In response to the popularity of the Vespa motor-scooter, Harley-Davidson built their only motor-scooter - the 165cc Topper. The Topper had an automatic transmission and started with a pull-rope, like a lawn-mower. The Topper was sold from 1959 to 1965.

Americans appreciated the fast and light motorcycles from British builders Ariel, BSA, Matchless, Norton, Royal Enfield, and Triumph. In the early and mid-sixties, British bikes outsold the heavier American bikes built by Indian and Harley-Davidson. One of the top sellers was the Triumph Bonneville, named after the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah where the annual top-speed competitions are held. The Bonneville was raced in many varieties of competition from scrambles and motocross to road-racing and speedway. The Bonneville was sold from 1959 to 1983 and many considered it to be, not only the quintessential Triumph but also the quintessential motorcycle, which perhaps explains why it was reintroduced in 2001.

In 1960, Harley-Davidson purchased 50 percent of the Aermacchi (Air-Machine) factory in Varese, Italy. The Aermacchi factory built aircraft from 1912 until WWII and then switched to building motorcycles in the late 40s. The Aermacchi factory built a wide variety of small, lightweight street and trail bikes to be sold in the US with the Harley-Davidson name on the tanks. The Aermacchi factory also built the 250cc and 500cc race-bikes which Harley-Davidson campaigned in road-racing and top-speed competitions. Harley-Davidson sold the Aermacchi factory to the Cagiva company in 1978.

1964 Harley-Davidson 250cc CRTT, built in Italy at the Aermacchi Factory

Honda exported the 1961 Benly Super Sport 125cc to the USA and to Europe and England. The Honda Benly was a simple, lightweight, inexpensive motorcycle. While the British and American makers were increasing power by making larger, heavier engines, the Japanese manufacturers were making lighter engines which revved higher. Before the Honda Benly was introduced, most motorcycles were accessible only to big, tough men who were capable of kick-starting the big, heavy machines. The Benly introduced the first reliable electric-starter on a motorcycle, making the light and easy-to-ride motorcycle accessible to younger, smaller riders, teens and women.

By 1964, Bikers and Rockers had the reputation of being tough, mean and scary. Honda began the advertising campaign to promote the 50cc Honda Cub with the slogan "You meet the nicest people on a Honda." The magazine and television ads depicted housewives, a parent and child, young couples and other respectable members of society, riding Honda 50s for a variety of purposes. To many who would never have considered the purchase of a motorcycle, it legitimized the little Hondas as a means of casual and convenient transportation.

Honda advertisement from Life Magazine, 1965

Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson starred in the movie "Easy Rider" in 1969. The movie presents to the public a new style of motorcycle, the chopper, and a new style of bikers, independent hippies rather than Hells Angels gang-members. The choppers were built from surplus Harley-Davidson police bikes purchased at auction, heavily modified with chrome, a "raked-out" (extended) front end and custom paint; Stars & Stripes for Captain America's bike and a red and yellow flame for Billy's bike.

Kawasaki built the 1969 Mach III, a bike with the best power-to-weight ratio of any vehicle out there at the time, including cars. The 500cc two-stroke weighed less than 400 pounds and ran the quarter-mile drag strip faster than anything else and it cost less than $1000. The joke at the time was that "the Mach III could pass anything but a gas station."

Harley-Davidson was purchased by American Machine and Foundry (AMF) in 1969, a manufacturer of leisure products including bicycles and bowling equipment.

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.

Kawasaki introduced the Z1P in 1975, the police motorcycle based on the model Z1 900cc Superbike. This model would eventually evolve to the KZ1000P and KZP and become the most popular police "motor" in the USA through 2005, a market previously owned by Harley-Davidson.

Kawasaki Police "Motors" in service for the California Highway Patrol (CHiPs)

The Fall of the British Empire:

  • Matchless Motorcycles went bankrupt in 1966
  • BSA Cycles Ltd went bankrupt in 1972
  • Norton Motorcycle Company became insolvent in 1975
  • Triumph Motorcycles Ltd went bankrupt on 23 August 1983

Fascinating Fact: The Triumph Motorcycle company ceased in 1983 and was then rebuilt in 1991, with exports to the USA in 1994. Despite the world-wide financial crisis of 2009, Triumph was the only motorcycle company in the world to announce that 2009 sales were up over the previous year.

Read Part One: Early History

Part Two: Early European and British Motorcycles

Part Three: The First American Motorcycles

Part Four: World War II

Part Five: The Post-War Era

Part Six: The Later 20th Century: The Baby Boomers Become Young Adults

Part Seven: The Super Seventies

Part Eight: The American & Italian Connection

Epilogue: What Will We Ride In The Future?

Written By: Paul Andor Nagy