Fifty Years of “Do You Have Any Idea How Fast You Were Going?”

A brief history of Ludicrous Speed.

Photos from the Cycle World Archives, Brian Blades, Kirk Willis

1967 Dunstall Norton 750

1967 Dunstall Norton 750

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.

Mark Cernicky on the Kawasaki ZX-12R

Mark Cernicky went vertical on the ZX-12R but only to 187 mph

Meanwhile, in 1983, Honda tested the prevailing wisdom that “café racers” would never sell in the U.S. and introduced its first Interceptor, the VF750F. It didn’t set the dragstrip on fire, it could only do 132 mph on top and Honda only imported enough for AMA Superbike homologation. But it handled great, looked racy in its plastic nose-cone and perimeter frame, and people lined up to buy all 1200.

"Almost instantly," Kevin Cameron remembers, "club racers began to switch from Yamaha TZ250s as the beginner-racer's mount to the new 'raceable production bikes'—the Interceptor, GPz550 and some Suzukis. Incredibly, you could race those bikes without 30 hours of welding in plates, gussets and tubes to make the chassis go straight. Fantastic!"

Obviously, a lack of wind protection on nearly everything that came before the VF was a big reason why bikes didn't need to go any faster. Anything over 130 really jacked your blow-dried coif and blew out your Camel. But would people really buy motorcycles covered in plastic? The '84 Ninja 900 was the emphatic answer: "Yes!" Liquid-cooled like the Interceptor, the right-sized Ninja ran low 11s, 145 mph at the end of the half-mile (a new record) and was geared for 152. Ka-ching, rang the Kawi register.

Take this, countered Honda in 1985 with its ponderous but 150-mph-fast Euro-flavored VF1000R. Screw that, said Kawasaki with an '86 Ninja 1000R that ran 159 freakin' miles an hour. Gulp, that's almost 160, Ludicrous Speed on a motorcycle! (Now, out of necessity, CW was back to measuring true top speed at a secret test facility.)

The final straw was Top Gun Tom Cruise smiling his way around San Diego on a Ninja 900, flouting regulations, going inverted with Russian MiGs and possibly also with a convincing hot blonde superior officer aerodynamic engineer genius. (Imagine how much richer Kevin Cameron's bathtub ruminations upon "boundary layers" might be if he looked like Kelly McGillis? I digress.)  There had been earlier rumblings along the Potomac that something needed to be done about these crazy-fast motorcycles (they'd already strangled our beloved muscle cars), but it may very well have been the idea of inter-rank heterosexual Naval activity in Top Gun that finally drove Congress to act.

Prodded by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Senator John Danforth introduced the “Motorcycle Safety Act of 1987,” blaming the proliferation of superbikes for an increase in fatalities and calling the marketing of the killer machines “the moral equivalent of selling drugs to adolescents.” Manufacturers hunkered in bomb shelters, magazine editors trembled, the marketplace waited with bated breath. And then a funny thing happened: nothing. The AMA and manufacturers closed ranks to point out that superbikes were, in fact, underrepresented in fatal accidents, and who knows what arm-twisting went on behind the scenes, given that logic so seldom prevails? Anyway, the bill slunk off to die, and at that point, the tire-smoking lamp was truly lit.

Kawasakiwas ready with an ’88 ZX-10 housing an even more potent four-cylinder within a monolithic twin-beam aluminum perimeter frame rolling on modern radial tires. Now we are deep into the 10s—10.76 at 127.54 mph—and 165 mph on top. Yamaha and Suzuki answered with sportier literbikes that were quicker in the quarter-mile. Kawasaki chuckled quietly deep in its throat and called upon its bullet-train heritage to produce the ZX-11 in 1990, and now we could add gas and go 176 mph. The problem at this point was that not so many people could afford to, thanks to a recession following the previous (much smaller) banking debacle and a Gulf War that spiked gas prices. Hmmm, what was the problem, the manufacturers asked themselves as they looked longingly back at the sales chart bulge of the mid-’80s?

Clearly, what the American people want is more speed, said Honda, as it launched the '96 CBR1100XX Super Blackbird (the year after the double nickel was repealed). As a hyperbike, the dual-counterbalanced, 1137cc XX was (and maybe still is) the most refined of the flock—but it could only stir up 174 mph. Meh… Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, came this weird two-tone copper-colored thing from Suzuki in 1999. Hayawhat? Hayabusa! Not necessarily designed to look pretty, it was designed to slice through the air like the world's fastest falcon. It was the first bike we tested to break into the nines, and it demolished the ZX-11's ultimate-velocity record by running 194 mph. Holy mother of pearl!

In 2000, Kawasaki returned fire with a new ZX-12R. A hush fell over the crowd. Will it do 200? No, it won't. In fact, it wouldn't even go 190—only a sluggish 187. It wanted to go faster, but it couldn't, because it was electronically limited. What the?! In October of 1999, we reported, BMW bigwigs had traveled to Japan, concerned that Hayabusas and things running amok on the autobahn were going to cause Bad Things to happen legislatively. A subsequent meeting in Bologna resulted in a voluntary agreement among manufacturers to "cease competitive marketing strategies with respect to maximum speed achievable." That agreed-upon limit was 299 kilometers per hour, or 185 mph. The speed genie was corked.

But not before Japan had learned its lesson once more: Speed sells. At the millennium, motorcycle sales took off on an upward trajectory such as had never been seen in U.S. history. A professional economist might blame most of it on the easy credit that fueled a magnificent bubble in home equity and put a hyperbike, a custom chopper and a pair of quads for the kids in every granite-countered garage. But we're not economists, we're motorcycle people. And we can't wait to see who breaks the "gentlemen's agreement" first, goes an honest 200 and launches the next crazy boom. In fact, one bike already has broken it, if our test equipment doesn't deceive us, and how ironic that it's the 188-mph BMW S1000RR we tested last August. Also the 188-mph one we tested in July, 2010. Correct, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the same BMW who instigated the "agreement" in the first place. Kawasaki didn't do it this time, but Kevin Cameron reminds us it's been putting a 300-horsepower 1500cc supercharged version of the big ZX engine in its watercraft for quite a few years. Surely it's not going to take this thing lying down forever?

Fifty Years of Ludicrous Speed Chart

Fifty Years of Ludicrous Speed Chart

* For a while, CW's top-speed testing was measured at the end of a half-mile, but the unfaired bikes of the time weren't going to go more than a few mph faster given more room. Most were geared to top out at redline just a bit beyond their measured top speeds.

1967 Dunstall Norton 750 which broke into the 12s in 1967 as a limited- production tuner bike

1969 Royal Enfield

The ?72 Kawasaki Mach IV 750 was the first production bike to break the 12-second barrier

Then-Editor Ivan Wagar feverishly paws a ?73 Z1 engine? fastest bike to date

The ?78 Honda CBX was the second bike we tested to delve into the 11s but the first to go over 130 mph

Honda?s CB1100F blasted right past 140 to 141!

Suzuki?s ?83 GS1100ES was first to barely perforate the 10-second barrier

1985 Honda VF1000R?s gear-driven V-Four propelled it to 150 first

2000 Kawasaki ZX-12R?s monocoque frame and narrow silhouette was built for speed

?88 Kawasaki ZX-10 went 165 mph

Mark Cernicky went vertical on the ZX-12R but only to 187 mph

Will the 194-mph ?99 Suzuki Hayabusa remain the fastest production motorcycle of all time?