Photos from the Cycle World Archives, Brian Blades, Kirk Willis
The reason why faster is better is simple enough: Whoever gets there first gets to reproduce with the most desirable member(s) of the opposite sex and gets the best parking spot. Then it became more complicated. After the invention of cosmetics, getting there too fast was no good because the prey would still be in the bathroom anyway. At some point, enough speed was enough—and then it wasn’t the actual speed that mattered as much as the wealth exhibited by the ability to acquire it: As a commodity, speed has always been expensive.
What’s curious is the fairly recent phenomenon of motorcycles that have more speed than you’ll ever need. Bikes that get you there before you’ve left, bikes that generate in about 15 seconds the sort of speed (and then some) needed to heave a fully laden 747 into the air. After being perfectly content with motorcycles that topped out at no more than 125 mph for the first 70 years of motorcycling, who decided we needed motorcycles that could do 185, and why?
In 1925, the Brough Superior could go 100 mph; 24 years later, the Vincent Black Shadow could do 125. And according to Cycle World test results dating back to 1962, there wasn’t another production motorcycle capable of going that fast until the 1973 Kawasaki Z1 topped out at 120 at the end of a ½-mile test run—with (the testers figured) another 5 or 6 mph in it. (Unless you count the ’67 Dunstall Norton 750, which reached 126 mph but can’t really be considered “production.”) Granted, quarter-mile times were coming down all the while, but the plain fact is that nobody really saw a need to go faster than 125 mph for almost 50 years.
The Honda CB750 of 1969? All done at 123 mph, and Honda for years seemed in no hurry to improve much upon that. Harley’s ’72 XLCH 1000 Sportster was just as quick in the quarter-mile as the CB (though the H-D’s top speed was only 116), and even ensuing Norton Commandos were quicker than the CB in the quarter-mile. It was enough for the Honda to be a technological marvel (after having excellent results with its four-cylinder racebikes for the previous few years) without having to rub the competition’s nose in it. Let’s be gentlemen.
Being that 1969 was also the Summer of Love, lots of people’s thoughts turned to the subject. What thoughts were unconnected with love may have been too muddled by commonly used substances of the day to focus on anything as specific as motorcycle performance. Anti-Vietnam sentiment was reaching fever pitch, along with Easy Rider hitting the big screen. What? Do you mean to tell me that The Man is not always on our side? After about 1970—the year that brought the film version of Catch 22—the motives of our authority figures were suddenly not just questionable but highly suspect. At the same time, it was hard not to be impressed with the Saturn V rocket that launched Neil Armstrong to the moon. Or the Snake and Mongoose funny-car models. Mmmm, that glue smells good…
Along with the Kawasaki Z1, 1973 brought an oil embargo to the U.S. from our OPEC friends. Suddenly it was more expensive to fill up the Pinto, not to mention time-consuming. Gas lines! One response to save fuel was the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act (which spawned the Sammy Hagar hit, “I Can’t Drive 55”), signed into law by Richard Nixon in January, 1974. After that, the 85 percent of the driving population who regularly broke the speed limit were criminals and began to appreciate what Dickens meant when he said, “the law is an ass.”
Expensive gas and increased law enforcement may have played a minor role in keeping motorcycle speeds flat for a time, but the biggest reason for the plateau is that the manufacturers really didn’t need to add performance; they were busy enough selling motorcycles as fast as they could stamp them out. In 1973, those Americans born in 1946 (ground zero of the Baby Boom) were turning 27 and already hooked like zombies on the low-potency 250cc gateway drugs of the ’60s.
Everybody played nice for a while, then Kawasaki did it again, this time unprovoked: The ’76 KZ1000 ran 12.19 seconds at 107.65 mph in the quarter-mile and topped out at 120 after a half-mile with quite a bit of steam left. And when pipsqueak Yamaha jumped in with its XS1100 in 1978—the first bike we tested that broke into the 11s in the quarter-mile (and ran 126 mph up top, all with shaft drive!)—Honda dropped the bomb: Its CBX six-banger ran 11.64 at 117.95 mph and was good for an official 134 mph after a half-mile—the first bike to break the 130-mph barrier. The CBX is a collector’s item. The XS1100 (XS1100 owners, take up your pencils) is returning to its elemental components in a junkyard near you.
By then, the British were wheezing like the “ventilation system” in Hoyer’s E-type and the Italians were enjoying a nice grappa. Now it was a Japanese civil war. And you know how nasty those can get. The ’83 Honda CB1100F was the first bike we clocked at more than 140 mph—141 to be exact—and was geared to top out at 144 mph. Suzuki’s ’83 GS1100ES was the first to break into the 10s—10.99 at 120.8 mph, with a top end of 140 mph. But it was all about the quarter-mile in those days; redline in top gear for the GS occurred 1 mph faster, at 141. These were truly “quarter horses,” winded, wobbly, and all-in at 1320 feet.
In 1981, Holly-wood, in collaboration with Car & Driver Editor Brock Yates, brought us The Cannonball Run, a lighthearted romp/race across the U.S. that thumbed its nose at the 55-mph limit. The film, with a big cast of Hollywood favorites, was based upon actual events and named for the famous motorcyclist Cannon Ball Baker. After winning one (real) Cannonball in a Ferrari, Dan Gurney was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying, “At no time did we exceed 175 miles an hour.” Now it was not only acceptable to break the speed limit, it really verged upon being a civic duty for performance-minded people—much like drinking during Prohibition had been. We’re still here, we’re not going away. And we’re beginning to strongly resent the intrusion upon our pursuit of happiness.