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An Influential Motorcycle : 10 That Shaped a Generation

HINDSIGHT 20/20 : Influential Motorcycle Introductions

This article was written in 2015 and we hold by our choices or influential motorcycle models – perhaps with a caveat for the Burgman 650. Maxi scooters are still a thing but they never achieved a solid acceptance in North America hence the fact there are several in production today that never made it to showrooms in Canada or the US. But it can’t be said that those who have one of the few that did sell in Canada don’t relish their rides.

What of the years since this article was published? Big ADV machines chasing the mantle of the GS’s dominance are even more varied now than then – with a new larger middleweight category fighting for the smaller, lighter market. But the GS is still the market leader and the standard bearer.

In the small sport segment there are more manufacturers in the fold with the addition of several European brands. But it is Kawasaki that upped the ante this year with the ZX-4 and its inline four cylinder 399cc motor. But will it be a game changer in the segment or an interesting side note? That remains to be seen.

Ducati just had their best year ever – proving Red paint is still an irresistible draw.

The other bikes on this list created categories that remain today – though perhaps smaller. These bikes were the origin stories.

The age of the litre class sport bike, what of it? the segment isn’t the force it once was but is still the sharp end of the engineer and tech stick.

You might wonder if there are bikes today that are set to define a new generation. What of electric motorcycles? We counter with the question – is there an electric motorcycle today that has proved to be a watershed in bringing the category mainstream? We would argue that the answer is: not so far. But if one does…

In creating a new technology, we might have thought that Kawasaki’s use of supercharging would have moved the needle but with the H2 bikes well established, there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of support for getting more from less displacement via forced induction. You would have thought so.

There have been advances of course. Most are safety related which is great. But the tech has been spread across brands and categories and is not defined by one particulate model.

So we wait for that next really big thing, the next undeniably influential motorcycle …


Go ahead and argue if you like, but we think these are the 10 most influential motorcycle models in the past two decades

People often ask questions like, “What’s the best motorcycle?” Invariably, we’re stuck for an answer. Really, how do you answer a question like that? But we thought about the topic one day and asked ourselves, “Wait a minute, what are the most influential motorcycles in the past 20 years?” Not the “best” mind you, but the ones that have had the biggest impact on trends, styles, and attitudes. This is the best we could come up with. 

Influential Motorcycle #1 : BMW R1200GS

It used to be that success in adventure touring was dependent upon a few simple precepts. Durability: tough enough to take the knocks, get up and keep going in woods, desert or plains. Power: a motor robust enough to transport rider and gear on a six-month wilderness excursion. Comfort: No one wants saddle sores one week into their trans-African adventure. But expectations of an adventure bike rose dramatically when the 100-hp BMW R1200GS arrived in 2004 weighing a whopping 30 kg less than the old R1150GS.  Less weight and more power made it evolutionary but more than that the GS platform ushered in an era of technology that would accompany adventure-touring riders on their sojourns. Simplicity was no longer part of the equation. Switchable ABS, traction control and electronic suspension adjustability soon became the class standard. These systems made the bike smarter and safer, but the GS could still tackle the toughest terrain and was now also better in pavement environments where most riders spend most riding time. Today virtually every elite adventure-touring bike comes with the electronic attributes, the horsepower, and the sheer versatility that BMW brought to the segment through the R1200GS.

Influential Motorcycle#2 : Something Red (Ducati)

Ducati has experienced amazing growth in the past 20 years. Looking back it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. The company always focused on performance, and that hadn’t changed. With 11 WSBK titles in the past two decades great success on the racetrack may well have translated into big sales, though likely more in Europe than here. Perhaps the many variations of affordable Monsters enabled buyers who previously felt removed from the spicy, exotic Italian brand. We don’t believe the original and widely unloved Multistrada inspired great customer loyalty, nor did the brief but beautifully rendered SportClassic 1000S that illustrated just how good and uncomfortable a retro bike can be. Has Ducati stock risen on the strength of great designs in general? Now we’re getting closer to the truth. We all know that a great body goes a long way, but the real success is attributable to the paint—specifically, Ducati Red. Go back to the 1970s and discover that Ducati motorcycles came in all sorts of unusual colours, many of them not flattering. As the millennium flipped over Ducati was firmly Red. Pick a Ducati model, any model, and it reads like long, beautiful, Red poem. Yeah, it was the paint.

