Every so often, a new motorbike comes along that changes the game – bringing with it new features and a different way of doing things. Over the decades, we’ve seen a huge array of bikes hit the mainstream, but which were the trailblazers?
To find out, we’re taking a look at 10 iconic motorbikes that brought something new to the table, starting with early models and working towards the present day. These might not be your favourite motorcycles ever made, but they have helped push innovation and introduce new technologies and ways of riding.
1. Hildebrand & Wolfmüller
Where else to begin than with the world’s first production motorbike, the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller? Emerging in 1895, this was the first petrol-powered vehicle on two wheels, and it would go on to inspire the development of some of the world’s best-loved motorbikes.
The bike was designed by Alois Wolfmüller and the Hildebrand brothers Heinrich and Wilhelm, who are today rightly considered the ‘fathers of the motorcycle’. Some would argue that the Daimler Reitwagen was the first motorcycle (it launched in 1885), but it was supported by two stabiliser wheels while the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller wasn’t, making it by definition the world’s first production motorcycle.
2. 1936 Harley-Davidson EL
Changing the face of heavyweight motorcycles forever, the 1936 Harley-Davidson EL would revolutionise the development of ‘big’ motorbikes, establishing a design template that exists to this day.
Launched in 1936 when café racers were the bike of choice, this V-twin, knucklehead monster was a breath of fresh air. It immediately found an audience in riders looking for a combination of performance, power and comfort. Such recognisable features introduced by the EL include a teardrop fuel tank, horseshoe oil tank and dual filler caps, all of which are still trademarks of the Harley-Davidson brand.
3. 1969 Honda CB750 Four
Honda changed the game in 1969 with the launch of their powerful four-cylinder speed machine, the CB750 Four. Coming at a time when British and American twin-cylinder bikes had dominated roads and racetracks for decades, the CB750 ushered in an era of Japanese-manufacturer dominance, with its big and powerful over-head cam engine blitzing the equivalent Western models of the time.
The great thing about the Honda CB750 Four was the ease at which it combined speed and comfort. Before it, bikes were either fast or comfortable – not both. The CB750 Four changed that, being capable of a quarter-mile sprint in 13 seconds while still comfortable enough for long, cross-continental journeys. Essentially, it was the perfect touring bike.
4. Ducati PS1000LE
Even to look at, the Ducati PS1000LE is bold and futuristic, and that’s before you get to the technology that makes the bike such a game-changer. The bubble-shield front fairing wasn’t just designed to add 70’s cool, it was there to aid aerodynamics, making the bike one of the fastest and sleekest of the era.
The PS1000LE came about to commemorate Paul Smart, a Ducati race rider who finished first place in Imola on a 1972 Ducati 750SS. It was limited-edition so only a handful were made, and with the bike’s green trellis frame and wire-spoked wheels it became one of the world’s most collectable Ducati models.
5. 1975 Honda GL1000 Gold Wing
The Honda GL1000 Gold Wing, first launched in 1975, heralded a new era of performance and reliability for motorcycling. Even today, the GL1000 Gold Wing sets the benchmark for speed and power, without compromising on reliability and ride comfort.
Powered by a liquid-cooled flat-four engine producing 1,000CC, the Gold Wing was originally launched by Honda as the ultimate performance machine. Instead, the bike found fame as a long-distance cruiser, a reputation that continues today. Thanks to its impressive reliability and build quality, the GL1000 Gold Wing is capable of rides of up to 1,000 miles a day.
6. 1981 BMW R 80 G/S
At a time when Japanese manufacturers dominated the biking landscape, BMW came out with a motorcycle that would prove that Europeans still knew how to make great two-wheel machines. The 1981 BMW R 80 G/S was billed as the world’s first ‘adventure’ motorbike, combining elements of touring and off-road bikes to create a two-wheel machine that could take you practically anywhere.
Speedy enough for motorways and autobahns yet rugged enough for dirt trails and desert tracks, the R 80 G/S was way ahead of its time in terms of all-round capability. As a result, it’s considered one of BMW’s best ever motorbikes, and cemented the brand’s legacy as the go-to for global touring.
7. 1984 Kawasaki ZX900 Ninja
1984 was a pinnacle year for motorcycles. It saw the launch of the Kawasaki ZX900 Ninja, the first bike in the Japanese manufacturer’s now-legendary Ninja series. This incredible machine packed a 113-horsepower engine on a lightweight chassis, meaning a top speed of 145 mph – the fastest of any production motorbike at the time.
The Ninja wasn’t just about speed, either. This was one of the first bikes to popularise a plastic outer shell, which was designed to save weight and add visual appeal in the bold, brash 1980s. Today, the bike is an absolute icon, with the Ninja ZX-10R released to mark the model’s 30th anniversary in 2014.
8. 1998 Yamaha YZ400F
Dirt bike fan? Then we think you’ll agree that the Yamaha YZ400F deserves a place on this shortlist. Released in 1998, the YZ400F was the first dirt bike to use a 4-stroke engine, meaning increased power and performance, as well as improved levels of refinement to make it a feasible daily run-around.
Until the YZ400F came along, dirt bikes relied on 2-stroke engines which were light but limited in power. The YZ400F’s four-cylinder engine improved performance thanks to its high engine compression and lightweight build, which gave it a competitive advantage on the track while also making it easier to live with for day-to-day riding.
9. Yamaha Y125 Moegi Urban Commuter
Here we have the Yamaha Y125 Moegi Urban Commuter, a concept bike that Yamaha has pinned as the future of riding. The Y125 Moegi was designed for the 42nd Tokyo Motor Show, and is the perfect showcase of what the motorbike of the future could look like.
Powered by a single-cylinder engine and weighing just 176 pounds, Yamaha cites 226 mpg as a projected economy figure, making the Y125 Moegi the ultimate commuter machine. Though the bike hasn’t gone into full production just yet, it won’t be long before we see this bike or a similar version zipping around our cities.
10. 2014 Zero SR
Die-hard biking enthusiasts may not be great fans of the Zero SR, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s revolutionary. Powered by an electric engine, the bike emerged in California in 2014 and since then, several variations have been developed to improve range and performance, making it a feasible option for eco-conscious bikers.
The Zero SR may not be the fastest bike out there (98 mph), but the fact it can power you on a single charge for up to 112 miles at motorway speed is a tempting prospect. And since the SR was released in 2014, the brand has branched out and developed a range of bikes for all sorts of riding disciplines, including all-terrain, touring and high-performance models.
Do you agree with our pick of bikes that were ahead of their time? Or have we missed your favourite model from our shortlist? Let us know over at the Redex Club Facebook group – we’d love to hear from you.
Whatever bike you ride, be sure to take care of its engine with Redex. Our petrol fuel system additives are designed to improve the life of your engine, for a better ride. For more information, visit the homepage.