Top 10 unsung yet iconic motorcycles

Fame, It's a funny old business. You'll find more talented musicians busking on the London Underground than you will at the top of the charts. Here's the motorcycling equivalent

There are probably better actors mincing around your local amateur dramatics society than there are in the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

But the point is, no-one has heard of the grubby guitarist who busks on the Northern Line or the camp thespian who plays King Lear down the community hall, whereas everyone's heard of S Club Seven and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Being good at something doesn't necessarily make  you famous.

Same goes for bikes. Anyone who's ever ridden a bike has heard of a Yamaha R1, Honda FireBlade or Suzuki GSX-R750, but to the man in the street, those names mean nothing. But ask the same man if he's seen Steve McQueen attempting to jump that fence on his bike in The Great Escape or watched Marlon Brando rumble into town on his Triumph Thunderbird in The Wild One and you'll probably get a very different answer. Hell, there's even more chance that said man in the street knows what a Honda C90 is because his granny's got one than there is of him being able to pick a ZX-9R out of a biking identity parade.

As with so many cases of fame, it's not always talent - or in this case, brilliant engineering - that ensures a household name, it's more about looks, images, sales or just being on the right bike in the right place at the right moment that really counts. When it comes to bikes being famous, it's not anorak facts about makes and models which make a lasting impression on the minds of the general public, it's more that the bikes in question played a part in a bigger picture - they're not just mechanised two-wheeled vehicles, they actually represent something greater than that.

It didn't matter that it was a Triumph TR6 that McQueen rode in The Great Escape or that it was another Triumph which propelled Brando to fame in The Wild One, what matters is that those motorcycles were seen by millions of people doing really cool things and portraying a really cool image that someone who'd never even sat on a bike could identify with.

And it's not just bikes which have featured in movies that have become famous to millions outside the tight-knit and insular world of motorcycling - ask any self-respecting London style guru (or absolutely anyone in Italy for that matter) what  a Ducati 916 is and they'll tell you it's not just  a motorcycle - it's a design icon and a fashion statement.

In contrast, Honda's humble C90 step-thru can hardly be called a fashion statement but it's still one of the most famous bikes in the world, if only because almost 30 million people have bought one.

There's no set way for a bike to grab fame beyond its limited natural habitat in the world of motorcycling - it can be a brief appearance in a pop video, a role in a movie, performing a ridiculous stunt or just embodying a design so stunning that it strikes a chord with a mainstream audience. Whatever the reason, some bikes are destined to go down in history while others are destined just to go down the road. We reckon these are the top 10 most famous bikes ever to have turned a wheel and have enrolled them into the Visordown Hall Of Fame, accordingly. Bask, then in their collective glory...



Number: 10
Category: Best Make-up
Claim to fame: The only bike ever to have its own TV show

StreetHawk must go down in history as the only television series ever where the bike was the star.
Car fans already had Knight Rider so it was only fair that teenage bike buffs got their weekly helping of American shlock, all served up as part of a national moral crusade to imbibe the youth of America with good guy values.

It's somewhat ironic then that the human star of the show - country and western singer Rex Smith - spent most of his time doing upwards of 300mph on public roads. Chasing bad guys or not, it's hardly an example to be setting.

The Streethawk bike was actually a modified Honda XR600 of 1984 vintage with several modifications like, ahem, rocket boosters and an extremely funky digital dashboard. So tarted-up was Streethawk, we had to give it the best make-up award. It had full on-board computer gadgetry of space shuttle proportions. It didn't actually do anything but then neither did the strapped-on rocket boosters which supposedly powered the bike into hyper thrust at hero Jesse Mach's command.

Apart from the bizarre bodywork, the XR600 also had customised wheels and brakes fitted to make it look less like the underpowered dirtbike that it actually was. It also had a minute two litre tank, presumably to reduce the risk of on-set explosions as bike after bike was trashed in stunts. 

But the real hero of the show was actually Swansea's own Chris Bromham, more famous for being in the Guinness Book of Records twice for holding the world long distance jump record on a CR500 Honda. Bromham was just one of the stuntmen who made Rex Smith look good and it was he who bought the bike after filming wrapped in the late '80s. He actually bought the trick bike which was used for close-up shots as opposed to the multitude of sheds that were wrecked in various stunts.

