Top 10 Superbikes of the Last Century
Kawasaki’s rollout of the 300 hp H2R has reignited the debate of which superbikes are really superbikes. And it raises the question of what it means to be a superbike.
Is it raw horsepower and straight-line speed? Or, is it styling and the aura and buzz it creates wherever it goes?
Is it staying power and being on the market for multiple generations? Is it bringing handling, brakes and power together in one bike and all-around versatility? Or, is it innovative, ground-breaking design and engineering? Maybe it is a combination of all of these qualities.
The answer to that may mean different things to different people and different eras. So, we combined our opinions with data sources created by other experts – motorcycle authorities and journalists who have written about and in most cases ridden some of the top contenders for the term “superbike” over the past 100 years.
- Alan Dowds and his book, “Superbikes-Over 200 Top Performance Machines, Past and Present”
- Mark Zimmerman and his book, “Street Bikes-30 years of High Performance Motorcycles”
- Roland Brown and his book, “Dream Machines-Motorcycles”
- Mac McDiarmid and his book, “Classic Superbikes from Around the World”
- Mirco De Cet and his book, “Essential Superbike”
- Grant Leonard and his book, “Motorcycle Classics”
Based on what those experts wrote and how many of them selected the same bikes to be worthy of the term and appear in their anthologies of superbikes of the world, we put together the following list of consensus superbikes — in alphabetical order by manufacturer, so there’s no inference we’re ranking the superbikes from most to least super.
And by “superbikes,” we mean superbikes in their heyday. Think of this as Ultimate MotorCycling’s list of Ultimate MotorCycles.
Top 10 Superbikes of Last Century:
The RSV Mille, introduced in 1998 was admittedly designed to be the platform for a World Superbike racing bike.
Its 998cc liquid-cooled DOHC 60° V-twin produced about 130 hp, which fed power to the ground through a six-speed transmission producing top speeds between 170 and 175 mph. Despite carrying the extra weight of twin counterbalancers, the Mille’s engine and twin-spar aluminum chassis combined to make the bike successful on the track and on the street.
Ariel Square Four:
Edward Turner’s most exotic engine design made everything else look commonplace. The first version was introduced as a 497cc machine in 1931. It had twin crankshafts that were joined by gears and had common exhaust manifolds cast into the heads so that only two exhaust headers emerged from the heads.
In production till 1958, the Square Four was refined along the way and displacement was expanded to 600 and then 1,000cc topping out at about 40 hp, but the problem of cooling the two cylinders in back was never quite dealt with as long as the engine remained air-cooled.
This classic BMW model is one of the few bikes in the superbike literature we looked at to be included by three out of six of the authors. Introduced in 1973, the R90S became the platform that influenced many of the BMW models that came after.
Its 899cc air cooled boxer twin produced about 67 hp at 7,000 rpm and sent the power to the ground via a 5 speed transmission and shaft drive. It has unusually strong credentials as both a luxury touring bike and as a superbike, with Reg Pridmore having won the 1976 U.S. Superbike Championship on one.
Brough Superior SS100:
In limited production from 1924 to 1940, the SS100 was exclusive and acknowledged to be the peak of performance motorcycle machinery in its day and today it is among the most desirable—and pricey—collector bikes in the world. Most of the years in production, the SS100 came equipped with a JAP engine, but in the last five years Matchless (AMC) motors were used.
The specifications varied somewhat so the horsepower produced by each variant differed but in general 40+ hp was considered the standard for the 998cc 50° OHV V-twin. The SS100 had a special star-power as the favored mount of T.E. Lawrence, more widely known as Lawrence of Arabia.
Indeed, Lawrence lost his life in a crash aboard an SS100. Production ended with the advent of WWII, but the Brough Superior brand has been revived and has already vaulted into the land speed record books with multiple records in both the 1350cc and 750 cc classes.
BSA Gold Star Clubman:
Officially designated the DBD34 during its heyday in the 1950s, the BSA Gold Star Clubman actually had it genealogy running through competition bikes that won all varieties of racing before World War II.
Its air-cooled 499cc OHV single cylinder engine is perhaps the most successful high performance single cylinder engine of all time. Its 43 hp output and tall gearing enabled it to achieve speeds most other bikes in its class just could not touch. Production of the Gold Star ended in 1962.
