.
Whatever, the result of basing a road bike on a race bike was that it actually handled, allowing road riders to get much more out of it even if it was 5bhp down on Yamaha's class-leading FZ750. Until the GSX-R, there had been plenty of fast bikes but most had a near pathological disliking of corners.
The frame itself was a massive 9 kilos (19lbs) lighter than Suzuki's GS750 steel frame and the firm claimed at the time that the GSX-R was the first production bike ever to have an alloy frame. Woops. The marketing boys obviously hadn't heard of German firm Ardie who offered an alloy frame as far back as the 1930s. Wasn't quite as good though.
The idea for the flat slide carbs was borrowed from moto cross bikes and gave the GSX-R crisper acceleration but perhaps the bike's most innovative feature was that it was oil cooled. Well, oil and air cooled.
In the quest to keep weight down, using the oil from the sump as a coolant instead of having a separate water cooler seemed to do the business.
And true to its racer heritage, the Suzuki also had 18 inch front wheels. It may have slowed steering, but the idea was taken straight from the factory endurance racers because it was easier to remove the calipers (and therefore the front wheel) with 18 inchers. GSX-R racers including Kevin Schwantz later ran 16 inchers before settling for 17 inch wheels as the optimum choice.
Even the dual headlights, so common now, were a novelty at the time and were again copied from the endurance bikes.
The Suzuki looked like a racer and felt like a racer too. The riding position was focused, the seat was sparse and when the power came in above ten grand, road riders suddenly knew what real racers had to cope with. Hell, Suzuki even boasted of a 55 degree angle of lean before it was fashionable to scratch round roundabouts.
And to put the bike's weight in perspective, it was 25 kilos (55lbs) lighter than the FZ750 and a huge 50 kilos (100lbs) less than Honda's VF750F.
Oh, and it's still winning world championship races. Just ask Frankie Chili.
1988: HONDA RC30
This is where the two meanings of the word superbike meet. The RC30 was a road bike specifically built to allow Honda to go World Superbike racing.
By the mid-Eighties, Honda had experimented with almost every engine configuration imaginable and decided on the V-four layout because it was compact, offered a low centre of gravity and allowed a small frontal area. But after the perfectly crap VFR750S flopped, Honda's R&D boys were told to try again and this time to get it right. And boy did they.
Each RC30 was hand assembled one at a time in the firm's Hamamatsu plant where the factory race bikes were built meaning customers were virtually getting their own works bikes built for them, or as close as dammit. Incidentally, Honda offered to buy back the very first bike built (serial number 00001) but the owner refused meaning he's either too rich or waiting for the price to go up.
The RC30 was also the first production bike in the world to feature titanium alloy - which was used to make the con rod - and no expense was spared on the rest of the machine either. Every component was the lightest and most expensive possible for a road bike and the result was a motorcycle which weighed a paltry 185 kilos (407lbs). Six years later, Ducati's legendary 916 would still be heavier.
Claimed power was 112bhp at 11,000rpm but it was the overall package which made the bike sensational, not just the silky smooth engine which pulled from nowhere. There wasn't one particular trick which made the RC so much better than its rivals, (though it had plenty of trick parts like gear driven cams), rather it was the nose-down chassis, the short wheelbase, the racey riding position, the single-sided swing arm developed from the Elf Honda endurance racer and the brilliant handling which made it a winner straight from the crate in almost every discipline of road racing. Carl Fogarty won the world F1 championship on the bike in its first year and American Fred Merkel used it to lift the first two WSB titles in 1988 and '89. Steve Hislop and Joey Dunlop took it to TT glory and the RC is still raced round the Island by some to this day.
There were only an estimated 3000 models built between 1988 and 1990 with around 500 coming to the UK, of which only 375 were ever registered for the road.
1990: KAWASAKI ZZ-R1100
The ZZ-R1100 was quite simply the fastest production bike ever made - by a long, long way.
But in defence of the ZZ-R's claimed 147bhp at 11,000 rpm, the bike was as smooth and easy to ride round town as it was at ballistic speeds. Apart from the weight of course. As the competition shed weight, the big Kwacker waddled in at a lardy 233 kilos (512lbs) and was really more of a sports tourer than a full-on superbike.