It sat in his kitchen for years, not only as a momento of his time in Hollywood, but as a plaything for his two young daughters (lucky things) who clambered aboard, stuck a plug running from the bike into a wall socket and giggled in amazement as the famous dashboard came to life. Well, wouldn't you? Yeah, right...

Bromham was forced to sell the bike to the Cars of the Stars museum in Cumbria after the tragic death of his wife in 1992 when he needed cash to raise his kids. But he eventually bought it back in 1996, plugged it in again and has meant to get it running on the road again for some time now. So if you're ever riding in south Wales and see a pointy-nosed XR600, don't try and race it - you don't have hyper drive.



Number: 9
Category: Best Original Idea
Claim to fame: The world's first ever production motorcycle

It may, admittedly, sound like a dodgy German underwear firm but without this bike, there would be no others, so show a little respect.

Production - and that is the key word - of the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller started way back in 1894 and although there had been steam (yes, steam) and combustion-powered two-wheelers before it, this was the first bike to be made in numbers for general sale to the public.

The water-cooled, twin cylinder, four stroke engine had a huge capacity of 1489cc which churned out a lethargic 2.5bhp and could only manage a top speed of around 25mph. Being overtaken by horses was not a novelty. A bike of similar capacity now could top 200mph, but you wouldn't really want to do 200mph on a motorcycle which had more in common with a greengrocer's delivery bike with a sewing machine strapped to it than a modern motorcycle, would you?

In fact, the world's first would-be motorcyclists were having enough trouble riding the H&W at 20mph as the bike was almost unrideable (and unstartable) thanks to a series of design flaws. The hot tube ignition system had to be warmed up with a blowtorch before sir could proceed on a leisurely ride in the country and the handlebar-mounted thumbscrew which acted as a throttle wasn't exactly responsive either.

Disgruntled Victorian punters soon started demanding their money back around the same time as the German firm realised that it was costing them more to build the bikes than they were making by selling them - not a sensible business. So the whole project sadly went bust but not before the world's first motorcycle had actually been realised and whetted the public's appetite for biking.

The Hildebrand & Wolfmuller may have been a shed, but for as long as time exists, it will always be famous for being the world's first production motorcycle. Just be thankful you didn't have to ride it.



Number: 8
Category: Best Costume
Claim to fame: Taking music hall superstar George Formby to a TT victory in the 1936 film No Limit

George Formby's 1936 film No Limit is the funniest biking movie of all time. Period.

Formby was the biggest entertainer of his generation so when he made a movie about the Isle of Man TT races, fans flocked to the cinema in their  tens of thousands - and they weren't disappointed.

The movie still plays on the Island every year during TT week and is still available on video. Go and buy it.
It stars Formby as chimney sweep George Shuttleworth who builds his own 'Shuttleworth special' in his garage for an assault on the TT races.

The Shuttleworth Snap was actually a heavily disguised 350 AJS side valve machine although it looked more like an overhead cam AJS R7 when the film makers were finished tarting it up. The bike was covered in a chequered dustbin fairing and you can still spot the odd replica pottering around the Island today during race week. In fact, TT racer and Isle of Man resident Richard 'Milky' Quayle has just finished building one in time for this year's aborted festival.

In true rags to riches style, Shuttleworth, the self-styled 'speed demon' eventually gets a factory Rainbow ride and goes on to win the race but not before falling off the ferry, crashing through the pub at Ballacraine, losing his wallet, running out of fuel and having his own bike thrown off a cliff by the bad guys..

A little known fact is that Manx Radio TT commentator Geoff Cannell's father did many of the stunts for the film. A team of Canadian stunt riders had been booked but they failed to turn up so the local bike club members, including Cannell, were asked to help out for the princely sum of £20 per day.

The film cost £30,000 to make, which was a pretty hefty sum back in 1936, and was filmed almost entirely on location on the Isle of Man.

