We have a sneaking suspicion this article is going to quickly become a reminder of the bikes we've forgotten. Bear in mind, we have no pretense that this is the definitive list. What we do know with certainty is that it's debatable.
So here's the deal: It's not necessarily just about looks, and it's not just about performance. It's about the experience and feeling these bikes give you.
The rules for this batch are simple: Factory, production bikes, not racers - that's an article for another day! And nothing newer than 1985.
Here's our go at it:
Ducati 750 SS
The 750 Supersport Desmo was unveiled at the Milan motorcycle show in November 1973.It marked the introduction of the Desmodromic system on a road twin-cylinder bike. This bike, although offering spectacular performance, also offered a set of features rarely seen together on a sport bike. The four-stroke engine was able to satisfy the needs of any biker, including those interested in racing, without special customization.
But above all that, it provided the poundation of Ducati as they're largely known today - a visceral, unique riding experience for all the senses.
BMW was prohibited from building airplanes after World War I, so in 1923 they began building motorcycles, and they debuted with the R32. This bike set the tone for what would become the typical BMW: a boxer-twin with shaft-drive. It wasn't until 1928 that BMW started producing cars, but this bike showed how their functionally elegant designs would work.
Laverda 1000 Jota
Introduced in 1979, the Laverda 1000 Jota was an odd amagamation. Starting with three Dell'Orto carbs feeding three snarling cylinders, the Jota could reach 146mph. It was the first production bike to crack 140mph.
The Laverda has the impeccable Italian attention to form and visual detail.
Unfortunately, all the character in the world couldn't save Laverda from the quicker, more reliable offerings of the time.
When Soichiro Honda first laid eyes on American bikes he couldn’t believe how big there were. He went home and came up with the CB750 for 1969 as we covered here —it was the first truly successful inline-4 sportsbike. Over 400,000 were eventually produced between 1969 and 1978. The popularity was due to the reliability, styling, and performance, but it also had amenities like flashing turn signals. That was a big deal back then.
The post-War Indian’s range-topping Chief had a 1200cc motor and could reach 85mph at the top of third gear. Compared to today’s bikes the stunning Chief has an eccentric control layout with a left-foot clutch and hand-operated shifter near the tank. Unlike Harleys of the time, the Indian had rear suspension, so the ride was as smooth as the fenderline.
The Bonneville T120 was Edward Turner's last creation at Triumph, but was produced for 13 year, starting in 1959. Nine years into the run, the Bonneville was selling at a rate of nearly 30,000 bikes per year in the U.S., but the influx of high-performance, reliable Japanese bikes left a dent in the Triumph brand for years.
Moto Guzzi Le Mans
The V-Twin in Moto Guzzi's Le Mans had a longitudinal crank, so blipping the trottle at a standstill would test your will. The twin had some grunt, making 80bhp and pushing the Le Mans to 120mph. The sinister-looking Le Mans was an overwhelming hit when it launched in 1976.
This is the ultimate in British period style. The Norton Commando is true classic motorcycle style - one people fight to replicate to this day. It is, in some ways, a generational genesis.
Vincent Black Shadow
Picking a Black Shadow feels a bit cliche, but it was the fastest bike in the world in its time, and that's gotta be worth something. Plus there is a certain classic look to the engine and pipes. And the name. Sure beats the soulless letter / number combo naming conventions.
Kawasaki H1 Mach III
The original widowmaker. As those of you that have read the previous piece know, we have a little personal bias here. Our site, our rules. If you've ridden one, you know it perpetualyl wants to kill you, and yet you'll keep coming back to it for more. Wikipedia's desciption says it all: “The H1 offered a high power to weight ratio for the time, but had generally poor handling and weak drum brakes front and rear. It was the quickest production motorcycle at the time.”
MV Agusta Magni 860
Simply Italian visual elegance. Even the engine castings are artwork. They used color and material to create such a striking appearance. Plus there's the MV racing provenance.
BSA Gold Star
BSA, which stands for Birmingham Small Arms, was the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer for much of the 50s and 60s. The Gold Star was made from 1938 to 1963, which speaks to it's strength. Plus the gas tank is chrome. A Chrome gas tank.
The R90S was made from 1973 to 1976, and gave some needed grunt to the BMW lineup at the time. Plus it shook off the pedestrian feel BMW had at the time, with the hot fiberglass fairing that was ahead of its time in the early and mid-70s.
The 900 cc inline four of Kawasaki redefined high-performance motorcycling in 1973. It was not justbrutally fast, but it was also a better lokling bike than most of it's Japanese brethren, right down to the way they handled the exhaust. The DOHC engine’s 82 hp at 8500rpm beat out Honda’s single-cam CB750 unit by a stout 15bhp. Additionally, the engine’s tuning potential was quite high, and the engine's bottom-end robustness made it very popular with tuners.
The GSX-R750 essentially exploded onto the scene in 1985. Slim, and with two round headlights set into a full fairing like the period racers, the light and agile GSX changed the expectations of a generation of motorcyclists. Suzuki had simply redefined what was possible from a mass-produced motorcycle.
The GSX-R’s revolutionary aluminium frame weighed less than half as much as the steel equivalent of its GSX750 predecessor. That, along with other weight savings tricks brought it in 65 pounds lighter than Yamaha’s new FZ750. But in addition to adding lightness, it was powerful too. The 16-valve four made 100 hp at 7000 rpm, allowing the bike to exceed 145mph.