It could be argued that Kawasaki started the horsepower war with the Z1 in 1973 and designed the ZZ-R specifically to blow away all the opposition, which it duly did. It was actually based on the ZX-10 and was intended to be an evolution of that bike but the finished article rode more like a revolution. Kawasaki's engineers were able to squeeze so much power out of the engine because it basically dated back to the 1984 900 Ninja so they were well familiar with it and knew every last trick to pull.
As another claim to fame, the ZZ-R was the first production bike to have a ram air induction system, introduced in 1993. Other bikes had ducts to direct cool air onto the engines but the Kwackers was a closed system - the only air getting in came through the two scoops on the nose, earlier models had one scoop.
Another important advance on the ZZ-R was the slippery aerodynamics which had not been so important on previous road bikes. But speed wasn't everything on the ZZ-R. The same bodywork offered good weather protection for the rider, the pillion got a comfy seat and the quiet, civilised machine didn't really deserve its nutter reputation - apart from the fact that it could almost do 180mph of course.
There was nothing revolutionary about the ZZ-R, it was just utilising well-proven engine technology (a water cooled, dohc, 16 valve, in-line four cylinder engine to be precise) combined with good aerodynamics which made it so fast.
It wasn't until Honda's CBR1100XX Super Blackbird hit the streets in 1997 that the ZZ-R lost its fastest bike crown and the Blackbird later lost it to Suzuki's Hayabusa. But to hold the title for seven years was pretty good going and with manufacturers agreeing to curb top speeds to 186mph, it looks like we may have seen the last of the outright horsepower wars started by Kawasaki.
If you wanted to be the fastest thing on two wheels back in 1990, it would have cost you £6499 and you can still get a new ZZ-R now for £7545.
1992: HONDA CBR900RR FIREBLADE
When Honda launched its CBR900RR FireBlade in 1992, it quite simply shocked and stunned the motorcycle world in a way that has never been repeated.
There was nothing exceedingly radical in terms of individual parts on the Blade - an in-line four cylinder engine mounted in an aluminium alloy twin beam frame was hardly revolutionary - instead it was the overall package which delivered such a knockout punch not only to the Blade's 'rivals' but to anyone who rode it.
To put the bike in context, it's worth considering that the bikes it had to beat at the time were lardy lumps like Yamaha's FZR1000 EXUP, Suzuki's GSX-R1100 and Kawasaki's ZZ-R1100. All fast in a straight line for sure, but wallowy and unwieidy when it came to actually turning corners. The Blade blew its competitors into the weeds and proceeded until they were six foot under. Suddenly, there was only one bike in the world for sports fans to aspire to.
Baba's one overriding obsession was weight. That, for him, would be the key. It wasn't so much what went on the FireBlade as what was left off it. Less would be more. Baba's goal was to produce a superbike which would weigh less than a 600 and to that effect, 'unnecessary' items like rear huggers and steering dampers would not be included in the FireBlade package.
At one stage, the Blade looked set to use a 750cc engine and this idea got as far as testing before being dumped - even though the Japanese later denied that the tests even took place. But Honda had 750cc and 1000cc models in their line-up so it was decided to create a new category which the Blade could call its own.
Baba san decided on a 900 for another reason too. Having found the optimal chassis dimensions and riding position for the Blade in testing, he found there was enough room to fit a bigger engine than 750ccs, so he did. And why not?
To achieve his target speed of 161mph, Baba calculated that he would need an engine displacement of 893cc given the chassis he had and, hey presto, that's what he built. The unusual engine size did have the disadvantage of ruling the Blade out of most racing categories but when it did get a chance to race in the reinstated Production TT in 1996, Ulsterman Phillip McCallen won the race and repeated his success the following year.
But it was the bike's light weight of just 185 kilos (407lbs) and razor sharp handling which made it so revolutionary. Fitted with a 16 inch front wheel instead of the more traditional 17 inch size, allowed the bike to steer faster than anything that had gone before, even if that factor combined with the steep steering head angle and short wheelbase made the Blade flighty at times.