Influential Motorcycle #3 : Honda Rebel

Technically, the Rebel shatters the 20-year bracket that we’ve assigned for this feature, but the riding community has experienced such a growth spurt in the past decade or more—especially in the female demographic—that leaving the little cruiser off the list would be a complete miscarriage of justice. Given that the sturdy 234cc Rebel is a go-to training bike for the majority of riding schools in Canada, the question almost begs itself: how many thousands of new and training riders have gained their first real access to the world of motorcycling through the Rebel? True, there are other brands and models in the fleets of rider training schools, including dualsports and now even small-cube sportbikes, but the sight of riders training on Rebels is beheld across the nation. In the photo here, an instructor from the V-Twin Okanagan Rider Training School in Vernon, BC consults with an eager student. It’s a ubiquitous scene. Since its introduction in 1985, the Rebel has been little altered with availability in the 250, 125, and lesser-known 450 configurations. Nimble, light, blessed with good looks that have undergone countless custom treatments, and a parsimonious nature, the Rebel is what many just claim to be: truly rider friendly.

Influential Motorcycle #4 : Kawasaki Concours

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Words of wisdom that apply very well to the original Kawasaki Concours, which launched in 1986 and remained without any radical changes through the end of its marathon in 2006—an eon in sport years. By the end of its run there were bikes in the category much further ahead of the Concours, though most owe a huge debt to a bike that today seems austere and small in the context of the modern sport-tourer. Based on a sportbike motor from the then-new Ninja, the Concours allowed a rider to carve corners and eat miles. The maintenance free shaft drive, upright seating position, full fairing and taller windshield provided a comfortable cockpit while the proven motor, large fuel tank and saddlebags made it an adept tourer. While BMW was out of the gate earlier with its longitudinal fours, they were expensive bikes where the Concours wasn’t. In the footsteps of the Concours came sport-tourers with more creature comforts and tech, like the Honda ST1100 and Yamaha FJR1300, as well as offerings from Ducati, Triumph and Moto Guzzi. Now there’s a wholly new version of the Concours, light years removed from the original, which still lives on in the hearts of countless long-haulers.

Influential Motorcycle # 5 : Kawasaki Ninja 250

Kawasaki didn’t know the Ninja 250 would start a fierce battle for mini-displacement machines some 20 years after its debut in North America. For an eternity the little twin seemed to have a segment much to itself. The idea was simple enough. Build a bike that looks as cool as its ferocious big brothers, sell it cheap and sell a boatload of them. This is exactly what Kawasaki managed to do with the Ninja 250—for a long time. It wasn’t until Honda had success with first the CBR125 and then the VFR1200 inspired CBR250 that anyone noticed Kawasaki had a prolific niche to itself. When Honda joined the little group the two best selling bikes in the country became the Ninja 250 and the CBR250. Success breeds competition and this year KTM and Yamaha joined the ranks with small-cube sportbikes. The funny thing is that the race for success has also resulted in a race to increase displacement with Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and KTM offering 300cc-class bikes. These displacement increases can’t continue or they’ll soon bump into the 600cc bikes. But for now, 300 is a good place to be. To misappropriate the words and meaning of Gordon Gekko, “Small is good.”

Influential Motorcycle #6 : Suzuki Hayabusa

In the late 1990s, the Suzuki Hayabusa sparked a short though controversial horsepower war in which there were only two legitimate contenders for the top speed crown: the ‘busa and Kawasaki’s ZX-12R. The race was over as soon as manufacturers realized there might in fact be a race (worried it could be bad for the public image of motorcycles). The big factories agreed to self-impose an arbitrary 299 kmh top speed and that was that. But at that point nothing on earth could touch the Hayabusa at three times the price. Heavy, long and low, the Hayabusa was purpose built with only one objective: to break all existing top speed records for off-the-showroom floor production bikes. When it arrived shortly after the ‘busa’s debut, the ZX-12 was nearly as powerful but it seemed a natural extension of the Ninja family while the Suzuki was like a Lone Wolf one-off, not just another member of one brand’s “family.” As a singular model the Hayabusa has persevered partly because, for all its ferocity, it’s comfortable to ride. Naturally the ‘busa was a self-starter on the quarter-mile strip and its unique look earned it cult status in the custom world. It still rolls on with a velocity and potency that never grow old.