This motorcycle is one of the top consensus picks of all—five of the six sources we drew on for this compendium named the Ducati 900SS as one of their picks for superbike status—and if you include the smaller variant 750SS, it was a pick by all six! The reasons are easy to see; aesthetically, the Ducati 900SS in its classic 1975 first edition is sleek, lean and absolutely beautiful.
The best of Italian design is complemented by equally superb engineering in the form of the 864cc OHV air cooled 90° V-twin that punches out 79 hp at 7,000 RPM, with a five speed transmission and chain final drive. The unique desmodromic gear-driven valve train set both versions of SS bikes apart from everything else on the road. The 900SS FE (Final Edition) was produced in 1998.
If sheer staying power in the marketplace is one indicator of superbike status, then the Sportster has to be way up there. In the H-D line-up since 1957, Harley-Davidson’s Sportster will mark its sixtieth year in continuous production in 2017.
The Sportster has had the unique capacity to be nearly all things to all people—not an easy thing to achieve (see our feature on the Sportster ). Offered originally in 883cc displacement, it has been available also as a 1,000cc, briefly as a 1,100cc and then as a 1,200cc 45° degree air-cooled V-twin.
Originally putting out about 40 hp, later variants have been rated at over 70 hp in standard trim; which of course often is upgraded by owners with a universe of H-D and aftermarket parts.
From its inception in 1969 and through its many iterations since, the Honda CB750 was the bike that made the superbike accessible to perhaps more riders than any other.
Indeed, it is a consensus selection of five of the six sources we considered. Even though four cylinder motorcycles go back almost to the very beginning of motorcycling, no bike offered more performance and more features more affordably than the CB750.
Its 736cc SOHC air cooled in-line four produced 67 hp at 8,000 rpm, its disc brake up front produced reliable stopping power and its suspension offered a confident, comfortable ride. The CB750’s superbike credentials are backed up by its early racing success with Dick Mann winning the Daytona 200 in 1970 on a modified version.
Indian introduced the Chief in 1922 powered by its proven 988cc air-cooled side-valve 42° V-twin engine. Displacement was soon increased to 1,213cc and by 1933 a pressurized recirculating oil delivery system was added.
In 1940, the now-classic deep valenced fenders and swoopy styling were introduced along with plunger rear suspension and improved engine cooling—but no overhead valves. The bike grew bigger and heavier, but horsepower didn’t improve, so its performance reputation began to suffer. In 1950, the 80 inch displacement (1311cc) engine and telescopic forks were introduced, but financial woes were soon to overtake the original Indian operation and by 1953, manufacturing ceased.
Happily, Polaris has revived the Indian name and resuscitated the Chief in totally modern trim. For more on that, see:
Triumph T120 Bonneville:
The Triumph Bonneville nearly matches the Harley-Davidson Sportster in terms of staying power in the market, leaving aside the dark days when Triumph was out of the picture after its financial troubles and the start of the days when John Bloor rescued the brand. Starting out in 1959 as an OHV air-cooled 650cc parallel twin, the Bonneville was later increased to 750cc (T140).
It was named to celebrate setting of a world motorcycle land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats by Johnny Allen in 1956. The original twin-carburetor 650 Bonneville was hot for its day with about 46 hp at 6,500 RPM, relatively light weight and quick handling. The Bonneville lives on today in several versions and in state-of-the-art technological form, including several special limited editions for 2015. For more on those, see: Triumph Bonneville T213 and 2015 Triumph Bonneville New Church.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order):
- Crocker Big Tank
- Norton Commando
- Vincent Black Shadow
- Harley-Davidson EL61 (Knucklehead)
- Harley-Davidson V-Rod
- Honda CBX
- Velocette Venom Thruxton
- Triumph Trident
- Triumph Daytona
- Kawasaki Z1
- Kawasaki H2 Mach IV
- Laverda Jota
- Laverda 1000 C-3
- Yamaha YZF-R1
- Yamaha V-Max
- Suzuki GSX-R1000
- Suzuki Hyabusa
- MV Agusta 750 Sport
- MV Agusta 750 F4
- Rickman Interceptor
The list can go on and on there are so many bikes that meet at least some of the criteria that might be applied to earn the title of “Superbike.”
These are some of the top contenders, but superbikes are in the eyes of the beholder. Whether your personal superbike is a Honda 50 or a 2015 Kawasaki H2R, ride safe and ride on!