The Blade also had a name rather than just a series of letters and numbers. Translated from the Japanese for lightning, the FireBlade sounded as menacing as it looked and performed. But even after the overwhelmingly positive press reports when the bike was launched at Phillip Island race track in Australia in 1992, many at Honda had reservations that there would be a big market for such a radical machine. They needn't have worried. The FireBlade, which initially retailed at £7390 and now costs £8699, has sold more than 20,000 units in the UK alone and held the crown of king of the superbikes for six full years until the appearance of Yamaha's R1 in 1998.
The fifth generation year 2000 Honda FireBlade continues to sell well and there's no sign of the bike reaching the end of its production run. Creator Tadao Baba once said he hopes the Blade will live on after he has gone. There's no doubt there Baba san - you gave birth to an all-time classic my man.
1994: DUCATI 916 STRADA
It was a bit much to expect another all time classic motorcycle to surface just two years after Honda's awesome FireBlade redefined the meaning of life, but Italians never play by the rules. And only the Italians could have designed and built the 916 Strada.
This sensuous, poetic, thoroughbred racehorse made every other motorcycle look like a reject from the ugly farm. This was art. Even if it had run like a sack of shit, the Ducati would probably still have become famous solely for its impossibly good looks, but the truth became clear upon its UK launch in late 1993 - it went like no Vee-twin had ever gone before. Ever.
Even though the 916cc engine was the same basic liquid cooled, DOHC, eight valve, 90 degree V-twin used in the earlier 851 and 888 models, the overall package was infinitely superior in terms of both looks and performance. The Weber Marelli electronic fuel injection system worked perfectly, the tubular steel trellis frame ensured brilliant handling, and the compact measurements and light weight of the bike made it feel like a factory 250cc Grand Prix racer.
But the looks. Oh the looks. Twin exhaust pipes curled up under the single seat unit (this bike was for purists), a single sided swinging arm for fast rear wheel changes in endurance racing, the Ferrari red, one-option-only paint job and the curves of the smooth, sleek bodywork. One could easily fall in love with a Ducati 916.
Even small touches like the neatly placed steering damper, the small (and practically useless) mirrors, the basic switchgear and instruments. All of these things said 'race bike'. It's easy to imagine a Ducati worker crying in frustration as he forces himself to add mirrors and a number plate to his immaculate conception.
And a race bike is what the 916 is. Built to take advantage of WSB rules for twins, the 916 won the title at its first attempt in the hands of Carl Fogarty and it's won another four crowns since. It's doubtful if even Ducati know how many races and championships it's won worldwide in the last seven years.
When the 916 was launched, it cost £11,800 in the UK and the first 200 bikes destined for Blighty were snapped up almost immediately, as were the first 100 bikes for the following year. The 916 won practically every accolade a motorcycle could in 1994 from the press and industry alike. Performance-wise, Ducati played clever. The bike never churned out the most horsepower found on a motorcycle (though a claimed 114bhp @ 9000rpm was good enough for over 160mph), and at 198kg (435lbs) it wasn't as light as a Blade, but what it did have was wrapped up in such an exquisite package of chassis, Brembo brakes and wheels and Showa suspension, that it enabled riders to go faster on a 916 than they would on an evil-handling beast with more power.
The 916 is still going strong albeit in a 996 big bore guise now and with so many 'R', 'S', 'SP' and 'SPS' versions available - not to mention the limited edition Sennas - it's really quite confusing. But the confusion shouldn't last too much longer. The successor to the 916 has been expected for a couple of years now and there's a good chance it'll break cover at the Milan show later this year. It's safe to say that it's the most eagerly awaited bike of recent times. But can it be another classic?
1998: YAMAHA YZF1000R1
It took a long time for another manufacturer to steal the king of the superbikes crown from Honda's FireBlade and it was going to take a very special bike to do it.
The 916 scored on factors other than sheer performance figures so it didn't exactly steal the crown from the Blade on those. Only Yamaha's YZF1000R1 was up to the job on that count.
