Thirty-five years ago Suzuki unveiled the GSX-R750, a bike that would change the course of motorcycling for decades. While that influence has waned, it can still be felt today. After cruisers, sportbikes such as the GSX-R750 dominated the motorcycle market through the remainder of the 1980s, the 1990s, and until about 2007. While cruisers became bigger and flashier and put many new and returning riders back into the saddle, sportbikes would launch a technological revolution.
Through those years comments from readers of Canadian Biker fell into one of two categories: those who felt we had too much cruiser content, and those who thought we overloaded on sportbikes. For those in the former category, the seed of the problem was sown with the arrival of the GSX-R750.
This model lit the fuse on the sportbike wars waged by the four major Japanese manufacturers, which held all but a very small percentage of the category. The GSX-R750 looked like absolutely nothing else on the market and for those who craved the ability to go fast (as well as the perception of going fast) the GSX-R750 exemplified the role.
Honda was early to the market with the Interceptor and Kawasaki with the Ninja 900 and while they were true sportbikes, they did not bear the track styling yet to come in the next wave of repli-racers. However, with its fully enclosed fairing, cut out tank and dual headlights, the GSX-R750 looked like an endurance racer purpose built for the roadrace circuit while destined for the consumer market. It was the first of its kind.
And then there was the power. The Suzuki boasted over 100 horsepower from an air/oil-cooled inline four and a dry weight well under 180 kilograms—far less than its closest competitor. Ironically the bike would gain weight as it acquired power through the coming years: this from radiators, wider tires, and electronics.
Many years passed before a new GSX-R arrived weighing less than that first bike, which was built around a light aluminum frame. The original 750 was exceptionally quick for the time but with comparatively narrow tires and less than robust forks, it could be a handful.
In response to the GSX-R750, Yamaha quickly introduced the FZR750 with its own dual headlights. Kawasaki doubled down on its new Ninja platform and Honda arrived with CBR inline fours to replace the VFR V-fours in the sport market. The battle was now fully on.
To the casual observer, Japanese sportbikes were indistinguishable one from the other, but the competition was fierce. Horsepower figures grew by leaps: 120, 130, 140, 160… Every year, it seemed, a new and improved model arrived with a few grams of weight shaved here, a few more there. The Big Four were determined to keep pace.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the track. The rapid and fantastical evolution of the sportbike soon far outstripped the abilities of any rider to sanely test performance limits on the street. The repli-racer was no longer practical as an everyday bike. The ergonomics were wrong, the power was not where it was useful and they were just plain uncomfortable.
Skyrocketing insurance premiums became prohibitive factors to ownership in many regions, and sales began to taper. Demographics also played a role in declining sales. Riders who were 25 when the GSX-R750 debuted are now celebrating their 60th birthdays. They might now have, say, an RC51 in the garage to enjoy the occasional Sunday morning rip, but odds are their daily rides are something more comfortable—an ADV perhaps.
Most litre-class sportbikes today are exceptional and more manufacturers are building them. They are light and many have power surpassing 200 hp and now come with multiple rider aids. It has been suggested that without this tech the current sportbike crop is too challenging to ride. But it’s naive to suggest today’s 200-plus horsepower sportbike is the peak of the pyramid: the passage of time invariably leads to more power.
The sportbike battles of the past 35 years were how Japanese manufacturers showcased and proved their engineering might. Variable ride modes, traction and wheelie control, leaning ABS, linked ABS, improved suspension components, lighter materials, supercharging: the list is long and comprehensive.
These technical advents trickled down to less fiery street models. ABS is now the rule rather than the exception. Ride modes are commonplace as is traction control. Inverted forks are no longer “exotic.” To keep up with the horsepower wars tire manufacturers had to develop new compounds and patterns, and protective riding gear also improved. In many ways the entire motorcycle industry benefited from the fight for sportbike dominance.
The GSX-R750 can be given credit for creating the race-replica class that so inspired riders through the end of the last century. You don’t see many units around today from the early years perhaps because the constant battle for improvement and advantage among the Big Four made the previous year’s offerings obsolete. Old bikes got beat up, parked, or cannibalized for parts. And while many models from that period now seem generic in terms of style, the GSX-R750 and its ’80s sibling the GSX-R1100 still look like nothing else.
Love sportbikes or hate them, most street motorcycles of today owe a nod to the genre for ushering in 35 years of remarkable improvements in handling, performance and technology.