By the end of 1966, the motorcycle division of Honda was doing pretty well. They had just captured their fifth straight motorcycle Grand Prix World Championship, and were selling more motorcycles than any other manufacturer in the world. Most of their success, both in racing as well as sales, was with smaller displacement motorcycles. Honda debuted their CB 450 dual overhead cam parallel twin motorcycle, their largest displacement bike to date, that year, and it was immediately a global success.
Despite these successes, they weren't resonating in America the way they were in other countries. Their market share was starting to erode. Yoshiro Harada, the lead engineer for the CB450, went to America to better learn what the market wanted. He noticed that, in many cases, Americans were buying larger displacement bikes, mostly Norton and Triumph 650s, even if they were slower than Honda's newly-released CB450, statistically speaking. Harada had also learned that Triumph was about to unveil a three cylinder 750 cc motorcycle. In addition to Harada's observations, American Honda's head of service Bob Hanson shared that they needed a race-grade production motor for higher displacement race classes in America. All this feedback and his own visits to America convinced Soichiro Honda that another larger model was needed.
The new model would clearly need to satisfy the American hunger for power – specifically torque - better than any previous Honda. They decided the bike should be 750 cc to keep pace with the rumored Triumph in development. They also decided the new motor would need to produce at least 67 hp – one more than the 66 produced by the 1300 cc Harley Davidson of that year.
A 20 person team was assembled in February 1968 with a single purpose: To develop what would become the Honda CB750 FOUR.
It was quickly decided the motorcycle would be an air cooled inline four cylinder, with four muffler, so that riders would associate it with a Grand Prix racing bike.
Interestingly, the engineering targets for the development effort were only partially performance driven. Honda had big ideas for what the CB750 would mean to them as an organization. The stated team goals for the bike were:
- to ensure stable, high-speed cruising up to 100 mph on highways, yet maintain maneuverability.
- to provide a world-class braking system that is reliable, even over frequent rapid deceleration's from high speeds.
- to minimize vibration in noise to reduce writer fatigue during long-range rides. Provide ideal writer position and proper access to controls.
- to ensure that all auxiliary devices such as lights and instruments are legible and most of all, reliable.
- to extend the service life for each device, and in sure they can be maintained and serviced easily.
- to create original designs that are easily mass produced by utilizing new or, better materials and production technologies. Specifically cutting edge surface treatment technologies.
With these six priorities, Honda was doing more than building a motorcycle. It was changing expectations of what riders should expect from their motorcycle, as well as their motorcycle company.
The development of the CB750 was Honda's first effort with heavy utilization of computers. This allowed them to increase the efficiency of development, made design changes quicker, and even reduce the time needed to plan for mass production of the bike.
In January 1969, less than a year later, Honda held its first ever US dealer meeting in Las Vegas. Motorcycle dealers from across North America gathered to discuss how they would remedy slow sales. Soichiro Honda himself attended the meeting. He had planned all along for the event to be where he would introduce the CB 750. Only 11 months after that team of 20 was pulled together, the CB 750 was released in the United States.
They announced the retail price of $1495 (just under $9750 in today's money). Large bikes were selling for between $2800 and $4000 in the United States at that time. The dealers were stunned.
The bike debuted with 68 hp, and 44 lb ft. of torque. It could attain 125 mph, and was loaded with features. The CB 750 quickly earned the term 'superbike', the first production motorcycle to which the term was attached. And it wasn't just a big engine. It came with electric start, dual mirrors, easy to maintain engine valves, was incredibly smooth with low vibration, and with industry-leading disc brakes.
In no time, Cycle magazine called it "the most sophisticated production bike ever". Cycle World referred to it as a masterpiece, and highlighted the incredible degree to which Honda tested the bike's durability.
Honda had initially forecasted production of 25 units per day. They had no idea what demand would become for what started as a single-market motorcycle. They quickly had to find ways to ramp up production to over 100 units per day, and even at that clip, a backlog quickly developed.
The original crankcases were sand cast, but it didn't take long before that method could no longer meet the production rate required. ultimately, the crankcase production facility was upgraded to die cast blocks. To this day, collectors desire the early sand cast blocks, because they mark an important milestone in Honda history, and indicate an early run model.
The bike had racing chops, too. The Honda race team brought a pair of CB750s to compete in the Suzuka 10 Hour endurance race in August 1969. The team finished first and second, adding to the bikes intrigue right away.
Back in the States, Dick Mann rode his CB750 to overall victory at the 1970 AMA Daytona 200.
As was covered in this previous story, the Kawasaki H1, which debuted at nearly the same time, showed Americans what a brutally powerful motorcycle could be.
With the CB750, Honda showed motorcyclists that they can expect more from their motorcycle than just brute power. They can expect a reliable, high quality riding and ownership experience from their high-powered motorcycle.