Formby actually collapsed on the finish line at Glencrutchery Road after filming the same scene in which he pushed his bike over the line 15 times. But the directors used the shot anyway so the shot you see of Formby collapsing is for real.

Most of the bikes - there were Aerials involved too - were wrecked by the time filming was completed and sadly there doesn't appear to be anything left of the Shuttleworth Snap today, not even those distinctive chequerboard skirts. Or is there? Formby in later years took to buying old bikes, doing them up and selling them on for a tidy profit. Could someone be unwittingly riding around on parts of the original Shuttleworth Snap, half-inched by Georgey boy from the set?

Unlikely, but what you can do is see one of Formby's own bikes in the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham. He was a keen rider himself and one of his favoured steeds - a 500cc Norton International, overhead cam, single cylinder sports model - is currently on display at the museum.



Number: 7
Category: Best Performance, Sound and Visuals
Bike: DUCATI 916
Claim to fame: The most celebrated road bike ever - a design icon of the late 20th Century

Few bikes have captured the general public's imagination like Ducati's 916. A design masterpiece, it graces as many art galleries, museums and hallways as it does showrooms and it's become the bike that celebrities must have - even if they don't ride.

It even stole the show at the world famous Guggenheim museum of modern art in New York in 1998 as part of the Art of the Motorcycle exhibition.

Unveiled at the Milan Bike show in October 1993, the 916 set new standards in bike design and became, essentially, the Ferrari of motorcycling. Even movie and pop video producers were quick to spot the bike's potential - and that of its smaller stablemate, the 748. Celebrity owners include Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor, boxer Mike Tyson and Formula 1 driver Eddie Irvine.

The bike's excellent performance on the road and its incredible nine World Superbike titles have little to do with it where the mainstream public are concerned as proven by boy band Five who all ordered 996s (the current bigger-bore version) before they'd even passed their bike tests. It's all about status and if you want proof, check out the parking areas round London's corporate Docklands area where Ducatis are squeezed between Ferraris and Aston Martins and don't look out of place. You don't see many FireBlades round there, mate.

The Bullivant art gallery even features a lithograph of the 916 sitting in Leonardo Da Vinci's 15th Century studio! Hard to see a Honda CX500 being comfortable in such classical surroundings.



Number: 6
Category: Lifetime Achievement Award
Bike: HONDA C90
Claim to fame: The biggest selling and most useful0 motorcycle in history

Don't laugh - it may look just like your granny's moped but you've got a lot to thank the C90 for.
When the original C100 Super Cub was released in 1958 it was a major revelation. Bikes at the time were notoriously unreliable and difficult to ride so they only attracted die-hard bikers, mostly of the greasy Wild One variety we're led to believe.

The C90, with its step-through frame, automatic clutch and four stroke engine (no need to mix two stroke oil and petrol), was so easy to ride that it enticed a whole new generation onto two wheels. And in an age when bikes spent more time in workshops than on the road, the Honda C90 was - and still is - virtually bulletproof.

Honda has sold some 27 million of the little blighters over the last 40-odd years and that's more than any other bike in history. In fact, if Honda - which was a small business when the first Cub was released - hadn't had such success with the C90, it's debatable if the firm would still be around today. Think about that next time you jump on your FireBlade or SP-1 mister. The original bike had a 49cc engine and churned out an awesome 4.5bhp - just enough to get that old skin off the rice pudding as you topped out at 40mph. Today's model runs off an 85cc engine which produces a giddy 7.5bhp and is good for an indicated 65mph (downhill, tucked in, tail wind etc). But who cares when you can get 120 miles to the gallon and don't even have to worry about servicing. Hell, you couldn't break a C90 if you tried. Ask the Purple Helmet display team - they've been trying for years but the little buggers just won't die.

The automatic, three-speed system remains to this day but the bigger engine has taken the bike's weight up to 82 kilos from the original's 64.9 kilos. Damn. Never mind, if you want to own a piece of biking history, a new C90 will cost you £1849 on the road - and it'll last you forever. And ever.

