Wise road tester Roland Brown looks back at the years that changed biking.
If you’re old enough to remember 1977 it might not seem that long ago: Elvis died, Microsoft was founded, and the Space Shuttle flew into action. But the bike world was very different. Laverda’s Jota ruled the roads, Sheene was the world’s best rider, and Suzuki and Yamaha launched their first four-stroke superbikes...
Suzuki’s GS750 four was in many ways a rip-off of Kawasaki’s mighty Z1000, which was still the most powerful Jap superbike in ’77. But boy, did Suzuki’s engineers get it right with their first big four-stroke. The GS made 68bhp, handled well, looked good and blew every other 750 off the road. It also gave me one of the most exciting rides of my life, when I borrowed my mate Dave’s GS and rode it up the M6 in the rain, hitting an indicated 125mph - about 25mph faster than I’d ever been before.
Yamaha looked as though they’d also made a brilliant superbike debut with the XS750, a stylish 64bhp triple that added shaft final drive to smooth performance and sound handling. The XS promised to be an outstanding sports-tourer but developed a series of mechanical problems that killed sales stone dead. Meanwhile their TZ750 destroyed all on-track.
The year’s most interesting new Italian was Ducati’s Darmah, a sportstourer powered by a detuned version of the 900SS’s 864cc desmo V-twin engine. The Darmah - named after a tiger from an Italian storybook - was stylish, fast and handled well. It was also expensive and unreliable.
Amid all the new 750s, Kawasaki found a winning format with a subtly different four. The Z650 was basically a down-sized Z1000, complete with flat bars and ducktail styling. Its blend of ton-plus top speed, decent handling and relatively light weight made it a match for most 750s.
As several new superbikes arrived, two old warriors died. Honda, who’d started the superbike revolution in 1969 with the original CB750, ended that bike’s line of SOHC fours with the CB750F2, which livened up the previous year’s stylish but slow 750F with a hotted-up engine. Meanwhile Suzuki’s GT750B was bringing an end to the firm’s series of liquid-cooled two-stroke triples, which had begun five years earlier with the GT750J.
Triumph was struggling for survival but the Meriden factory co-operative produced a special Silver Jubilee Bonneville to celebrate the Queen’s 25 years on the throne. Mods to the ageing 744cc parallel twin were limited to silver paint and extra chrome, but the Jubilee was a rare sales success for Triumph. Even so, the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen, released in the same year, made a much bigger impact.
Cor blimey, was it really as long ago as 1977 that Britain last had a world champion in bike racing’s top class? Barry Sheene rode his RG500 square-four to a second consecutive 500cc title, ahead of Yamaha’s Steve Baker and another American, Bazza’s Suzuki GB team-mate Pat Hennen. In ’77 only ten riders had been crowned 500cc champion, of whom six were British; between them they’d won 17 of the 29 titles. What odds would you have got, back then, that 32 years later no Brit rider would have added to those totals?
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