While the Blade made a claimed 122bhp, the R1 claimed 150. The Blade weighed in at 185 kilos (407lbs) while the R1 tipped the scales at just 177 kilos (389.4lbs). And with a top speed of 165mph, the FireBlade was put in the shade by the Yamaha's top speed of 175mph. Whatever the Blade could do, the R1 could do it better. And that was the idea.
Honda had been top of the sports bike heap for too long and Yamaha designed the R1 as a direct competitor. It worked and ushered in a new era in high performance motorcycling, breaking just about every record in the superbike class.
The bike was smaller than any 600 at the time and so compact it felt like a 250GP bike. The 998cc, 20 valve, dohc, in-line four cylinder, liquid cooled engine was so torquey low down that changing gear seemed almost unnecessary. There was power absolutely everywhere.
For once, a motorcycle actually lived up to the pre-launch hype - and surpassed it - and Yamaha had no trouble selling every one straight off the production line. At £9199, the R1 wasn't ridiculously expensive either meaning the ultimate superbike was available to the masses - as long as they had fairly understanding bank managers.
The R1 soon showed its potential on the racetrack as well as on the road. Superbike racing rules proclude four cylinder bikes bigger than 750ccs competing so the R1, like the Blade, was restricted in the classes it could race in. But its greatest victory came in the 1999 Formula 1 TT when David Jefferies took a kitted R1 to victory over a £500,000 factory Honda RC45. Street bikes were finally beating up pukka racers.
Yet the R1, great bike as it is, didn't represent as big a step forward over the Blade as the Blade had done over its rivals back in 1992. That's not to say that Yamaha wasn't capable of such a leap (ram air and fuel injection are just two obvious areas which were left aside), but rather that there seems to be a philosophy amongst the Japanese manufacturers that you only release what you have to in order to just beat your rivals. There's no doubt that Yamaha and Honda have the technology to make another quantum leap forward if they felt the need. Four stroke V5 Grand Prix replica anyone?
The R1 remained unchallenged as the king of the suprbikes for three years, even when Honda released its year 2000 FireBlade. But it was only a matter of time before technology moved on yet again and this time it came in a blue and white package.
2001: SUZUKI GSX-R1000
Suzuki's GSX-R1000 is the greatest production superbike ever in terms of performance and handling. At least for the time being. But unlike many superbikes before it, the GSX-R hasn't really broken much new ground to earn its title. It's more a case of standing on the shoulders of giants - borrowing existing technology, refining it and squeezing out a few more mph and adding some more bhp. Upgrading the suspension helps and, like many other current superbikes, it utilises digital fuel injection.
The figures are impressive. A skimpy 170 kilos (374lbs), 160bhp and a top speed of 180mph means that it beats the R1 on all relevant fronts to claim the title of king of the superbikes. But the differences are becoming smaller.
Weight is down by 15 kilos, power is up by 10bhp and top speed by 'just' 5mph. Yamaha probably has a new version of the R1 sitting in a factory in Japan which can beat these figures. As the development of the superbike comes full circle and academic performance figures (let's face it, whether you can do 175mph or 180mph on the Queen's Highway is neither here nor there) are the only criteria for claiming or reclaiming the superbike crown, many people are turning back to the origins of the superbike for inspiration. Retro bikes which feature modern technology packaged in naked, early superbike looks are selling by the shed load.
The GSX-R may be the ultimate superbike but where the hell can you ride the damn thing without getting locked up?
The GSX-R's 160bhp is a full 93bhp up on Honda's CB750 which started the whole superbike phenomenon. It's also a massive 50 kilos (110lbs) lighter and it's fully 60mph faster.
It's taken 30 years of development to reach figures like these and if the same trend continued, in the year 2030 we'd be riding bikes making 250bhp, weighing 120 kilos (264lbs) and with top speeds of 240mph. Sounds bloody good to me.
The reality will no doubt be somewhat different as legislation forces manufacturers to limit top speeds and outright horsepower. That in turn will force the likes of Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki to look at other ways of developing their bikes to stay ahead of the competition. And that will mean a whole new field to explore, just like Honda charted new territory way back in 1969 with the creation of the superbike. I for one can't wait.
This feature was first published in the September 2001 issue of TWO