The C90 has, without question, become a transport icon and you'd have to have been living in an extremely remote corner of darkest Africa not to have seen one. Actually, even if you were, you probably saw some nobber on a round-the-world C90 trip. From grannies nipping down the supermarket to entire Indian families clinging on to the ancient-looking bodywork, the C90 is truly a universal machine.

Significantly, when Honda rolled its 100 millionth bike off the production line in November 1997, it wasn't a Gold Wing or a CBR600 - it was a C90 - the most popular bike in the world no matter how much you might snigger sonny.



Number: 5
Category: Best Supporting Role
Claim to fame: Starting the biker gang and leather culture with the 1953 film The Wild One

For a guy who didn't even ride bikes, Marlon Brando's got a lot to answer for.

His film The Wild One stereotyped bikers to such a degree that most people still think of us in the same light today, nearly 50 years later. The only real winners were Triumph as their US sales rocketed when would-be Brandos realised he 'rode' a Triumph Thunderbird in the film and not a Harley as most people at first presumed.

The Wild One was based on a real life incident in Hollister in 1947 when a group of bikers rode into town and started causing havoc. But the film caused even more havoc for motorcyclists who have forever after have been portrayed (and often viewed by the public) as being mindless, noisy, greasy thugs with nothing better to do than terrorise small towns and make a general nuisance of themselves.

It's hard to see what all the fuss was about watching the film now but it was actually banned in the UK right up until 1968 although bike clubs were allowed special licences to show it so most people who wanted to see it could.

Brando's character Johnny's bike was a '53 Triumph Thunderbird 6T,  a model which has been dubbed the first superbike because of its genuine 100mph potential (but then Lawrence of Arabia's Brough could do that in the thirties so figure that one out). It has also become famous because it's widely believed to be the first bike in movie history to clearly display its tank badge, even though a couple of Matchless bikes in the film had their logos turned upside down...

The pictures of Brando posing next to the bike with motorcycle cap cocked on head, black leather jacket all trussed up and faded turned-up jeans are legendary and still widely available today as posters and postcards, even though they would look more at home in a gay icon store.

The bike itself was totally standard and usually ridden by a stuntman although Brando learned enough to ride in some scenes.

It's not widely known what happened to the actual bike Brando used but that didn't stop one young American woman calling the chairman of the Triumph Owners Motorcycle Club, Fred Hall in England trying to get her Thunderbird confirmed as the real deal. Why? Because there was a dent in the tank in the place where Brando placed a trophy in the film! The truth is that the actual bike was destroyed after the film started attracting bad publicity because no-one wanted any repercussions from biker gangs seeking the bike. The frame was cut up, the rest of the bike was dismantled and Johnny's legendary
T-Bird was no more.

Shame as it would have been testimony that Marlon Brando's arse wasn't always four feet wide.



Number: 4
Category: Best Stunt
Claim to fame: The most widely seen, and most often watched bike stunt scene in history from the film The Great Escape

Christmas and bank holidays wouldn't be the same without watching Steve McQueen trying to jump to freedom over a barbed wire fence in The Great Escape.

And every time you watch it, you just hope that maybe this time Steve'll make it. Except it wasn't actually Steve McQueen jumping the bike. Great rider though he was (he rode for America in an International Six Days Trial), McQueen's sensible insurers obviously didn't   want him to risk the jump even though he usually did most of his own riding stunts.

In fact, he played one of the German riders chasing himself in the film and was chastised regularly for blasting around The Great Escape set on the 1961 Triumph TR6 Trophy Bird between takes.

But when it came to the big jump (just in case you are one of the four people on earth who haven't seen the film, he's a POW trying to jump to freedom over the German border into Switerland), McQueen called in his bike riding buddie and top stuntman Bud Ekins. Ekins was paid a record-breaking $1000 fee for the one-off jump and got it right in one take. He jumped 65 feet, hovering about 12 feet off the ground - with no helmet and just a t-shirt for protection. It still stands as the greatest two-wheel visual effect - ever.

The only modification made to the bike for the jump was the replacement of the front wheel for a lighter Triumph model making it easier to keep the front end up for landing. That means Ekins jumped 65 feet on a 200 kilo bike without so much as altering the suspension which didn't exactly have the travel of a CR250 motocross bike. Top work fella.

