Up until 1970, the Japanese motorcycle makers stuck to their own niche: small (under 500cc) lightweight, inexpensive, easy-to-ride motorcycles that were mostly used for urban commuting. European and American makers owned the "heavy-weight" market: big bikes with big engines (over 500cc) that you could ride across the country and race at the drag-strip. In 1970, Honda brought out their big-guns: the CB750-Four Cylinder.
The CB750-Four had features that American and European bikes did not such as an electric-start and hydraulic disc-brakes (rather than drum-brakes), a quartet of chromed mufflers that looked like a pipe organ and priced at only $1500, about $300 less than a 650cc Triumph Bonneville and $400 less than a 750cc Harley-Davidson Sportster. The Honda CB750-Four was not only less expensive than the competition but also lighter, faster, easier to use and it didn't leak oil.
The Honda CB750-Four was so ground-breaking that it became the first bike that the motorcycle press called a "Super Bike." The introduction of the CB750-Four started a competition for manufacturers to build lighter-weight production motorcycles with revolutionary sporting performance in the "heavy-weight" category of four-stroke 750cc and up. All modern Honda CB and CBR bikes are descendants of the 1969 CB750-Four.
Moto Guzzi supplied hundreds of police departments around the world with their 750cc V7 Ambassador. This touring-bike has a 90-degree V-Twin with the cylinders sticking out the sides for optimal cooling. Because the engine is lined-up like a classic American muscle-car, it's perfectly suitable for a low-maintenance shaft-drive. In 1971, Guzzi installed their V7 engine in to a new sport-frame designed by Lino Tonti to unveil their first light-weight production café racer, the V7 Sport.
Ducati engineer Fabio Taglioni, who introduced Desmodromic valves to Ducati in 1954, created Ducati's first 90-degreee L-Twin in 1971 with the 750 GT (Gran Turismo or Grand Touring). While the Daytona 200 was the biggest motorcycle race in the US, the biggest in Europe was the Imola 200. Ducati modified their 750 GT for Isle of Man legend Paul Smart, to win the 1972 Imola 200, followed by Bruno Spaggiari, also on the Ducati, in second place. This race-event escalated Ducati from their 250cc and 450cc singles to being known for race-quality superbikes. These 90-degree L-Twin Desmos were the forerunners to all Ducatis today.
The next attack in the superbike arms race came from Kawasaki in 1973, with the 900cc Z1. The Z1 had comparable chassis, suspension, and braking performance to the CB750 but its 82 horses stomped on Honda's 67 little ponies, making the Z1 the favorite at drag-strips and top-speed competitions. The 130 mph Z1 begat the KZ1000R and all later Kawasaki "Z" engines, including the GPZ1000 and the Ninjas.
If there was a flaw to the CB750-Four and the Z1, it was in the suspension. Street-bike forks and frames were not up to the task of these new super-powers. Suzuki sponsored Gran Prix legend Barry Sheene aboard the two-stroke RG500. Sheene won two consecutive World Championships with Suzuki in 1976 and '77. Suzuki determined that if they were going to jump in to the superbike wars, they had to do something about the handling. In 1976, Suzuki installed adjustable suspension parts from their Gran Prix winning RG500 into their new GS1000 (Gran Sport) making it the best-handling superbike at the time. Suzuki also introduced nice little convenience gadgets such as the gear-indicator and fuel gauge. Suzuki's GS1000 is the ancestor to the GS400, GS550, GS750, GS850, Katana and all of the GSX-R Supersport and Superbikes to follow.
The Superbike-war escalated to a world-war in 1976, when BMW, who was then known primarily for shaft-drive touring bikes, unveiled their 900cc boxer R90S (the S being for "Sport"). The café racer that started out as Moto Guzzi's '71 V7 Sport evolved into the 750 Sport and in 1976, the 850 Le Mans. The AMA (American Motorcycle Association) created the Superbike racing-category in 1976. This made racing more accessible than GP, for any working-man. Instead of racing purpose-built race bikes, the category was for street-bikes with limited and minor modifications. Reg Pridmore won consecutive AMA Superbike Championships on a BMW R90S in 1976 and again in '77 and '78. Mike Baldwin won on a Moto Guzzi LeMans at Loudon, New Hampshire in 1976. Cook Nielson won the '77 Daytona 200 on a Ducati 750 Super Sport. Wes Cooley Jr won consecutive AMA Superbike Championships in 1979 and '80 on the Suzuki GS1000. Eddie Lawson won consecutive AMA Superbike Championships in '81 and '82 on the Rob Muzzy-tuned Kawasaki Z1R.
The 1980s brought us the Honda CB750F, Kawasaki KZ750, Suzuki GS750 and Yamaha 750 Seca. In the mid-eighties, we got the New Superbikes: Honda V45 Interceptor, Kawasaki GPz750, Suzuki GS750E and later the Ducati 851, 888 & 916, Kawasaki Ninja 750, Honda VFR750, Suzuki GSX-R750, and Yamaha FZ750; grandfather of the R6 and R1.
The global race organizer FIM (Federation of International Motorcycling) created World Superbike in 1988. National Superbike programs, comparable to the AMA in the United States, have also been run in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, and Switzerland. Many of the best road-racers in the world start out in these national superbike programs before advancing to World Superbike or MotoGP.
For 2015, the FIM World Superbike allows for four-stroke production motorcycles with three and four cylinders between 750cc and 1000cc; two-cylinder four-strokes may be between 850cc and 1200cc. The Super Sport category has helped to drive the popularity of mid-sized sport-bikes for consumers. The Super Sport category allows for four-stroke, four cylinder production bikes between 400cc and 600cc, triples from 500cc to 675cc, and twins from 600cc to 750cc. Other national Superbike and Super Sport rules may be similar but not exactly the same. For 2015, the following manufacturers will be participating in World Superbike and World Super Sport: Aprilia, BMW, Bimota, Ducati, Eric Buell's EBR, Honda, Kawasaki, MV Agusta, Suzuki and Triumph. Yamaha has participated and won in the past and everyone hopes that Yamaha will jump in again! KTM and Yamaha will be competing in the US.
In 2009 The Daytona Motorsports Group, who manages NASCAR, took over operation of SuperSport and Superbike from the AMA. In 2014, former MotoGP Champion Wayne Rainey and a group of road-racing enthusiasts took over the Superbike and Supersport program and now run it as Moto America. Moto America has nine big events scheduled this season and plans to operate with rules similar to that of the FIM World Superbike, so that the best American racers will be better prepared to graduate to world-competition.
Fascinating Fact: We should thank science for modern technology! With developments in metallurgy, a modern 1200cc Superbike is lighter than a 500cc bike from the 1960s and horse-power has improved fourfold from around 50 bhp to nearly 200 bhp. But, 200 run-away horses do us no good at all if we can't rein them in. Thanks to modern computer technology, that amazing horsepower is manageable. We regular folks can buy a world class Superbike that's faster, lighter, safer and more reliable than a Gran Prix bike was just 20 years ago.Part Two: Early European and British Motorcycles
Written By: Paul Andor Nagy