Influential Motorcycle #7 : Suzuki Burgman

Ah time, the Great Avenger. The reflexes slow, joints creak, and mornings don’t seem as bright. Since its introduction in 2003, the Burgman 650 has been trumpeted as a machine for riders getting long in the tooth, who find it increasingly difficult to get a leg-over but who don’t really want to give up the riding lifestyle. This sketch is accurate in some regards but it also conveniently leaves out those who really enjoy the benefits of a scooter but are loath to shoehorn themselves into the traditional 50-150cc offerings. When the Burgman 650 burst onto the scene it was a clarion call for the many who chose to follow. Quickly it was apparent that this machine ticked an awful lot of boxes for a wide variety of riders who seemingly had long been waiting for “permission” to bring a scooter into their lives. Like that, the era of the Power Scooter began. Honda, BMW, Aprilia, Vespa and others rushed to meet demand for highway capable scooters with upmarket features including ABS, LED lighting, massive storage capacity and executive level comforts. The Burgman 650 was pivotal in moving scooters as a breed into a far more sophisticated place.

Influential Motorcycle #8 : Triumph Rocket III

With a factory-spec 140 hp and 147 ft/lb. torque arriving as early as 2,500 rpm, the Rocket III, it’s said, burned dynos to the ground during the early development years. Weighing 320 kg spread across a 2,500mm wheelbase, the big triple seemed more like a two-wheeled, three-cylinder mugging than an actual motorcycle. Rumour had it the Rocket III project was started in response to Kawasaki’s two-litre Vuclan 2000. But who really knows? What is significant about the Rocket III is that in its class-leading enormity it symbolizes a very particular era in motorcycle history: the summer of the Power Cruiser. During a decade that saw the Ultrasport and Supersport Wars, there was a concurrent Power Cruiser battle with a staggering field of combatants that included the big Triumph and Kawasaki, Honda’s VTX 1800, the Suzuki M109-R, and Harley’s V-Rod. Continual rounds of dyno shootouts were printed everywhere. But a curious thing happened to these bikes. As much as they influenced the super-hot cruiser market, few ordinary people actually bought into the Power Cruiser hype. Insurance rates were killer, stickers were high, and the horsepower-heavy bikes themselves were just too much for all but a select few. In many ways, they were victims of their own success. The mighty Rocket III synthesizes all that.

Influential Motorcycle #9 : Yamaha YZ400F

It’s totally understandable if some motocross fans in the summer of 1997 thought that the thump-thump-thump sound they were hearing was an out-of-control compressor somewhere on the grounds. It wasn’t. What they were hearing was not the more familiar ring-a-ding-ding of the era’s vaunted two-strokes but the decidedly strange feedback of a wholly new beast: an actual four-stroke with non-industrial applications that would reshape the motocross landscape. Things haven’t been the same ever since, with class-leading power replacing two-stroke engines in a wide variety of disciplines, including snowmobiles. They’re all the rage now of course, but in 1997, a four-stroke motocrosser was a thing not to be believed. That is, not until Yamaha factory rider Doug Henry rode his 400 to victory at the Las Vegas Supercross—the first of many wins to come for four-stroke technology. By the mid-2000s, all the major factories had similar machines infused with fuel injection and aluminum frames. For the first time ever, these liquid-cooled four-strokes were pumping out 50-plus horsepower while being considerably more public-friendly during a time when there was increased resistance to the oily, high-ringing two-strokes in the forests and backyards of the nation. The YZ400 changed not only the placements on the podium, but also the perception of big dirt bikes in the court of public opinion.

Influential Motorcycle #10 : Yamaha R1

Stacked gearbox shafts allowed the overall length of the R1’s engine to be quite short and this in turn made for a comparatively compact wheel-to-wheel package. With its five-valve 998cc engine positioned in a   aluminum frame along with 40mm downdraft carbs, the R1 was simply stuffed with universe-altering horsepower. Faster, lighter, and more nimble than practically anything that had ever come before it, the factory-spec 150-hp, 177-kg R1 was capable of speeds nearing 270 kmh when it surfaced in 1998. Its 4-into-1 exhaust featuring Yamaha’s EXUP system made for a booming midrange that could mow down corners before transiting into freaky, unnatural high-speed runs. In 2004, the R1 became the first production motorcycle to crack the magic 1:1 power to weight ratio—172 hp, 172 kg dry weight. It was the equivalent of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and vindicated the efforts of Yamaha’s development team which had been given three clear dictates: “to make the highest power, the lowest weight and the most compact dimensions.” 

The R1 began the frenzied Supersport Wars that saw the Big Four Japanese factories hurry to market with virtually brand new versions of their 600cc and litre-bike class machines every two years—the objective being to own the fastest, lightest bike of the season. What a rush that was! 

• From Canadian Biker Issue #307


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