The chase was initially intended to be a cars only sequence but McQueen managed to persuade the film makers that a bike should be involved. And how apt that it's a British bike trying to escape from the Germans during the war, even though it was painted up to look like a wartime BMW.

The Great Escape was unusual in attracting both mods and rockers to the cinema just so they could watch this amazing jump again and again. They stood up and cheered every night as Ekins performed the unthinkable. It was something that no-one had seen before and you've got to wonder if a young (ish) Evel Knievel was in one of those audiences... Wonder if he was a mod or a rocker?

To our great loss, McQueen, the king of cool himself, died of cancer in 1980 (though not before having doing several adverts for Camel cigarettes) aged just 50 and his collection of bikes was auctioned off in Las Vegas four years later.

The actual bike used in the film seems to have made a great escape itself as no-one appears to know where it is. Triumph UK, the Triumph Owners Club, classic Triumph specialists, several triumph dealers and 3,642 internet sites have all returned nothing in the search for the bike. Answers on a postcard please.



Number: 3
Category: Best Romantic Leading Role
Claim to fame: The most expensive and romantic bike in the world, it led to the death one of the greatest war heroes of all time

Death brings its own kind of fame and when TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was killed riding his beloved 1000cc Brough Superior SS100, the bike became the most sought after and expensive motorcycle in the world.

Lawrence's triumphs in leading an Arab revolt during the First World War were immortalised by Peter O'Toole in the film Lawrence of Arabia, the opening scenes of which show Lawrence's fatal bike crash as he attempted to avoid two kids on bicycles.

He owned seven Superiors, all of which he referred to as Boa or Boanerges which means 'the sons of thunder' even though he also called each one George I through to George VII. Lawrence was waiting to take delivery of George VIII when he was killed riding George VII on the 13th of May, 1935.

Lawrence wasn't wearing a helmet and suffered severe head and chest injuries. He remained alive in hospital for six days (though unconscious) before dying. The Brough did what tens of thousands of enemy soldiers had failed to do in ending the life of a bona fide hero. Lawrence probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way - he loved bikes and regularly wrote detailed reports of how he thrashed them around the Dorset countryside. Lawrence thought nothing of covering 500 miles a day on an uncomfy bike on shite roads (rumour was he was into sado-masochism...). He even once raced a bi-plane on his Brough.

The bike Lawrence was killed on was given to him by writer George Bernard Shaw who was later to lament that giving it to Lawrence was like "handing a pistol to a would-be suicide."

Bizarrely, the Brough only sustained superficial damage in the crash and it was returned to the Brough factory after the crash where it was restored and sold.

From the seventies onwards, it's been in the hands of a motorcycle historian in the south of England who, due to failing health, decided to sell it at auction in 1997 for the incredible asking price of £2 million. It was described at auction as 'the world's most famous and romantic motorcycle.' But this wasn't enough to tempt buyers. It failed to reach anywhere near the asking price with the closest offer coming from an

American collector for £1 million, and another coming from a consortium of British and American enthusiasts who offered £250,000 for the Brough. Both bids were declined, the bike remains unsold and the current owner wishes to remain anonymous.



Number: 2
Category: Best Contribution to Music (see below)
Claim to fame: Killed David Essex... well sort of.

In 1981, bikes were huge, largely thanks to the efforts of a certain Mr Sheene (no not the furniture polish). So it was inevitable that some movie maker or another would eventually exploit the fact on the silver screen.

The result was either the worst or best bike film ever made, depending on your viewpoint. On the plus side, Silver Dream Racer was like Rocky on two wheels - poor boy takes all the shit then makes good, gets the girl, ya-de-ya. On the downside, the chances of finding a piece of shit bike in your brother's shed then winning the 500cc world championship in one race only to have a fatal tankslapper crossing the finish line are improbable at best.

But that's just what happened in the 1981 movie starring none other than gypsy Seventies pin-up boy David Essex.

Essex himself was only insured to ride the bike at speeds of up to 15mph even though he was a keen biker in real life. But according to former racer and the BBC's current WSB commentator Steve Parrish, the bike wasn't capable of much more anyway. He says: "It was the biggest pile of shit I've ever ridden."

Parrish tested the bike in France because it was actually developed with the aim of racing in real life before the film crew realised its film star potential.

The Silver Dream Machine was actually a Barton, two-stroke, square four cylinder home-brew special and was initially designed for sidecar racing before finding immortality (or infamy, if you prefer) on the big screen. The engine did in fact find its way back into a sidecar when it took third place at the Isle of Man TT in the hands of Nigel Rollinson in the eighties.

Former British champion and ex-Red Bull Ducati team manager Roger Marshall did much of the riding for the film and helped Essex polish up on his 15mph riding technique. Marshall explains in his biography Roger and Out by Keith Martin that he was paid the handsome sum of £200 per day for filming which in 1980 was not to be sniffed at.

Other benefactors were the brothers Harris of Harris Performance who provided endless screens, footpegs and other trinkets to the film company who were trashing stacks of bikes every week for the film's crash sequences. Harris says: "We probably sold more parts those few weeks than we've ever done."



Number: 1
Category: Best Male Lead
Claim to fame: Ridden by Peter Fonda into movie history in the 1969 movie Easy Rider and making mainstream the craze for customising

Captain America is arguably the most recognisable bike ever.

That's partly because the movie it featured in, Easy Rider, has a huge cult following of almost Star Wars-level devotees, and partly because it did good mainstream business too, coming to symbolise a whole new way of free American life.

The other reason is that there are probably more copies of the bike kicking about than there are copies of the film.

The movie stars Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson and it's basically about two bike-riding drug dealers and a drunken attorney who simply hit the highway and cruise, stopping en route to make camp fires, smoke dope and talk bollocks.

The original Captain America bike was one of four Harleys bought by keen biker Fonda from a police auction specially for the film. He bought four Panheads (a 1950 model, two 1951 models and a 1952 bike) to be chopped and transformed into the machines you see on screen.

Fonda enlisted the help of Grizzly Adams' star Dan Haggerty (don't ask, he was a keen biker, his fondness for bears aside), Hollywood stuntman Tex Hall, a Hell's Angel and a member of the Satan's Slaves biker gang to build two Captain Americas which Fonda would ride and two 'Billy Bikes' for co-star Dennis Hopper.

The Harley engines were kept as were the Harley Wishbone frames - although they were heavily chopped - but almost everything else on the bikes were one-offs sourced and built by the aforementioned and unlikely crew, including the peanut fuel tanks and massively stretched forks.

Captain America could only be made as extreme as it is with its ludicrous forks, absence of any front brakes and impossibly high bars, because Fonda was a good rider. Hopper's bike was made much more sedate and easier to ride because he wasn't so experienced on two wheels.

Fonda then took it upon himself to run the bikes in round the streets of Los Angeles to get them looking grubbier and well used.

But the burning question and source of endless debate for Easy Rider fans is where are the two original Captain America bikes now?

Not surprisingly, considering the drug-hazed, psychedelic era that the bikes originated from, their whereabouts is shrouded in mystery, rumour and confusion.

But two things are for certain - one Captain America bike was partly burned in the movie and the other was stolen before filming finished along with the two Billy Bikes. Fonda says: "They were stolen out of a garage in Simi Valley with 11 other motorcycles two weeks before we finished filming."

But considering the low-budget film didn't have any cash for advance publicity, it's debatable if the thieves actually knew what they were stealing. Whether they did or not, it still forced the director to film the final camp fire scene without the bikes lined up in the background as planned.

Fonda was furious because he wanted to keep the bikes for publicity purposes and as a momento of the film.

Apparently, old Grizzly Adams dude Haggerty re-built the burned bike and kept it until 1996 when the Alamo Car Museum in New Braunfels, Texas bought it at auction. It remains there to this day so pop along next time you're in the vicinity.

The one and only intact and completely original Captain America is said to be in the clubhouse of the Oakland Hell's Angels 'under their care.' Not surprisingly, most investigations into the whereabouts of the bike stop right there. But hell, the replicas look pretty good anyhows.